A pure python "property tree" system for conveniently organizing and sharing data between application modules. Includes both python and C++ interfaces which allows sharing data between python and C++ modules running within the same application)
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README.md

aura-props

Aura-props is a pure python "property tree" system for convenient organization and sharing of data between code modules.

Aura-core (available separately) includes a C++ interface so that the property tree can also serve as a simple mechanism for sharing data between mixed python/C++ modules (without needing to run the gauntlet of the very tricky python API.)

Traditionally code modules pass data through a rigid (and often brittle or clunky) API defined by each module. The property tree establishes an organized tree of data that is shared and accessible by all modules in the application. It assumes some basic cooperation and rule following between modules, but there are many very nice outcomes to this approach.

Quick Installation Guide

Please notice there is two parts to the install process (the python install and the C library install)

Part 1

$ cd python
$ sudo python3 ./setup.py install

Part 2

$ cd ../library
$ ./autogen.sh
$ mkdir build
$ cd build
$ ../configure CFLAGS="-Wall -O3" CXXFLAGS="-Wall -O3"
$ make
$ sudo make install

Background

Every non-trivial program needs a way to share data between modules. Traditional data encapsulation involves hiding and protecting a module's data so that other modules cannot directly touch it. Instead any interaction with the module's data is through the module's carefully crafted API. This is called "data encapsulation" and it is at the foundation of object oriented programming.

Constructing an application's modules and data in a carefully packaged way is a great idea. It is a very robust way to structure your applications and avoid a large class of bugs that arise out of careless data sharing. However, every ideology has to eventually survive on it's own in the real world. There is a reason C++ classes have static (shared) members and friend functions. There is a reason C++ supports global variable space. Real world programming challenges are often messier than the book examples.

There are times when it makes the most sense to share data globally within your application. It just does. (Sometimes it still makes sense to use a goto.)

Aura-props provides a way to create shared data space within your application in a friendly and well structured way. With aura-props as the backbone of your application, you receive many additional nice services and structures.

The original idea for the 'Property System' probably dates back to long ago, but the first implementation that I am aware of grew up within the FlightGear ecosystem. It has proved to be so convenient and nice that I have used it in several other large projects.

Now, here, I have re-imagined the property system, stripped down to it's essentials, simplified, and rewritten entirely in python.

The Property System

The word "System" is carefully chosen. The Property System is an interwoven network of concepts that can bring huge value to your application. It may not be the right choice for every application, but in the right context it is super awesome.

  • It provides structured data sharing between modules within your application. (I.e. when your app needs global data shared, don't hack it and hide it, embrace it with a real structure that avoids the bad side of global variables.)

  • It provides a way to organize the important data structures within your application (the property tree.)

  • The new python implementation now enables rich data sharing between C++ and Python without forcing the C++ coder to wade through an obtuse Python C++ API.

  • The property tree maps well to xml files enabling sophisticated configuration file support with a few easy function calls.

  • The property tree can be exposed to external interfaces (i.e. via a network socket) to enable allowed external programs to conveniently access and even change items in the property tree. This can be useful for debugging or for simple (low bandwidth) interaction between separate applications.

The Property Tree

The aura-props module enables an application to easily build a tree of important data to be shared throughout the program. There is a single shared 'root' node that is automatically created when the props module is imported. From there an application can start filling in the tree very quickly. For example, consider a reader/writer example of a simple autopilot that reads an external gps and uses that data to navigate.

A hierarchical tree structure is easy to understand, easy to organize, easy to use, and keeps like data near each other.

Example: writer module

The gps driver module could include the following (python) code:

from props import getNode, root
gps = getNode("/sensors/gps", create=True)
(lat, lon, alt, speed, ground_track) = read_gps()
gps.lat = lat
gps.lon = lon
gps.alt = alt
gps.speed = speed
gps.ground_track = ground_track

With this simple bit of code we have constructed our property tree, read the gps, and shared the values with the rest of our application. Done!

The getNode() function will find the specified path in the property tree and return that node to you. If you specify create=True, then getNode() will automatically create the node (and all the parents and grandparents of that node) if they don't already exist. So in one line of code we have constructed the portion of the property tree that this module needs.

A pyPropertyNode is really just an open ended python class, so we can then assign values to any attributes we wish to create.

