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The Psyco Just-in-Time Compiler - 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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CPython, Jython, and Python.NET all implement the Python language in similar ways: by compiling source code to byte code, and executing the byte code on an appropriate virtual machine. The Psyco system is not another Python implementation, but a component that extends the byte code execution model to make programs run faster. In terms of Figure 2-2, Psyco is an enhancement to the PVM, which collects and uses type information while the program runs, to translate portions of the program’s byte code all the way down to real binary machine code for faster execution. Psyco accomplishes this translation without requiring either changes to the code, or a separate compilation step during development.

Roughly, while your program runs, Psyco collects information about the kinds of objects being passed around; that information can be used to generate highly-efficient machine code tailored for those object types. Once generated, the machine code then replaces the corresponding part of the original byte code, to speed your program’s overall execution. The net effect is that, with Psyco, your program becomes much quicker over time, and as it is running. In ideal cases, some Python code may become as fast as compiled C code under Psyco.

Because this translation from byte code happens at program runtime, Psyco is generally known as a just-in-time ( JIT) compiler. Psyco is actually a bit more than JIT compilers you may have seen for the Java language. Really, Psyco is a specializing JIT compiler—it generates machine code tailored to the data types that your program actually uses. For example, if a part of your program uses different data types at different times, Psyco may generate a different version of machine code to support each different type combination.

Psyco has been shown to speed Python code dramatically. According to its web page, Psyco provides “2× to 100× speed-ups, typically 4×, with an unmodified Python interpreter and unmodified source code, just a dynamically loadable C extension module.” Of equal significance, the largest speedups are realized for algorithmic code written in pure Python—exactly the sorts of code you might normally migrate to C to optimize. With Psyco, such migrations become even less important.

Psyco is also not yet a standard part of Python; you will have to fetch and install it separately. It is also still something of a research project, so you’ll have to track its evolution online. For more details on the Psyco extension, and other JIT efforts that may arise, consult http://www.python.org; Psyco’s home page currently resides at http://psyco.sourceforge.net.

Frozen Binaries

Sometimes when people ask for a “real” Python compiler, what they really seek is simply a way to generate a standalone binary executable from their Python programs. This is more a packaging and shipping idea than an execution-flow concept, but is somewhat related. With the help of third-party tools that you can fetch off the Web, it is possible to turn your Python programs into true executables—known as frozen binaries in the Python world.

Frozen binaries bundle together the byte code of your program files, along with the PVM (interpreter) and any Python support files your program needs, into a single package. There are some variations on this theme, but the end result can be a single binary executable program (e.g., an .exe file on Windows), which may be shipped easily to customers. In Figure 2-2, it is as though the byte code and PVM are merged into a single component—a frozen binary file.

Today, three primary systems are capable of generating frozen binaries: Py2exe (for Windows), Installer (similar, but works on Linux and Unix too, and is also capable of generating self-installing binaries), and freeze (the original). You may have to fetch these tools separately from Python itself, but they are available free of charge. They are also constantly evolving, so see http://www.python.org and the Vaults of Parnassus web site for more on these tools. To give you an idea of the scope of these systems, Py2exe can freeze standalone programs that use the Tkinter, Pmw, wxPython, and PyGTK GUI libraries; programs that use the pygame game programming toolkit; win32com client programs; and more.

Frozen binaries are not the same as the output of a true compiler—they run byte code through a virtual machine. Hence, apart from a possible startup improvement, frozen binaries run at the same speed as the original source files. Frozen binaries are also not small (they contain a PVM), but are not unusually large by current standards of large. Because Python is embedded in the frozen binary, Python does not have to be installed on the receiving end in order to run your program. Moreover, because your code is embedded in the frozen binary, it is effectively hidden from recipients.

This single file-packaging scheme is especially appealing to developers of commercial software. For instance, a Python-coded user interface program based on the Tkinter toolkit can be frozen into an executable file, and shipped as a self-contained program on CD or on the Web. End users do not need to install, or even have to know about, Python. 

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