Last year, I wrote a post titled Install Java with asdf and slightly surprising to me, it ended up becoming the most visited article on my personal blog. Given that, I decided to write another more complete guide to asdf. Even though this guide is meant for macOS, most things covered here should apply to Linux systems too, potentially with some minor tweaks.

Why asdf

Before we begin, let’s talk about why we might need it in the first place.

Say you work as a developer for a company and their tech stack is backend Ruby on Rails and frontend React. There are quite a number of repositories for different services and unsurprisingly not all of them use the same versions of Ruby or Node.js.

To manage the different versions of Ruby, rbenv is a good tool and for Node.js, you have nvm. Then Python is introduced for some machine learning related tasks, so here comes pyenv.

Three tools to manage versions for three programming languages doesn’t sound too bad, but they all have slightly different command syntax for you to remember and use from time to time. The situation only gets worse with more languages introduced to the mix. For example, what if you want to build a side project with Elixir/Phoenix or learn some Rust.

One version manager for each programming language is still okay for three languages, but once the number reaches five or six, it becomes too much effort.

asdf to the rescue

Luckily there is asdf and you can replace rbenv, nvm, pyenv and more with just this one tool.

Thanks to its plugin system, asdf is extendable enough for you to install and manage versions of almost all programming languages that you might want to use. And with asdf you only need to learn one set of simple commands to do that.

Furthermore, if you’d like to manage something and there isn’t yet a plugin for it, it’s possible to create a plugin yourself.

With a relatively small core and the powerful plugin system, asdf offers nearly infinite possibilities.

Install asdf

First make sure that coreutils, curl and git are installed:

brew install coreutils curl git

Install with Git

Personally I prefer installing asdf with Git, because it gives complete control and avoids some pitfalls.

Cloning the latest tag is enough:

git clone ~/.asdf --branch v0.8.1

v0.8.1 is the latest tag as of September 2021, but obviously that would change over time, so make sure to check its Github repository for that before you install.

Then for Zsh add the following to the bottom of ~/.zshrc:

. $HOME/.asdf/

Open a new terminal tab and you should be ready to use asdf :tada:

Install with Homebrew

The alternative is to install asdf with Homebrew:

brew install asdf

If you prefer this method, before continuing, do check out Common Homebrew issues to be aware of potential issues you might run into.

And add the following line to the bottom of your ~/.zshrc:

. $(brew --prefix asdf)/

If you use Bash or Fish shell, please refer to the Add to your Shell section in asdf documentation for instructions.

Manage Plugins

Before you could install Ruby, Node.js or anything else, you’ll need to add the appropriate plugins. Plugins are how asdf understands handling of different programming languages or, say, packages.

There is an asdf plugins repository and for all the plugins listed there, you can add with just the plugin name. For example, here is how to add the plugins for Ruby and Node.js:

asdf plugin add ruby
asdf plugin add nodejs

If the plugin you want is not part of this repository, you can still add it with its repository URL. For example:

asdf plugin-add elm

You can list installed plugins with:

asdf plugin list

Or list all available plugins from the asdf plugin repository:

asdf plugin list-all

Manage Language Versions

If you’ve looked through the asdf plugin repository, you may have noticed that there are plugins not only for programming languages, but also for many other cli tools like fzf, minikube etc.

For the purpose of our discussion here, whether it’s a programming language or something else doesn’t really matter, because the commands for managing them are going to be the same. I’ll just refer to them as programming languages in this post, but please keep in mind that you could use asdf to manage other cli tools as well.

Install Versions

Suppose we want to install the latest stable release of Ruby 2 and the latest LTS release of Node.js, which are 2.7.2 and 14.16.1 respectively as of this writing. We can simply run the following:

asdf install ruby 2.7.2
asdf install nodejs 14.16.1

When you run into issues trying to install a particular language version, make sure to check out the Github repository for the plugin. It’s very likely that you’ll find instructions on how to solve those issues.

