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Symplate, the Simple pYthon teMPLATE renderer

Symplate is a very simple and very fast Python template language.


When I got frustrated with the complexities and slow rendering speed of Cheetah, I started wondering just how simple a template language could be.

You could write templates in pure Python, but that's somewhat painful -- code and text are hard to intersperse, and you don't get auto-escaping. But why not a KISS template-to-Python translator? Enter Symplate:

  • text becomes _write('text')
  • {{ expr }} becomes _write(filt(expr))
  • {% code %} becomes code at the correct indentation level
  • indentation increases when a code line ends with a colon, as in {% for x in lst: %}
  • indentation decreases when you say {% end %}

That's about all there is to it. All the rest is detail.


Who uses Symplate?

Only me ... so far. It started as my experiment. That said, Symplate is now a proper library, and fairly well tested. I also "ported" my website from Cheetah to Symplate, and it's working very well.

Why use Symplate?

If you care about raw performance or simplicity of implementation, Symplate might be for you. I care about both, and I haven't needed some of the extra features other systems provide, such as sandboxed execution and template inheritance. If you want a Porsche, use Symplate. If you'd prefer a Volvo or BMW, I'd recommend Jinja2 or Mako.

Symplate is dead simple: a couple of pages of code translate your templates to Python .py files, and render() imports and executes the compiled output.

Symplate's also about as fast as a pure-Python template language can be. Partly because it's simple, it produces Python code as tight as you'd write it by hand.

Isn't worrying about performance silly?

Yes, I know, worrying about template performance is silly. Some of the time. But when you're caching everything to avoid database requests, and your "business logic" is pretty tight, template rendering is all that's left. And Cheetah (not to mention Django!) are particlarly slow.

If you're running a large-scale website and you're caching things so that template rendering is your bottleneck (yes, I've been there) ... then if you can take your render times down from 100ms to 20ms, you can run your website on 1/5th the number of servers.

So how fast is Symplate? As mentioned, it's about as fast as you can hand-code Python. Here's the Symplate benchmark showing compile and render times for some of the fast or popular template languages.

Times are normalized to the HandCoded render time:

engine             compile  render
HandCoded            0.002   1.000
Symplate 1.0        13.471   1.178
Wheezy              30.173   1.398
Bottle 0.11.rc1     10.556   2.664
Mako 0.7.2          62.982   3.886
Jinja2 2.6          68.146   5.713
Cheetah 2.4.4      124.748   5.986
Django 1.3.3         7.919  21.296

I ran these benchmarks on my Intel Core i5-2450 on Windows 7, running CPython 2.7.3 64-bit.

Basic usage

Let's start with a simple example that uses more or less all the features of Symplate. Our main template file is blog.symp:

{% template entries, title='My Blog' %}
{{ !render('inc/header', title) }}
<h1>This is {{ title }}</h1>
{% for entry in entries: %}
    <h2><a href="{{ entry.url }}">{{ entry.title.title() }}</a></h2>
    {{ !entry.html_body }}
{% end for %}
{{ !render('inc/footer') }}

In true Python style, everything's explicit. We explicitly specify the parameters the template takes in the {% template ... %} line, including the default parameter title.

For simplicity, there's no special "include" directive -- you just render() a sub-template -- usually with the ! prefix to mean don't filter the rendered output.

In this example, entry.html_body contains pre-rendered HTML, so this expression is also prefixed with ! -- it will output the HTML body as a raw, unescaped string.

Then inc/header.symp looks like this:

{% template title %}
    <meta charset="UTF-8" />
    <title>{{ title }}</title>

And inc/footer.symp is of course:

{% template %}

To compile and render the main blog template in one fell swoop, set entries to a list of blog entries with the url, title, and html_body attributes, and you're away:

renderer = symplate.Renderer(template_dir)

def homepage():
    return renderer.render('blog', entries, title="Ben's Blog")

You can customize your Renderer to specify a different output directory, or to turn on checking of template file mtimes for debugging. For example:

renderer = symplate.Renderer(template_dir, output_dir='out',

def homepage():
    entries = load_blog_entries()
    return renderer.render('blog', entries, title="Ben's Blog")

Compiled Python output

Symplate is a leaky abstraction, but is somewhat proud of that fact. I already knew Python well, so my goal was to be as close to Python as possible -- I don't want to learn another language just to produce some escaped HTML.

In any case, you're encouraged to look at the compiled Python output produced by the Symplate compiler (usually placed in a symplouts directory at the same level as your template directory).

You might be surprised how simple the compiled output is. Symplate tries to make the compiled template look much like it would if you were writing it by hand -- for example, short strings are output as 'shortstr', and long, multi-line strings as """long, multi-line strings""".

