25. Context managers

Context managers allow you to allocate and release resources precisely when you want to. The most widely used example of context managers is the with statement. Suppose you have two related operations which you’d like to execute as a pair, with a block of code in between. Context managers allow you to do specifically that. For example:

with open('some_file', 'w') as opened_file:
    opened_file.write('Hola!')

The above code opens the file, writes some data to it and then closes it. If an error occurs while writing the data to the file, it tries to close it. The above code is equivalent to:

file = open('some_file', 'w')
try:
    file.write('Hola!')
finally:
    file.close()

While comparing it to the first example we can see that a lot of boilerplate code is eliminated just by using with. The main advantage of using a with statement is that it makes sure our file is closed without paying attention to how the nested block exits.

A common use case of context managers is locking and unlocking resources and closing opened files (as I have already showed you).

Let’s see how we can implement our own Context Manager. This would allow us to understand exactly what’s going on behind the scenes.

25.1. Implementing Context Manager as a Class:

At the very least a context manager has an __enter__ and __exit__ methods defined. Let’s make our own file opening Context Manager and learn the basics.

class File(object):
    def __init__(self, file_name, method):
        self.file_obj = open(file_name, method)
    def __enter__(self):
        return self.file_obj
    def __exit__(self, type, value, traceback):
        self.file_obj.close()

Just by defining __enter__ and __exit__ methods we can use it in a with statement. Let’s try:

with File('demo.txt', 'w') as opened_file:
    opened_file.write('Hola!')

Our __exit__ function accepts three arguments. They are required by every __exit__ method which is a part of a Context Manager class. Let’s talk about what happens under-the-hood.

  1. The with statement stores the __exit__ method of File class.
  2. It calls the __enter__ method of File class.
  3. __enter__ method opens the file and returns it.
  4. the opened file handle is passed to opened_file.
  5. we write to the file using .write()
  6. with statement calls the stored __exit__ method.
  7. the __exit__ method closes the file.

25.2. Handling exceptions

We did not talk about the type, value and traceback arguments of the __exit__ method. Between the 4th and 6th step, if an exception occurs, Python passes the type, value and traceback of the exception to the __exit__ method. It allows the __exit__ method to decide how to close the file and if any further steps are required. In our case we are not paying any attention to them.

What if our file object raises an exception? We might be trying to access a method on the file object which it does not supports. For instance:

with File('demo.txt', 'w') as opened_file:
    opened_file.undefined_function('Hola!')

Let’s list down the steps which are taken by the with statement when an error is encountered.

  1. It passes the type, value and traceback of the error to the __exit__ method.
  2. It allows the __exit__ method to handle the exception.
  3. If __exit__ returns True then the exception was gracefully handled.
  4. If anything else than True is returned by the __exit__ method then an exception is raised by the with statement.

In our case the __exit__ method returns None (when no return statement is encountered then the method returns None). Therefore, the with statement raises the exception.

Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 2, in <module>
AttributeError: 'file' object has no attribute 'undefined_function'

Let’s try handling the exception in the __exit__ method:

class File(object):
    def __init__(self, file_name, method):
        self.file_obj = open(file_name, method)
    def __enter__(self):
        return self.file_obj
    def __exit__(self, type, value, traceback):
        print("Exception has been handled")
        self.file_obj.close()
        return True

with File('demo.txt', 'w') as opened_file:
    opened_file.undefined_function()

# Output: Exception has been handled

Our __exit__ method returned True, therefore no exception was raised by the with statement.

This is not the only way to implement context managers. There is another way and we will be looking at it in this next section.

25.3. Implementing a Context Manager as a Generator

We can also implement Context Managers using decorators and generators. Python has a contextlib module for this very purpose. Instead of a class, we can implement a Context Manager using a generator function. Let’s see a basic, useless example:

from contextlib import contextmanager

@contextmanager
def open_file(name):
    f = open(name, 'w')
    yield f
    f.close()

Okay! This way of implementing Context Managers appears to be more intuitive and easy. However, this method requires some knowledge about generators, yield, and decorators. In this example we have not caught any exceptions which might occur. It works in mostly the same way as the previous method.

Let’s dissect this method a little.

  1. Python encounters the yield keyword. Due to this it creates a generator instead of a normal function.
  2. Due to the decoration, contextmanager is called with the function name (open_file) as it’s argument.
  3. The contextmanager function returns the generator wrapped by the GeneratorContextManager object.
  4. The GeneratorContextManager is assigned to the open_file function. Therefore, when we later call open_file function, we are actually calling the GeneratorContextManager object.

So now that we know all this, we can use the newly generated Context Manager like this:

with open_file('some_file') as f:
    f.write('hola!')