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A brief history of a tiny part of the Internet.

Blackhole 1 — Blackhole as it was originally known — was written on Python 2.7, briefly supporting Python 2.6 for a time and also supporting early version of Python 3, PyPy 2 and PyPy 3. Built on top of Tornado, it was asynchronous in a fashion and — quite simply — worked.

The original prototype that became Blackhole was SimpleMTA — a prototype that was created quickly, to serve a very simple testing purpose that I had for it.

As I needed SimpleMTA to do more, I wrote Blackhole to accomplish that task. I’d been using Tornado a bit and wanted to experiment with it more. Building on top of Tornado created some oddities in how the program was designed and that always irked me.

Between the time of the last 1.8.X and the 2.0 release, I experimented with rewriting the program on top of various libraries. The most obvious of these was Twisted. I’ve always been a fan of Twisted but I don’t like theFormattingOfItsFunctionNames and — like too much of a good thing — callbacks can be bad for you.

Another experiment was built on top of the old asyncore and asynchat standard library modules. A branch of Blackhole 1.8 is indeed built and in working order built on top of these very modules. Although never merged and released in the wild.

Enter asyncio

Originating as Tulip and merged in to the Python standard library in Python 3.4, asyncio looked like a great module to achieve what I wanted to achieve and to force me to actually use Python 3.

With Python 3.5 came the async def declaration, the await expression and the async for statement.

Since Blackhole is a tool written by me, for me and exposed as a service, it made complete sense for me to jump-in-at-the-deep-end as it were and rewrite the entirety of the software specifically for Python 3.5.

Doing so meant I bypassed the need to use the @coroutine decorator and the yield from expression, instead using their 3.5 equivalents in async def and await respectively.

All I see are bytes

The trickest part for me was forcing myself to remember that the data passed to and from the socket in Python 3 are bytes.

That took a little while of constantly smashing my head in to my desk to realise and remember. If something didn’t work during development, it was always because I forgot to use .encode() or .decode().

Getting to grips with asyncio

I can honestly say that, with a little reading and checking out how some libraries like aiohttp work, I got to grips with the actual asyncio module pretty quickly.

I found using the async def and await syntax made it even easier for me to read and write the code, because I instantly knew how a function I’d written previously should work, simply by looking at it’s declaration. Something I have sometimes forgotten when passing callbacks all over the place.

Show me the code

So, let’s take a specific task and look at the code that handles it, written on top of asyncio in Python 3.5.

First up I’ll show the method that waits for data to be received on the socket.

async def wait(self):
    """
    Wait for data from the client.
    :returns: A line of received data.
    :rtype: :any:`str`
    .. note::
       Also handles client timeouts if they wait too long before sending
       data. -- https://blackhole.io/configuration-options.html#timeout
    """
    while not self.connection_closed:
        try:
            line = await asyncio.wait_for(self._reader.readline(),
                                          self.config.timeout,
                                          loop=self.loop)
        except asyncio.TimeoutError:
            await self.timeout()
            return None
        return line

This function waits for data to be received from a client and returns it once it’s been received.

async def wait(self):

The declaration of this function is different to how you’d write it for Python 3.4 or lower.

The equivalent of this declaration for Python 3.4 is as follows:

@coroutine
def wait(self):

Both ways declare that the function is an asynchronous coroutine.

while not self.connection_close:

This line does exactly what you’d expect, it runs the while loop until self.connection_closed does not equal False or until the loop is exited for another reason.

This simply allows the connection handler to have connection state and stop waiting for data if the connection is terminated elsewhere. Because the entire program is asynchronous, the connection state may get modified elsewhere while this method is still waiting for new data.

