This documentation is for an old version of IPython. You can find docs for newer versions here.

Making kernels for IPython

A ‘kernel’ is a program that runs and introspects the user’s code. IPython includes a kernel for Python code, and people have written kernels for several other languages.

When IPython starts a kernel, it passes it a connection file. This specifies how to set up communications with the frontend.

There are two options for writing a kernel:

  1. You can reuse the IPython kernel machinery to handle the communications, and just describe how to execute your code. This is much simpler if the target language can be driven from Python. See Making simple Python wrapper kernels for details.
  2. You can implement the kernel machinery in your target language. This is more work initially, but the people using your kernel might be more likely to contribute to it if it’s in the language they know.

Connection files

Your kernel will be given the path to a connection file when it starts (see Kernel specs for how to specify the command line arguments for your kernel). This file, which is accessible only to the current user, will contain a JSON dictionary looking something like this:

  "control_port": 50160,
  "shell_port": 57503,
  "transport": "tcp",
  "signature_scheme": "hmac-sha256",
  "stdin_port": 52597,
  "hb_port": 42540,
  "ip": "",
  "iopub_port": 40885,
  "key": "a0436f6c-1916-498b-8eb9-e81ab9368e84"

The transport, ip and five _port fields specify five ports which the kernel should bind to using ZeroMQ. For instance, the address of the shell socket in the example above would be:


New ports are chosen at random for each kernel started.

signature_scheme and key are used to cryptographically sign messages, so that other users on the system can’t send code to run in this kernel. See The Wire Protocol for the details of how this signature is calculated.

Handling messages

After reading the connection file and binding to the necessary sockets, the kernel should go into an event loop, listening on the hb (heartbeat), control and shell sockets.

Heartbeat messages should be echoed back immediately on the same socket - the frontend uses this to check that the kernel is still alive.

Messages on the control and shell sockets should be parsed, and their signature validated. See The Wire Protocol for how to do this.

The kernel will send messages on the iopub socket to display output, and on the stdin socket to prompt the user for textual input.

See also

Messaging in IPython
Details of the different sockets and the messages that come over them
Creating Language Kernels for IPython
A blog post by the author of IHaskell, a Haskell kernel
A simple example implementation of the kernel machinery in Python

Kernel specs

A kernel identifies itself to IPython by creating a directory, the name of which is used as an identifier for the kernel. These may be created in a number of locations:

  Unix Windows



User ~/.ipython/kernels

The user location takes priority over the system locations, and the case of the names is ignored, so selecting kernels works the same way whether or not the filesystem is case sensitive.

Inside the directory, the most important file is kernel.json. This should be a JSON serialised dictionary containing the following keys and values:

  • argv: A list of command line arguments used to start the kernel. The text {connection_file} in any argument will be replaced with the path to the connection file.
  • display_name: The kernel’s name as it should be displayed in the UI. Unlike the kernel name used in the API, this can contain arbitrary unicode characters.
  • language: The name of the language of the kernel. When loading notebooks, if no matching kernelspec key (may differ across machines) is found, a kernel with a matching language will be used. This allows a notebook written on any Python or Julia kernel to be properly associated with the user’s Python or Julia kernel, even if they aren’t listed under the same name as the author’s.
  • env (optional): A dictionary of environment variables to set for the kernel. These will be added to the current environment variables before the kernel is started.

For example, the kernel.json file for IPython looks like this:

 "argv": ["python3", "-m", "IPython.kernel",
          "-f", "{connection_file}"],
 "display_name": "Python 3",
 "language": "python"

To see the available kernel specs, run:

ipython kernelspec list

To start the terminal console or the Qt console with a specific kernel:

ipython console --kernel bash
ipython qtconsole --kernel bash

To use different kernels in the notebook, select a different kernel from the dropdown menu in the top-right of the UI.