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Python Virtual Machine (PVM) - Python

Python is a language and an interpreter that executes other programs. Get a quick look at program execution, how to launch code and how Python runs it. This chapter is from Learning Python, second edition, by Mark Lutz and David Ascher (ISBN: 0-596-00281-5, O'Reilly, 2003).

  1. How Python Runs Programs
  2. Program Execution
  3. Python Virtual Machine (PVM)
  4. Execution Model Variations
  5. The Psyco Just-in-Time Compiler
  6. Future Possibilities?
By: O'Reilly Media
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July 06, 2004

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Once your program has been compiled to byte code (or the byte code has been loaded from .pyc files), it is shipped off for execution to something generally known as the Python Virtual Machine (PVM, for the more acronym-inclined among you). The PVM sounds more impressive than it is; really, it’s just a big loop that iterates through your byte code instructions, one by one, to carry out their operations. The PVM is the runtime engine of Python; it’s always present as part of the Python system, and is the component that truly runs your scripts. Technically, it’s just the last step of what is called the Python interpreter.

Figure 2-2 illustrates the runtime structure described. Keep in mind that all of this complexity is deliberately hidden to Python programmers. Byte code compilation is automatic, and the PVM is just part of the Python system that you have installed on your machine. Again, programmers simply code and run file your machine. Again, programmers simply code and run file of statements.


Figure 2-2. Runtime execution model

Performance implications

Readers with a background in fully compiled languages such as C and C++ might notice a few differences in the Python model. For one thing, there is usually no build or “make” step in Python work: code runs immediately after it is written. For another, Python byte code is not binary machine code (e.g., instructions for an Intel chip). Byte code is a Python-specific representation.

This is why some Python code may not run as fast as C or C++, as described in Chapter 1—the PVM loop, not the CPU chip, still must interpret the byte code, and byte code instructions require more work than CPU instructions. On the other hand, unlike classic interpreters, there is still a compile step internally—Python does not need to reanalyze and reparse each source statement repeatedly. The net effect is that pure Python code runs somewhere between a traditional compiled language, and a traditional interpreted language. See Chapter 1 for more on Python performance.

Development implications

Another ramification of Python’s execution model is that there is really no distinction between the development and execution environments. That is, the systems that compile and execute your source code are really one in the same. This similarity may have a bit more significance to readers with a background in traditional compiled languages; but in Python, the compiler is always present at runtime, and is part of the system that runs programs.

This makes for a much more rapid development cycle—there is no need to precompile and link before execution may begin. Simply type and run the code. This also adds a much more dynamic flavor to the language—it is possible, and often very convenient, for Python programs to construct and execute other Python programs at runtime. The eval and exec built-ins, for instance, accept and run strings containing Python program code. This structure is also why Python lends itself to product customization—because Python code can be changed on the fly, users can modify the Python parts of a system onsite, without needing to have or compile the entire system’s code. 

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