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1.5 What's Python Not Good For?

To be fair again, some tasks are outside of Python's scope. Like all dynamic languages, Python (as currently implemented) isn't as fast or efficient as static, compiled languages like C. In many domains, the difference doesn't matter; for programs that spend most of their time interacting with users or transferring data over networks, Python is usually more than adequate to meet the performance needs of the entire application. But efficiency is still a priority in some domains.

Because it is interpreted today,[3] Python alone usually isn't the best tool for delivery of performance-critical components. Instead, computationally intensive operations can be implemented as compiled extensions to Python, and coded in a low-level language like C. Python can't be used as the sole implementation language for such components, but it works well as a frontend scripting interface to them.

[3] Python is "interpreted" in the same way that Java is: Python source code is automatically compiled (translated) to an intermediate form called "bytecode," which is then executed by the Python virtual machine (that is, the Python runtime system). This makes Python scripts more portable and faster than a pure interpreter that runs raw source code or trees. But it also makes Python slower than true compilers that translate source code to binary machine code for the local CPU. Keep in mind, though, that some of these details are specific to the standard Python implementation; the JPython (a.k.a. "Jython") port compiles Python scripts to Java bytecode, and the new C#/.NET port compiles Python scripts to binary .exe files. An optimizing Python compiler might make most of the performance cautions in this chapter invalid (we can hope).

For example, numerical programming and image processing support has been added to Python by combining optimized extensions with a Python language interface. In such a system, once the optimized extensions have been developed, most of the programming occurs at the higher-level Python scripting level. The net result is a numerical programming tool that's both efficient and easy to use.

Moreover, Python can still serve as a prototyping tool in such domains. Systems may be implemented in Python first, and later moved in whole or piecemeal to a language like C for delivery. C and Python have distinct strengths and roles; a hybrid approach, using C for compute-intensive modules, and Python for prototyping and frontend interfaces, can leverage the benefits of both.

In some sense, Python solves the efficiency/flexibility tradeoff by not solving it at all. It provides a language optimized for ease of use, along with tools needed to integrate with other languages. By combining components written in Python and compiled languages like C and C++, developers may select an appropriate mix of usability and performance for each particular application. While it's unlikely that it will ever be as fast as C, Python's speed of development is at least as important as C's speed of execution in most modern software projects.

On Truth in Advertising

In this book's conclusion we will return to some of the bigger ideas introduced in this chapter, after we've had a chance to study Python in action. I want to point out up front, though, that my background is in Computer Science, not marketing. I plan to be brutally honest in this book, both about Python's features and its downsides. Despite the fact that Python is one of the most easy-to-use programming languages ever created, there are indeed some pitfalls, which we will examine in this book.

Let's start now. Perhaps the biggest pitfall you should know about is this one: Python makes it incredibly easy to throw together a bad design quickly. It's a genuine problem. Because developing programs in Python is so simple and fast compared to traditional languages, it's easy to get wrapped up in the act of programming itself, and pay less attention to the problem you are really trying to solve.

In fact, Python can be downright seductive -- so much so that you may need to consciously resist the temptation to quickly implement a program in Python that works, and is arguably "cool," but leaves you as far from a maintainable implementation of your original conception as you were when you started. The natural delays built in to compiled language development -- fixing compiler error messages, linking libraries, and the like -- aren't there to apply the brakes in Python work.

This isn't necessarily all bad. In most cases, the early designs that you throw together fast are stepping stones to better designs that you later keep. But be warned: even with a rapid development language like Python, there is no substitute for brains -- it's always best to think before you start typing code. To date, at least, no computer programing language has managed to make intelligence obsolete.

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