[Import-SIG] PEP 489: Redesigning extension module loading

Nick Coghlan ncoghlan at gmail.com
Sat Mar 21 09:17:27 CET 2015

On 21 March 2015 at 06:29, Stefan Behnel <stefan_ml at behnel.de> wrote:
> Petr Viktorin schrieb am 19.03.2015 um 14:37:
>> On 03/19/2015 11:31 AM, Stefan Behnel wrote:
>>> thanks for working on this. I added my comments inline.
>> Thanks for your comments, they're a nice reality check.
> Sorry if it was a bit too much. I didn't mean to shoot it down or so. I
> think we're on the right track, and the PEP will allow us to get a better
> idea of where we should be heading.
>> I'm feeling a bit like I and Nick misunderstood Cython requirements
>> somewhat, and concentrated on unimportant points (loading into pre-created
>> modules)
> You mean the split between Create and Exec? I think that's a very good and
> simple design. It gives the extension module full control over the module
> instance and its implementation (if it wants to), while leaving the core
> runtime full control over the basic setup of the module object's common API
> (__file__, __name__, etc.).
> Simple extension modules should be able to get away without implementing
> Create, so separating the two steps sounds better than requiring the module
> instantiation on user side and providing a callback into CPython to
> initialise it.
>> while ignoring important ones (fast access to module state).
> Yes, that *is* important. And I believe that a custom module (sub)type is a
> good way to achieve that, at least for Cython. For manually written
> modules, it might be easier to call PyModule_GetState().

Right, while I never really articulated it (not even to myself, let
alone to Petr), I think my underlying assumption was that Cython would
typically use Create+Exec for speed, but might offer a slower
Exec-only option to get a more "Python-like" module behaviour that
allowed Cython acceleration of directory, zipfile and package __main__
modules, along with other modules intended to be executed with the
"-m" switch.

One of the things I like about the PEP 489 design is that it should be
general enough that Cython itself can decide what it wants to do on
that front, without CPython needing to be aware of the details.

On the capsule side of things, I think it's good to facilitate that as
an alternative to having C extension modules link directly to each
other, but I'm not sure it makes sense to encourage it as a way for a
module to access its *own* state that can't readily be stored in a
Python dictionary as a normal Python object. So perhaps the patterns
to encourage here are:

* prefer only defining Exec, with state stored as Python objects in
the module globals
* if you need C level global state, then you need to define Create as
well and return a suitable object, such as a PyModule subclass, or the
result of calling PyModule_Create with m_size > 0 in PyModuleDef
* if you also need fast access to operations defined in other
extension modules, prefer reading and saving references to the
relevant capsule objects in Exec over direct C level linking at build

(Regarding that last point, we may want to some day consider exposing
suitable capsules for some C accelerated standard library modules,
like _decimal, rather than expanding the C API itself to cover those

>> You also pointed out interesting things we didn't think about too much
>> (non-ASCII names, multi-module extensions).
> I just mentioned what came to my mind. We should still try to keep the PEP
> focussed on the problem at hand, but having some idea of what else might
> lie ahead can help with design decisions.

I briefly looked into C level UTF-8 support when adding a Unicode
literal to the org() and chr() docs (I originally had it in the
docstring as well, and it was pointed out in review that that might
cause problems), and I'm not sure it's possible to sensibly support
arbitrary Unicode module names for extension modules while our
baseline assumption at the C level is C89 compatibility. We should
definitely aim to cope with the fact that extension module names
*might* contain arbitrary Unicode some day, even if we don't
officially support that yet.

I thought Brett actually implemented multi-module extension support a
while back (which this PEP would then inherit), but I can't find any
current evidence of that change, so either my recollection is wrong,
or my search skills are failing me :)

While looking for such evidence, I was also reminded of the fact that
https://docs.python.org/3/c-api/ is missing a reference section on how
extension module importing actually works - the only current
explanation is in the more tutorial style

That missing reference section is a docs gap that should likely be
fixed as part of these changes.

>> The "inittab" idea made me think of this:
>> An extension could export an array of PyModuleDef, which has all the needed
>> data for module creation and initialization:
> I remember discussing this on python-dev, it was one of the ideas in the
> original thread that lead to the Create-Exec proto-pep:
> http://thread.gmane.org/gmane.comp.python.devel/135764/focus=140986
> I think the main counter argument at the time was that there should be a
> way to control the module object instantiation. :)

It's an interesting notion - you could export the arguments to a call
to PyModule_Create (and/or PyModule_Create2, and/or a new different
function that accepts a different declaration API) and have an
entirely static module initialisation process in at least some cases.

