It’s usually difficult to get your management to accept open source software, and Python is no exception to this rule. This document discusses reasons to use Python, strategies for winning acceptance, facts and arguments you can use, and cases where you shouldn’t try to use Python.
There are several reasons to incorporate a scripting language into your development process, and this section will discuss them, and why Python has some properties that make it a particularly good choice.
Programs are often organized in a modular fashion. Lower-level operations are grouped together, and called by higher-level functions, which may in turn be used as basic operations by still further upper levels.
For example, the lowest level might define a very low-level set of functions for accessing a hash table. The next level might use hash tables to store the headers of a mail message, mapping a header name like Date to a value such as Tue, 13 May 1997 20:00:54 -0400. A yet higher level may operate on message objects, without knowing or caring that message headers are stored in a hash table, and so forth.
Often, the lowest levels do very simple things; they implement a data structure such as a binary tree or hash table, or they perform some simple computation, such as converting a date string to a number. The higher levels then contain logic connecting these primitive operations. Using the approach, the primitives can be seen as basic building blocks which are then glued together to produce the complete product.
Why is this design approach relevant to Python? Because Python is well suited to functioning as such a glue language. A common approach is to write a Python module that implements the lower level operations; for the sake of speed, the implementation might be in C, Java, or even Fortran. Once the primitives are available to Python programs, the logic underlying higher level operations is written in the form of Python code. The high-level logic is then more understandable, and easier to modify.
John Ousterhout wrote a paper that explains this idea at greater length, entitled “Scripting: Higher Level Programming for the 21st Century”. I recommend that you read this paper; see the references for the URL. Ousterhout is the inventor of the Tcl language, and therefore argues that Tcl should be used for this purpose; he only briefly refers to other languages such as Python, Perl, and Lisp/Scheme, but in reality, Ousterhout’s argument applies to scripting languages in general, since you could equally write extensions for any of the languages mentioned above.
In The Mythical Man-Month, Fredrick Brooks suggests the following rule when planning software projects: “Plan to throw one away; you will anyway.” Brooks is saying that the first attempt at a software design often turns out to be wrong; unless the problem is very simple or you’re an extremely good designer, you’ll find that new requirements and features become apparent once development has actually started. If these new requirements can’t be cleanly incorporated into the program’s structure, you’re presented with two unpleasant choices: hammer the new features into the program somehow, or scrap everything and write a new version of the program, taking the new features into account from the beginning.
Python provides you with a good environment for quickly developing an initial prototype. That lets you get the overall program structure and logic right, and you can fine-tune small details in the fast development cycle that Python provides. Once you’re satisfied with the GUI interface or program output, you can translate the Python code into C++, Fortran, Java, or some other compiled language.
Prototyping means you have to be careful not to use too many Python features that are hard to implement in your other language. Using eval(), or regular expressions, or the pickle module, means that you’re going to need C or Java libraries for formula evaluation, regular expressions, and serialization, for example. But it’s not hard to avoid such tricky code, and in the end the translation usually isn’t very difficult. The resulting code can be rapidly debugged, because any serious logical errors will have been removed from the prototype, leaving only more minor slip-ups in the translation to track down.
This strategy builds on the earlier discussion of programmability. Using Python as glue to connect lower-level components has obvious relevance for constructing prototype systems. In this way Python can help you with development, even if end users never come in contact with Python code at all. If the performance of the Python version is adequate and corporate politics allow it, you may not need to do a translation into C or Java, but it can still be faster to develop a prototype and then translate it, instead of attempting to produce the final version immediately.
One example of this development strategy is Microsoft Merchant Server. Version 1.0 was written in pure Python, by a company that subsequently was purchased by Microsoft. Version 2.0 began to translate the code into C++, shipping with some C++code and some Python code. Version 3.0 didn’t contain any Python at all; all the code had been translated into C++. Even though the product doesn’t contain a Python interpreter, the Python language has still served a useful purpose by speeding up development.
This is a very common use for Python. Past conference papers have also described this approach for developing high-level numerical algorithms; see David M. Beazley and Peter S. Lomdahl’s paper “Feeding a Large-scale Physics Application to Python” in the references for a good example. If an algorithm’s basic operations are things like “Take the inverse of this 4000x4000 matrix”, and are implemented in some lower-level language, then Python has almost no additional performance cost; the extra time required for Python to evaluate an expression like m.invert() is dwarfed by the cost of the actual computation. It’s particularly good for applications where seemingly endless tweaking is required to get things right. GUI interfaces and Web sites are prime examples.
The Python code is also shorter and faster to write (once you’re familiar with Python), so it’s easier to throw it away if you decide your approach was wrong; if you’d spent two weeks working on it instead of just two hours, you might waste time trying to patch up what you’ve got out of a natural reluctance to admit that those two weeks were wasted. Truthfully, those two weeks haven’t been wasted, since you’ve learnt something about the problem and the technology you’re using to solve it, but it’s human nature to view this as a failure of some sort.
Python is definitely not a toy language that’s only usable for small tasks. The language features are general and powerful enough to enable it to be used for many different purposes. It’s useful at the small end, for 10- or 20-line scripts, but it also scales up to larger systems that contain thousands of lines of code.
