Static Duck Typing in Python with Protocols

Daan Debie / November 19, 2021

5 min read

#python#typing

At Source, we write most of our code in Python. It’s a language that both our Software Engineers and Data Scientists are equally at home in. It’s easy to be productive in Python, in part due to its dynamic nature. Not having to think too much about the types of your variables and functions, can make it easier to experiment, especially if you’re not entirely clear yet on how you’re going to solve a particular problem.

When moving our code to production however, we want to have more guarantees about the behaviour of our code. Writing (unit) tests is one way to get those guarantees, but we also make heavy use of type hints to give us more confidence in our code. Type hints can also provide a productivity boost, because not only humans can reason better about type hinted code, your editor can as well!

Sometimes though, using type hints everywhere can feel like you’re losing out on a lot of the magic and speed that a dynamic type system brings you. One particular trait of dynamic typing that is pretty idiomatic in Python, is duck typing.

Duck Typing

Duck typing is a philosophy in programming where you care more about the behaviour and properties of an object than its stated type to determine if that object is useful in a certain situation. Duck typing is inspired by the duck test:

If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck

In practice this means that when you write a function that receives a certain input, you care only about the behaviour and/or attributes of that input, not the explicit type of that input.

One interesting question that arises is: if you don’t want to be strict about the type of the parameters a function receives, are there still any static type guarantees to be had?

And the other way around is interesting as well: if you have a function with statically typed inputs, can you loosen up those parameters to make the function more universally useful, the way duck typing does?

As it turns out, Python provides a neat way to have our cake and eat it too!

Protocols to the Rescue

When reviewing some code recently, I came across a function that looked roughly like this:

def calculate_windowed_avg(
        measurements: Union[List[TemperatureMeasurement], List[HumidityMeasurement]],
        window_size: timedelta,
        field_name: str
    ) -> Dict[datetime, float]:
    window_upper_bound = measurements[0].timestamp + window_size
    current_window = []
    window_averages = OrderedDict()
    for m in measurements:
        # various calculations happen here
        # based on the timestamp of each measurement
        ...
    return window_averages

The goal of this function is to calculate the average of a certain field (identified by field_name) in a rolling window. At the time of writing this function, we were using it for TemperatureMeasurement and HumidityMeasurement, but it is very likely we’ll want to use it for different types of measurements in the future.

If we look closely at how the function uses the input, it turns out that the only thing we want to be guaranteed of, is that the items we pass into the function have a timestamp field. So instead of specifying each different type that has adheres to this contract, we’d like to tell the type checker that we only care about having a timestamp field to work with.

Protocol from the typing module lets us do that. Just like with duck typing, Protocols let you specify the behaviour or attributes you expect, without caring about the type. Here is what that looks like:

from typing import Protocol, List, Dict
from datetime import datetime

class MeasurementLike(Protocol):
timestamp: datetime
def calculate_windowed_avg(
measurements: List[MeasurementLike],
window_size: timedelta, field_name: str ) -> Dict[datetime, float]: window_upper_bound = measurements[0].timestamp + window_size ...

Now the type checker doesn’t know exactly what the type is of whatever is provided as measurements but it does know what those items have a timestamp field because they adhere to the MeasurementLike Protocol.

In a sense, a Protocol acts like one side of an Interface as we know it from Java or Typescript. Instead of having to specify the behaviour and properties both on a type and on the functions that use it, we only have to specify it on a function, without caring about the types of the objects that are provided to the function.

Protocol and Generics

You can also use Protocols together with TypeVar for even more generic functions that are still type checked to some extend. One use-case that comes to mind, is when you don’t care about the input type to a function, as long as it follows a protocol, but you also want to guarantee that the output of the function is of the same type as the input, no matter what the exact type is.

This works as follows:

from typing import Protocol, TypeVar
from datetime import datetime

class MeasurementLike(Protocol):
    timestamp: datetime

M = TypeVar('M', bound=MeasurementLike)

def measurement_as_timezone(measurement: M, tz: tzinfo) -> M:
    measurement.timestamp = measurement.timestamp.astimezone(tz)
    return measurement

Here we create a function that takes any object that has a timestamp field and guarantees that the output will be of the same type as the input.

Conclusion

Protocols in Python provide a nice way to use duck typing while still having some static type guarantees. You can define contracts for your functions without caring too much about the actual types of your inputs.


Update on 2021–11–23: There was a wrong type annotation in this article, as pointed out by ragebol on Hacker News, which is now fixed


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Copyright 2021 - Daan Debie