plugins system: thoughts for an entry points replacement

This blog entry was inspired by the discussion I just had with Michael on IRC, as he just added plugins in unittest2.

Setuptools' entry points feature is hated and loved by developers. If you are not familiar with them, you can read this post from Armin.

Hated because when you install a project that contains entry points (let's call them plugins), they can be used in another application without letting you know. So basically if a plugin sucks, it can break another application just by being installed in your Python. And it's not easy to have an overview of what plugins are installed and potentially active.The worst is that projects that provide entry points, usually provide many other things. But if you want to deactivate the plugin, you have to remove the whole project... Note that plugins are not loaded at Python startup. What happens is that any application can iterate over the metadata of installed projects, looking for plugins, and eventually loading them if wanted.

Loved, because from a developer point of view you can have a new feature added in a program with no extra configuration at all. Take Nose. Thanks to entry points, it's dead easy to create a plugin for this test runner, and tell people to pip-install this new project. Zero config. Nice. Another great thing is that it's global to Python. Any application can consume any entry point. Entry points are implicit plugins I guess.

Distutils has a plugin system as well: you can add new commands by adding in distutils.cfg the path to the Python package containing the command. That's an explicit plugin system since the end-user has to configure it manually so Distutils uses it. Mercurial uses the same technique: activating a plugin is done in .hgrc. I would call these explicit plugins.

I think we can get the benefits of entry points without their caveats really simply. And provide a generic plugin system for all. Let's summarize what we want:
- being able to list all installed plugins for every Python application - being able to remove a plugin or deactivate it. Without being forced to uninstall the project that provided it - have a plugin automatically installed and activated when the project that provides it is installed

Here's how we can do. That's a brain dump, please give me some feedback !

Global plugin registry

Let's have a .python-plugins.cfg file in the user's home (and one global to Python. The user cfg is merged with the global one at startup, and overrides the values -- thanks Mongoose_Q for mentioning this on Twitter). It's a simple ini-like file like .hgrc, where each section represents a python application and a group name. A group is just a family of plugins. For instance 'commands' can be a group for the 'distutils' application. In this section, each line is a plugin, represented by a pointer to the module or class, followed by a label as the value.

Here's an example for a distutils 'i18n' command. It's a MyClass class, located in the foo package, in the bar module:
  [distutils:commands] = i18n

The link to the code comes first because some plugins could have no name:

  package.module:Class =

Accessing the registry

distutils can provide an API to read the file, iterate and load the plugins:
>>> from distutils2 import plugins

    >>> plugins.get('distutils', 'command')


    >>> plugins.get('distutils', 'command').next()

    <Plugin "i18n" at>

    >>> plugin = plugins.get('distutils', 'command').next()

    >>> plugin.load()    # gets the code and loads it

    <MyClass Instance>

Installing the plugins

Last, distutils could provide a mechanism to automatically register a plugin.

Projects could describe their plugins in their setup.cfg:

  distutils.commands.i18n =

Then distutils would automatically inject them at installation time in .python-plugins.cfg only if the end user agrees:
$ python install

  distutils has detected a "i18n" plugin for distutils:commands. Do you want to activate it (Y/n) ?