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Python packages and plugins as namespace packages

A user of mkdocstrings wrote a Crystal handler for their own use-case. They asked on the Gitter channel if we could allow to load external handlers, so they don't have to fork the project and install the fork, but rather just install their lightweight package containing just the handler.

We both saw Python namespace packages as good candidates, so I experimented a bit, and here are my conclusions.

Based on the documentation, there are 3 ways of creating a Python namespace package:

  • native namespace packages
  • pkgutil-style namespace packages
  • pkg-resources-style namespace packages

I only considered the first two options (I'll let you read the docs to see why).

Native namespace packages¤

Native namespace packages are Python 3 compatible only. Good, I don't support Python 2 in my projects.

To write a native namespace package, you just have to do one thing: drop the __init__.py!

my_namespace_package/
    my_module_a.py

my_namespace_package/
    my_module_b.py

Install both packages and you will be able to import both my_module_a and my_module_b from my_namespace_package.

If you want to provide deeper modules, you will have to drop all __init__.py files along the way:

# main package
package/
    level1/
        level2/
            builtin_module.py
    subpackage/
        __init__.py
        sub.py
    a.py

# plugin
package/
    level1/
        level2/
            plugin_module.py

Notice how we don't have any __init__.py in package, level1 and level2. This is required for the plugin package to add modules there.

In this example, subpackage has an __init__.py file, it means that our plugin package could not add a module into it.

pkgutil-style namespace packages¤

The pkgutil way is compatible with Python 2 and Python 3. It allows to keep __init__.py modules.

# main package
package/
    __init__.py
    level1/
        __init__.py
        level2/
            __init__.py
            builtin_module.py

# plugin
package/
    __init__.py
    level1/
        __init__.py
        level2/
            __init__.py
            plugin_module.py

Each __init__.py must contain this code:

from pkgutil import extend_path
__path__ = extend_path(__path__, __name__)

Basically, it's a bit like the native way, except that you keep your __init__.py modules, but they must be identical across all packages!

The __init__.py modules of the plugin will overwrite the __init__.py modules of the main package. If they are not identical, things will break (mostly imports).

So, with the native way, you cannot write code in __init__.py because those modules must not exist, and with the pkgutil way you must not write code in __init__.py because you don't want to have users duplicate it in their own.

At this state, I prefer the native way, as it's less files to write.

What I would have liked¤

Maybe namespace packages are not the best option for plugins.

But I would have loved being able to write my main package normally, with __init__.py, and as much code in those as I want, and write the plugin package without any __init__.py, so as to "plug" (i.e. merge) additional modules into the main package:

# main package
package/
    __init__.py
    level1/
        __init__.py
        level2/
            __init__.py
            builtin_module.py

# plugin
package/
    level1/
        level2/
            plugin_module.py

The order of installation would not matter of course, as merging the main package into the plugin one, or the opposite, would result in the same final package on the disk:

# main package
package/
    __init__.py
    level1/
        __init__.py
        level2/
            __init__.py
            builtin_module.py
            plugin_module.py

The main package author doesn't even have to think about plugins and prepare the field by removing __init__.py where it is needed. Instead, they just write their package normally.

Then users can write a namespace package, mimicking the main package structure, but without __init__.py files, and BOOM, they successfully wrote a plugin!

Native namespace packages look like they are trying to be implicit, but in my taste they are still not implicit enough.

Also, merging namespace packages into packages of the same name would allow easy patching of projects! Something not quite working like you want to? Quickly create a namespace package with just the patched module, and list it as a dependency.

What do you use to allow plugins in your Python projects 🙂?