Why Nextflow?

The rise of big data has made it increasingly necessary to be able to analyze and perform experiments on large datasets in a portable and reproducible manner. Parallelization and distributed computing are the best ways to tackle this challenge, but the tools commonly available to computational scientists often lack good support for these techniques, or they provide a model that fits poorly with the needs of computational scientists and often require knowledge of complex tools and APIs. Nextflow was created to address these challenges.

The Nextflow language is inspired by the Unix philosophy, in which many simple command line tools can be chained together into increasingly complex tasks. Similarly, a Nextflow script consists of composing many simple processes into increasingly complex pipelines. Each process executes a given tool or scripting language, and by specifying the process inputs and outputs, Nextflow coordinates the execution of tasks for you.

The Nextflow runtime integrates with many popular execution platforms (HPC schedulers, cloud providers) and software tools (Git, Docker, Conda), allowing you to fully describe a computational pipeline with all of its dependencies and run it in nearly any environment – write once, run anywhere.

Processes and channels

In practice a Nextflow pipeline script is made by joining together different processes. Each process can be written in any scripting language that can be executed by the Linux platform (Bash, Perl, Ruby, Python, etc.).

Processes are executed independently and are isolated from each other, i.e. they do not share a common (writable) state. The only way they can communicate is via asynchronous FIFO queues, called channels in Nextflow.

Any process can define one or more channels as input and output. The interaction between these processes, and ultimately the pipeline execution flow itself, is implicitly defined by these input and output declarations.

A Nextflow script looks like this:

// Script parameters
params.query = "/some/data/sample.fa"
params.db = "/some/path/pdb"

process blastSearch {
  path query
  path db

  path "top_hits.txt"

  blastp -db $db -query $query -outfmt 6 > blast_result
  cat blast_result | head -n 10 | cut -f 2 > top_hits.txt

process extractTopHits {
  path top_hits
  path db

  path "sequences.txt"

  blastdbcmd -db $db -entry_batch $top_hits > sequences.txt

workflow {
  def query_ch = Channel.fromPath(params.query)
  blastSearch(query_ch, params.db)
  extractTopHits(blastSearch.out, params.db).view()

The above example defines two processes. Their execution order is not determined by the fact that the blastSearch process comes before extractTopHits in the script (it could also be written the other way around). Instead, execution order is determined by their dependenciesextractTopHits depends on the output of blastSearch, so blastSearch will be executed first, and then extractTopHits.

When the workflow is started, it will create two processes and one channel (query_ch) and it will link all of them. Both processes will be started at the same time and they will listen to their respective input channels. Whenever blastSearch emits a value, extractTopHits will receive it (i.e. extractTopHits consumes the channel in a reactive way).

Read the Channel and Process sections to learn more about these features.

Execution abstraction

While a process defines what command or script has to be executed, the executor determines how that script is actually run on the target system.

If not otherwise specified, processes are executed on the local computer. The local executor is very useful for pipeline development and testing purposes, but for real world computational pipelines an HPC or cloud platform is often required.

In other words, Nextflow provides an abstraction between the pipeline’s functional logic and the underlying execution system. Thus it is possible to write a pipeline once and to seamlessly run it on your computer, a grid platform, or the cloud, without modifying it, by simply defining the target execution platform in the configuration file.

The following batch schedulers are supported:

The following cloud platforms are supported:

Read the Executors to learn more about the Nextflow executors.

Scripting language

Nextflow is designed to have a minimal learning curve, without having to pick up a new programming language. In most cases, users can utilise their current skills to develop Nextflow workflows. However, it also provides a powerful scripting DSL.

Nextflow scripting is an extension of the Groovy programming language, which in turn is a super-set of the Java programming language. Groovy can be considered as Python for Java in that it simplifies the writing of code and is more approachable.

Read the Scripts section to learn about the Nextflow scripting language.

Configuration options

Pipeline configuration properties are defined in a file named nextflow.config in the pipeline execution directory.

This file can be used to define which executor to use, the process’s environment variables, pipeline parameters etc.

A basic configuration file might look like this:

process {
  executor = 'sge'
  queue = 'cn-el6'

Read the Configuration section to learn more about the Nextflow configuration file and settings.