Sunday, August 4, 2013

How to support both Python 2 and 3

I'll start with the conclusion: making backwards incompatible version of a language is a terrible idea, and it was bad a mistake. This mistake was somewhat corrected over the years by eventually adding features to both Python 2.7 and 3.3 that actually allow to run a single code base on both Python versions --- which, as I show below, was discouraged by both Guido and the official Python documents (though the latest docs mention it)... Nevertheless, a single code base fixes pretty much all the problems and it actually is fun to use Python again. The rest of this post explains my conclusion in great detail. My hope is that it will be useful to other Python projects to provide tips and examples how to support both Python 2 and 3, as well as to future language designers to keep languages backwards compatible.

When Python 3.x got released, it was pretty much a new language, backwards incompatible with Python 2.x, as it was not possible to run the same source code in both versions. I was extremely unhappy about this situation, because I simply didn't have time to port all my Python code to a new language.

I read the official documentation about how the transition should be done, quoting:

You should have excellent unit tests with close to full coverage.

  1. Port your project to Python 2.6.
  2. Turn on the Py3k warnings mode.
  3. Test and edit until no warnings remain.
  4. Use the 2to3 tool to convert this source code to 3.0 syntax. Do not manually edit the output!
  5. Test the converted source code under 3.0.
  6. If problems are found, make corrections to the 2.6 version of the source code and go back to step 3.
  7. When it's time to release, release separate 2.6 and 3.0 tarballs (or whatever archive form you use for releases).

I've also read Guido's blog post, which repeats the above list and adds an encouraging comment:

Python 3.0 will break backwards compatibility. Totally. We're not even aiming for a specific common subset.

In other words, one has to maintain a Python 2.x code base, then run 2to3 tool to get it converted. If you want to develop using Python 3.x, you can't, because all code must be developed using 2.x. As to the actual porting, Guido says in the above post:

If the conversion tool and the forward compatibility features in Python 2.6 work out as expected, steps (2) through (6) should not take much more effort than the typical transition from Python 2.x to 2.(x+1).

So sometime in 2010 or 2011 I started porting SymPy, which is now a pretty large code base (sloccount says over 230,000 lines of code, and in January 2010 it said almost 170,000 lines). I remember spending a few full days on it, and I just gave up, because it wasn't just changing a few things, but pretty fundamental things inside the code base, and one cannot just do it half-way, one has to get all the way through and then polish it up. We ended up using one full Google Summer of Code project for it, you can read the final report. I should mention that we use metaclasses and other things, that make such porting harder. Conclusion: this was definitely not "the typical transition from Python 2.x to 2.(x+1)".

Ok, after months of hard work by a lot of people, we finally have a Python 2.x code base that can be translated using the 2to3 tool and it works and tests pass in Python 3.x.

The next problem is that Python 3.x is pretty much like a ghetto -- you can use it as a user, but you can't develop in it. The 2to3 translation takes over 5 minutes on my laptop, so any interactivity is gone. It is true that the tool can cache results, so the next pass is somewhat faster, but in practice this still turns out to be much much worse than any compilation of C or Fortran programs (done for example with cmake), both in terms of time and in terms of robustness. And I am not even talking about pip issues or issues regarding calling 2to3. What a big mess... Programming should be fun, but this is not fun.

I'll be honest, this situation killed a lot of my enthusiasm for Python as a platform. I learned modern Fortran in the meantime and with admiration I noticed that it still compiles old F77 programs without modification and I even managed to compile a 40 year old pre-F77 code with just minimal modifications (I had to port the code to F77). Yet modern Fortran is pretty much a completely different language, with all the fancy features that one would want. Together with my colleagues I created a website, where you can compare Python/NumPy side by side with modern Fortran, it's pretty much 1:1 translation and a similar syntax (for numerical code), except that you need to add types of course. Yet Fortran is fully backwards compatible. What a pleasure to work with!

Fast forward to last week. A heroic effort by Sean Vig who ported SymPy to single code base (#2318) was merged. Earlier this year similar pull requests by other people have converted NumPy (#3178, #3191, #3201, #3202, #3203, #3205, #3208, #3216, #3223, #3226, #3227, #3231, #3232, #3235, #3236, #3237, #3238, #3241, #3242, #3244, #3245, #3248, #3249, #3257, #3266, #3281, #3191, ...) and SciPy (#397) codes as well. Now all these projects have just one code base and it works in all Python versions (2.x and 3.x) without the need to call the 2to3 tool.

Having a single code base, programming in Python is fun again. You can choose any Python version, be it 2.x or 3.x, and simply submit a patch. The patch is then tested using Travis-CI, so that it works in all Python versions. Installation has been simplified (no need to call any 2to3 tools and no more hacks to get working).

In other words, this is how it should be, that you write your code once, and you can use any supported language version to run it/compile it, or develop in. But for some reason, this obvious solution has been discouraged by Guido and other Python documents, as seen above. I just looked up the latest official Python docs, and that one is not upfront negative about a single code base. But it still does not recommend this approach as the one. So let me fix that: I do recommend a single code base as the solution.

The newest Python documentation from the last paragraph also mentions

Regardless of which approach you choose, porting is not as hard or time-consuming as you might initially think.