The blog.symp example above produces this in

import symplate

def _render(_renderer, entries, title='My Blog'):
    filt = symplate.html_filter
    render = _renderer.render
    _output = []
    _writes = _output.extend

        render('inc/header', title),
        u'\n<h1>This is ',
    for entry in entries:
            u'    <h2><a href="',
            u'</a></h2>\n    ',

    return u''.join(_output)

As you can see, apart from a tiny premable, it's about as fast and direct as it could possibly be in pure Python.

Basic Symplate syntax errors like mismatched {%'s are raised as symplate.Errors when the template is compiled. However, most Python expressions are copied directly to the Python output, so you'll only get a Python SyntaxError when the compiled template is imported at render time.

(Yes, this is a minor drawback of Symplate's KISS approach. However, because Symplate is such a direct mapping to Python, it's usually easy to find errors in your templates.)


Symplate has very little syntax of its own, but here's what you need to know:


The only directives or keywords in Symplate are template and end. Oh, and "colon at the end of a code line".

{% template [args] %} must appear at the start of a template before any output. args is the argument specification including positional and keyword/default arguments, just as if it were a function definition. In fact, it is -- {% template [args] %} gets compiled to def render(_renderer, args): ....

If you need to import other modules, do so at the top of your template, above the template directive (just like how in Python you import before writing code).

{% end [...] %} ends a code indentation block. All it does is reduce the indentation level in the compiled Python output. The ... is optional, and acts as a comment, so you can say {% end for %} or {% end if %} if you like.

A : (colon) at the end of a code block starts a code indentation block, just like in Python. However, there's a special case for the elif, else, except and finally keywords -- they dedent for the line the keyword is on, and then indent again (just like you would when writing Python).

Whitespace handling

Symplate has some very simple rules for whitespace handling. The idea is to do what's normal for the common case, but you can always insert extra whitespace to get what you want if this doesn't suit. The rules are:

  • Eat spaces and tabs at the beginning of {% ... %} lines
  • Eat newline character immediately after a closing %}, except when the code block is "inline"
  • All other whitespace Symplate leaves alone

An example which shows all this in action is:

{% template %}
{% for i in range(10): %}
    {% if i % 2 == 0: %}
    <li>{% if i == 0: %}zero{% else: %}{{ i }}{% end if %}</li>
    {% end if %}
{% end for %}

The above template produces the following output.



Because {% ... %} blocks are simply copied to the compiled template as Python code, there's no special handling for comments -- just use standard Python # comments inside code blocks:

{% # This is a comment. %}
{% # Multi-line comments
   # work fine too. %}

One quirk is that Symplate determines when to indent the Python output based on the : character being at the end of the line, so you can't add a comment after the colon that begins an indentation block:

{% for element in lst: # DON'T DO THIS %}

Outputting a literal {{, }}, {%, or %}

You can't include {{, }}, {%, or %} anywhere inside an output expression or code block. To output one of these two-character strings literally, use Python's string literal concatenation so that the two special characters are separated.

For example, this will output a single {{:

{{ '{' '{' }}

If you find yourself needing this a lot (for instance in writing a template about templates), you could shortcut and name it at the top of your template:

{% LB, RB = '{' '{', '}' '}' %}


The default filter

The default filter used by {{ ... }} output expressions is html_filter, which converts its argument to unicode and then escapes HTML/XML special characters. It escapes &, <, >, ', and ", so it's good for both HTML content as well as attribute values.

html_filter converts byte strings to unicode using UTF-8. It converts other non-string objects simply using unicode(obj), except for None, for which it returns an empty string (almost always what you want).

For example, render('test', thing='A & B', title="Symplate's simple") on this template:

Thing is <b>{{ thing }}</b>.
<img src='logo.png' title='{{ title }}'>
{{ 1234 }}{{ None }}{{ '\xe2\x80\x99' }}

Would produce the following output:

Thing is <b>A &amp; B</b>.
<img src='logo.png' title='Symplate&#39;s simple'>

Outputting raw strings

To output a raw or pre-escaped string, prefix the output expression with !. For example {{ !html_string }} will write html_string directly to the output, meaning it must be a unicode string or a pure-ASCII byte string.

Setting the filter

To set the current filter, just say {% filt = filter_function %}. filt is simply a local variable in the compiled template, and it should be set to a function which takes a single argument and returns a unicode or ASCII string.

The expression inside a {{ ... }} is passed directly to the current filt function, so you can pass other arguments to custom filters. For example:

{% filt = json.dumps %}
{{ obj, indent=4, sort_keys=True }}

If you need to change back to the default filter (html_filter), just say:

{% filt = symplate.html_filter %}

The other handy built-in filter is symplate.text_filter, which handles objects the same way as html_filter, but doesn't HTML-escape the result.

Overriding the default filter

You can override the default filter by passing Renderer the default_filter argument. If this is a string, it's used directly for setting the filter, as per the above:

# this default filter will make everything uppercase
renderer = symplate.Renderer(default_filter='lambda s: s.upper()')

If it's not a string, it must be a function which takes a single filename (the template filename) as its argument. This is useful when, for example, you want to determine the default filter based on the template's file extension. A simple example:

# this default filter will use json.dumps() for .js.symp files and the
# normal HTML filter for other files
def get_default_filter(self, filename):
    if filename.lower().endswith('.js.symp'):
        return 'json.dumps'
        return 'symplate.html_filter'

renderer = symplate.Renderer(default_filter=get_default_filter,
                             preamble='import json\n')

Note the modified premable so the compiled template has the json module available.