Example: reader module

The navigation module needs the gps information from the property tree and do something with it. The code starts out very similar, but watch what we can do:

from props import getNode, root
gps = getNode("/sensors/gps", create=True)
waypoint = getNode("/navigation/route/target", create=True)
ap = getNode("/autopilot/settings", create=True)
heading = great_circle_route([gps.lat, gps.lon], [waypoint.lat, waypoint.lon])
ap.target_heading = heading

Did you see what happened there? We first grabbed the shared gps node, but we also grabbed the shared target waypoint node, and we grabbed the autopilot settings node. We quickly computed the heading from our current location to our target waypoint and we wrote that back into the autopilot configuration node.

This approach to sharing data between program modules is a bit unique. But consider the alternatives: many applications grow their inter-module communication ad-hoc as the code evolves and some of the interfaces can become inconsistent or awkward as real world data gets incrementally shoved into existing C++ class api's. The result of the ideological approach is often messy and clunky.

The property system provides an alternative for intra-application data sharing that is simple, easy to understand, and just works. It is a different philosophy of programming from what many people are used to, but the benefits and convenience of the property system quickly becomes a way of life.

Module initialization order.

Please notice that both the reader and writer modules in the above example call getNode() with the create flag set to true. The property tree system allows initialization order independence among modules. With respect to the property tree (ignoring other higher level application specific dependencies) the modules can be initialized in any order. The first module to initialize and request the specific property nodes will trigger their creation, and subsequent modules will find the nodes already there.

Direct access to properties (Python)

The property tree is constructed out of a thin python shell class. Once the appropriate portions of the property tree are created and populated, python code can directly reference nodes and values. For example, the following reference should work if the gps sensor tree has been created and populated:

lat = props.sensors.gps.lat

Sharing data between mixed C++ and Python applications

A C++ interface to the python property tree is being developed in parallel. For now, know that it exists and brings to C++ most of the benefits of the property tree. (And also enables data sharing between applications that are a mix of C++ and Python.)

Script features for C++

For the C++ developer: incorporating the Property Tree into your application brings several conveniences of scripting languages to your application. One big convenience is automatic type conversion. For example, an application can write a string value into a field of the property tree, but read it back out as a double. Watch carefully:

#include "pyprops.hxx"
int main(int argc, char **argv) {
    // cleanup the python interpreter after all the main() and global
    // destructors are called
    atexit(pyPropsCleanup);
    
    pyPropsInit(argc, argv);

    pyPropertyNode gps_node = pyGetNode("/sensors/gps");

    gps_node.setString("lat", "-45.235");
    double lat = gps_node.getDouble("lat");

    return 0;
}

Did you see how the value of "lat" is written as a string constant, but can be read back out as a double? Often it is easy to keep your types consistent, but it's nice to just let the back end system convert types for you as needed.

Performance considerations

Convenience comes at a cost. The property tree has been designed in a way to leverage existing native python structures so it is relatively thin and fast, but within python scripts, saving a variable as a class member does have more overhead that a standalone variable. Within C++, accessing property nodes and values requires a call layer into python structures. Thus reading and writing properties does involve some additional overhead compared to using native variables.

The best recommendation is to place all calls to getNode() within a modules initialization routine, cache the pointer that is returned, and then use this pointer exclusively in the module's update routines.

This way the expensive getNode() function is only called during initialization, and the faster class.field notation (Python) or get() set() routines (C++) are called during run-time.

Easy I/O for reading and writing configuration files

The hierarchical structure of the property tree maps nicely to xml and json. Currently there is an xml reader that loads an xml file and populates populates the values into a newly created property (sub) tree rooted at the requested location in the larger property tree. This is a great way to load a big application config file with a single function call. Then the config values are available in the property tree for the various modules to use as needed.

A note on threaded applications

The Property Tree system is not thread safe. I am pondering some ideas to make a thread safe version of the property tree, but this will add restrictions to the api and overhead for resource locking. Hopefully I will add more on this later.

For now, if you include threads in your application, know that either the property tree should be confined exclusively to one thread, or you will need to take extra precautions within your own application to ensure two threads do not try to read or write the property tree simultaneously. Doing so could lead to random and difficult to debug program crashes.