Blackhat and Defcon 2010

I’ve been in Vegas for what seems like forever attending Blackhat & Defcon. I’m completely worn out even though I’ve been going to bed sober and before midnight for the past two nights. Raging ’til four for a couple nights really does that to you.

Getting back to the point, it really looks like a lot of security folks love Python. There were a number of talks focusing on Python specifically and I didn’t notice any of them pointing out vulnerabilities in the language. In the talk on Offensive Python for Web Hackers, the presenters demonstrated a number of cool tools [Edit (August 2, 2010): like pywebfuzz] for testing web apps for vulnerabilities. However, I’ve been unable to find one of the tools — pywebfuzz — on google code where the presenter said it would be. Rich Smith’s talk on Reversing Python Bytecode was pretty interesting. Basically, it looks like companies selling closed source software by distributing .pyc files and doing some obfuscation aren’t doing enough.

Other talks of note were Jackpotting ATMs and Marco Slaviero’s Lifting the Fog (of memcached). If you have a memcached server that is not firewalled, fix it ASAP. That was one of the scariest and most interesting briefings.

Why You Should Be Using Pip and Virtualenv

In a previous post, I promised to write about Pip and Virtualenv and I’m now finally making good. Others have done this before, but I think I have a little to add. If you develop a Python module and you don’t test it with virtualenv, don’t make your next release until you do.

Configuring the environment

Virtualenv creates a Python environment that is segregated from your system wide Python installation. In this way, you can test your module without any external packages mucking up the result, add different versions of dependency packages and generally verify the exact set of requirements for your package.

To create the virtual environment:

This creates a directory testarea/ that contains directories for installing modules and a Python executable. Using the virtual environment:

Sourcing activate will set environment variables so that only modules installed under testarea/ are used. After setting up the environment, any desired packages can be installed (from pypi):

Packages can also be uninstalled, specific versions can be installed or packages can be installed from the file system, URLs or directly from source control:

Pip is worth using over easy_install for its uninstall capabilities alone, but I should mention that pip is actively maintained while setuptools is mostly dead.

When you’re done with the virtual environment, simply deactivate it:

Do it for the tests

Testing with virtualenv
While the segregated environment that virtualenv provides is extremely well suited to getting the correct environment up and running, it is just as well suited to testing your application under a variety of different package configurations. With pip and virtualenv, testing your application under three different versions of Django is a snap and it doesn’t affect your system environment in the slightest.

Dependencies made easy

My favorite feature of pip is the ability to create a requirements file based on a set of packages installed in your virtual environment (or your global site-packages). Creating a requirements file can be done automatically using the freeze command for pip:

Wsgiref will always appear in pip’s output. It is a standard library package that includes package metadata. The requirements file is used as follows:

The requirements file can be version controlled both to aid in installation and to capture the exact versions of your dependencies directly where they are used rather than after the fact in documentation that can easily become out of date. The requirements file can be used to rebuild a virtual environment or to deploy a virtual environment into the machine’s site-packages. Pip and virtualenv are exceptionally easy to use and there’s really no excuse for a Python packager not to use them.

Note: I’m working on a fairly large sized application for work. When it is finished, I will release a post-mortem that will also function as an update to my post about packaging and distributing.

Lessons Learned: Releasing A Django Application

As you may be aware, I released a Django application, RPC4Django, publicly a little while ago. This is what I learned.

Make It Easy

You efforts should be targeted at making adoption of your software as easy as possible. When developers look for a package that accomplishes a goal, they aren’t going to spend much time looking at any individual package. Usually a quick google search or a search in pypi and then they might spend a few minutes glancing at a package before moving on to the next one. There are a couple keys to making it easy:

  • Have easy documentation on installation, configuration and the license.
    This should be on both your webpage as well as on pypi. More on this later.
  • Give demo code or better yet, an actual demo.
    Quite often the one sentence summary on pypi (if you don’t provide a long description) is not sufficient to tell people why they should use your package.
  • List the package’s compatiblity.
    Considering very few packages are compatible between 2.5 and 3.0 or even 2.3 and 2.5, I’m very surprised by this. Nothing is more frustrating than thinking you’ve found what you need just to have installation (or worse, execution) fail.
Test Early and Test Often

When I released RPC4Django, it had a reasonable, but not great, unit tests with it. With the future releases, those improved significantly and a few more bugs were caught. Being able to quickly test python 2.4, 2.5 and 2.6 by having a fully built unit test suite was awesome. However, unit tests don’t catch everything. One bug that I did not catch for a while was a bug relating to how Django worked with mod_wsgi on Apache. No amount of unit testing or Django views testing (which is sort of a hybrid of unit and integration testing) would have caught this. It only got caught when the code was pushed to a production server.

Documentation Conundrums

Documentation usually requires keeping data in a number of places. Any project of considerable size has READMEs, a license file, HTML documentation, tutorials, a long description, class and module documentation, and more. There should be as few authoritative places for package information as possible. In the first version of RPC4Django, I rolled my own HTML documentation and and README basically told the user to read the real documentation. This solved the whole problem of duplicated documentation, but in a rather unenlightened way.