However, this expressiveness doesn’t come at the cost of an obscure or tricky syntax. While Python has some dark corners that can lead to obscure code, there are relatively few such corners, and proper design can isolate their use to only a few classes or modules. It’s certainly possible to write confusing code by using too many features with too little concern for clarity, but most Python code can look a lot like a slightly-formalized version of human-understandable pseudocode.
In The New Hacker’s Dictionary, Eric S. Raymond gives the following definition for “compact”:
Compact adj. Of a design, describes the valuable property that it can all be apprehended at once in one’s head. This generally means the thing created from the design can be used with greater facility and fewer errors than an equivalent tool that is not compact. Compactness does not imply triviality or lack of power; for example, C is compact and FORTRAN is not, but C is more powerful than FORTRAN. Designs become non-compact through accreting features and cruft that don’t merge cleanly into the overall design scheme (thus, some fans of Classic C maintain that ANSI C is no longer compact).
In this sense of the word, Python is quite compact, because the language has just a few ideas, which are used in lots of places. Take namespaces, for example. Import a module with import math, and you create a new namespace called math. Classes are also namespaces that share many of the properties of modules, and have a few of their own; for example, you can create instances of a class. Instances? They’re yet another namespace. Namespaces are currently implemented as Python dictionaries, so they have the same methods as the standard dictionary data type: .keys() returns all the keys, and so forth.
This simplicity arises from Python’s development history. The language syntax derives from different sources; ABC, a relatively obscure teaching language, is one primary influence, and Modula-3 is another. (For more information about ABC and Modula-3, consult their respective Web sites at http://www.cwi.nl/~steven/abc/ and http://www.m3.org.) Other features have come from C, Icon, Algol-68, and even Perl. Python hasn’t really innovated very much, but instead has tried to keep the language small and easy to learn, building on ideas that have been tried in other languages and found useful.
Simplicity is a virtue that should not be underestimated. It lets you learn the language more quickly, and then rapidly write code – code that often works the first time you run it.
If you’re working with Java, Jython (http://www.jython.org/) is definitely worth your attention. Jython is a re-implementation of Python in Java that compiles Python code into Java bytecodes. The resulting environment has very tight, almost seamless, integration with Java. It’s trivial to access Java classes from Python, and you can write Python classes that subclass Java classes. Jython can be used for prototyping Java applications in much the same way CPython is used, and it can also be used for test suites for Java code, or embedded in a Java application to add scripting capabilities.
Let’s say that you’ve decided upon Python as the best choice for your application. How can you convince your management, or your fellow developers, to use Python? This section lists some common arguments against using Python, and provides some possible rebuttals.
Python is freely available software that doesn’t cost anything. How good can it be?
Very good, indeed. These days Linux and Apache, two other pieces of open source software, are becoming more respected as alternatives to commercial software, but Python hasn’t had all the publicity.
Python has been around for several years, with many users and developers. Accordingly, the interpreter has been used by many people, and has gotten most of the bugs shaken out of it. While bugs are still discovered at intervals, they’re usually either quite obscure (they’d have to be, for no one to have run into them before) or they involve interfaces to external libraries. The internals of the language itself are quite stable.
Having the source code should be viewed as making the software available for peer review; people can examine the code, suggest (and implement) improvements, and track down bugs. To find out more about the idea of open source code, along with arguments and case studies supporting it, go to http://www.opensource.org.
Who’s going to support it?
Python has a sizable community of developers, and the number is still growing. The Internet community surrounding the language is an active one, and is worth being considered another one of Python’s advantages. Most questions posted to the comp.lang.python newsgroup are quickly answered by someone.
Should you need to dig into the source code, you’ll find it’s clear and well-organized, so it’s not very difficult to write extensions and track down bugs yourself. If you’d prefer to pay for support, there are companies and individuals who offer commercial support for Python.
Who uses Python for serious work?
Lots of people; one interesting thing about Python is the surprising diversity of applications that it’s been used for. People are using Python to:
Whatever your application domain is, there’s probably someone who’s used Python for something similar. Yet, despite being useable for such high-end applications, Python’s still simple enough to use for little jobs.
See http://wiki.python.org/moin/OrganizationsUsingPython for a list of some of the organizations that use Python.
What are the restrictions on Python’s use?
They’re practically nonexistent. Consult History and License for the full language, but it boils down to three conditions:
Notice that you don’t have to provide source code for anything that contains Python or is built with it. Also, the Python interpreter and accompanying documentation can be modified and redistributed in any way you like, and you don’t have to pay anyone any licensing fees at all.
Why should we use an obscure language like Python instead of well-known language X?
I hope this HOWTO, and the documents listed in the final section, will help convince you that Python isn’t obscure, and has a healthily growing user base. One word of advice: always present Python’s positive advantages, instead of concentrating on language X’s failings. People want to know why a solution is good, rather than why all the other solutions are bad. So instead of attacking a competing solution on various grounds, simply show how Python’s virtues can help.
The authors, David M. Beazley and Peter S. Lomdahl, describe their use of Python at Los Alamos National Laboratory. It’s another good example of how Python can help get real work done. This quotation from the paper has been echoed by many people:
Originally developed as a large monolithic application for massively parallel processing systems, we have used Python to transform our application into a flexible, highly modular, and extremely powerful system for performing simulation, data analysis, and visualization. In addition, we describe how Python has solved a number of important problems related to the development, debugging, deployment, and maintenance of scientific software.