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Python Readonly Attributes: Complete Solution

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31 Jan 2018MIT8 min read 25.6K   2  
Reliable solution does the trick: it does not depend on any naming conventions, works for both Python 2 and 3 and offers clear and concise usage syntax



This solution is based on the small code sample by rIZenAShes found on GitHub, which demonstrates quite interesting ideas.

As to the code, I found it, by far, not satisfactory. First, it is only compatible with Python 2, not 3. Worse, it is based on some naming conventions. The attributes to be exposed are marked by leading underscore, which is removed be the metaclass for exposed read-only properties. The present solution is compatible with both lines of Python versions and offers clear and concise syntax.

So, what’s the big deal?

Implementing read-only attributes is fairly easy:

class Meta(type):
    def RO(self):
        return 13

class DefinitionSet(Meta(str(), (), {})):
    greetings = "Hello!"
    myNameFormat = "My name is {}."
    durationSeconds = 3.5
    color = { "opacity": 0.7, "wavelength": 400 }
    def RO(self):
        return 14
    def __init__(self):
        self.greetings = "Hello again!"
        self.myNameFormat = "Let me introduce myself. My name is {}."
        self.durationSeconds = 3.6
        self.color = { "opacity": 0.8, "wavelength": 410 }

instance = DefinitionSet()
# instance.RO and DefinitionSet.RO are two different
# read-only attributes

In this code sample, instance.RO behaves as an instance attribute and DefinitionSet.RO — as a class attribute; they are introduced as read-only properties.

Note certain inconvenience in development: while in usage such property is used as a peer of some “regular” attributes (for example, instance.RO vs. instance.color), it is set up on an upper level, the level of the object type. For instance, this is instance type, type(instance) == DefinitionSet; for DefinitionSet, this is its metaclass, type(DefinitionSet) == Meta. (Not so obvious way of setting up a metaclass for DefinitionSet, through inheritance is shown; this is done for the sole purpose of showing equivalent code for Python 2 and 3, see below.)

Definition of read-only class properties looks a bit more complicated than in case of instance properties: with instances, the description at least can be placed in almost one place (compare DefinitionSet.RO and self.greetings in __init__). For a class attribute, the property definition should be placed in a separate class (Meta in our sample).

Now, the problem is alleviated with the small device, @property decorator, which can be considered as kind of syntactic sugar. If we wanted to start ab ovo, we would show mode fundamental use of descriptors, based on __get__, as it is described in documentation for Python 2 and Python 3.

So, can we create syntactic sugar sweeter than that, shorter, more clear and concise? Would it make any practical sense?

The answer depends on our usage of class attributes, as turning them into read-only properties looks more confusing and less clear.

Why Class Attributes?

Class attributes have many uses, but I want to illustrate their importance on one simple use case: definition sets. Let’s say we need to define some strings and integer constants. It’s a good idea to put all of them in one place, to avoid using immediately defined magic numbers or magic string anywhere else.

Let’s, for a minute, forget about read-only properties and simply compare two options:

# using class attributes:
class DefinitionSet:
    greetings = "Hello!"
    myNameFormat = "My name is {}."
    durationSeconds = 3.5
    color = { "opacity": 0.7, "wavelength": 400 }

print (DefinitionSet.durationSeconds)


# using instance attributes:
class DefinitionSet:
    def __init__(self):
        self.greetings = "Hello!"
        self.myNameFormat = "My name is {}."
        self.durationSeconds = 3.5
        self.color = { "opacity": 0.7, "wavelength": 400 }
definitionSet = DefinitionSet()

print (definitionSet.durationSeconds)

It is apparent that the option with class attribute is shorter and more convenient. Normally, the instance is needed only if we need more than one instance, but in this case even more boring part would be passing values as __init__ arguments. For a single set of definitions it would be totally pointless.