After reading more exhaustively about reST and looking at how other packages solve this problem, I found a better way. With reST, it is possible to include other documents like so:

What this allows for and what RPC4Django does now is to enable one document to be built of many documents. In this way, I keep the license in one file, the installation in another, the changelog in another and they all are included into my README which can be used to generate my HTML documentation.

If my project was even larger, I might do what both the Python project and the Django project do. They include reST documents in their source tree. These include walkthroughs, tutorials, introductions to classes and more. Sphinx, a python package built to document the python library itself, can create attractive documentation hierarchies directly from simple text documents (which are themselves human readable!). Python uses it for all of their documentation and the Django project uses it for basically the entire documentation section of their webpage — including tutorials. You wouldn’t know it since the pages are pretty attractive but they appear to be generated directly out of subversion on a nightly basis. This keeps all the documentation together and makes sure your website, HTML documentation and source documentation stay in sync.

Don’t Get Discouraged

Just because your package is now on pypi doesn’t mean people are going to flock to it and download it. I think I’ve put together a pretty solid and useful package but I have only a few downloaders and I haven’t gotten much feedback. I intend to power through and start a new project.

Packaging and Sharing Django Applications

When I packaged up the first version of rpc4django and sent it to the package index (pypi) with distutils, I thought I was doing everything right. I’d packaged my django application (if you’re unclear on applications vs. projects, see the terminology) in such a way that it could be used with a variety of projects and required almost no configuration to get off the ground. I filled out all the metadata in the distutils setup() function and I made sure that my package could be installed via easy_install. I even implemented a fix that I stole from Django’s to make sure the “install data” (including Django templates) get installed in the right place on the flawed Mac OS X versions of python. Little did I know, I was just getting started.

Easy Install

Easy install is a pretty convenient way to install packages and making your packages easier to install will make sure that they get installed more frequently by more users. Provided you have used distutils or setuptools for your python package and have a working, you should be able to easily upload your package to the python package index and install it with easy install. Where easy install doesn’t shine, however, is how it automatically creates .egg files out of packages.

Making eggs out of libraries seems like a great idea on paper, but when a Django application is packaged as an egg, the default TEMPLATE_LOADERS will not be able to load it. The additional loader django.template.loaders.eggs.load_template_source must be enabled. Easy install will only create an egg if setuptools “determines” that it can safely create it. Alternatively, the zip_safe setting can be set to False in the setuptools.setup() function. To make it easier on the users, making the easy install unpack all your templates (one day setup tools will identify Django apps) will require less configuration and get more users.

This issue, which I noticed after the first rpc4django release will be fixed in the next release in a few days.

Package Index (Pypi)

I got my module into pypi and then I realized that there’s a lot of issues that go with it. I made sure that setuptools/distutils summary and description were set, but until I read the somewhat erroneously named cheeseshop tutorial, I didn’t understand that pypi sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly steers people towards “better” packages.

Start with the distutils tutorial on distributing packages.This will show you what needs to go into the and how to register, which really is the first step. However, people browsing pypi can come across a well documented library with installation instructions and installers directly on the pypi page like setuptools, or they come across a listing that is little more than link to the package’s webpage. To get that pretty documentation, you have to spend a few minutes to learn reST and that has to be set into your long_description in To steal a good tip from setuptools, put the structured text in the README and read it into your


The last aspect for today has to do with searching for packages on pypi. When you search, the results are returned based on a “score”. At first, like other search engines, I thought this score might be some sort of relevance number related to the search. It isn’t. It is the cheesecake index. This score is based on the quality (Kwalitee) of the package [Edit: apparently the score is based on relevance and the score listed is not based on the cheesecake index]. If python install works with your package, it helps your score. If you have unit tests and a docs/ directory, you get some more points. If you get a good pylint score or your code complies with PEP8, you get some more.

Overall, it’s not a bad idea. Linting and pep8 and a changelog file don’t make a package great, but easy installation, good documentation and unit tests are probably pretty strongly correlated with a higher quality package.

Upcoming RPC4Django Release

By my own calculations, rpc4django-0.1.0 got about 54% of the cheesecake index and that merits the #7 spot when people search for “rpc”. Even before I knew about cheesecake, I was running pep8 and pylint and I’m pretty good about installation, documentation and unit testing. Expect improvements in the next version along with the following features (which will be in my CHANGELOG for an extra couple cheesecake points):

  • reST documentation instead of what I rolled myself
  • the rpc method summary could use some reST
  • fix my easy install problems with templates
  • package improvements, including to my pypi page
  • test compatibility with more systems and python versions — it looks good down to 2.4, but there are some unit test failures related to the way exceptions are presented with repr()
  • analyzing post data to see if it is json or xml to improve the dispatching library compatibility — it’ll still use content type if it is set properly
  • if I get a chance, I’ll add a javascript library that allows testing the methods directly from the method summary