20.3 Other Server-Side Approaches

A CGI script runs as a new process each time a client requests it. Process startup time, interpreter initialization, connection to databases, and script initialization all add up to measurable overhead. On fast, modern server platforms, the overhead is bearable for light to moderate loads. On a busy server, CGI may not scale up well. Web servers support server-specific ways to reduce overhead, running scripts in processes that can serve for several hits rather than starting up a new CGI process per hit.

Microsoft's ASP (Active Server Pages) is a server extension leveraging a lower-level library, ISAPI, and Microsoft's COM technology. Most ASP pages are coded in the VBScript language, but ASP is language-independent. As the reptilian connection suggests, Python and ASP go very well together, as long as Python is installed with the platform-specific win32all extensions, specifically ActiveScripting. Many other server extensions are cross-platform, not tied to specific operating systems.

The popular content server framework Zope (http://www.zope.org) is a Python application. If you need advanced content management features, Zope should definitely be among the solutions you consider. However, Zope is a large, rich, powerful system, needing a full book of its own to do it justice. Therefore, I do not cover Zope further in this book.

20.3.1 FastCGI

FastCGI lets you write scripts similar to CGI scripts, yet use each process to handle multiple hits, either sequentially or simultaneously in separate threads. FastCGI is available for Apache and other free web servers, but at the time of this writing not for Microsoft IIS. See http://www.fastcgi.com for FastCGI overviews and details. Go to http://alldunn.com/python/fcgi.py for a pure Python interface to FastCGI, letting scripts exploit FastCGI if available and fall back to normal CGI otherwise.

20.3.2 LRWP

Long-Running Web Processes (LRWP) are currently available only for Xitami (see http://www.xitami.org). Go to http://alldunn.com/python/lrwp.py for a pure Python module (by Robin Dunn, the architect of LRWP) that lets scripts exploit LRWP if available and fall back to normal CGI otherwise. LRWP peer processes connect to the web server via sockets. The server can use any number of peers that offer the same service. The server uses simple round-robin scheduling among equivalent available peers. If a request arrives when all peers are busy, the web server queues the request until a peer is free. This simple, clean protocol makes it easy to load-balance service requests among any number of hosts connected to the server's host by a fast, trusted local area network. Robin Dunn's article about LRWP, at http://www.imatix.com/html/xitami/index12.htm, gives architectural details and C and Python examples of LRWP peers.

20.3.3 PyApache and mod_python

Apache's architecture is modular. Besides CGI and FastCGI, other modules support Python server-side scripting with Apache. Simple, lightweight PyApache (http://bel-epa.com/pyapache/) focuses on letting you use CGI-like scripts with low overhead. mod_python (http://www.modpython.org) affords fuller access to Apache internals, including the ability to write authentication scripts. Both modules support the classic, widespread Apache 1.3 and the newer Apache 2.0.

20.3.4 Webware

Webware for Python (http://webware.sf.net) is a highly modular collection of software components for Python server-side web scripting. You can code Python scripts according to different programming models, such as CGI scripts with added-value wrappers, servlets, or Python Server Pages (PSP), and run them under Webware. Webware, in turn, can interface to your web server in many ways, including CGI, FastCGI, mod_python, the specialized Apache module mod_webkit, and special interfaces for Microsoft IIS and AOLServer. Webware offers you a lot of flexibility in architecting, coding, and deploying your server-side Python web scripts.

Among the many ways that Webware offers for you to generate web pages, one that will often be of interest is templating (i.e., automatic insertion of Python-computed values and some control logic in nearly formed HTML scripts). Webware supports templating via PSP, but also, with more power and sharper separation between logic and presentation parts, via the Cheetah package, covered in Chapter 22.

20.3.5 Quixote

Quixote (http://www.mems-exchange.org/software/quixote/) is another framework for Python web applications that can interface to your web server via CGI, FastCGI, or mod_python. Quixote defines a new language, the Python Template Language (PTL), and an import hook that lets your Python application directly import PTL-coded modules.

Quixote's PTL is nearly the same as Python, but has a few extras that may be handy in web applications. For example, PTL keyword template defines functions returning string results, automatically called to respond to web requests, with expression statements taken as appending strings to the function's return value. For example, the PTL code:

template hw(  ):

is roughly the same as the following Python code:

def hw(  ):
    _result = []
    return ''.join(_result)

20.3.6 Custom Pure Python Servers

In Chapter 19, we saw that the standard Python library includes modules that implement web servers. You can subclass BaseHTTPServer and implement special-purpose web servers with little effort. Such special-purpose servers are useful in low-volume applications, but they may not scale up well to handle moderate to high server loads.

Modules asyncore and asynchat, also covered in Chapter 19, exhibit very different performance characteristics. The event-driven architecture of asynchat-based applications affords high scalability and performance, beating applications that use lower-level languages and traditional architectures (multiprocess or multithreading).

The Twisted package, also covered in Chapter 19, has the same performance advantages as asyncore, and supplies much richer functionality. With Twisted, you can program a web site at high levels of abstraction and still obtain superb scalability and performance.

    Part III: Python Library and Extension Modules