Armin Ronacher's Thoughts and Writings

Dealing with the Python Import Blackbox

written on Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Turns out, this does not work reliably, in fact it will only work when packages are involved. I originally wrote the core for Flask extensions and it appeared to work, but I never verified that it works without extensions being involved. And in fact the module cleanup breaks it. Apparently Python does clean it up on module deallocation.

For a long time Python's import system was (although customizable) at the very core a black box. You could hook into some parts of it but others were hidden from you. On top of that the only signalling that the import system has is “here is your module, be happy” or “oh look, an import error”. Unfortunately Python's exceptions are an example of a stringly typed API, and one of the worst.

But one step after another. What's the actual problem of that black box. it works, right?

The Use Case

The problem arises when you start doing things and want to respond to errors. A good example are imports where you try to import something and if that fails you want to do something else. For instance you have a module name as a string and you want to try to import that. If that module does not exist (not if it fails to import!) you want to do something else. Django's middlewares for instance are defined as strings in the configuration module and if there is a typo you want to tell the users where the problem is.

If you import module A and if that does not exist you want to fall back to module B, you don't want to swallow the import error of module A since that one might have been a dependency that failed loading.

Consider you have a module called foo that depends on a module named bar. If foo does not exist you want to retry with simplefoo. This is what nearly everybody is doing:

    import foo
except ImportError:
    import simplefoo as foo

However if now foo is failing to import because bar is missing you get the import error “No module named simplefoo” even though the correct error would have been “No module named bar”.

The Problem

The problem is that Python does not provide you with information if the module was not found or failed to import. In theory you could build yourself something with the imp module that splits up finding and loading but there are a handful of problems with that:

  1. The Python import process is notoriously underspecified and exploited in various ways. Just because an importer says it finds a module it does not mean it can properly import it. For instance there are many finders that will tell you that find_module succeeded just to fail later with an error on load_module.
  2. The Python import machinery is complex and even with the new importlib module everything but easy to use. To replicate the logic that Python is applying to locate modules you need around 80 lines of code, even with importlib available.
  3. The import process is highly dynamic and there are various ways in which people can customize the importing, going beyond what is possible with regular import hooks by overriding __import__.

The second possibility that is actually in use sometimes is parsing the error message of the import error. This however is a lost cause because the error message is implementation defined and differs quite often. On top of that is the import machinery in Python a recursive process and gives very awkward results:

>>> import missing_module
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
ImportError: No module named missing_module

>>> import missing_package.missing_module
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
ImportError: No module named missing_package.missing_module

>>> import xml.missing_module
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
ImportError: No module named missing_module

As you can see, the error message does not even include the whole import path at all times. Sometimes the error message is something completely unrelated, sometimes the whole error message is just the module name. Sometimes it's “No module named %s”, sometimes the module name is on quotes. This is because various parts of the system can abort an import process and since this is customizable …

Import Process Details

The way imports work is that at a very early point an entry in sys.modules is created for the new module. When the module code is executed it will be executed in a frame where the globals of the frame are the dictionary of the module in sys.modules. As such this is valid in Python:

import sys
a_value = [1, 2, 3]
this = sys.modules[__name__]
assert a_value is this.a_value

Now in theory one could think that if an import fails we will have a partial entry in sys.modules left to introspect if the import failed at a later point. This however is usually not the case because on import errors caused by the actual importers an importer is required to remove the entry in sys.modules again so we don't have much luck there.

Consider this

import sys

# this works
this = sys.modules['fail_module']

# this fails
import missing_module

If we however attempt to access fail_module later it will be gone:

>>> import sys
>>> import fail_module
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
  File "", line 7, in <module>
    import missing_module
ImportError: No module named missing_module
>>> import sys
>>> 'fail_module' in sys.modules

Since we also can't replace sys.modules with a custom data structure where we get callbacks when things are inserted we have no chance there.


I had to solve this problem again yesterday when I worked on a way to get rid of namespace packages in Flask without pissing existing users off. I think I found something that works reliable enough where I don't want to shoot myself for writing the code.

The idea is that if you get an import error you don't only get an import error but also a traceback object if you want. And that traceback object has all the frames of the traceback linked to it. If you walk the traceback you can find out if at any point the module you attempted to import was involved. If that was the case, the module succeeded in loading and something that it did resulted in an import error.

Now obviously there are downsides of this approach, so let's go over them:

  1. It assumes that the module we import does not override __name__. Since that is a horrible idea anyways that's something we can ignore.
  2. It assumes that there will be at least one traceback frame originating from that module. This will not be the case if that module was a C module that dynamically imported another module. This however is negligible since this is on the one hand a very uncommon thing to do and secondly this comes with its own set of problems.
  3. It walks a traceback so your JIT will not be happy with that. On the other hand you should only import modules in non critical code paths anyways.

So how does the code look?

import sys

def import_module(module_name):
    except ImportError:
        exc_type, exc_value, tb_root = sys.exc_info()
        tb = tb_root
        while tb is not None:
            if tb.tb_frame.f_globals.get('__name__') == module_name:
                raise exc_type, exc_value, tb_root
            tb = tb.tb_next
        return None
    return sys.modules[module_name]

You can use it like this:

json = import_module('simplejson')
if json is None:
    json = import_module('json')
    if json is None:
        raise RuntimeError('Unable to find a json implementation')

Generally the implementation is straightforward. Try to import with __import__, if that fails get the current traceback and see if any of the frames originated in the module we tried to import. If that is the case, we reraise the exception with the original traceback, otherwise just return None to mark a missing module.

Since None has a special meaning in sys.modules which marks an import error we know that an imported module never is None and we can use this as return value to indicate a module that does not exist. If we would instead raise an exception we would have the very same problem again since exceptions bubble up and we don't know if someone would handle it. So raising something like ModuleNotFound instead of returning None would cause troubles if the module we import recursively imports something with import_module and does not handle the exception.

Why does it work?

Now you would think this only makes sense that it works, but it actually surprised me that it does. The reason it surprises me is that Python normally shuts down modules in a very weird way by setting all the values in the global dictionary to None. Since the actual modules is long gone when you get the import error you would think that the reference to the globals you have is full of Nones and the names would never be the module name.

To quote the documentation:

Starting with version 1.5, Python guarantees that globals whose name begins with a single underscore are deleted from their module before other globals are deleted; if no other references to such globals exist, this may help in assuring that imported modules are still available at the time when the __del__ method is called.

This however is only true when the module is shut down when the interpreter is shutting down, not when the module is garbage collected. And with that, the above hack works. If Python would do what the documentation says in the module destructor instead of the interpreter shutdown code our hack would not work.

Also this requires that a traceback object indeed still owns a reference to f_globals. Now if you look at the traceback output itself you will never see information that needs to be derived from the module global dictionary so it appears to be implementation specific functionality that is not guaranteed. However, and here is the catch. The import hook protocol also specifies that a module can inject __loader__ into the frame so that the source can be loaded from the __loader__ if the source is not based on the filesystem. And for this to work the globals have to be there. On top of that this also gives us confirmation that garbage collected modules must not clear out their globals with Nones or we would not be able to extract the sourcecode for certain import hooks when an import error occurs since the loader would be gone.

And with that, the above hack suddenly looks quite reasonable and supported again.

This entry was tagged import and python