Manage your Environments with ASDF
March 15, 2023

Manage your Environments with ASDF

Posted on March 15, 2023  •  4 minutes  • 750 words

The use of ASDF can be an incredibly useful tool for managing your development environment. ASDF is a version management syste for tools, which ensures different versions of programming languages, libraries and other tools are used in the right places. Ultimately, ASDF makes it easier to develop and deploy applications and helps keep everyone on your team developing against the same tool versions.

ASDF can help you keep track of the various versions that are needed for different projects, as well as ensuring that all components get updated as needed. ASDF does this by hooking into your shell configuration and calls plugins in place of normal shell commands where applicable. For example, installing the nodejs plugin for asdf will create a shim for node. When you call node, it will be delegate to the shim (which uses asdf to select the correct version of node).

ASDF manages your tool versions using the titularly named file .tool-versions. This file helps ensure that, when you're working in a directory that is contained in a folder with a .tool-versions file, the correct version of the tool is used. ASDF also allows you to manage your global versions for tools which is accomplished via a .tool-versions file in your home directory.

Adding Plugins

Adding a new plugin to ASDF is really easy! You'll find a plugin from a trusted source and simply run:

asdf plugin add $pluginName $pluginGitUrl

For example, installing the Dart plugin would look like this:

asdf plugin-add dart

If you're ever unsure of which plugins you have installed, you can simply run:

asdf plugin list

# also show the git urls
asdf plugin list --urls

Updating a plugin is very easy:

asdf plugin dart update

But you can also update all plugins with a simple command (Note: Updating is not getting the latest version of the tool, its updating the plugin itself).

asdf plugin update --all

And if you find the need to remove a plugin, you can do so with:

asdf plugin remove $name

Using Plugins to Manage Tools

Once you have your plugins setup, you can use them to manage tool versions. Let's continue with our Dart example by installing the latest version of Dart.

asdf install dart latest

If we need to, we can install a specific version, too!

asdf install dart 2.16

You can list your installed versions with the list subcommand.

asdf list dart

Once your tools are installed properly, you can set specific versions for different scopes like so:

asdf global dart latest
asdf shell dart 2.16
asdf local dart latest

The global scope writes to $HOME/.tool-versions and specifies the version of a tool that will be used when you run the command anywhere in your system, provided there's not a more contextually relevant version override.

The shell scope sets an environment variable for the current shell session. While this variable is set, it is preferred over other ASDF versions.

The local scope writes to your present working directory's .tool-versions file, creating it if needed. Generally, you'll use the local scope in the root of your project to capture and manage your project's specific tool versions.

If you'd like to fall back to a system version, you can tell ASDF to do so with the following command:

asdf local dart system

Lastly, you can uninstall a tool at a specific version via the uninstall command.

asdf uninstall dart 2.16


As mentioned above, .tool-versions is the file that stores version specific tool information for ASDF to use. You can have many different .tool-versions files on your machine at any given time, and they're contextually relevant -- ASDF will find the closest tool-versions file when executing commands and use those versions. The tool-versions file is actually really simple and looks like this:

dart 2.16.0
nodejs 10.12.0

Versions can be either actual versions, git references, a custom path, or the "system" keyword.


ASDF has configuration options for the tool itself managed via an .asdfrc file. This is probably out of the scope of this blog post, but here's a link to the configuration options that are supported:

Tool Version Manager, Not Package Manager

ASDF is not a package manager. It's not intended to be one and it would likely be in your best interest to avoid trying to turn it into one. Given it's plugin based nature, you can effectively manage anything with asdf, but you likely shouldn't. Instead, use a package manage for your system packages and keep asdf for managing tool versions.

Cartoon headshot of Brad Cypert
Follow me

Connect with me to follow along on my journey in my career, open source, and mentorship. Occasionally, I'll share good advice and content (quality not guaranteed).