Curb Your (Python Web Framework) Enthusiasm

One OpenSpace topic convened at CodeMash was "Python Web Frameworks". TurboGears seemed to be the most-represented citizen of the Python web world, but some asserted that they use Django. I had skipped Brian Goetz's "Java Performance Myths" talk in favor of this, even though I am sure that would have given me more ammo to smack down the crusty turds in the Java world who are always denigrating the work of others for its lack of their arcane incantations that are allegedly "critical to performance". I have to say I was pretty dismayed after attending the OpenSpace, but maybe that's not a loss after all. Perhaps my Python web enthusiasm was due to be curbed. Also, maybe I shouldn't let those crusty Java turds get to me so much, even if I do feel they are a key agent in keeping the Java community from being more inviting.

Coming away from the discussion, my impression is that the Python web framework community is perfectly content with the dilution of effort and momentum that is caused by the proliferation of web frameworks. We talked about the number of projects out there, laughed a little, and then folks seemed to be ready to move on. One participant fortunately asked the question "How are TurboGears and Django different, because they look the same to me?" That's a paraphrase, but the gist of his whole question was, as the two leading Python frameworks, how are these two serving different needs, and if they're not, why are there two? What followed was some dialog that choice was good, the usual stuff you'll hear in Open Source discussions about duplication and fragmentation of effort.

I followed up on his question commenting that the degree of fragmentation has seriously hurt the credibility and perceived viability of Python web frameworks in larger shops that are entertaining dynamic web frameworks as possible alternatives to doing everything in Java or .Net. I added that the proliferation of choices in Python has really only served to dilute the attention and effort for those that are emerging as the leading ones. I also shared that those outside the Python community are perceiving its web offerings as momentary fascinations of the brilliant, yet quirky enthusiasts upon which nothing long-term should be based. This didn't seem to be well-received by the group, but I may be wrong. I think most folks present may have been up for a Python love feast instead of some serious introspection on where we are and how we got here.

Another thing we had was Python fans without significant Java experience continually emitting FUD about the JVM, which blows my mind. I have been following Python pretty closely for over a year now, and the amount of ignorance about Java in the Python community still surprises me. The lack of hands-on experience with Java does not seem to deter the constant, half-formulated criticisms of it. Some even seemed to be implying that Python's threading situation was better off than Java. The platform of Java quite frankly kicks the hell out of most all others in that arena; this is widely-known.

There is an unsettling meme that seems to be running through the Python web framework community of "doing what's cool", which is unsettling. Cool and pragmatic seldom keep close company. One of the most heartening things about Rails 2.0 has been the steps taken to pay down technical debt and bolster the soundness of the framework. Hearing that TurboGears is pursuing X because Django has it and that's cool disturbs me. "Cooler than Y" doesn't get me a framework I am comfortable building upon; robust and reasonably-documented does.

I viewed the merged effort with the Pylons project very positively when I learned of it. Collaboration and true sharing are all-too-absent in F/OSS these days. However, the more I learn about the culture and mantra of Pylons, the more I am inclined to think it may have been an ungainly partnership. I am wondering if TurboGears' original "compose a mega-framework of best-of-breed" may have subtly morphed its perception of best-of-breed to be "coolest". And cool, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

The need for a degree of stability in a web framework is not unlike the dilemma faced by technical authors and producers. Something I have heard from multiple technical writers is that one must resist the temptation to be forever revising the work in hopes of keeping pace with the changes occurring in the technology being covered. In software that rate of evolution is such that it is a Sisyphean undertaking. One must pick a point of time and stick to it. The hope is that said point is an acceptable level of stability so that the book is not useless weeks after it hits the shelves. (This begs the question of whether or not many technical books in print today should not have been published, but that's a separate topic.)

My chief concern for TurboGears is that the apparent direction toward "cool" is in direct conflict with the need for stability and documentation. The quality of Open Source projects these days is such that few will tolerate a poorly-documented project that poses an unnecessary learning curve primarily brought on by the need to figure things out for yourself. Unless the documentation is shored up and the rate of significant component change slows, I think TurboGears will be challenged to gain more traction in the wider web framework world.

The reason I am even bothering to write about this is that I care about the TurboGears project. I chose it for my framework to explore at Bruce's Dynamic Web Frameworks Jam, and was blown away by how much had been accomplished in so little time with the project. It had things I have been wanting for years in Java web development, and the learning curve was so low that I found myself running ahead of my own understanding of Python at times. The DRY-ness of TurboGears is another strong draw for me. Implementing your own components when superior, highly-tested ones exist is just silly these days, unless considerable mitigating factors are present. While I think it holds lots of promise, I can't say that I am comfortable basing any significant projects on TurboGears right now.