…for fun and profit!
I’m still kind of amazed of how malleable the Python language is. It’s no small feat to allow for messing with classes before they are created but it turns out to be pretty commonplace now. My latest frontier of pythonic hackery is import hooks and today I’d like to write something about them. I believe this will come handy for at least a few pythonistas because the topic seems to be rather scarcely covered on the ‘net.
As you can easily deduce, the name ‘import hook’ indicates something related to Python’s mechanism of imports. More specifically, import hooks are about injecting our custom logic directly into Python’s importing routines. Before delving into details, though, let’s revise how the imports are being handled by default.
As far as we are concerned, the process seems to be pretty simple. When the Python interpreter encounters an
import statement, it looks up the list of directories stored inside
sys.path. This list is populated at startup and usually contains entries inserted by external libraries or the operating system, as well as some standard directories (e.g. dist-packages). These directories are searched in order and in greedy fashion: if one of them contains the desired package/module, it’s picked immediately and the whole process stops right there.
Should we run out of places to look, an
ImportError is raised. Because this is an exception we can catch, it’s possible to try multiple imports before giving up:
While this is extremely ugly boilerplate, it serves to greatly increase portability of our application or package. Fortunately, there is only handful of worthwhile libraries that we may need to handle this way;
json is the most prominent example.
What I presented above as Python’s import flow is sufficient as description for most purposes but far from being complete. It omits few crucial places where we can tweak things to our needs.
First is the
__path__ attribute which can be defined in package’s __init__.py file. You can think of it as a local extension to
sys.path list that only works for submodules of this particular package. In other words, it contains directories that should be searched when a package’s submodule is being imported. By default it only has the __init__.py‘s directory but it can be extended to contain different paths as well.
A typical use case here is splitting single “logical” package between several “physical” packages, distributed separately – typically as different PyPI packets. For example, let’s say we have
foo package with
foo.client as subpackages. They are registered in PyPI as separate distributions (foo-server and foo-client, for instance) and user can have any or both of them installed at the same time. For this setup to work correctly, we need to modify
foo.__path__ so that it may point to
foo.server‘s directory and
foo.client‘s directory, depending on whether they are present or not. While this task sounds exceedingly complex, it is actually very easy thanks to the standard
pkgutil module. All we need to do is to put the following two lines into foo/__init__.py file:
Moving on, let’s focus on parts of import process that let you do the truly amazing things. Here I’m talking stuff like pulling modules directly from Zip files or remote repositories, or just creating them dynamically based on, say, WSDL description of Web services, symbols exported by DLLs, REST APIs, command line tools and their arguments… pretty much anything you can think of (and your imagination is likely better than mine). I’m also referring to “aggressive” interoperability between independent modules: when one package can adjust or expand its functionality when it detects that another one has been imported. Finally, I’m also talking about security-enhanced Python sandboxes that intercept import requests and can deny access to certain modules or alter their functionality on the fly.