Environment variables are very helpful for software development as they allow you to easily change certain aspects of your application based on the environment in which your application is used. However, environment variables do have some challenges which can cause some issues in certain scenarios. In this article, I’ll explore some of those challenges and explain why I don’t use environment variables in my applications.
The first challenge with environment variables is the fact that they are
globally available to all applications. The main problem this can cause is
naming conflicts between applications. For example, if two applications both
have an API token to some service (i.e. npm), you have to choose different names
for the environment variables as a generic name like
NPM_TOKEN would cause a
conflict between the two applications. This might seem like a contrived example
but it is actually one that I have faced at my job and it has caused some
Another challenge with environment variables is that they are only available in the shell which you have configured them for. Again, this might not seem like a big deal, but if you have to switch between shells on occasion this can be a real pain as the variables are not shared by both shells and must be maintained in each shell.
Difficult To Find
Because environment variables are configured in a file such as
~/.bashrc it is
harder to determine the value of each environment variable quickly. Although an
minor inconvenience, it still adds to the list of challenges with environment
My solution to this is to use
.env files to store environment variables on a
per-application basis. These files are not shell specific and they work across
.env files are stored alongside your application code
making it very easy to view and change the environment variables for your
.env files into your application can be done manually or using a
package such Node’s dotenv package.
Other languages have similar packages such as
Python’s dotenv package. Both of
these packages, and likely others, will intelligently load environment variables
so as to not override existing system environment variables unless explicitly
requested. This behavior allows you to still specific environment variables on a
per-command basis when running commands in your shell.
Should I Switch To
If you aren’t having any issues with environment variables, I wouldn’t recommend
.env just because it sounds neat. If however you have encountered
some of the same challenges I mentioned in this article, you may want to
.env as a way to augment or replace your usage of environment
variables. Finally, remember that this article is merely my opinion on the
subject and is by no means a comprehensive article about all the aspects of this
subject. Regardless of if you decide to use any of the techniques I discussed in
this article, I hope that it helped you learn a bit more about this particular
area of software development. Cheers!