Episode 16 - Setting Your Sites

On this episode, we look at how to manage settings on your Django site. What are the common techniques to make this easier to handle? Let’s find out!

Listen at Spotify.

Last Episode

On the last episode, we dug into sessions and how Django uses that data storage technique for visitors to your site.

How Is Django Configured?

To run properly, Django needs to be configured. We need to understand where this configuration comes from. Django has the ability to use default configuration values or values set by developers like yourself, but where does it get those from?

Early in the process of starting a Django application, Django will internally import the following:

from django.conf import settings

Environment variables are not a Django concept. When any program runs on a computer, the operating system makes certain data available to the running program. This set of data is called the program’s “environment,” and each piece of data in that set is an environment variable.

$ export HELLO=world

If you create a Django project with startproject and use project as the name, then you will find a generated file called project/settings.py in the output. When Django runs, you could explicitly instruct Django with:

$ export DJANGO_SETTINGS_MODULE=project.settings

You may not actually need to set DJANGO_SETTINGS_MODULE explicitly. If you stick with the same settings file that is created by startproject, you can find a line in wsgi.py that looks like:

os.environ.setdefault('DJANGO_SETTINGS_MODULE', 'project.settings')

Once Django reads the global settings and any user defined settings, we can get any configuration from the settings object via attribute access. This convention of keeping all configuration in the settings object is a convenient pattern that the framework, third party library ecosystem, and you can depend on.

$ ./manage.py shell
>>> from django.conf import settings
>>> settings.SECRET_KEY
'a secret to everybody'

Settings Module Patterns

Multiple Modules Per Environment

A Django settings module is a Python module. Nothing is stopping us from using the full power of Python to configure that module the way we want.

Minimally, you will probably have at least two environments where your Django app runs:

  • On your local machine while developing
  • On the internet for your live site

You might have modules like:

  • project.settings.dev
  • project.settings.stage
  • project.settings.production

These examples would be for a local development environment on your laptop, a staging environment (which is a commonly used pattern for testing a site that is as similar to the live site as possible without being the live site), and a production environment. As a reminder from the deployment article, the software industry like to call the primary site for customers “production.”

You could use a common module. The advantage to this form is that the common settings can be in a single location. The environment specific files only need to record the differences between the environments. The disadvantage is that it is harder to get a clear picture of all the settings of that environment.

For your local development environment on your laptop, you could use project.settings.dev. This settings module would look like:

# project/settings/dev.py

from project.settings.base import *

DEBUG = True

# Define any other settings that you want to override.

By using the * import in the dev.py file, all the settings from base.py are pulled into the module level scope. Where you want a setting to be different, you set the value in dev.py. When Django starts using DJANGO_SETTINGS_MODULE of project.settings.dev, all the values from base.py will be used via dev.py.

Don’t commit secret data to your code repository! Adding secrets to your source control tool like Git is usually not a good idea. This is especially true if you have a public repository on GitHub. Think no one is paying attention to your repo? Think again! There are tools out there that scan every public commit made to GitHub. These tools are specifically looking for secret data to exploit.

If you can’t safely add secrets to your code repo, where can we add them instead? You can use environment variables! Let’s look at another scheme for managing settings with environment variables.

Settings Via Environment Variables

In Python, you can access environment variables through the os module. The module contains the environ attribute, which functions like a dictionary.

By using environment variables, your settings module can get configuration settings from the external environment that is running the Django app. This is a solid pattern because it can accomplish two things:

  • Secret data can be kept out of your code
  • Configuration differences between environments can be managed by changing environment variable values

Here’s an example of secret data management:

# project/settings.py

import os

SECRET_KEY = os.environ['SECRET_KEY']


On one of my projects, I use the excellent Anymail package to send emails via an email service provider (of the ESPs, I happen to use SendGrid). When I’m working with my development environment, I don’t want to send real email. Because of that, I use an environment variable to set Django’s EMAIL_BACKEND setting. This let’s me switch between the Anymail backend and Django’s built-in django.core.mail.backends.console.EmailBackend that prints emails to the terminal instead.

