March 2, 2021
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Is Stackless Python for You?

  • By Cameron Laird
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Python, of course, is the "interpreted, interactive, object-oriented programming language ... often compared to Tcl, Perl, Scheme or Java." That's what the official Python home page says. It's even more than that, in my view: I often recommend Python as the one essential language for most developers. It combines ease of learning, broad applicability, and expressive power better than any other single language, including C or BASIC.

It's been a bit hard to keep up with Python this year, though. The core team of Python developers has moved--changed employers--twice this year. This handful of top programmers around Python's inventor, Guido van Rossum, began the year at the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI) in Reston, Va., worked for several months at Pythonlabs.com, and now seems to have found a more permanent home at Digital Creations 2, Inc. in Fredericksburg, Va. Along the way, they've already managed to release Python versions 1.6 and 2.0, which differed more in licensing legalities than technical features.

The administrative dance has impaired the engineering progress little. Release 2.0 includes welcome enhancements in Unicode and XML support, list comprehensions and other syntactic improvements, proper recognition of HTTP 1.1, and much more.

What's Stackless Python?

All of this is only background, though, to Stackless Python. Stackless Python is a collection of surprisingly successful experiments at re-implementing specific parts of the standard Python language processor to give it new capabilities. From the outside, Stackless Python looks like standard Python, and does all the things standard Python does. It's a bit like upgrading the carburetor on the family sedan: you can still drive it to soccer practice and the grocery store as you always did--but now it's also a lot more comfortable to cruise on the interstate.

Stackless Python is Python, plus a bit more. The bit more comes in two parts: First, Stackless Python "runs smoother" because it makes more efficient use of (stack) memory and, in some cases, processing power. This means that it also has a deeper recursion limit, and is easier to fit in such memory-constrained models as the PalmOS. Second, Stackless Python makes new control structures available. Traditional Python has

, and
, along with a threading module. Different flavors of Stackless Python augment these with various combinations of co-expressions, co-routines, continuations, generators, iterators, microthreads, and other concurrency or co-processing operators.

So Who Needs Stackless Python?

If you're already a Python programmer, and you want to run under PalmOS, or you're bumping recursion limits, then of course you'll want to look into Stackless Python.

It's more challenging, but also more rewarding, to understand the value of Stackless Python's new control structures. Suppose, for example, you're one of the growing number of game programmers who embeds Python as an extension language for your application. Your game has a lot of action, and you'd like to expose the trajectories of hundreds of spaceships, ward bosses, centurions, and worker ants... simultaneously, as manageable objects. In base Python, it would be natural to implement that base class as a separate thread.

If you're working with Stackless Python, though, you can write your class with microthreads. Microthreads are lighter-weight than threads, and therefore more scalable. Working programmers are finding that modest applications written with even a couple dozen Python or Java threads congest themselves and become unresponsive. The same hardware and operating systems that choke on a small number of threads, however, can support hundreds of microthreads. Moreover, Stackless Python makes control state more amenable to persistence than base Python. The virtue of persistence has so far received relatively little attention from the current crowd of Stackless Python fans. Someday, though, this kind of persistence will make it a practical one-liner to save a game in the middle of operations, and later restore it. Moreover, a game might migrate through time from one processor to another, or even to a distributed assemblage of co-operating processors.

Programmers code multitasking and distributed (including "peer-to-peer", in the fashionable phrase) applications even with such cumbersome languages as C and Fortran. In that sense, Stackless Python brings nothing absolutely new. However, just as Python is a higher-level language than assembler or C, microthreads supply a valuable abstraction that's well suited to many problems in gaming, simulation, and high-performance networking.

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This article was originally published on December 6, 2000

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