The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

Why Python Is Your Tooling Language of Choice

April 8, 2013

Python is, by far, the language of your choosing when you need to build a toolchain of utilities that interact with local systems, servers, other software, running processes, and generally all things outside of your application development.

I leave out application development because I still believe that when it comes to server-side application code that lives for exactly one user request, the best language is the one you are comfortable with. It may be Python, but it may also be Ruby, PHP, Scala, Erlang, Haskell, or one of those new-age sparkly languages such as Go or Rust.

Yet, as you dig deeper into forking processes, maintaining a running state, cleaning up after yourself (I’m talking about memory, I will assume that you bathe), and generally acting predictably, Python is, without a doubt, your chosen language.

Why? I’ll tell you why.

First off, Python, you’ve heard of it? I hope so. Python is interpreted but bytecode compiled, and runs in its own “virtual machine” or “virtual environment.” This gives it certain other advantages within the programming ecosystem but none of those are relevant to this conversation. It’s easy to learn (relatively speaking) and enforces its scoping and nesting through indentation rather than curly braces or parentheses. This generally leads to cleaner (looking) code.

So what makes Python a better tooling language? You can certainly write Python web applications, but they are probably not fundamentally any more efficient or maintainable than the spaghetti code you wrote in any of the other languages I mentioned above. Any application of sufficient size and age, regardless of the language, becomes a bit like the New York City Subway system… Layers of old and new tunnels, with homeless people living in some of them.

Setting aside for a moment PHP’s long-suffered garbage collection woes, many of which were resolved in at least the 5.3 release, and considering only language features themselves, the one thing that sets Python above the rest is the (somewhat new) subprocess module. Why is this awesome? Because shells suck.

Don’t get me wrong, I love shells. I’m in a shell right now and I prefer shells to almost everything else as a human being who needs to interact with computers. But when programs need to interact with one another, shells seriously suck.

You should first read this nice explanation by Stefan Karpinski, which is focused more on the “julia” language but uses Ruby examples: Shelling out sucks.

What it boils down to is that UNIX programs like to talk to each other through pipes, and the easiest way for anyone to create a pipe in any arbitrary language of their choosing is to wire them together using the shell environment, because the shell gives you these tools out-of-the-box. Unfortunately, there are plenty of ways that things can go Wrong(tm).

In contrast, Python’s subprocess module (which is now the only accepted method of interacting with external processes) can create the processes and wire up their pipes for you, without a shell in between. You can tell Python to use a shell, but it is strongly discouraged and in the majority of cases unnecessary.

If you have not had occasion to run afoul of spawning external programs and reading their output or passing them input… You probably need to do more hobby programming. That said, keep Python in mind, it will make your life a lot easier.