Python Philosophy 101

In the Preface, I mentioned that Python emphasizes concepts such as quality, productivity, portability, and integration. Since these four terms summarize most of the reasons for using Python, I’d like to define them in a bit more detail.

Software quality

Python makes it easy to write software that can be understood, reused, and modified. It was deliberately designed to raise development quality expectations in the scripting world. Python’s clear syntax and coherent design, for example, almost force programmers to write readable code—a critical feature for software that may be changed or reused by others in the future.

Of equal importance, because the Python language tries to do better, so too do Python developers and the Python community at large. In the Python world, one finds a refreshing focus on quality concepts such as simplicity, explicitness, and readability—ideas often given little more than a passing glance in some camps. (For more on this Python-inspired mindset, see the sidebar "The Python ‘Secret Handshake’,” near the end of this chapter.)

The Python language really does look like it was designed and not accumulated. It has an orthogonal, explicit, and minimalist design that makes code easy to understand and easy to predict. Python approaches complexity by providing a simple core language and splitting application-specific tools into a large set of modular library components.

As a popular slogan attests, the result is that Python "fits your brain“—it’s possible to use the language without constantly flipping through reference manuals. This design makes Python ideal as a customization language for nonexperts. Perhaps most important is that by limiting the number of possible interactions in your code, Python reduces both program complexity and the potential for bugs.

Besides being well designed, Python is also well tooled for modern software methodologies such as structured, modular, and object-oriented design, which allow code to be written once and reused many times. In fact, due to the inherent power and flexibility of the language, writing high-quality Python components that may be applied in multiple contexts is almost automatic.

Developer productivity

Python is optimized for speed of development. It’s easy to write programs fast in Python, because the interpreter handles details you must code explicitly in more complex, lower-level languages. Things such as type declarations, storage layout, memory management, common task implementations, and build procedures are nowhere to be found in Python scripts.

In fact, programs written in Python are typically one-third to one-fifth as large as they would be in a language like C++ or Java, and these ratios directly correlate to improved programmer speed. Because of Python’s high-level design, Python developers have less to code, less to debug, and less to maintain.

The result is a remarkably flexible and agile language, useful for both quick tactical tasks such as testing and system administration, as well as larger and long-term strategic projects employing design and analysis tools.

Today, developers use Python for everything from five-line scripts to systems composed of more than 1 million lines of Python code (including IronPort’s email security products suite). Its tool set allows it to scale up as needed. In both modes, Python programmers gain a crucial development speed advantage because of the language itself, as well as its library of precoded tools.

For instance, the lack of type declarations alone accounts for much of the conciseness and flexibility of Python code: because code is not restricted to a specific type, it is generally applicable to many types. Any object with a compatible interface will do. And although Python is dynamically typed—types are tracked automatically instead of being declared (it is still strongly typed)—every operation is sanity checked as your program runs. Odd type combinations are errors in Python, not invocations of arbitrary magic.

But fast initial development is only one component of productivity. In the real world, programmers must write code both for a computer to execute and for other programmers to read and maintain. Because Python’s syntax resembles executable pseudocode, it yields programs that are easy to understand, change, and use long after they have been written. In addition, Python supports (but does not impose) advanced code reuse paradigms such as object-oriented programming, which further boost developer productivity and shrink development time.

Program portability

Most Python programs run without modification on nearly every computer system in use today—on Windows, Linux, Macintosh, and everything from IBM mainframes and Cray supercomputers to real-time systems and handheld PDAs. Python programs even run on more exotic devices such as game consoles, cell phones, and the Apple iPod. Although some platforms offer nonportable extensions, the core Python language and libraries are largely platform neutral and provide tools for dealing with platform differences when they arise.

For example, most Python scripts developed on Windows, Linux, or Macintosh will generally run on the other two platforms immediately—simply copy the script’s source code over to the other platforms. Moreover, a GUI program written with Python’s standard Tkinter library will run on the X Windows system, Microsoft Windows, and the Macintosh, with native look-and-feel on each and without modifying the program’s source code. Alternative toolkits such as wxPython and PyQt offer similar GUI portability.

Component integration

Python is not a closed box: it is also designed to be integrated with other tools. Programs written in Python can be easily mixed with and can script (i.e., direct) other components of a system. This makes Python ideal as a control language and as a customization tool. When programs are augmented with a Python layer, their end users can configure and tailor them, without shipping the system’s entire source code.

More specifically, today Python scripts can call out to existing C and C++ libraries; use Java classes; integrate with COM, .NET, and CORBA components; communicate with other components over network protocols such as sockets, HTTP, XML-RPC, and SOAP; and more. In addition, programs written in other languages can just as easily run Python scripts by calling C and Java API functions, accessing Python-coded COM and network servers, and so on. Python allows developers to open up their products to customization in a variety of ways.

In an era of increasingly short development schedules, faster machines, and heterogeneous applications, these strengths have proven to be powerful allies to hundreds of thousands of developers, in both small and large development projects.

Naturally, there are other aspects of Python that attract developers, such as its simple learning curve for developers and users alike, vast libraries of precoded tools to minimize upfront development, and a completely free nature that cuts product development and deployment costs.

Python’s open source nature, for instance, means that it is controlled by its users, not by a financially vested company. To put that more forcefully, because Python’s implementation is freely available, Python programmers can never be held hostage by a software vendor. Unlike commercial tools, Python can never be arbitrarily discontinued. Access to source code liberates programmers and provides a final form of documentation.

At the end of the day, though, Python’s productivity focus is perhaps its most attractive and defining quality. As I started writing the second edition of this book in the Internet bubble era of 1999, the main problem facing the software development world was not just writing programs quickly, but finding developers with the time to write programs at all. As I write this third edition in the post-boom era of 2005, it is perhaps more common for programmers to be called on to accomplish the same tasks as before, but with fewer resources. In both scenarios, developers’ time is paramount—in fact, it’s usually much more critical than raw execution speed, especially given the speed of today’s computers.

As a language optimized for developer productivity, Python seems to be the right answer to the questions asked by the development world. It allows programmers to accomplish more in less time. Not only can Python developers implement systems quickly, but the resulting systems will be reusable, maintainable by others, portable across platforms, and easily integrated with other application components.

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