Well, I encourage you to browse through the pull requests that I linked to above for SymPy, NumPy or SciPy. I think it is very time consuming, and that's just converting from 2to3 to single code base, which is the easy part. The hard part was to actually get SymPy to work with Python 3 (as I discussed above, that took couple months of hard work), and I am pretty sure it was pretty hard to port NumPy and SciPy as well.

The docs also says:

It /single code base/ does lead to code that is not entirely idiomatic Python

That is true, but our experience has been, that with every Python version that we drop, we also delete lots of ugly hacks from our code base. This has been true for dropping support for 2.3, 2.4 and 2.5, and I expect it will also be true for dropping 2.6 and especially 2.7, when we can simply use the Python 3.x syntax. So not a big deal overall.

To sum this blog post up, as far as I am concerned, pretty much all the problems with supporting Python 2.x and 3.x are fixed by having a single code base. You can read the pull requests above to see how to implemented things (like metaclasses, and other fancy stuff...). Python is still quite the same language, you write your code, you use a Python version of your choice and things will just work. Not a big deal overall. The official documentation should be fixed to recommend this approach, and deprecate the other approaches.

I think that Python is great and I hope it will be used more in the future.

Written with StackEdit.

Monday, July 1, 2013

My impressions from the SciPy 2013 conference

I have attended the SciPy 2013 conference in Austin, Texas. Here are my impressions.

Number one is the fact that the IPython notebook was used by pretty much everyone. I use it a lot myself, but I didn't realize how ubiquitous it has become. It is quickly becoming the standard now. The IPython notebook is using Markdown and in fact it is better than Rest. The way to remember the "[]()" syntax for links is that in regular text you put links into () parentheses, so you do the same in Markdown, and append [] for the text of the link. The other way to remember is that [] feel more serious and thus are used for the text of the link. I stressed several times to +Fernando Perez and +Brian Granger how awesome it would be to have interactive widgets in the notebook. Fortunately that was pretty much preaching to the choir, as that's one of the first things they plan to implement good foundations for and I just can't wait to use that.

It is now clear, that the IPython notebook is the way to store computations that I want to share with other people, or to use it as a "lab notebook" for myself, so that I can remember what exactly I did to obtain the results (for example how exactly I obtained some figures from raw data). In other words --- instead of having sets of scripts and manual bash commands that have to be executed in particular order to do what I want, just use IPython notebook and put everything in there.

Number two is that how big the conference has become since the last time I attended (couple years ago), yet it still has the friendly feeling. Unfortunately, I had to miss a lot of talks, due to scheduling conflicts (there were three parallel sessions), so I look forward to seeing them on video.

+Aaron Meurer and I have done the SymPy tutorial (see the link for videos and other tutorial materials). It's been nice to finally meet +Matthew Rocklin (very active SymPy contributor) in person. He also had an interesting presentation
about symbolic matrices + Lapack code generation. +Jason Moore presented PyDy.
It's been a great pleasure for us to invite +David Li (still a high school student) to attend the conference and give a presentation about his work on and

It was nice to meet the Julia guys, +Jeff Bezanson and +Stefan Karpinski. I contributed the Fortran benchmarks on the Julia's website some time ago, but I had the feeling that a lot of them are quite artificial and not very meaningful. I think Jeff and Stefan confirmed my feeling. Julia seems to have quite interesting type system and multiple dispatch, that SymPy should learn from.

I met the VTK guys +Matthew McCormick and +Pat Marion. One of the keynotes was given by +Will Schroeder from Kitware about publishing. I remember him stressing to manage dependencies well as well as to use BSD like license (as opposed to viral licenses like GPL or LGPL). That opensource has pretty much won (i.e. it is now clear that that is the way to go).

I had great discussions with +Francesc Alted+Andy Terrel+Brett Murphy+Jonathan Rocher+Eric Jones+Travis Oliphant+Mark Wiebe+Ilan Schnell+Stéfan van der Walt+David Cournapeau+Anthony Scopatz+Paul Ivanov+Michael Droettboom, +Wes McKinney, +Jake Vanderplas, +Kurt Smith+Aron Ahmadia+Kyle Mandli, +Benjamin Root and others.

It's also been nice to have a chat with +Jason Vertrees and other guys from Schrödinger.

One other thing that I realized last week at the conference is that pretty much everyone agreed on the fact that NumPy should act as the default way to represent memory (no matter if the array was created in Fortran or other code) and allow manipulations on it. Faster libraries like Blaze or ODIN should then hook themselves up into NumPy using multiple dispatch. Also SymPy would then hook itself up so that it can be used with array operations natively. Currently SymPy does work with NumPy (see our tests for some examples what works), but the solution is a bit fragile (it is not possible to override NumPy behavior, but because NumPy supports general objects, we simply give it SymPy objects and things mostly work).

Similar to this, I would like to create multiple dispatch in SymPy core itself, so that other (faster) libraries for symbolic manipulation can hook themselves up, so that their own (faster) multiplication, expansion or series expansion would get called instead of the SymPy default one implemented in pure Python.

Other blog posts from the conference: