Tue 15 May 2012

Filed under code

Tags django functional metaprogramming genius

There is not a lot of documentation out there about Django's cached_property decorator, which is one worth using. Today I want to talk about what it does, how I discovered it, and explore how it works.

Let's get started with what it does and why you would use it. How often, in Python or Django, do you find yourself doing something like this:

class House():
    def color(self):
        if not getattr(self, '_color', None):
            self._color = load_color_from_db(self.id)
        return self._color

When objects have a method or property which is expensive to access (DB query, intensive calculation, etc.), it makes sense to only make the effort to retrieve the value once. This pattern allows you to access it subsequent times without paying the cost for any access past the first.

However, it's somewhat clunky, and adds a namespace-polluting attribute to your object, and — most of all — if you have several properties with the same issue, you will find yourself repeating yourself a lot. [1]


When I realized that this was a pattern worth abstracting, I wrote a cached_property decorator which looked something like this:

def cached_property(method):
     prop_name = '_{}'.format(method.__name__)
     def wrapped_func(self, *args, **kwargs):
         if not hasattr(self, prop_name):
             setattr(self, prop_name, method(self, *args, **kwargs))
         return getattr(self, prop_name)
     return property(wrapped_func)

Demonstrating its use: [2]

>>> class House():
...     @property
...     def color(self):
...         print "Accessing color"
...         return "blue"
...     @cached_property
...     def square_footage(self):
...         print "Accessing square footage"
...         return 1500
>>> h.color
Accessing color
>>> h.color  # Prints "Accessing color" each time you access the property
Accessing color
>>> h.square_footage
Accessing square footage
>>> h.square_footage  # Only prints message the first time


I was pretty proud of myself after having written this decorator. While I didn't like that it created extra attributes on my object, it replaced lots of clunky if blocks with a clean decorator.

I immediately resolved to go through some Django projects and add the decorator to all the objects I'd previously been using the first pattern on. At some point, I typed @cached_property and activated autoimport, [3] and what to my wondering eyes should appear but django.utils.functional.cached_property!

What is this!? Had my genius idea been pre-empted? I imported it into my project and tried it out and: in a word, yes. Its effect was precisely the same as that of my little handmade decorator. (You can test this for yourself by trying the console session above, replacing the decorator definition with from django.utils.functional import cached_property.)

Well, let's see if my version is any faster:

>>> timeit.timeit("""
... class House():
...     @cached_property
...     def color(self):
...         return 5
... """, setup="from django.utils.functional import cached_property")
>>> timeit.timeit("""
... class House():
...     @cached_property
...     def color(self):
...         return 5
... """, setup="""
... def cached_property(method):
...     prop_name = '_{}'.format(method.__name__)
...     def wrapped_func(self, *args, **kwargs):
...         if not hasattr(self, prop_name):
...             setattr(self, prop_name, method(self, *args, **kwargs))
...         return getattr(self, prop_name)
...     return property(wrapped_func)
... """)

I'm 75% slower; damn. Well, I've been thoroughly outprogrammed here — all that's left is to look at the Django code and see how they implemented this.

Django Knows

The code for this decorator is at https://github.com/django/django/blob/2456ffa42c33d63b54579eae0f5b9cf2a8cd3714/django/utils/functional.py#L38-50 and is reproduced below. [4]

class cached_property(object):
    Decorator that converts a method with a single self argument into a
    property cached on the instance.
    def __init__(self, func):
        self.func = func

    def __get__(self, instance, type=None):
        if instance is None:
            return self
        res = instance.__dict__[self.func.__name__] = self.func(instance)
        return res

Remarkably simple for what it does. It is a class-based decorator rather than a more familiar function-based one. In addition to allowing it to keep state, this allows it to do something extremely clever and audacious at the expense of extensibility. Let's go through it briefly, using the following code as a concrete example.

class House(object):
    def color(self):
        return "blue"
  1. __init__

    The __init__ method of a class-based decorator is called when its decorated function is defined (in this case at class definition time), with its only argument besides the omnipresent self being the decorated function. The cached_property decorator class simply stores this function (a method, in this case) for future reference. Important for the next item is that at this point, House.color is a cached_property object instance.

