Tracy recently asked me if there were any good guidelines about how to write configuration files -- not coding-level guidelines, but guidelines on structure and content.
I was unable to come up with anything: my Google-fu failed me, and my DevonThink database was silent (although it did have some nice testing articles, which I of course forwarded on to her).
I must admit to a general mental block on the subject of how to write config files. How do you choose the right balance between configurability and complexity? What about language -- should they be native Perl/Python/whatnot (Tracy's package is for programmers) or is there a benefit to embracing the mental overhead of config file parsing?
Thoughts and pointers appreciated, either in comments or via email.
Posted by cariaso on 2008-01-20 at 19:40.
seems relevant to your question <a href="http://www.itworld.com/AppDev/application-design-config-file- design-nlstipsm-080109/index.html">http://www.itworld.com/AppDev /application-design-config-file-design-nlstipsm-080109/index.html</a> I'd like a nice little python module, which would eval a config file, but constrain evaluation to within a namespace. Afterwards I could pluck out the params by name.
Posted by Moof on 2008-01-20 at 19:55.
I assume you're going for something that is either cross-platform or *nix. Both Windows and MacOS have mechanisms for configuration information storage, and there are very many good reasons why you should use them. If I had a pint for every times I've been moaned at by my windows admin friends because an application wasn't configurable through active directory, I'd be suffering from cirrhosis. Thus, if you're targeting Windows, and to a lesser extent, MacOS, then you should probably abstract your configuration system enough that you can use the platform-friendly storage. Which does imply you'll need to fiddle with a parser for unix systems. Use a ready-made one, as it makes life easier for people, as they've normally met key = value files or Windows Ini files, or XML before. I've no idea if anyone's written any freely available libraries for this cross-platform style of configuration, but if not, then Someone Should (TM). To a certain extent, your coding language will help you determine this also. Java is all about XML configuration files, and makes them pretty easy to deal with. In Python, on the other hand, most of the major frameworks I've dealt with (notably Twisted and Django) prefer to just use plain old Python for configuration. Certainly, if you're writing a library or programmer's tool, make sure that it is fully configurable from within your code, and make it trivial for code to be loaded from a config file and then modified on a whim. You wont' be able to guarantee that the programmers that use your library or tool will either want or be able to give you a config file. This is normally solved by having a global config object that you can modify **before** activating the rest of the library. In the case of a command-line tool, everything needs to have switches, unless it's a very complex program, in which case you need to be able to feed it a separate config file from the command line. One thing to keep in mind: If you use a plain old programming language to configure your program, make sure you've thought the security implications through, and what might happen if (a) an average and (b) a malicious user got hold of that file. Often it's a case of "if they can get at that file, then I have worse security problems than what they can do with my file", but not always. Be wary of writing a conf system too early on in the game. A friend of mine prefers not to tack one on until near the end of the "1.0" milestone, whatever that may be, as he finds that writing config in an agile language is quicker to start up with, and you often find yourself evolving your config needs as the program matures, and limiting yourself too early in the game means you end up spending too long tweaking the config system as opposed to coding your program. Beware, also, of making something that is Turing-complete - the world doesn't need another scripting language. See also: <a href="http://www.itworld.com/AppDev/application-design-config-file- design-nlstipsm-080109/index.html">http://www.itworld.com/AppDev /application-design-config-file-design-nlstipsm-080109/index.html</a>
Posted by Noah Gift on 2008-01-20 at 21:33.
This is in interesting question, and one that I am attempting to tackle in our book, and my PyCon talk to a small degree. Greg Wilson kind of hints about it in Data Crunching, which is a great little book. I suppose I would look at the buildout tutorial, and say try using buildout. I think they have done a superb job at making config files simple, yet effective enough for a complex task. <a href="htt p://grok.zope.org/minitutorials/buildout.html">http://grok.zope.org/mi nitutorials/buildout.html</a>
Posted by Olivier Tharan on 2008-01-21 at 02:09.
Consider using YAML, it is pretty easy to read as a human and parsable by most languages with the help of modules. Python has pyyaml and PySyck, the latter is more complete. Another advantage (besides being human-readable) is that you can include almost any data structure and have it readily available as a variable.
Posted by Alcides Fonseca on 2008-01-21 at 05:39.
I suggest YAML as well. Very good for configuration files and no need for knowing some programming language. However, if action is one of the configuration (some times it is!) consider making the configuration Python class files. It's simple as well, but requires programming skills to understand that (but only if you need to set up methods as configuration).
Posted by Mika Eloranta on 2008-01-21 at 18:57.
There are many positive sides to Unix-style config files, but they are not perfect: 1. The input is not validated until it is too late, i.e. when the application is starting -> "oh crap, no configuration: bail out!" -> downtime. 2. Making changes to configuration while the application is running is often not possible. If it is possible, it is implemented using the "break the config (see issue #1), SIGHUP and grep the log for errors" -method, which obviously is not optimal. You cannot just go and say "Hey server app, please drop the number of threads in the pool to 20!", in which you would get a confirmation response: "OK, done!" (or maybe: "Dude! There ain't no thread pool here! It is a process pool, you dork! Please try again.") 3. There are so many different config file formats one must master to admin a Unix system. Some of the formats are pretty weird (still got nightmares of sendmail.cf files)... 4. Config files are not usually "upgraded" along with the software. Your config file will miss all the cool new settings (and documentation changes!) that CoolSoftware v2.0 adds. If the semantics and/or syntax of the configuration have changed in the upgrade AND if you are lucky, you will see an error message the next time you start the software. 5. Maintaining any kind of revision history is left to the user (e.g. for cases when "last known good" configuration is needed). 6. Usually the only method of changing configuration is editing by hand. No web interfaces or even simple "set setting X to value Y" command-line interfaces. These are just some of the limitations and in my opinion already pretty severe. Oh boy, it has been on my list of things to do for a long long time to write "a better configuration framework" that would, for example, tackle at least some of these issues. Actually, I've recently even started working on it. :-) So, I'm also very interested in seen others' comments on this topic. PS. Python modules are awesome for a lot of configuration uses. - Mika
Posted by Titus Brown on 2008-01-22 at 03:08.
Thanks guys, this has been very useful! Gael Varoquaux also pointed me towards <a href="http://projects.scipy.org/ipython/ipython/browser/ ipython1/trunk/sandbox/tconfig">http://projects.scipy.org/ipython/ipyt hon/browser/ipython1/trunk/sandbox/tconfig</a> which looks like a good configurator. --titus