Application Extensibility in Python

Manus Hand


As an interpreted language, Python is extensible in a number of important ways. The author has taken advantage of this aspect of the language in the implementation of a multi-featured and extensible mail and Web form handling and processing application. This paper explores some of the methods by which Python has proven itself to be the perfect choice for this application and for others in this domain.


Diplomacy is a multi-player game published by The Avalon Hill Game Company. The favorite game of both John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy is a true chanceless battle of wits. Because it involves a considerable amount of negotiation between players before orders for the various pieces on the board are decided, the game of Diplomacy adapts perfectly for e-mail based play. After a negotiation period, the orders entered by each player for every gamepiece under his or her control are adjudicated simultaneously, and the results (success or failure) of each player's moves are determined based on the actions of the pieces controlled by the other players.

The play of Diplomacy is supported over e-mail by a public domain application simply known as the "judge." Developed by Ken Lowe and now maintained by a large team of programmers, the judge is written in C and runs at a large number of sites worldwide. Diplomacy players issue orders and publish and distribute so-called "press" messages by sending e-mail to the judge account. The judge program then "reads" this mail and responds to it appropriately after taking any requested action.

The game of Diplomacy is uniquely variantizable. By this, it is meant that the basic ruleset of the game may be taken wholesale from its standard setting on a map of turn-of-the-century Europe to any number of different gameboards. Additionally, the rules themselves have proven malleable enough to have spawned a great multitude of cataloged variant games, and new variants appear at all times. It has been an often unworkable chore for the current judge to support the play of these many Diplomacy variants.

Beyond this, the current judge software is completely e-mail based, and to enable the play of Diplomacy using the World Wide Web would entail either a sophisticated CGI adapter program or a completely new adjudicator. With this in mind, I set out to write a new adjudicator which would receive and parse messages sent both by e-mail and via Web forms. The design goals for this effort also included making the new judge easily extensible for rule and gameboard variations. This entailed the need for easy addition of new user commands and parameters to those initially recognized by the parser.

Database Maintenance

At a high level, the adjudicator program would need to maintain two distinct sets of persistent data. The first of these would be the list of recognized (or registered) players, and the second would be all data for each of the various games being played (who the players in each game are, where the different pieces are currently located, when the next deadline for order submission is, which rule and "press" variants are in use, etc.).

For both of these datasets, the Python language itself was used to enable quick and easy storage and retrieval. At the same time, data in storage is kept in a human-readable and modifiable format; it is in fact kept in the native language itself.

Without getting deep into details, the code in Listing 1 shows the relevant sections of the UserList class from the adjudicator code.

class UserList:
    def __init__(self, user_file):
        self.user_file = user_file
        execdict = { }
        execfile(user_file, globals(), execdict)
        self.users = execdict['users']
    #   ----------------------------------------
    def save(self):
        file = open(self.user_file, 'w')
        file.write('users = ' + `self.users`)

Listing 1. UserList Storage and Retrieval

As is apparent from the code above, an instance of the UserList class loads itself from and saves itself to a file on the file system, and it does so using executable Python code. The users attribute in the UserList class is a true Python dictionary (in actuality, it is a dictionary of dictionaries) and the code takes advantage of Python's ability to "print" dictionary (and other language) objects in parser readable format.

With this simple storage system in place, manipulation of the data contained in an instance of class UserList can be performed either manually (by editing the file containing the executable code) or by any number of distinct utility programs (including, but not limited to, the adjudicator itself) which put to use methods within the UserList class, each of which operates on the users dictionary object. The ability to quickly review the contents of an object by instructing it to save() and then examining the file to which it was saved, and to manually correct any problems in the data while debugging the class implementation is invaluable.

Notice that the __init__ method of the class passes a segregated local variable dictionary (named execdict) to the execfile function. It is this (initially empty) dictionary within which the variable users is created and populated. After return from the execfile function, this variable is copied into self.users.

This technique is used due to a bug in version 1.3 of the Python interpreter which prevents code executed by the exec command from properly updating local dictionaries. Python's creator, Guido Van Rossum confirmed this as a bug and suggested this approach in mail to the author, which was then summarized in a posting to the comp.lang.python newsgroup.

