Musings on porting to python 3

13 Aug 2015

Musings on porting to python 3

Recently I saw a couple of talks at my local python meetup about porting to python 3. I wanted to describe my process for porting:

I already have some experience with this, I think I’ve probably ported a dozen or so open-source libraries, and some proprietary ones too. The most notable is pattern (although these changes are yet to make it upstream it works and the majority of the tests pass).

Andrey hit the nail on the head in his talk: futurize makes porting much easier (it removes much of the monotonous changes, e.g. print_function and absolute_import), support both python 2 and 3).

In this post I’m going to describe how I go about starting to port.

Aside: Reasons you might want to port (and support both 2 and 3):

  • OSs moving towards python3, python 3 “nearing” EOL.
  • Libraries are more frequently supporting both python 2 and python 3, you can too!
  • Once you’ve ported you can (if you like, and don’t mind dropping python2) use the (kick-ass) new features of python 3…
  • Writing code which runs on python 2 and 3 is quite easy, make it a habit to save future pain (even if some python 2 code remains).


I love Stage 1 (basically print statements, exception syntax changes), it works perfectly. This takes out a huge amount of the monotony of porting. The diff is usually pretty simple (print statements and the like).

Sanity check the diff and run the test suite (on python 2) and commit here.

The remaining changes are (mostly):

  • imports (e.g. SimpleHttp becomes http.server)
  • basestring, IntTypes etc. (usually this is pretty trivial)
  • unicode (this is the biggy)
  • implementation specific code (aka bugs ??) e.g. code which depends on order of dictionary iteration (these can be really doozies, but usually they are no tooo bad.
  • tabs and spaces (boo to not abiding by pep8; python 2 doesn’t care, python 3 will make you jog on). I like to use autopep8 --select=E101,E121.

Stage 2 deals with many of these, but I’m not such a fan. The changes can drastically change performance (and make some poor style/readability choices), for example**:

for i in map(f, lst)
# becomes
for i in list(map(f, lst))

In python 3 this creates an unnecessary intermediary list (O(N) space + time), as it does on python 2 (the list constructor creates a copy, neat huh?). These performance issues can add up quite easily when chaining.

** To be fair, potentially this is a bug in futurize…


An alternative is to do the “stage 2” yourself. So once I’ve used stage 1, fix the tabs and spaces I jump write it. Usually by running the tests and seeing what’s broken…

Most of the time the tests won’t even start as there is an import error. The first objective is to get all the tests running (and most likely failing) in python 3 (no syntax errors, all imports work, no NameErrors).

Tweaking imports

Check you’re using the latest library (see what doesn’t import).

import HttpServer

# becomes

    import http.server as server
except ImportError:
    import SimpleHTTPServer as server

Note: python 3 imports should always be first.

Then you have to go through your code and switch out references to SimpleHTTPServer, this is usually trivial.

Checkout the porting guide for equivalent imports.

Aside: I disagree with one comment there:

    from io import StringIO
except ImportError:
    from cStringIO import StringIO

is subtly different (on python 2.7) to

    from cStringIO import StringIO
except ImportError:
    from io import StringIO

with its handling of unicode/bytes. You should prefer the former even though it goes against the convention that python3 imports first (the exception to the rule).

After this stage you should be able to compile your code / get the tests running (they’ll still fail for sure).

basestring, IntTypes

If you decide to not to use six, basestring = (str, bytes) is all you need… Dive into python suggests simply using str but you may uncover bugs in your program when doing this (which may or may not be a good thing).

Often uses of these things are smells in code, and this can be an opportunity to make things “more pythonic” - by type-checking less.

However, if your codebase makes lots of use of basestring, unicode etc. consider using six. It’s just awful when every project reimplements compat… with a slightly different set of bugs!)

Implementation specific code

This is the worst. There’s no getting around thinking here.

It’s easy to write code which depends on CPython2 implementation details (outside the scope of the language specification).

One example of this which comes to mind is the ordering of sets/dictionaries. CPython2 orders lexigraphically-ish… if you passed in just ints or strings it would iterate in order.

This could be seen as tests which rely on this. I’ve seen this a few times which some internal datastructure was actually a list (produced by iterating over a dict).

This seems kinda crazy, and it’s not going to be found by a tool (IMO).

Run the tests see what breaks

Note: It’s important that throughout this process tests still pass in python2. That’s your baseline (it’s not completely broken).

I wrote a script which allows you extract, from the piped the output of nosetests, the next “hit list” of test failures (ordered by the ones which are seen the most freqently). The gist is available here.

The idea is to run nosetests (potentially with different arguments):

nosetests 2> nose_output.log

Note: The 2> here means that it’s the stderr which is being piped to the file.

Now when I run I see the most often reasons for failure.

331 NameError: name 'basestring' is not defined
  6 TypeError: 'int' object is not callable
  2 Error: In VirtualCamera()

In this case, I should look at where basestring needs to be defined (by looking at a specific traceback in nose_output.log). Maybe I’ll also try and fix the int object being callable.

Then I’ll rerun the tests (do the same thing over and over until I get a different result - the tests pass)!

rm nose_output.log
nosetests 2> nose_output.log

Perhaps I’m a sadist…

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