The with command and custom classes

Using the with command and developing classes that support it

by Aquiles Carattino February 02, 2019

There is a common pattern when programming that is opening a resource, doing something with it and closing it. This is what you normally do with a file, a network connection or a device. Python offers you a command to handle this pattern: the 'with' context manager. In this article, we are going to see how you can develop classes that follow the same pattern.

Quick Introduction to the With Command

If you would like to write a string to a file, you can do the following:

Python
f = open('My_File.txt', 'w')
f.write('This goes to the file\n')
f.close()

The lines above will create an empty file every time you run them and will write a line to it. When the program is done, it closes the file. If you would remove the last line, f.close, the program would have worked in the same way. However, errors sometimes arise and you would like to be sure that the file was closed and the data was saved. The lines above can be replaced by the following:

Python
with open('My_File.txt', 'w') as f:
    f.write('This is within a context manager\n')

The advantage of using the with command is not only that you type one line less to type, but it is also that if something would happen when you try to write, the file will be safely closed and the data will be written. The advantages may not be obvious for simple examples, but long-running programs in which a lot of data is generated will start to show issues if files are not closed correctly. Also, when you use resources other than files, such as network connections or hardware devices, you will also see that properly closing the resources is fundamental.

In practice, you can also think about the with command as doing the following:

Python
f = open('my_file.txt', 'w')
try:
    f.write('This is the first line\n')
except Exception as e:
    pass
f.close()
raise e

You can try to see what happens if you raise an exception after the write command. The data will be in your file and the file would have been correctly closed.

Custom Classes and With

Working with files and other resources is interesting, but more interesting would be to develop classes that can be used within a context manager. First, we need to understand the steps that form the creation of a class. First, let's start with the brute force approach, and we create a simple class:

Python
class SimpleClass:
    def simple_method(self):
        print('Simple Method')

    def finalize(self):
        print('Finalizing the Class')

That we can simply use like this:

Python
sc = SimpleClass()
sc.simple_method()
# Simple Method
sc.finalize(self)
# Finalizing the Class

This is not very enthusiastic, but it is a starting point. Let's try to use a context manager with our class:

Python
with SimpleClass() as sc:
    sc.simple_method()

We will face an issue, the error that appears on the screen should be:

Python
AttributeError: __enter__

This basically means that the brute force approach doesn't work with context managers, we need to work a bit more. Without going too much in circles, the with requires two methods of the so-called magic type: __enter__ and __exit__ that will be run at the beginning and at the end of the code block.

It is important to note that whatever is returned by __enter__ will be linked to the target of with, i.e. whatever variable we put after as. In the simplest of the possibilities, __enter__ returns the class itself, like this:

Python
class SimpleClass:
    def __enter__(self):
        return self

We also need to add an __exit__ method, which takes several arguments, not only self:

Python
def __exit__(self, exc_type, exc_val, exc_tb):

What you have to remember is that with takes care of catching any exceptions that may arise and all the information is passed to the exit method so you can decide what to do with them. Right now, the only thing we want to do is to call the finalize method. The complete code would look like this:

Python
class SimpleClass:
    def simple_method(self):
        print('Simple Method')

    def finalize(self):
        print('Finalizing the Class')

    def __exit__(self, exc_type, exc_val, exc_tb):
        self.finalize()

    def __enter__(self):
        return self

And you can use it like this:

Python
with SimpleClass() as sc:
    sc.simple_method()

Which will produce the following output:

Python
Simple Method
Finalizing the Class

This is exactly what we were expecting. You can go on and try to generate some exception in your code and see how the program handles it. You can also print the arguments passed in order to understand what you can do with them. For example, you can do the following in the exit method:

Python
def __exit__(self, exc_type, exc_val, exc_tb):
    self.finalize()
    print(exc_type)
    print(exc_val)
    print(exc_tb)

And then change the code you use to run it:

Python
with SimpleClass() as sc:
    sc.simple_method()
    raise Exception('This is an Exception')

Which will generate the following output:

Python
<class 'Exception'>
This is an Exception
<traceback object at 0x7fa88e46b588>

This is enough to make decisions based on the kind of information that the exception is providing. You can check the previous article on exceptions to have an idea of the kind of things you can accomplish.

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With and Constructors

In the simple class that we have seen earlier, we completely skipped the discussion of what happens when you have a constructor, i.e. the __init__ method is defined. So let's quickly try it. Let's make the SimpleClass print at each step:

Python
class SimpleClass:
    def __init__(self):
        print('Init')

    def simple_method(self):
        print('Simple Method')

    def finalize(self):
        print('Finalizing the Class')

    def __exit__(self, exc_type, exc_val, exc_tb):
        print('Exit')
        self.finalize()

    def __enter__(self):
        print('enter')
        return self

If you run it with the same code than before, the output that you would get is:

Python
Init
enter
Simple Method
Exit
Finalizing the Class

So, now you can see that first, you instantiate the class (the __init__ method is triggered) and only then the __enter__ is executed. This experimenting approach is very useful because you can already learn a lot without having to search online and go through endless tutorials.

Another important thing to note is that after the with block, the class is still available:

Python
with SimpleClass() as sc:
    sc.simple_method()
    # raise Exception('This is an Exception')

sc.simple_method()

The command only takes care of executing the exit method but does not force any garbage collection. This means that the object is still available after the with block. You can test that with files or serial communication and you will notice that if you try to use the same file handler it gives you an error:

Python
ValueError: I/O operation on closed file.

This means that the file handler is still available, but the resource was already closed.

Why Go to the Trouble

When we discuss this kind of topics, you always have to consider the two sides of a project. You are either using someone's code or you are developing code someone else will expand. In the first case, using a context manager ensures that you follow the pattern that the original developer intended. All the work for exception handling, resource freeing, etc. was already taken care of and all it takes you is one line of code. Therefore, if you are a user, the with can save you a lot of headaches and can speed your development.

If you are a developer, implementing two extra methods doesn't take that long and allows the user to employ a common syntax. If you later improve your code adding better error handling, resources administration, etc. the users of your code will receive those improvements automatically, without changing a single line of their code.

Does every class need to support the ``with``? Let's be realistic. Very few of the operations your program performs require access to resources that need to be closed. Network communication, device control, writing to files are some examples and probably you won't encounter many more. If you are a developer, you have to consider whether implementing the possibility of using context managers helps future users of your code.

Conclusions

The problem of focusing on very simple examples is that it makes it very hard to realize the true power of different patterns and why is it worth going through the trouble of implementing new methods, etc. The truth is that until you have a large and complex project in your hands, you won't really realize it.

The power of the context manager becomes apparent when your code is used by other people and your class has a clear cycle of opening and closing resources, such as would be the case of working with a file, a network connection or a device in the lab. The main advantage comes from the fact that you can implement complex ways of closing and handling exceptions but at the same time, you give the user a lot of freedom about what to do.

In the example above, the only thing that needs to be done is calling the finalize method, but we could make the exit more sophisticated in order to execute some verifications, exception handling, etc. However, if the user would like to have finer control, she can still use the direct methods.

Implementing two methods in order to allow the user to use the with and ensure that closing methods are executed, I believe, offsets the work of implementing them. If you want to see a real-world example, you can check how pyserial has implemented the __enter__ and __exit__ methods.

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