  2. __get__

    Those of you who use class-based decorators are probably more familiar with implementing the decoration logic in the __call__ method. This is where the genius comes in: if h is a House instance, at the time the h.color attribute is accessed, if it points to an object like the current cached_property instance, Python calls the special __get__() descriptor method of that object. (This object's class is in fact referred to as a descriptor class in the docs, and the containing class (House in this case) as the owner class.)

    The arguments to __get__() are as follows:

    • self, the current cached_property instance, on which the original method is stored as self.func
    • instance, the instance of the owner class — in this case h. This is essentially a second self argument, with the instance in this case being the one we actually care about.
    • type, the class type of the owner class — in this case House.

    With this in mind, look at what __get__() does. Ignore the if block for now and let's focus on the next line, starting from the right and going left.

    1. self.func(instance)

      calls the original (decorated) method which was cached as self.func under this cached_property instance at definition time. The instance argument it passes is the House instance which color was referenced from. Normally, when you call an instance method, this first argument would be named self.

      See where this is going? self.func(instance) is the same as calling h.color() (or House.color(h)) if you hadn't decorated the method at all.

    2. instance.__dict__[self.func.__name__]

      is where the magic happens. It asks self.func what its __name__ is (in this case color), then uses the instance's __dict__ attribute to replace itself with a property consisting of the value calculated in step 1. In other words, before this statement is executed, h.color refers to a cached_property instance. After it is executed, h.color refers to the string "blue". What this instance is doing, at the very time it's being accessed, is replacing itself with the value calculated by the decorated method.

    3. res = ...

      It's all over now but for the cleanup. The calculated value is passed to a temporary variable which is then return ed so that this invocation of cached_property.__get__() (accessed via h.color) returns the value ("blue") which is now stored as the property h.color.

    So that's cached_property.__get__(), which selflessly overwrites its containing instance with a dumb value. Once out of the scope of this function, the cached_property instance is no longer referred to and can be garbage-collected.

  3. if instance is None: return self

    Briefly on this: this is relevant when the color attribute is accessed via the class instead of an instance, e.g. House.color instead of h.color. It simply returns the cached_property instance itself. This isn't all that useful to the user, and I assume it's just done to avoid a TypeError when the cached function would otherwise be called with a None instance. [5]

So that's what some brilliant mind on the Django team came up with. Being able to "monkeypatch" attributes and properties is one of the benefits of any dynamic language, but seldom have I seen it used so audaciously. It also shows the power of Python's double-underscore descriptors, which continue to amaze me in what they are capable of.

Now that I'm done gushing, one note about this decorator is that it will only work for object methods, not pure functions. Can you tell why? This is one downside of this method over the function-based decorator — that one could fairly easily be extended to work on any function. However, it would be just as easy to write a module-level version of this decorator.

Wrapping Up

The links above on class-based decorators and Python's descriptor methods are both worth reading in their entirety. Both helped me understand what was going on in Django's cached_property definition, especially understanding the double level of indirection (i.e., inside cached_property.__get__(), self represents the cached_property object whereas instance represents the object whose method it's decorating) and the use of __get__ instead of the more familiar __call__.

If you read this far, thanks! Comments and corrections are always appreciated.


[1]I initially typed "if you have several properties with this same property." Talk about repeating yourself repeating yourself.
[2]Note that if you try this example in an IDE or console with autocomplete, you may find it printing the "Accessing" messages as soon as you have typed h.. This is because your console is accessing the properties as it tries to inspect which properties/methods are on the object in order to bring up the autocomplete options. You can test this by copy/pasting "h.color" which gives it no time to autocomplete.
[3]Ctrl + Shift + O in Eclipse, Alt + Enter while on the unimported name in IDEA. Of course you knew this already, but for those who didn't: you're welcome.
[4]Updated 7/25/13 to reflect changes in Django codebase — Django 1.4.0, about which I originally wrote this article, did not have the if instance is None check.
[5]A side effect of this is that if you implemented a __call__ method on cached_property which simply returned self.func(instance), you could then use House.color(h) as a way to get the value via a function call instead of attribute access. This isn't much more than a parlor trick though.

This Is The Title Of This Page © Eric Plumb

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