Modules, Packages, and Instances

How files are organized in CUE


CUE heavily relies on its order independence for package organization. Definitions and constraints can be split across files within a package, and even organized across directories.

Another key aspect of CUE’s package management is reproducibility. A module, the largest unit of organization, has a fixed location of all files and dependencies. There are no paths to configure. With configuration, reproducibility is key.

Within a module, CUE organizes files grouped by package. A package can be defined within the module or externally. In the latter case, CUE maintains a copy of the package within the module in a dedicated location.


A module contains a configuration layed out in a directory hierarchy. It contains the everything that is needed to deterministically determine the outcome of a CUE configuration. The root of this directory is marked by containing a cue.mod directory. The contents of this directory are mostly managed by the cue tool. In that sense, cue.mod is analogous to the .git directory marking the root directory of a repo, but where its contents are mostly managed by the git tool.

The use of a module is optional, but required if one wants to import files.

Creating a module

A module can be created by running the following command within the module root:

cue mod init [module name]

The module name is required if a package within the module needs to import another package within the module.

A module can also be created by setting up the cue.mod directory and module.cue file manually.

The cue.mod directory

The module directory has the following contents:

|-- module.cue  // The module file
|-- pkg         // copies of external packages
|-- gen         // files generated from external sources
|-- usr         // user-defined constraints

Aside from an occasional addition to the usr subdirectory or tweak to module.cue, this directory is predominantly managed by the cue tool.

The module.cue file defines settings such as globally unique module identifier (more on this in the Import Path section). This information allows packages defined within the module to be importable within the module itself. In the future, it may hold version information of imported packages to determine the precise origin of imported files.

The other directories hold packages that are facsimiles, derivatives, or augmentations of external packages:

  • pkg: an imported external CUE package,
  • gen: CUE generated from external definitions, such as protobuf or Go,
  • usr: user-defined constraints for the above two directories.

These directories split files from the same package across different parallel hierarchies based on the origin of the content. But for all intent and purposes they should be seen as a single directory hierarchy.

The cue.mod/usr directory is a bit special here. The cue.mod/pkg and cue.mod/gen directories are populated by the cue tool. The cue.mod/usr directory, on the other hand, holds user-defined constraints for the packages defined in the other directories.

User-defined constraints can be used to fill gaps in generated constraints; as generation is not always a sure thing. They can also be used to enforce constraints on imported packages, for instance to enforce that a certain API feature is still provided or of the desired form. The usr directory allows for a cleaner organization compared to storing such user-defined constraints directly in the cue-managed directories.


Files belonging to a package

CUE files may define a package name at the top of their file. CUE uses this to determine which files belong together. If the cue tool is told to load the files for a specific directory, for instance:

cue eval ./mypkg

it will only look files with such a clause and ignore files without it.

If the package name within the directory is not unique, cue needs to know the name of the package as well

cue eval -p pkgname ./mypkg

If no module is defined, it will just load the files in this directory. If a module is defined, it will also load all files with the same package name in its ancestor directories up till the module root. As we will see below, this strategy allows for defining organization-wide schemas and policies.

Import path

Each package is identified by a globally unique name, called its import path. The import path consists of a unique location identifier followed by a colon (:) and its package name.

If the basename of the path and the package name are the same, the latter can be omitted.

The unique location identifier consists of a domain name followed by a path.

Modules themselves also have a unique location identifier. A package inside a module can import another package from this same module by using the following import path:

<module identifier>/<relative position of package within module>:<package name>

So suppose our module is identified as and a package located at schemas/trains and has the package name track, then other packages can import this packages as:

import ""

Putting it all together:

root                    // must contain:
|-- cue.mod
|   |-- module.cue      // module: ""
|-- schemas
|   |-- trains
|   |   |-- track.cue   // package track
|-- data.cue            // import ""

The relative position may not be within the cue.mod directory.

Location on disk

A .cue file can import a package by specifying its import path with the import statement. For instance,

import (


Packages for which the first path component is not a fully qualified domain name are builtin packages and are not stored on disk. For other packages, CUE determines the location on disk as follows:

  1. If a module identifier is defined and is a prefix of the import path, the package is located at the corresponding location relative to the module root.
  2. Otherwise, the package contents looked up in the cue.mod/pkg, cue.mod/gen, and cue.mod/usr subdirectores.

In Step 2, an import path may match more than one directory. In that case, the contents of all matched directories are used to build the package. Virtually, these directories should be seen as a single directory tree.

Builtin Packages

CUE has a collection of builtin packages that are compiled into the .cue binary.

A list of these packages form can be found here The intention is to have this documentation in CUE format, but for now we are piggybacking on the Go infrastructure to host and present the CUE packages.

To use a builtin package, import its path relative to and invoke the functions using its qualified identifier. For instance,

import "regexp"

matches: regexp.FindSubmatch(#"^([^:]*):(\d+)$"#, "localhost:443")

results in

matches: ["localhost:443", "localhost", "443"]

File Organization


Within a module, all .cue files with the same package name are part of the same package. A package is evaluated within the context of a certain directory. Within this context, only the files belonging to that package in that directory and its ancestor directories within the module are combined. We call that an instance of a package.

Using this approach, the different kind of directories within a module can be ascribed the following roles:

  • module root: schema
  • medial directories: policy
  • leaf directories: data

The top of the hierarchy (the module root) defines constraints that apply across the organization. Leaf directories typically define concrete instances, inheriting all the constraints of ancestor directories. Directories between the leaf and top directory define constraints, like policies, that only apply to its subdirectories.

Because order of evaluation does not matter in CUE, leaf packages do not explicitly have to specify which parts of their parents they want to inherit from. Instead, parent directories can be seen to “push out” constraints to their subdirectories. In other words, parent directories define policies to which subdirectories must comply.