Python’s Innards: Introduction

2010/04/02 § 22 Comments

A friend once said to me: You know, to some people, C is just a bunch of macros that expand to assembly. It’s been years ago (smartasses: it was also before llvm, ok?), but the sentence stuck with me. Do Kernighan and Ritchie really look at a C program and see assembly code? Does Tim Berners-Lee surf the Web any differently than you and me? And what on earth did Keanu Reeves see when he looked at all of that funky green gibberish soup, anyway? No, seriously, what the heck did he see there?! Uhm, back to the program. Anyway, what does Python look like in Guido van Rossum‘s1 eyes?

This post marks the beginning of what should develop to a series on Python’s internals, I’m writing it since I believe that explaining something is the best way to grok it, and I’d very much like to be able to visualize more of Python’s ‘funky green gibberish soup’ as I read Python code. On the curriculum is mainly CPython, mainly py3k, mainly bytecode evaluation (I’m not a big compilation fan) – but practically everything around executing Python and Python-like code (Unladen Swallow, Jython, Cython, etc) might turn out to be fair game in this series. For the sake of brevity and my sanity, when I say Python, I mean CPython unless noted otherwise. I also assume a POSIX-like OS or (if and where it matters) Linux, unless otherwise noted. You should read this if you want to know how Python works. You should read this if you want to contribute to CPython. You should read this to find all the mistakes I’ll make and snicker at me behind me back or write snide comments. I realize it’s just your particular way to show affection.

I gather I’ll glean pretty much everything I write about from Python’s source or, occasionally, other fine materials (documentation, especially this and that, certain PyCon lectures, searching python-dev, etc). Everything is out there, but I do hope my efforts at putting it all in one place to which you can RSS-subscribe will make your journey easier. I assume the reader knows some C, some OS theory, a bit less than some assembly (any architecture), a bit more than some Python and has reasonable UNIX fitness (i.e., feels comfortable installing something from source). Don’t be afraid if you’re not reasonably conversant in one (or more) of these, but I can’t promise smooth sailing, either. Also, if you don’t have a working toolchain to do Python development, maybe you’d like to head over here and do as it says on the second paragraph (and onwards, as relevant).

Let’s start with something which I assume you already know, but I think is important, at least to the main way I understand… well, everything that I do understand. I look at it as if I’m looking at a machine. It’s easy in Python’s case, since Python relies on a Virtual Machine to do what it does (like many other interpreted languages). Be certain you understand “Virtual Machine” correctly in this context: think more like JVM and less like VirtualBox (very technically, they’re the same, but in the real world we usually differentiate these two kinds of VMs). I find it easiest to understand “Virtual Machine” literally – it’s a machine built from software. Your CPU is just a complex electronic machine which receives all input (machine code, data), it has a state (registers), and based on the input and its state it will output stuff (to RAM or a Bus), right? Well, CPython is a machine built from software components that has a state and processes instructions (different implementations may use rather different instructions). This software machine operates in the process hosting the Python interpreter. Keep this in mind; I like the machine metaphor (as I explain in minute details here).

That said, let’s start with a bird’s eye overview of what happens when you do this: $ python -c 'print("Hello, world!")'. Python’s binary is executed, the standard C library initialization which pretty much any process does happens and then the main function starts executing (see its source, ./Modules/python.c: main, which soon calls ./Modules/main.c: Py_Main). After some mundane initialization stuff (parse arguments, see if environment variables should affect behaviour, assess the situation of the standard streams and act accordingly, etc), ./Python/pythonrun.c: Py_Initialize is called. In many ways, this function is what ‘builds’ and assembles together the pieces needed to run the CPython machine and makes ‘a process’ into ‘a process with a Python interpreter in it’. Among other things, it creates two very important Python data-structures: the interpreter state and thread state. It also creates the built-in module sys and the module which hosts all builtins. At a later post(s) we will cover all these in depth.

With these in place, Python will do one of several things based on how it was executed. Roughly, it will either execute a string (the -c option), execute a module as an executable (the -m option), or execute a file (passed explicitly on the commandline or passed by the kernel when used as an interpreter for a script) or run its REPL loop (this is more a special case of the file to execute being an interactive device). In the case we’re currently following, it will execute a single string, since we invoked it with -c. To execute this single string, ./Python/pythonrun.c: PyRun_SimpleStringFlags is called. This function creates the __main__ namespace, which is ‘where’ our string will be executed (if you run $ python -c 'a=1; print(a)', where is a stored? in this namespace). After the namespace is created, the string is executed in it (or rather, interpreted or evaluated in it). To do that, you must first transform the string into something that machine can work on.