It likely makes sense as a separate follow-on PEP for 3.6 though, as
it's a further simplification of a certain way of using Create+Exec,
and it's not clear just how you'd handle certain combinations of
values in the current PyModuleDef struct. PEP 489 currently deals with
that neatly by breaking out separate helper functions for initialising
the docstring and the module globals function table that can be called
from either Exec or Create as appropriate.

>> - m_name - for the "requested" name for the module (not necessarily what
>> it'll be loaded as), for identifying modules in multi-module extensions
>> - m_size - for requesting per-module C state)
>> - m_reload (currently unused) would be the exec function (called for
>> initialization and reload)
>> This would rule out completely custom module objects, but are those needed
>> anyway? A module can always replace itself in sys.modules if it needs extra
>> magic. Getting rid of Create entirely supports a lot of the other goals
>> (running user code in Create, pushing for subinterpreter support). And
>> things like module properties or callable modules are not possible in
>> source modules as well; perhaps those should be solved at a higher level.

I'd prefer not to guess at what might be useful in this space - the
fact that the Create hook design leaves it open to third party
experimentation is a feature, not a bug.

If particularly useful patterns emerge that we want to recommend to
new Python extension module authors, then we can standardise them at a
later date (just as the current PEP 489 design is designed to
standardise particular patterns in writing extension module Init

>> With this, you couldn't load extensions into arbitrary objects. But it
>> would be possible to load into pre-created modules, as long as they were
>> pre-created with the correct ModuleDef. It would probably be somewhat more
>> difficult to make runpy (or custom loading libraries) ­work with these
>> extension modules, but it should be possible.
>> Implementation-wise, having m_reload filled in from the start would help:
>> the PEP calls for looking up two entrypoints, and the lookup is relatively
>> expensive (judging by the amount of caching in current code).
>> It would also help with non-ASCII names, since the name is a string rather
>> than a C identifier. Entrypoint and file names would need some design to
>> make everything work. But before I go thinking about that: Does this seem
>> like a better direction than Create/Exec?
> It's still an alternative, I think. Nick objected to extending PyModuleDef
> because it's (obviously) part of the stable ABI. But we could instead
> export a new struct that *contains* a PyModuleDef, with additional callback
> functions like "new(spec)", as known from other extension types (tp_new).
> That would give us the Create() functionality (if set to non-NULL), or
> allow CPython to instantiate a regular module object (if set to NULL).
> With a magic version field at the top of the struct, this would also make
> it easy to extend in the future if we ever need more metadata or callbacks
> that we can't foresee now. Updating the version magic and appending to the
> struct is so much easier than writing a new PEP and redesigning the entire
> extension module init process again...
> So, yes, exporting a struct with module metadata and callbacks sounds like
> a very generic and straight forward interface to me.

Unless such an API is very carefully designed, it would be easy to
fall into the trap of creating an API along the lines of the way C
level extension class definitions were traditionally defined. That's a
pretty horrible user experience if you're defining them by hand, which
is why a lot of folks tend to cargo cult an existing class definition
(and fill in the pieces they need), or else let something like Cython,
SWIG or Boost deal with the problem for them. One of the biggest
hassles with using a static struct is that you end up with a lot of
cryptic padding to cover the slots you don't care about in order to
get to the slots you actually do care about.

The API design for defining types through the stable ABI
(https://www.python.org/dev/peps/pep-0384/#type-objects), which was
designed with the benefit of years of experience with the old
approach, is much nicer, as the NULL-terminated list of named slots
lets you only worry about the slots you care about, and the
interpreter takes care of everything else.

With the current design of PEP 489, the idea is that if you don't
really care about the module object, you just define Exec, and the
interpreter gives you a standard Python level module object. All your
global state still gets stored as Python objects, and you just get the
"C execution model with the Python data model" development experience
which is actually quite a nice environment to program in.

However, if you want straighforward access to the C *data* model at
runtime as well as its execution model, then you can define Create and
use the existing PyModule_Create APIs, or (as a new feature) a custom
module subclass or a completely custom type, to define how your module
state is stored.

That two level approach gives you all the same flexibility you have
today by defining a custom Init hook (and more), but also lets you opt
out of learning most of the details of the C data model if all you're
really after is faster low level manipulation of data stored in Python


Nick Coghlan   |   ncoghlan at gmail.com   |   Brisbane, Australia

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