Basic concepts

Nextflow is a reactive workflow framework and a programming DSL that eases the writing of data-intensive computational pipelines.

It is designed around the idea that the Linux platform is the lingua franca of data science. Linux provides many simple but powerful command-line and scripting tools that, when chained together, facilitate complex data manipulations.

Nextflow extends this approach, adding the ability to define complex program interactions and a high-level parallel computational environment based on the dataflow programming model.

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:

// Declare syntax version

// 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 "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 | 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, the pipe operator (|) in the workflow between blastSearch and extractTopHits forwards the outputs from one process to the inputs of the following one.

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.