Python Code linting… just for code?

At the time of writing code, each developer can be considered as a software crafter. There are as many ways of doing things as developers exist, each one doing their best based on background experience.

When thinking on personal projects, following coding standards may not seem important even though it is. But in the scope of teams, the need of uniformity applied to coding standards arises. This uniformity shall apply on everything resulting from the whole team works, including the source code.


Coding standards

Coding standards exist for almost every programming language. Their purpose is to suggest a set of rules aimed at improving the code structure. Every organization, from teams to entire companies, has the choice of adopting a given coding standard either totally or just a subset.

Why following guidelines?

When adopting coding standards, every software project gains in the following aspects:

  • Increases readability. As a developer, one of the key insights is that code is read much more than it is written. So the more readable a source code piece is, the better and easier for potential readers.
  • Improves maintainability. So, an easier to read code leads to a more maintainable, as every teammate feels capable of changing parts of the code without feeling he may potentially break other parts of the software. It is true that tests are there to help avoid this scenario, but readable code invites starting to apply changes.
  • Helps code reusing. Developers love good APIs, especially when they have to integrate another software product as part of their final product. Good APIs rely on well structured code and documentation, so there are no excuses in writing good code for reaching lovable products.

Guideline checks can be automated

Static code analysis (SCA) is the process of examining source code before a program is run. From this analysis, code weaknesses can be revealed. Code smells, potential vulnerabilities, and performance issues among others can be revealed from this task completion.

Static code analysis opposes regular tests execution, as the latter requires code execution to complete. Tests execution can be considered as Dynamic code analysis if using the same naming convention 😉

SCA is done based on a set of coding rules that requires no additional infrastructure but just a simple code parser. Code parsers are coding tools that process source code blocks available for every programming language, and so they can be automated for performing this analysis. At this point the concept of code linter arises.

A linter is a static code analysis tool used to flag programming errors, including bugs and stylistic errors. The linter term comes from an Unix utility that examined C language code.

Python guidelines

Python projects have lots of tools aimed at checking the code structure. Most of them are targeted at checking a set of rules defined in PEP8 proposal. Python Enhancement Proposals, mostly known as PEP, are the official mechanism for providing technical information on a given topic, including changes that result in new language features.


Introducing Python PEP8

As mentioned previously, PEP8 mentions a set of rules that can be applied towards obtaining a better structured code. Some of the recommendations described in PEP8 includes:

  • Source file encoding. It should always be utf-8.
  • The syntax of import statements. One single import statement per module.
  • The usage of spaces over tabs for indentation, using 4 space characters to start an indented block.
  • The maximum line length of 79 characters, which may seem insufficient for most developers.
  • The use of spaces around operators.
  • Naming conventions for classes, variables and modules.
  • … and many more!

As you can figure from this list, this document describes a set of recommendations from top level elements to details that applies over the source code artifacts.


PEP8 validation tools

From the rules described in the proposal, a set of tools have been created to ensure the code correctness. The most famous python linting tools are flake8, pylint and pyflakes. All of them allow configuring things like the set of rules that will be checked, and from a general point of view they are targeted at providing similar functionality. Furthermore, some of them such as flake8 and pylint offer extension capabilities through plugins.

These tools offer a similar usage interface. Usually they come with an entrypoint script that accepts optional arguments and requires a set of target files and directories to analyze. This interface helps integrate these tools into IDEs such as Visual Studio code and Pycharm, easing the task of writing well-structured code through visual facilities.


Docstring linting

Almost at the same time as PEP8, a similar proposal was published, focusing not on source code but on docstrings, labeled PEP257. In the scope of Python projects, docstrings are the way of documenting functions, classes and methods.

Docstrings are text blocks that document a segment of code. Unlike other documentation systems like Javadoc (for Java classes), docstrings remain as part of the source code tree, and so they are parsed when importing the module. This means that docstrings can be analyzed during Static code analysis, and so errors can be detected in the documentation itself.

Last but not least, here is another good thing about docstrings. Have you ever heard of the help function? It gives you information about a given function by simply providing it as an argument. Well, that function just extracts the docstring and shows it either in your Python interpreter!

Docstring styles

PEP257 specifies the docstring targets (modules, packages, classes, functions), what to expect from them, but not a specific format. At this point you can figure there are different docstring conventions :S

  • There is one style that is formally specified in PEP287. This style specifies a docstring style using reStructured text markup, just the same as used by Sphinx Documentation engine.
  • Google suggests another convention in its Python style guide.
  • Even numpy, one of the most famous Python modules, proposes its own docstring specification.

Fortunately, there are parser tools for a lot of docstrings conventions, so checking its correctness in terms of structure and API description can be performed by just including them into the project workspace.

As an example, the following code blocks show docstrings in the formats mentioned above.


Sphinx format

def get_services(self, uuids=None):
        """Returns a list of :class:`bluepy.blte.Service` objects representing
        the services offered by the device. This will perform Bluetooth service
        discovery if this has not already been done; otherwise it will return a
        cached list of services immediately..
        :param uuids: A list of string service UUIDs to be discovered,
            defaults to None
        :type uuids: list, optional
        :return: A list of the discovered :class:`bluepy.blte.Service` objects,
            which match the provided ``uuids``
        :rtype: list On Python 3.x, this returns a dictionary view object,
            not a list


Google format

def function_with_types_in_docstring(param1, param2):
    """Example function with types documented in the docstring.
    `PEP 484`_ type annotations are supported. If attribute, parameter, and
    return types are annotated according to `PEP 484`_, they do not need to be
    included in the docstring:
        param1 (int): The first parameter.
        param2 (str): The second parameter.
        bool: The return value. True for success, False otherwise.
    .. _PEP 484:


Numpy format

def function_with_types_in_docstring(param1, param2):
    """Example function with types documented in the docstring.

    `PEP 484`_ type annotations are supported. If attribute, parameter, and
    return types are annotated according to `PEP 484`_, they do not need to be
    included in the docstring:

    param1 : int
        The first parameter.
    param2 : str
        The second parameter.

        True if successful, False otherwise.

    .. _PEP 484:



Extended lint process. A practical approach

From this point we will focus on flake8 tool as it is the one we use in our daily coding tasks, but topics covered below are applicable to other linting tools.

We have mentioned two main elements that can be verified as part of the code analysis tasks:

  • The source code checks against PEP8 conventions.
  • Docstrings in a variety of styles.

Using flake8 we can cover the first item in the list. And docstrings verification can be done using plugins like flake8-docstring or darglint. These tools require specifying the docstring format and will process the docstring during flake8 script execution. No additional processing is required.

Both flake8 and darglint (this is the one we use) modules can be installed using pip, so they can be added as a development dependency in a requirements.txt file in the project code repository.

Code linting does not stop at source code or docstrings processing. There are lots of plugins available that provide opinionated checks aimed at improving code quality. You can find a list of flake8 plugins at this repository. Plus, custom plugins can be easily developed for flake8 in case none of those mentioned in this document fit your needs!

It’s in your hands

When writing code, working over conventions may help you reach better and more maintainable code. Fortunately, code check tools are available and can be easily integrated into your favorite IDE, or continuous integration pipelines.

We have no excuses to start writing better code. It’s a must!

MooD Team

The Model Operations and Online Deployment (MooD) Team -Roberto Costumero, Javier Molina, Sandra Saez and José Andrés Pizarro- focuses on the exploitation of Machine Learning models towards providing customer valuable solutions, fueled with tons of curiosity related to software development. We feel blessed to include Python language and tooling in our Swiss Army Knife! 😀

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