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Contextual 0.7a1.dev

Replace globals with context-safe variables and services

So you're writing a library, and you have this object that keeps showing up in parameters or attributes everywhere, even though there's only ever one of that thing at a given moment in time. Should you use a global variable or singleton?

Most of us know we "shouldn't" use globals, and some of us know that singletons are just another kind of global! But there are times when they both just seem so darn attractive. They're so easy to create and use, even though they're also the bane of testability, maintainability, configurability, thread-safety... Heck, you can pretty much name it, and it's a problem with globals and singletons.

Programming pundits talk about using "dependency injection" or "inversion of control" (IoC) to get rid of global variables. And there are many dependency injection frameworks for Python (including Zope 3 and peak.config).

The problem is, these frameworks typically require you to declare interfaces, register services, create XML configuration files, and/or ensure that every object in your application knows where to look up services -- replacing one "globals" problem with another! Not only does all this make things more complex than they need to be, it disrupts your programming flow by making you do busywork that doesn't provide any new benefits to your application.

So, most of us end up stuck between various unpalatable choices:

  1. use a global and get it over with (but suffer a guilty conscience and the fear of later disasters in retribution for our sins),
  2. attempt to use a dependency injection framework, paying extra now to be reassured that things will work out later, or
  3. use a thread-local variable, and bear the cost of introducing a possible threading dependency, and still not having a reasonable way to test or configure alternate implementations. Plus, thread-locals don't really support asynchronous programming or co-operative multitasking. What if somebody wants to use your library under Twisted, and needs private instances for each socket connection?

But now there's a better choice.

The "Contextual" library (peak.context) lets you create pseudo-singletons and pseudo-global variables that are context-sensitive and easily replaceable. They look and feel just like old-fashioned globals and singletons, but because they are safely scalable to threads and tasks (as well as being replaceable for testing or other dynamic contexts), you don't have to worry about what happens "later".

Contextual singletons are even better than thread-local variables, because they support asynchronous programming with microthreads, coroutines, or frameworks like Twisted. A simple context-switching API lets you instantly swap out all the services and variables from one logical task, with those of another task. This just isn't possible with ordinary thread-locals.

Meanwhile, "client" code that uses context-sensitive objects remains unchanged: the code simply uses whatever the "current" object is supposed to be.

And isn't that all you wanted to do in the first place?

Replaceable Singletons

Here's what a simple "global" counter service implemented with peak.context looks like:

>>> from peak import context

>>> class Counter(context.Service):
...     value = 0
...
...     def inc(self):
...         self.value += 1
...

>>> Counter.value
0
>>> Counter.inc()
>>> Counter.value
1

Code that wants to use this global counter just calls Counter.inc() or accesses Counter.value, and it will automatically use the right Counter instance for the current thread or task. Want to use a fresh counter for a test? Just do this:

with Counter.new():
    # code that uses the standard count.* API

Within the with block, any code that refers to count will be using the new Counter instance you provide. If you need to support Python 2.4, the context library also includes a decorator that emulates a with statement:

>>> Counter.value     # before using a different counter
1

>>> @context.call_with(Counter.new())
... def do_it(c):
...     print Counter.value
0

>>> Counter.value     # The original counter is now in use again
1

The @call_with decorator is a bit uglier than a with statement, but it works about as well. You can also use an old-fashioned try-finally block, or some other before-and-after mechanism like the setUp() and tearDown() methods of a test to replace and restore the active instance.

Pluggable Services

Want to create an alternative implementation of the same service, that can be plugged in to replace it? That's simple too:

>>> class DoubleCounter(context.Service):
...     context.replaces(Counter)
...     value = 0
...     def inc(self):
...         self.value += 2

To use it, just do:

with DoubleCounter.new():
    # code in this block that calls ``Counter.inc()`` will be incrementing
    # a ``DoubleCounter`` instance by 2

Or, in Python 2.4, you can do something like:

>>> @context.call_with(DoubleCounter.new())
... def do_it(c):
...     print Counter.value
...     Counter.inc()
...     print Counter.value
0
2

And of course, once a replacement is no longer in use, the original instance becomes active again:

>>> Counter.value
1

All this, with no interfaces to declare or register, and no XML or configuration files to write. However, if you want to use configuration files to select implementations of global services, you can still have them: setting Counter <<= DoubleCounter will set the current Counter factory to DoubleCounter, so you can just have a configuration file loader set up whatever services you want. You can even take a snapshot of the entire current context and restore all the previous values:

with context.empty():
    # code to read config file and set up services
    # code that uses the configured services

This code won't share any services with the code that calls it; it will not only get its own private Counter instance, but a private instance of any other Service objects it uses as well. (Instances are created lazily in new contexts, so if you don't use a particular service, it's never created.) Try doing that with global or thread-local variables!

In addition to these simple pseudo-global objects, peak.context also supports other kinds of context-sensitivity, like the concept of "settings" in a "current configuration" and the concept of "resources" in a "current action" (that are notified whether the action completed successfully or exited with an error). These features are orders of magnitude simpler in their implementation and use than the corresponding features in the earlier peak.config and peak.storage frameworks, but provide equivalent or better functionality.

For more details, please consult the Contextual developer's guide.

TODO

0.7
  • Finish the developer's guide!
  • Configuration files
  • Components w/state binding and **kw attrs update on __init__ and .new()
0.8
  • State __enter__ should lock the state to the current thread, w/o __exit__ or swap() or on_exit being possible from other threads, so that they will be thread-safe.
  • Detect value calculation cycles
  • Resource pooling/caching

STATUS

This package is in active development, but not all features are stable and documented. Service objects work as advertised, as does the support for using "with"-like operations in older versions of Python. Most of the other features haven't been used (or even documented!) in any real way yet, and so the designs are still subject to change prior to an actual 0.7a1 release.

(All the included code is covered by tests, though, so you can always dig through them for technical documentation; the developer guide and tutorial is just woefully incomplete as yet.)

Source distribution snapshots of Contextual are generated daily, but you can also update directly from the development version in SVN.

 
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