Target, artifact and command referencing

This page describes the different types of references used in Earthly:

  • Target references: <project-ref>+my-target

  • Artifact references: <project-ref>+my-target/my-artifact.bin

  • Image references (same as target references)

  • Command references: <project-ref>+MY_COMMAND

  • Project references (the prefix of the above references):, ./my/local/path

Target reference

Target references point to an Earthly target. They have the general form


Target references distinguish themselves from command references (see below) by having a name in all-lower-case, kebab-case (e.g. +my-target).

Here are some examples:

  • +build

  • ./js+deps


  • earthly+for-linux

Artifact reference

Artifact references are similar to target references, except that they have an artifact path at the end. It has the following form


Here are some examples:

  • +build/my-artifact

  • +build/some/artifact/deep/in/a/dir

  • ./js+build/dist


Image reference

Because there can only be one image per target, image references have the exact same format as target references.

The only difference is the context where they are used. For example, a FROM command takes an image reference. While a BUILD command takes a target reference.

Command reference

Command references point to a user-defined command (UDC) in an Earthfile. They have the general form


Command references distinguish themselves from target references by having a name in all-caps, snake-case (e.g. +MY_COMMAND).

Here are some examples:


  • ./js+NPM_INSTALL


For more information on UDCs, see the User-defined commands guide.

Project references

Target and artifact reference syntax

Project references appear in target, artifact and command references. They point to the Earthfile containing the respective target, artifact or command. Below are the different types of project references available in Earthly.

Local, internal

The simplest form, is where a target, command or artifact is referenced from the same Earthfile. In this case, the project reference is simply the empty string. Here are some examples of this type of project reference being used in various other references:

Project ref

Target ref

Artifact ref

Command ref

(empty string)




(empty string)




In this form, Earthly will look for the target within the same Earthfile. We call this type of referencing local, internal. Local, because it comes from the same system, and internal, because it is within the same Earthfile.

Local, external

Another form, is where a target, command or artifact is referenced from a different directory. In this form, the path to that directory is specified before +. It must always start with either ./, ../ or /, on any operating system (including Windows). Example:

Project ref

Target ref

Artifact ref

Command ref









It is recommended that relative paths are used, for portability reasons: the working directory checked out by different users will be different, making absolute paths infeasible in most cases.


Another form of a project reference is the remote form. In this form, the recipe and the build context are imported from a remote location. It has the following form:

Project ref

Target ref

Artifact ref

Command ref





Import reference

Finally, the last form of project referencing is an import reference. Import references may only exist after an IMPORT command, which helps resolve the reference to a full project reference of the types above.

Import command

Project ref

Target ref

Artifact ref

Command ref

IMPORT <full-project-ref> AS <import-alias>















Here is an example in an Earthfile:

BUILD buildkitd+buildkitd

Implicit Base Target Reference

All earthfiles start with a base recipe. This is the only recipe which does not have an explicit target name - the name is always implied to be base. All other target implicitly inherit from base. You can imagine that all recipes start with an implicit FROM +base

# base recipe
FROM golang:1.15-alpine3.13
WORKDIR /go-example
# implicit FROM +base
RUN echo "Hello World"

Canonical form

Most references have a canonical form. It is essentially the remote form of the same target, with repository and tag inferred. The canonical form can be useful as a universal identifier for a target.

For example, depending on where the files are stored, the +build target could have the canonical form, where was inferred as the Git location, based on the Git remote called origin, and /some/deep/dir was inferred as the sub-directory where +build exists within that repository. The Earthly tag is inferred using the following algorithm:

  • If the current HEAD has at least one Git tag, then use the first Git tag listed by Git, otherwise

  • If the repository is not in detached HEAD mode, use the current branch, otherwise

  • Use the current Git hash.

If no Git context is detected by Earthly, then the target does not have a canonical form.