Solution for Class Attributes: Usage

First, let’s see how it can be used:

class Foo(ReadonlyBase):
    bar = 100
    test = Readonly.Attribute(13)

print(" " + str( += 1
print("Modified " + str(
print("Foo.test: " + str(Foo.test))
    Foo.test = Foo.test + 1 # will raise exception
except Exception:
    print ("Cannot set attribute Foo.test")

Here, the attribute test is just marked with the assignment using Readonly.Attribute; the desired constant value of any type is moved to an actual argument of the call. The object Attribute is the inner class of the class Readonly; the whole line is the call to its constructor and assignment.

Here is the idea: the entire trick is performed by the metaclass: if the attribute is assigned to a Readonly.Attribute object, instantiation of the class object removes this attributes and creates matching read-only property exposed by another metaclass. It may sounds tricky, but… it is really pretty tricky. Below, we can see how it works.

In fact, ReadonlyBase base class does not have to be used. It is shown in this code sample due to different syntax of Python 2 and Python 3. The class Foo could directly setup its metaclass, without any base classes. The only problem is the different syntax. Let’s consider this unpleasant Python problem and its work-around.

Unification of Python 2 and 3 in the Demo

The usage sample shown above lacks the definition of the class ReadonlyBase. Without this class, the class Foo could be created directly from the class Readonly used as its metaclass, using the following syntax:

# Python 2.*.*:
class Foo(object, metaclass = Readonly):
    # ...
# Python 3.*.*:    
class Foo(object):
    __metaclass__ = Readonly
    # ...

Alternatively, the base class ReadonlyBase could have been created in the same way. Instead, the file “” uses creation of an equivalent class object using metaprogramming approach:

ReadonlyBase = Readonly(str(), (), {})

This piece of code is compatible with both lines of Python versions. To understand how it works, it’s enough to know that a metaclass is just a class derived (directly or indirectly) from the class type. The call to its constructor creates an object which is a class: it has all the properties of a class and can be used as a class, and possibly, depending on the second parameter (bases), as a metaclass.

At this point, the usage is explained. Now, it’s time to show how the metaclass Readonly turns the class attributes marked by the assignment into read-only properties.

How it Works?

This is the entire solution:

class Readonly(type):

    class Attribute(object):
        def __init__(self, value):
            self.value = value
    def __new__(metaclass, classname, bases, classdict):
        class NewMetaclass(metaclass):
            attributeContainer = {}
        def getAttrFromMetaclass(attr):
            return lambda cls: type(cls).attributeContainer[attr]
        clone = dict(classdict)
        for name, value in clone.items():
            if not isinstance(value, metaclass.Attribute):
            getattr(NewMetaclass, DefinitionSet.attributeContainerName)[name] = value.value
            aProperty = property(getAttrFromMetaclass(name))
            setattr(NewMetaclass, name, aProperty)
            classdict[name] = aProperty
            classdict.pop(name, None)               
        return type.__new__(NewMetaclass, classname, bases, classdict)

It is easy to show but harder to explain.

First of all, for all classes using Readonly as a metaclass, this metaclass is used only for the instantiation of a class object. At the moment of instantiation, the class object is created with a different metaclass named NewMetaclass, individual instance for each class instance. It is called “New” because it is ultimately used in the call type.__new__(NewMetaclass, classname, bases, classdict).

Each instance of NewMetaclass is different. First of all, it is used as a container of all instances of the class Readonly.Attribute to be used by the class being initialized. Second of all, it is used as a container of some properties each named exactly as original class attribute to be re-worked into a read-only property.

When the original set of attributes of the class is traversed, the Readonly.Attribute instances are created and placed in the dictionary NewMetaclass.attributeContainer. For each such attribute, the property object is created using the constructor property(). For each distinct attribute name, such property is initialized with lambda expression generated based in the name, returning the value retrieved from attributeContainer.

During these manipulations, original class dictionary passed to type._new_ if modified to remove original wanna-be-read-only class attributes. Before the traversal, the dictionary is cloned, otherwise we could face exception (in case of Python 3) caused by the attempt of modification of a dictionary being iterated.

Isn’t that quite enough? No. We can make one big step further.

What to Do with Instance Attributes?

Can the same mechanism be used for instance attributes, too?