The try except block actually works with the while statement.

try:
    line = await asyncio.wait_for(self._reader.readline(),
                                  self.config.timeout,
                                  loop=self.loop)

It’s easier to explain the arguments of the wait_for method before anything else.

self._reader.readline() reads a line of data from a socket stream, self.config.timeout is the maximum time in seconds to wait for data, for the sake of this example, let’s call it 10 and finally loop=self.loop sets the event loop that the code executes on.

asyncio.wait_for creates an asynchronous task that waits for the self._reader.readline() future to complete or raises an asyncio.TimeoutError if the future does not complete within the time limit.

As a example.

await asyncio.wait_for(self._reader.readline(), 10)

Would wait for data for 10 seconds before raising a timeout error.

except asyncio.TimeoutError:
    await self.timeout()
    return None

How the exception is handled shows how the while statement is used. When a timeout exception is raised, part of the code that handles that in the self.timeout() method changes the connection_closed value.

And finally the data received is returned.

return line

Without going in to too much detail, below is the piece of code for handling a timeout and terminating a connection, setting connection_closed to exit all possibly running while loops.

async def timeout(self):
    """
    Timeout a client connection.
    Sends the 421 timeout message to the client and closes the connection.
    https://blackhole.io/configuration-options.html#timeout
    """
    await self.push(421, 'Timeout')
    await self.close()

async def close(self):
    """Close the connection from the client."""
    if self._writer:
        try:
            self.clients.remove(self._writer)
        except ValueError:
            pass
        self._writer.close()
        await self._writer.drain()
    self._connection_closed = True

lambda woes aka. use functools.partial

Later in the development of the new version of blackhole I added a feature called flags. These flags allow multiple listeners to be configured with different runtime parameters. i.e. bounce all emails received on port 587 while accepting all emails received on port 25.

These flags allow flexibility to control how email is handled on any specified port.

It was during development of this feature that I discovered using a lambda rather than a partial object from functools didn’t work quite how I was expecting it to.

The original piece of code iterated over each socket object and created an asyncio server object for that socket as below.

async def _start(self):
    """Create an asyncio 'server' for each socket."""
    for sock in self.socks:
        server = await self.loop.create_server(lambda: Smtp(self.clients),
                                               **sock)
        self.servers.append(server)

I wanted to change this code to pass in a set of flags that also belonged to that specific socket, as below.

async def _start(self):
    """Create an asyncio 'server' for each socket."""
    for sock in self.socks:
        flags = sock['flags']
        server = await self.loop.create_server(lambda: Smtp(self.clients,
                                                            flags=flags),
                                               **sock)
        self.servers.append(server)

Can you spot the problem?

When using a lambda in that context, creating an anonymous function to pass to the create_server method, I discovered the flag arguments were incorrect. In fact, none of the sockets had their correct flags set, they were being jumbled up instead of being used as expected.

I’m not sure why that’s the case and I never actually looked it up to find out why either. I knew the way to fix it was to use functools.partial and it’s also a nice, cleaner way to do it so I did.

async def _start(self):
    """Create an asyncio 'server' for each socket."""
    for sock in self.socks:
        flags = sock['flags']
        factory = functools.partial(Smtp, self.clients, flags=flags)
        server = await self.loop.create_server(factory, **sock)
        self.servers.append(server)

So is asyncio any good?

I’m going to roundup this article with this possibly loaded and difficult question.

Well, is it?

In my eyes, yes. I have to admit that this is the first time in a very long time — possibly ever — that I have fallen so head-over-heels in-love with a library or module.

I went from someone that didn’t use Python 3 and grudgingly added Python 3 support to libraries I’ve written, to someone that only uses Python 3.5 now.

I haven’t use asyncio with Python 3.4 and I probably never will, I like the 3.5-only syntax changes far too much to go backwards and start using the @coroutine decorator and yield from statement.

My only gripe is that currently STARTTLS is not supported. Hopefully that will arrive in the not-so-distant future and I understand why it’s currently not supported.

Kura

Anarchist. Pessimist. Bipolar. Hacker. Hyperpolyglot. Musician. Ex pro gamer. Cunt. They/Them.

Kura

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