If I did this email configuration with os.environ, it would look like:

# project/settings.py

import os

EMAIL_BACKEND = os.environ.get(
    'EMAIL_BACKEND', "anymail.backends.sendgrid.EmailBackend")


We need to be aware of a big gotcha with using environment variables. Environment variables are only available as a str type. This is something to be aware because there will be times when you want a boolean settings value or some other type of data. In a situation where you need a different type, you have to coerce a str into the type you need. In other words, don’t forget that every string except the empty string is truthy in Python:

>>> not_false = "False"
>>> bool(not_false)

Note: As you learn more about settings, you will probably encounter advice that says to avoid using environment variables. This is well intentioned advice that highlights that there is some risk with using environment variables. With this kind of advice, you may read a recommendation for secrets management tools like HashiCorp Vault. These are good tools, but consider them a more advanced topic. In my opinion, using environment variables for secrets management is a reasonably low risk storage mechanism.

Settings Management Tools

The built-in tool that is available to you is the diffsettings command. This tool makes it easy to see the computed settings of your module. Since settings can come from multiple files (including Django’s global_settings.py) or environment variables, inspecting the settings output of diffsettings is more convenient than thinking through how a setting is set.

Here’s an example of some of the security settings by running ./manage.py diffsettings --output unified for one of my projects.


Finally, I’ll note that you can actually compare two separate settings modules. Let’s say you wanted to compare settings between your development mode and your live site. Assuming your settings files are names like I described earlier, you could run something like:

$ ./manage.py diffsettings \
    --default project.settings.dev \
    --settings project.settings.production \
    --output unified

django-environ primarily does two important things that I value:

  • The package allows you coerce strings into a desired data type.
  • The package will read from a file to load environment variables into your environment.

What does type coercion look like? With django-environ, you start with Env object.

# project/settings.py

import environ

env = environ.Env()

If you want to be able to control DEBUG from an environment variable, the settings would be:

# project/settings.py

import environ

env = environ.Env(
    DEBUG=(bool, False),

DEBUG = env("DEBUG")

With this setup, your app will be safe by default with DEBUG set to False, but you’ll be able to override that via the environment. django-environ works with a handful of strings that it will accept as True such as “on”, “yes”, “true”, and others (see the documentation for more details).

# .env

Back in the settings file, you’d include read_env:

# project/settings.py

import environ

env = environ.Env(
    DEBUG=(bool, False),

DEBUG = env("DEBUG")

My Preferred Settings Setup

For the majority of uses, I find that working with django-environ in a single file is the best pattern in my experience.

When I use this approach, I make sure that all of my settings favor a safe default configuration. This minimizes the configuration that I have to do for a live site.

Overall, I like the environment variable approach, but I do use more than one settings file for one important scenario: testing.

When I run my unit tests, I want to guarantee that certain conditions are always true. There are things that a test suite should never do in the vast majority of cases. Sending real emails is a good example. If I happen to configure my .env to test real emails for the local environment, I don’t want my tests to send out an emails accidentally.

Thus, I create a separate testing settings file and configure my test runner (pytest) to use those settings. This settings file does mostly use the base environment, but I’ll override some settings with explicit values. Here’s how I protect myself from accidental live emails:

# project/testing_settings.py

from .settings import *

# Make sure that tests are never sending real emails.
EMAIL_BACKEND = "django.core.mail.backends.locmem.EmailBackend"

The combination of a single file for most settings sprinkled with a testing settings file for safety is the approach that has worked the best for me.


In this episode, we learned about Django settings and how to manage the configuration of your application. We covered:

  • How Django is configured
  • Patterns for working with settings in your projects
  • Tools that help you observe and manage settings

Next Time

On the next episode, we’ll talk about user uploaded files. How does that profile picture work? Where does that data go? We’ll answer those kinds of questions next time.

You can follow the show on Spotify. Or follow me or the show on X at @mblayman or @djangoriffs.

Please rate or review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or from wherever you listen to podcasts. Your rating will help others discover the podcast, and I would be very grateful.

Django Riffs is supported by listeners like you. If you can contribute financially to cover hosting and production costs, please check out my Patreon page to see how you can help out.