Including sub-templates

Symplate has no literal "include" directive. You simply call render in an output expression, like this:

{{ !render('sub_template_name', *args, **kwargs) }}

render inside templates is set to the current Renderer instance's render function, so it uses the settings you expect. Note that you almost always use the ! raw-output prefix, so that the rendered sub-template isn't HTML-escaped further.

The arguments passed to render()ed sub-templates are specified explicitly, so there's no yucky setting of globals when rendering included templates.

Symplate doesn't currently support template inheritance -- it prefers "composition over inheritance", if you will. For instance, if your header template has an ad in its sidebar that can vary by page, you could say:

{{ !render('header', title='My Page', ad_html=render('ad1')) }}

When check_mtimes is off (the default), calling render() is super-fast, and after the first time when the module is imported, it basically amounts to a couple of dict lookups.

Customizing Renderer

To customize rendering settings, simply pass arguments to the Renderer() initializer as follows:

  • template_dir is the only required argument -- it specifies the root directory of your Symplate source files.
  • output_dir is the directory the compiled Python template files will go into. The default is symplouts at the same level as your template_dir. This directory must be writeable by the Python process calling compile() or render() (if auto_compile is on).
  • extension is the file extension for templates. The default is '.symp'. Set this to '' if you want to specify the file extension explicitly when calling render.
  • check_mtimes is off by default. Set to True to tell Symplate to check the template files' modify times on render, which is slower and usually only used for debugging.
  • auto_compile, which is on by default, means Symplate will automatically compile templates to .py files when you call render(). Set to False if you've deployed the compiled .py files along with your templates, or if you've already called compile_all() manually.
  • modify_path is on by default, and means Symplate will put output_dir/.. first on sys.path so it can import compiled templates. Set to False if you want to manage this manually.
  • preamble defaults to empty string, and specifies extra code to include at the top of all compiled template. Useful for imports you use in many templates.
  • default_filter defaults to 'symplate.html_filter', and is used to override the default filter.

The public methods of Renderer instances are render, compile, and compile_all, though often you'll only need render. You use these functions as follows:

# first create a Renderer
renderer = symplate.Renderer(template_dir)

# render named template with given positional and keyword args and return
# output as a unicode string
output = renderer.render('home', *args, **kwargs)

# compile named template to a .py file in output directory; this will be
# done automatically the first time you call render(), but you can do it
# manually too

# compile all templates in template_dir to .py files; specify
# "recursive=False" if you don't want it to recurse into sub-directories

Unicode handling

Symplate templates have full support for Unicode. The template files are always encoded in UTF-8, and internally Symplate builds the template as unicode.

render() always returns a unicode string, and it's best to pass unicode strings as arguments to render(), but you can also pass UTF-8 byte strings, as the default filter html_filter will handle both.

Command line usage can also be run as a command-line script. This is currently only useful for pre-compiling one or more templates, which might be useful in a constrained deployment environment where you can only upload Python code, and not write to the file system.

Simply specify arguments as per your Renderer, and it'll compile all your templates to Python code. Quoting from the command line help:

Usage: [-h] [options] template_dir [template_names]

Compile templates in specified template_dir, or all templates if
template_names not given

  --version             show program's version number and exit
  -h, --help            show this help message and exit
  -o OUTPUT_DIR, --output-dir=OUTPUT_DIR
                        compiled template output directory, default
  -e EXTENSION, --extension=EXTENSION
                        file extension for templates, default .symp
  -p PREAMBLE, --preamble=PREAMBLE
                        template preamble (see docs), default ""
  -q, --quiet           don't print what we're doing
  -n, --non-recursive   don't recurse into subdirectories


Hats off to

Literally a few days after I wrote a draft version of Symplate, I saw a reference to Bottle on Hacker News, and discovered the author of that had almost exactly the same idea (no doubt some time earlier). I thought of it independently, honest! Perhaps a good argument against software patents...

However, after seeing Bottle, one thing I did steal was its use of ! to denote raw output. It seemed cleaner (and better for performance reasons) than my initial idea of passing raw=True as a parameter to the filter, as in {{ foo, raw=True }}.


Some things I'd like to do or look into when I get a chance:

  • Add Python 3 support. Shouldn't be hard, especially if we only care about Python 2.6+.
  • Can we get original line numbers by outputting # line: N comments and then reading those when an error occurs?
  • Investigate template inheritance, perhaps in the style of

Flames, comments, bug reports

Please send flames, comments, and questions about Symplate to Ben Hoyt:

File bug reports or feature requests at the GitHub project page:

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