Perhaps we would not bother if we needed only instance attributes and not class attributes. But when the mechanism of using Readonly.Attribute is already available, it would be more natural to have more concise and uniform look for both class and instance attributes:

class Foo(ReadonlyBase): # or make Readonly a metaclass of Foo, see above
    bar = 100
    test = Readonly.Attribute(13)
    def __init__(self):
        self.a = 1
        self.b = Readonly.Attribute(3.14159)

So, how to achieve similar read-only effect on the instance attributes, such as b? This is shown below.

Generalized Solution

Surprisingly, applying the similar technique to instance attribute appears much trickier than with class attributes.

The major problem here is working with several instances of the class. Implementation of a property, read-only or not, require modification of the instance class. It can be easily done in the __new__ method of the metaclass, but it would work only on one instantiation of this class. On the attempt of creating of the second instance, a constructor assigning Readonly.Attribute to the same attribute will fail, because the modified class already made to provide read-only functionality for this attribute. Therefore, we come to the situation when we need to create a separate class for each instance.

The real trick is to inject a hook in the class constructor, which is done via the call to type.__call__ in the body of the method __call__ of the metaclass.

When this call creates an instance, we need another instance of the class created dynamically. This new instance, newInstance, is created from the dynamically-created class NewClass without a constructor. Now, using two instances and two classes, new and old ones, we can manipulate instance attributes to distribute them between newInstance — for read-write instance attributes and NewClass — for read-only properties replacing instance attributes:

class DefinitionSet:
    attributeContainerName = "."

class Readonly(type):

    class Attribute(object):
        def __init__(self, value):
            self.value = value

    def Base(cls): # base class with access control of class attribute
        return Readonly(str(), (), {})
    def __new__(metaclass, className, bases, classDictionary):
        def getAttrFromClass(attr):
            return lambda cls: getattr(type(cls), DefinitionSet.attributeContainerName)[attr]
        class NewMetaclass(metaclass):
            setattr(metaclass, DefinitionSet.attributeContainerName, {})
            def __call__(cls, *args, **kwargs):
                instance = type.__call__(cls, *args, **kwargs)
                newClass = metaclass(cls.__name__, cls.__bases__, {})
                newInstance = type.__call__(newClass)
                setattr(newClass, DefinitionSet.attributeContainerName, {})
                names = dir(instance)
                for name in names:
                    if hasattr(cls, name):
                    value = getattr(instance, name)
                    if isinstance(value, metaclass.Attribute):
                        if hasattr(newInstance, name):
                            delattr(newInstance, name)
                            DefinitionSet.attributeContainerName)[name] = value.value
                        aProperty = property(getAttrFromClass(name))
                        setattr(newClass, name, aProperty)
                        setattr(newInstance, name, getattr(instance, name))
                return newInstance
        clone = dict(classDictionary)
        for name, value in clone.items():
            if not isinstance(value, metaclass.Attribute):
            getattr(NewMetaclass, DefinitionSet.attributeContainerName)[name] = value.value
            aProperty = property(getAttrFromClass(name))
            setattr(NewMetaclass, name, aProperty)
            classDictionary[name] = aProperty
            classDictionary.pop(name, None)               
        return type.__new__(NewMetaclass, className, bases, classDictionary)

Note that getAttrFromClass is reused between different classes, the class of the instance used for implementation of instance read-only properties and for metaclass, used for implementation of class read-only properties. However, the mechanism of the substitution is different.

Another trick is “hiding” the dictionary instance stored in the class and given the attribute name DefinitionSet.attributeContainerName. With such name, this attribute cannot appear as a result of “usual” operation dot-notation syntax, instance.attribute = value; it can only be operated via the methods getattr/setattr/delattr/hasattr. This seems to be really important, because it helps to avoid all possible collision with user attributes based on dot notation, even if the user uses attribute names with any number of underscores. This way, the implementation does not rely on any kind of naming conventions, so typical for Python developers.


v.1.0.0: Initial fully-functional version.
v.1.0.1: Minor fixes.
v.2.0.0: Stable version; Demo comes with Python 2 and 3 unification explained above.
v.3.0.0: Major generalization of the mechanism to both class and instance attributes.


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The MIT License

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