Storage and retrieval of the Game class is founded on the same principle, although the class is more sophisticated than is the UserList class. The relevant portions of the implementation of class Game and a global utility function are reproduced in Listing 2, below.

class Game:
    def __init__(self, game_name, template_name, variant_list,
                 power_tuple, player_dict, deadline_dict, map_dict):       = game_name
        self.type       = template_name
        self.variants   = Variant(variant_list)
        self.powers     = PowerList(power_tuple)
        self.players    = PlayerList(player_dict)
        self.deadline   = Deadline(deadline_dict)        = Map(map_dict)
    #   ------------------------------------------------------------
    def save(self):
        file = open(game_dir +, 'w')
        file.write('game = Game(\n' +
                        `` + ',\n' +
                        `self.type` + ',\n' +
                        `self.variants` + ',\n' +
                        `self.powers` + ',\n' +
                        `self.players` + ',\n' +
                        `self.deadline` + ',\n' +
                        `` + '\n)\n')
#   ================================================================
def loadgame(game_name):
        execdict = { }
        execfile(game_dir + game_name, globals(), execdict)
        return execdict['game']
    except IOError, detail:
        if detail[0] > 2:
            raise IOError, detail

Listing 2. Game Storage and Retrieval

Here we see the same principle applied in a slightly modified form. The global function loadgame is tasked with executing an assignment statement which is contained by an auxiliary file, and with returning the assigned variable as the result of the function call. The variable assignment is a Game class member instantiation, and this class contains a save method which reconstructs the assignment statement in the auxiliary file. Here we see that the auxiliary file is actually given a name which reflects the game_name of the object it instantiates. In this way, multiple instances of an object type can be supported. This contrasts with the UserList class, which has no need to provide this functionality, and which therefore has a simpler implementation.

As can be seen, the Game class is sufficiently complex that it contains a larger number of data attributes than does the UserList class, and many of these are instances of other classes. These other classes (Variant, Deadline, etc.) each contain a single data attribute, either a Python list or a Python dictionary object. In this way, the __repr__ method provided for each of these classes easily generates a printable form of the class instance, and one which is immediately Python-loadable for use in the __init__ method.

Plug and Play

Another important requirement of the application being discussed is extensibility of the recognized command set. Since new game variants are forever being defined, and since new functionality is always being suggested for support by an adjudicator, the application must be made easily extensible in this respect. The design goal, then, is that new user commands -- new ways by which data elements (such as Game instances) may be altered by the user -- must be easily integrated into the application.

With the Lowe judge (written in C), enhancements and alterations are the end result of a long and drawn-out development process. The volunteer maintenance team works on an ad hoc schedule, and new platform issues are resolved with each numbered software release, when the software is built on each target machine. The code itself has grown sufficiently complex that a person who has developed even a simple game variant or new user command must solicit for an expert on the maintenance team to enhance the code for the next release.

In the Python application, the language itself provides a true ease of extension. As with data storage and retrieval, the chosen mechanism is the execfile function.

As with the current judge, the Python implementation supports a number of commands which appear in the incoming (e-mail or Web form generated) message. Each of these commands occupy their own physical line of text, and must begin with a keyword specifying the command type. In the Python implementation, there is no command list, no textual comparison, no function table, and no "case" statement, each of which would require maintenance for every enhancement. Instead, Python itself is used to enable quick location and execution of the relevant code for each command. This also enables any Python-fluent developer to very easily extend the application.

Consider the excerpt from the ProcessBody method of class Message, shown in Listing 3. This code looks at each text line in a message body and performs the single command requested thereby:

#   -----------------------------------------------------------------
#   Set up a variables dictionary for use by the code which performs
#   any requested command.  This dictionary contains the complete set
#   of variables exported to such code.  A list and description of
#   these variables, including their possible values when a command
#   is invoked, is all the knowledge needed for any developer to add
#   support for a new command to the application.
#   -----------------------------------------------------------------
execdict = {    'user':     self.user,  'address':  self.address,
                'game':     None,       'role':     None,
                'response': response,   'userbase': self.userbase }
#   ---------------------------------
#   Get each line in the message body
#   ---------------------------------
for textline in self.body:
    #   -------------------------------------------------
    #   Convert the line to lower-case letters and fill a
    #   list to contain each (whitespace-separated) word.
    #   (The first word is the command to be performed,
    #   and empty lines are ignored.
    #   -------------------------------------------------
    commands = split(lower(line))
    if not commands:

    #   ------------------------------------------------------------
    #   Load this list into the dictionary which is to be used as
    #   the local variable dictionary by the command-executing code.
    #   ------------------------------------------------------------
    execdict['commands'] = commands

        #   ----------------------------------------------------------
        #   Now execute the command.  This involves simply executing
        #   the code in a Python file (located in a certain directory)
        #   which was given the same name as the requested command.
        #   ----------------------------------------------------------
        execfile(cmd_dir + commands[0] + '.py', globals(), execdict)