Set Global Versions

After installing the first versions, you might also want to set them as global versions for Ruby and Node.js:

asdf global ruby 2.7.2
asdf global nodejs 14.16.1

With this, we’ve made Ruby 2.7.2 and Node.js 14.16.1 “globally” available for the current user.

In asdf terms, “global” means default everywhere. So unless it’s overridden with either a local or shell version, which are covered in the following sections, asdf will assume the global version is the one to use.

Set Local Versions (Optional)

Suppose we have a legacy project that we need to maintain and it only runs on Node.js 10. What we can do with asdf is to install Node.js 10 and set a local version in the project directory:

asdf install nodejs 10.22.0
# run in the project directory
asdf local nodejs 10.22.0

With this local version set, when you are in the legacy project directory or its subdirectories, asdf will automatically switch to Node.js version 10.22; when you are in any other directories, it’ll fallback to the global Node.js version, unless of course if there is another local Node.js version set.

Set Shell Version (Optional)

I had a fairly interesting situation at work recently. On this project, the backend server and frontend client each lives in a subdirectory in the same repository and we are in the process of developing a new client app to replace the old one.

Normally I just run the server and new client, both of which run on Node.js 14. This time I needed to run the old client to confirm some behaviours on a page, but it requires Node.js 10.

In order to run the old client together with the server, I made another copy of the whole project, set a local Node.js version to 10.22.0 in the new directory and run the old client. For the server, since the local Node.js version is already set to 14.16.1 in the original project directory, I could still start it in as normal.

That certainly worked fine for me. But later I learned that there is a much simpler way: to use an asdf shell version. Without making an extra copy of the project, I could simply start a new shell session in the project directory and set a shell version for Node.js by:

cd path/to/project
asdf shell nodejs 10.22.0
# run old client

This shell version only affects the current shell session, nothing else.

As for the server, just run it in another shell session would do.

Quick Recap

So basically asdf allows you to select different versions of programming languages on a per directory basis, and on top of that you have the option to set a shell version which only affects the current shell session.

I think that should be flexible enough for anyone to cope with most of (if not all) the situations they’ll ever encounter.

Under the Hood

Mustang car with open hood
Blue Mustang Coupe with Hood Open by Alison Ivansek from Unsplash

To someone who’s new that might sound like magic, but in fact how asdf works is actually quite straightforward.

Global Versions

When you set a global version for a programming language, it’ll add or update a line for the language in a .tool-versions file under the current user’s home directory. If the file doesn’t already exist, it’ll create it first and then add the new line.

If you’ve followed this post to install asdf, install Ruby and Node.js, and then set the global versions, your .tool-versions file in home directory should look like the following:

# cat ~/.tool-versions
nodejs 14.16.1
ruby 2.7.2

Local Versions

When you set a local version in a directory, asdf will add or update a line for the language in a .tool-versions file under that directory. Same as the global .tool-versions file, it’ll be created if not exist already.

Say you do have that legacy project where Node.js 10.22 is required and therefore you’ve set a local version for Node.js in the project directory. The .tool-versions file under the project directory should look like this:

# cd path/to/project
# cat ~/.tool-versions
nodejs 10.22.0

If you’re working on a personal project or your team has adopted asdf, it would be a very good idea to commit the .tool-version file to Git or the version control system you use.

On the other hand, if your team hasn’t reached an agreement on adopting asdf, I’d recommend adding it to .gitignore and keeping it locally without committing to version control. The Migrate from Legacy Tools section might offer more useful information, if you found yourself in situations like this.

Shell Versions

How shell versions work is even simpler in my opinion. When you set one, asdf will set an environment variable ASDF_${LANG}_VERSION for the current session.

For example, when I set a shell version for Node.js to 10.22.0, asdf creates an environment variable named ASDF_NODEJS_VERSION with value 10.22.0 in my shell session.

