Tworoutines in Python

This article describes a style of coding in Python that permits easy mixing of synchronous and asynchronous code. As part of the control software for large microwave telescopes (including the South Pole Telescope), we have been using this style of code under a Tornado / Python 2.x stack with success.

Unfortunately, architectural changes in Python 3.7 conspire against the @tworoutine. In the hopes of contributing to a lively discussion about Python's asynchronous ecosystem, we describe why they have been so useful to us.


Asynchronous coding in Python was pioneered by third-party libraries like Twisted, Tornado, and gevent. An "official" event-loop implementation landed in Python 3.4, and was expanded significantly in Python 3.7. A new breed of asynchronous libraries like curio and trio continue to push the boundaries beyond what's "normal" in the space.

There are also some excellent (and opinionated) articles about Python's asynchronous ecosystem. I don't always agree with them and I don't intend to recapitulate them. To allow me to get the point, though, I will provide a few links that set the stage for what follows.

Of these, the last one is probably the most interesting because it identifies and attempts to address the same problem we run into when designing telescope tuning software: asynchronous and synchronous coding styles occupy different universes in Python, but it is exteremly useful to mix them freely.

To motivate mixing synchronous and asynchronous code, here is a short description of the kind of code we write for tuning telescopes.

Coding for Telescopes

My day job includes work on CMB telescopes including the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica and the Simons Array on Chile's Atacama Plateau.

The readout electronics in these telescopes is a large array of software defined radios, with many thousands of transmitters and receivers used to bias and measure the leftover signature of the Big Bang. These radios are implemented in hundreds of custom boards hosting FPGAs installed in crates near the telescope, and controlled by a PC. This PC gets the system up and running, controls cryogenic refrigerators, aims the telescope, and captures the torrent of data it produces.

The entire tuning, control, and analysis stack makes very heavy use of Python, along with C, C++, and VHDL. (I am inexpressibly grateful to the many open-source communities we rely on, and it is a great privilege when I can give back in some capacity.)

As you can imagine, we don't just deploy code straight onto the telescope. Along with the telescopes themselves are small-scale installations ranging from a circuit board or two on a benchtop, to crates of cryogenic equipment at university labs around the world. During development, code might be running in a Jupyter notebook or an IPython shell, perhaps with a small crate of electronics or nothing at all. Here, interactive REPL sessions are used to prototype algorithms, explore data, and try out new tuning and analysis techniques.

For an algorithm to be useful in deployment, however, it needs to run at scale. Here's where we use asynchronous code heavily: command interactions with many hundreds of circuit boards are a natural fit for asynchronous coding styles. This leads to the following workflow:

Design flow, with separate asynchronous/synchronous implementations:

  • Prototype code, probably synchronous and focused on proofing out an algorithm or technique;
  • Test for function on a small-scale deployment, likely in an interactive (ipython) environment;
  • Re-code the algorithm using an asynchronous style; and
  • Integration testing, optimization, and deployment.

This approach has advantages:

  1. When developing a proof-of-concept, developers are able to ignore performance and focus on the problem (physics, instrumentation, cryogenics, electronics) that they are attempting to address.
  2. During prototyping, when interactive exploration is most useful, synchronous code promotes use of environments such as IPython or Jupyter.

However, this workflow has three major disadvantages:

  1. It's clumsy: it requires writing and testing a synchronous version, then shifting it wholesale to an asynchronous environment. It is easy to imagine this workflow looping back on itself as bugs are discovered or introduced along the way.
  2. The synchronous version never stops being useful, despite not scaling to telescope-level performance. We would often much rather have the simpler semantics, more predictable control flow, and shorter error traces associated with a synchronous call when debugging or experimenting. In addition, it can be conveniently invoked in a REPL environment -- invaluable if the telescope is operating and we need to do some quick hand-tuning.
  3. It's not composable. Over the years, we have build up libraries of useful tuning and control algorithms, and as long as synchronous and asynchronous code is kept distinct, we cannot meaningfully compose algorithms out of smaller pieces without two implementations of everything.

Asking developers to maintaining two versions under different coding idioms (and expecting to keep the versions synchronized) is resolving a technical flaw by requiring skilled labourers to do menial work; this is often an expensive mistake. (Interactive use of asynchronous code is getting easier in IPython 7.0 due to the autoawait functionality. This extension addresses the second but not the third point.)

Instead, we are looking for a way to freely mix asynchronous and synchronous coding styles.

Enter the @tworoutine

What's a @tworoutine? It is a synchronous wrapper around an asynchronous function, allowing a single piece of code to be called in either idiom.

(If you are following along at home, you will need the source code. You will also need nest_asyncio.)

import tworoutine
import asyncio

async def double_slowly(x):
    await asyncio.sleep(0.1)
    return 2*x

How can we call this function synchronously? Just call it!

>>> double_slowly(1)

How did this work? The @tworoutine decorator returns a class whose __call__ method is a synchronous wrapper that obtains an event loop and invokes the asynchronous code, blocking until it's complete. Because we want synchronous calling to be convenient and carpal-tunnel-friendly, that's the default.

If there's already an event loop running, this code is reasonably efficient (aside from being a blocking call, of course!) Any asynchronous events already queued in the event loop are allowed to proceed alongside this one. Only the current execution context is blocked until the coroutine completes.

So much for synchronous calls. How can we call this function asynchronously? We first have to undo or "invert" the wrapper and obtain a reference back to the coroutine.

>>> (~double_slowly)(2)
<coroutine object double_slowly at 0x7f5d494fd348>

With the exception of the invert operator around the function name, this is ordinary asynchronous code; there is no additional overhead except for the operator itself. Here is a complete example showing mixed coding styles within an event loop:

async def main():
    # Run asynchronously
    r = await (~double_slowly)(2)

    # Run synchronously within an event loop
    r2 = double_slowly(3)

# try asynchronous entry

The obvious benefit, here, is the ability to call asynchronous code synchronously when we're too lazy to carry around an event loop or deal with the turtles-all-the-way-down nature of Python's asynchronous coding idiom.

Design flow with @tworoutine. The synchronous and asynchronous implementations are replaced with a single implementation that can mix idioms.

Lament: Of Course There's A Catch

@tworoutine's days are probably numbered. This style of coding has been implicitly but firmly rejected by Python developers:

We have been using this approach (implemented on Python 2.7 and Tornado <4.5) for several years now at the South Pole and elsewhere, and we will have to adapt.

To complete a synchronous @tworoutine call, we need to obtain an event loop, schedule the asynchronous (decorated) call, and block until it is complete. Currently there is no way to do that in Python 3.7 asyncio without patching it. Asynchronous code at any point in the call stack must be linked to the event loop via asynchronous calls only, all the way up.

To work around this problem in the Python 3.7 code shown here, I have used the nest_asyncio monkey patch. It is a short and effective piece of code, but it runs against Python orthodoxy and adopting this kind of patch in production risks being stranded by changes to Python's core libraries.

Without this patch, we are able to upgrade as far as Tornado 4.5 on Python 3.x, but Tornado 5.0 moves to an asyncio event loop and we are suddenly unable to upgrade.


The code examples here have been forward-ported from Python 2.7 and Tornado 4.5 to Python 3.7 and "pure" asyncio. It's an experiment -- this is not production code!

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