        #   -------------------------------------------------
        #   Note that after completion of the execfile(), the
        #   contents of the execdict dictionary may have been
        #   modified.  The adjudicator command which was
    	#   executed may have loaded a "game", associated a
    	#   "role" with the user, etc., etc.
        #   -------------------------------------------------

    except AbortMessage, detail:
        #   ----------------------------------------------
        #   The command code may raise certain defined
        #   exceptions to indicate failure of the command;
        #   one of these is AbortMessage.
        #   ----------------------------------------------
        produce diagnostic output, etc.
    except IOError:
        #   ---------------------------------------------------------
        #   If the file having the appropriate name was not located
        #   by execfile(), then the IOError exception will be raised.
        #   ---------------------------------------------------------
        produce "no such command" output, etc.

Listing 3. Command Invocation

With this approach, implementation of a command locater is complete. In this respect, the application can be though of as being a mini-operating system, where commands can be likened to executable files which are located and run by an operating system when requested from a command line. Regardless of the number and names of commands which are added to the processor (ignoring such operating restrictions as the number of files which may permissibly occupy the same directory), the code shown in Listing 3 will not need to be updated. The file system itself is able to host the one and only list of supported commands.

There are many advantages to this method of command execution, including the fact that one need not dive into code to know what commands are available. Note that the command files to be executed are given the ".py" file extension. While this is not necessary, it does enable the file to be dynamically imported by auxiliary utility programs or even by the adjudicator itself. Importing code needs only to provide a local dictionary containing the required local dictionary variables. Thus, simply by using Python's __doc__ facility and the import command, documentation for each command can then be retrieved automatically.

It is worth noting that, alternative to loading ".py" files, the auxiliary commands could be loaded in byte-compiled (".pyc") form. The code in Listing 3 need only be minimally changed to load and exec this form of auxiliary code file. In a posting to the comp.lang.python newsgroup, Guido Van Rossum provided simple instructions for converting a byte-stream which was loaded from a .pyc file into an object which may be fed to the exec function.

Regardless of the chosen form of loading the command code, this implementation is also truly secure, in that the developer who adds a new command implementation file has access only to those variables which are passed to the code via the execdict dictionary. This contrasts with the C implementation, which, for the same modification, would require a developer to open up the guts of the machine, giving him the ability to introduce any number of errors.

A developer who adds a new command to those supported by the application is also able to test his enhancements in a live environment as soon as he wishes to do so, and the lead-time for introduction of new features is nearly eliminated.

This approach is itself extensible, of course. One of the commands supported by the application is the VARIANT command, which can alter a loaded Game object in a number of ways. The code which implements this command simply walks the list of arguments to the command, and for each one attempts to execute (again using execfile) code in a file (located in a separate segregated directory) having the the same name as the argument in question.

Yet a further application of this same technique is found in the implementation of certain of the VARIANTs which can be applied to a game. To contrive an example, a variant which, when set for a particular game, would forbids certain players from negotiating with certain others, would be implemented, like any other, by adding a Python code file which has the chosen name of the variant (let's call it restrict) to the directory in which the variant implementations are kept. The code in this file, using methods of class Game and the game variable available to it via the passed local dictionary, would add the word "restrict" to the currently loaded Game object's variant list, and also add to that list some Python code (in this example, as simple as a forbidding if statement, perhaps) which the adjudicator will locate and execute whenever a PRESS command is given. It is a simple matter to identify the few points in the course of game processing when it is appropriate to have the adjudicator search a Game object's variant list for code to be executed before proceeding. One such point is the invocation of a PRESS command, another is the advent of order adjudication, and yet a third would be the distribution of the results of a given game turn (as, for example, a variant may call for certain move results to be kept secret from certain players).

Note that these code snippets, loaded into a Game object by arguments to the VARIANT command, are persistent with the Game object (at least until the variant in question is "turned off" by a subsequent VARIANT command). This, of course, is because these "hook-catching" code fragments are actually saved to disk as part of the object, and in a readable, reloadable form. This brings us full-circle, back to the first application of execfile which was discussed in this paper.


This paper briefly discussed the ways in which Python's interpreted nature, and its ability to execute auxiliary Python code at locations which are determined at runtime can be used to great advantage. Python offers a clean way of storing and retrieving data in a human- and machine-readable format, and Python enables the developer to write command or argument engines which can be made completely independent from the underlying implementations. This makes Python applications not only very easy to enhance but to maintain and support.

At the time of this writing, Manus Hand was a senior staff member and Senior Programmer with Denver-based Evolving Systems, Inc., a leading provider of software solutions for the telecommunications industry.