Given that’s how it works, setting the environment variable for a particular language directly in a shell session or even for just one command would work too.

The following example starts the Rails server with Ruby version 2.5.3:

ASDF_RUBY_VERSION=2.5.3 bundle exec rails server

Current Versions

When you run node for example, asdf will look for a .tool-versions file in the current directory, then the parent directory, then parent’s parent directory etc. If it does find one and a local Node.js version is specified, it’ll use that version. In the case it couldn’t find one, it’ll fallback to the global version set in the .tool-versions file under the current user’s home directory. So the logic is quite straightforward.

You could run asdf current to get a list of current versions of installed programming languages in the current directory. For example, say we are in the legacy project directory, where a local Node.js version is set, but no Ruby version is set. What you get should be something like this:

# asdf current
nodejs          10.22.0         /Users/username/workspace/legacy-project/.tool-versions
ruby            2.7.2           /Users/username/.tool-versions

Whereas if you run it in another directory, assuming no local versions are set, what you get is slightly different:

# asdf current
nodejs          14.16.1         /Users/username/.tool-versions
ruby            2.7.2           /Users/username/.tool-versions

As you can see, in the output, it not only tells you what the current versions are, but also shows from which .tool-versions file asdf got each version.

I reckon this command could come in handy when you try to figure out where a particular local version is set.

Use asdf in a Team

Coming back to the scenario mentioned at the beginning of this article, where you work for a company which uses Ruby on Rails for backend and React for frontend and different projects might have different language version requirements.

After introducing asdf you no longer have to deal with different tools for managing versions of different programming languages, which is great. But obviously when starting to work on a different project for the first time, everyone still need to get the correct local versions installed.

What I used to do is to check out what are the versions specified in the .tool-versions file of the project and then manually install them. For example, if the file has

nodejs 10.22.0
ruby 2.5.3

Running the following should do it:

asdf install nodejs 10.22.0
asdf install ruby 2.5.3

But this feels slightly tedious and it is.

Luckily as it turns out there is a much better way: running asdf install without any arguments. If a required version is not installed yet, asdf will go ahead and install it; if a version is already installed, it will tell you that and does nothing.

I think this is a rather neat trick for installing the specified local versions for a project, therefore it makes this aspect of onboarding new team members to a project pretty much painless.

Migrate from Legacy Tools

If you are sold on asdf but for whatever reason can’t adopt it at work, there is a configuration option that could allow you to still use it.

What you need to do is to create a .asdfrc file in your home directory with the following content:

legacy_version_file = yes

Setting this to yes will cause asdf plugins to read “legacy” version files, for example .ruby-versions for Ruby and .nvmrc or .node-versions for Node.js.

This is especially helpful when you are in a team where your teammates don’t want to change to a different tool for managing the programming languages. Change is hard even when there are obviously benefits, so expect resistance if people are not already familiar with asdf.

With this setting though, they can continue to use the legacy tools they prefer, but you would have the option to use asdf if you want.

Note: not all plugins support this feature. If you rely on this behaviour, please do check the documentation of the plugins you use.

Hopefully one day they’ll start noticing conveniences of asdf and change their minds, at which point the whole team could fully adopt asdf and enjoy the benefits it brings.


In this post, I covered:

  • how to install asdf
  • how to add plugins
  • how to manage versions
  • how versions work under the hood
  • how asdf fits in a team setting
  • how to use asdf with legacy tools

While there are definitely aspects of asdf that I didn’t cover, this should be a solid starting point for someone new. After reading this post and following along, you should be able to start using asdf with confidence. If you do run into issues, check out asdf documentation and Google is your friend.

With asdf, one could manage different versions of all the programming languages that they might need without any trouble, and also it makes sharing a common set of programming language versions across a team for a project very easy.

Because of the conveniences it offers, I’m a big fan of asdf and I truly believe that every developer should use it or at least know it as a potential option to consider.

Leave a comment