As I said, I’d rather not focus on the innards of Python’s parser/compiler at this time. I’m not a compilation expert, I’m not entirely interested in it, and as far as I know, Python doesn’t have significant Compiler-Fu beyond the basic CS compilation course. We’ll do a (very) fast overview of what goes on here, and may return to it later only to inspect visible CPython behaviour (see the global statement, which is said to affect parsing, for instance). So, the parser/compiler stage of PyRun_SimpleStringFlags goes largely like this: tokenize and create a Concrete Syntax Tree (CST) from the code, transorm the CST into an Abstract Syntax Tree (AST) and finally compile the AST into a code object using ./Python/ast.c: PyAST_FromNode. For now, think of the code object as a binary string of machine code that Python VM’s ‘machinary’ can operate on – so now we’re ready to do interpretation (again, evaluation in Python’s parlance).

We have an (almost) empty __main__, we have a code object, we want to evaluate it. Now what? Now this line: Python/pythonrun.c: run_mod, v = PyEval_EvalCode(co, globals, locals); does the trick. It receives a code object and a namespace for globals and for locals (in this case, both of them will be the newly created __main__ namespace), creates a frame object from these and executes it. You remember previously that I mentioned that Py_Initialize creates a thread state, and that we’ll talk about it later? Well, back to that for a bit: each Python thread is represented by its own thread state, which (among other things) points to the stack of currently executing frames. After the frame object is created and placed at the top of the thread state stack, it (or rather, the byte code pointed by it) is evaluated, opcode by opcode, by means of the (rather lengthy) ./Python/ceval.c: PyEval_EvalFrameEx.

PyEval_EvalFrameEx takes the frame, extracts opcode (and operands, if any, we’ll get to that) after opcode, and executes a short piece of C code matching the opcode. Let’s take a closer look at what these “opcodes” look like by disassembling a bit of compiled Python code:

>>> from dis import dis # ooh! a handy disassembly function!
>>> co = compile("spam = eggs - 1", "<string>", "exec")
>>> dis(co)
  1           0 LOAD_NAME                0 (eggs)
              3 LOAD_CONST               0 (1)
              6 BINARY_SUBTRACT     
              7 STORE_NAME               1 (spam)
             10 LOAD_CONST               1 (None)
             13 RETURN_VALUE        
>>> 

…even without knowing much about Python’s bytecode, this is reasonably readable. You “load” the name eggs (where do you load it from? where do you load it to? soon), and also load a constant value (1), then you do a “binary subtract” (what do you mean ‘binary’ in this context? between which operands?), and so on and so forth. As you might have guessed, the names are “loaded” from the globals and locals namespaces we’ve seen earlier, and they’re loaded onto an operand stack (not to be confused with the stack of running frames), which is exactly where the binary subtract will pop them from, subtract one from the other, and put the result back on that stack. “Binary subtract” just means this is a subtraction opcode that has two operands (hence it is “binary”, this is not to say the operands are binary numbers made of ’0′s and ’1′s).

You can go look at PyEval_EvalFrameEx at ./Python/ceval.c yourself, it’s not a small function by any means. For practical reasons I can’t paste too much code from there in here, but I will just paste the code that runs when a BINARY_SUBTRACT opcode is found, I think it really illustrates things:

        TARGET(BINARY_SUBTRACT)
            w = POP();
            v = TOP();
            x = PyNumber_Subtract(v, w);
            Py_DECREF(v);
            Py_DECREF(w);
            SET_TOP(x);
            if (x != NULL) DISPATCH();
            break;

…pop something, take the top (of the operand stack), call a C function called PyNumber_Subtract() on these things, do something we still don’t understand (but will in due time) called “Py_DECREF” on both, set the top of the stack to the result of the subtraction (overwriting the previous top) and then do something else we don’t understand if x is not null, which is to do a “DISPATCH”. So while we have some stuff we don’t understand, I think it’s very apparent how two numbers are subtracted in Python, at the lowest possible level. And it took us just about 1,500 words to reach here, too!

After the frame is executed and PyRun_SimpleStringFlags returns, the main function does some cleanup (notably, Py_Finalize, which we’ll discuss), the standard C library deinitialization stuff is done (atexit, et al), and the process exits.

I hope this gives us a “good enough” overview that we can later use as scaffolding on which, in later posts, we’ll hang the more specific discussions of various areas of Python. We have quite a few terms I promised to get back to: interpreter and thread state, namespaces, modules and builtins, code and frame objects as well as those DECREF and DISPATCH lines we didn’t understand inside BINARY_SUBTRACT‘s implementation. There’s also a very crucial ‘phantom’ term that we’ve danced around all over this article but didn’t call by name – objects. CPython’s object system is central to understanding how it works, and I reckon we’ll cover that – at length – in the next post of this series. Stay tuned.


1 Do note that this series isn’t endorsed nor affiliated with anyone unless explicitly stated. Also, note that though Python was initiated by Guido van Rossum, many people have contributed to it and to derivative projects over the years. I never checked with Guido nor with them, but I’m certain Python is no less clear to many of these contributors’ eyes than it is to Guido’s.

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