Simon Willison’s Weblog

Porting Datasette to ASGI, and Turtles all the way down

This evening I finally closed a Datasette issue that I opened more than 13 months ago: #272: Port Datasette to ASGI. A few notes on why this is such an important step for the project.

ASGI is the Asynchronous Server Gateway Interface standard. It’s been evolving steadily over the past few years under the guidance of Andrew Godwin. It’s intended as an asynchronous replacement for the venerable WSGI.

Turtles all the way down

Ten years ago at EuroDjangoCon 2009 in Prague I gave a talk entitled Django Heresies. After discussing some of the design decisions in Django that I didn’t think had aged well, I spent the last part of the talk talking about Turtles all the way down. I wrote that idea up here on my blog (see also these slides).

The key idea was that Django would be more interesting if the core Django contract—a function that takes a request and returns a response—was extended to more places in the framework. The top level site, the reusable applications, middleware and URL routing could all share that same contract. Everything could be composed from the same raw building blocks.

I’m excited about ASGI because it absolutely fits the turtles all the way down model.

The ASGI contract is an asynchronous function that takes three arguments:

async def application(scope, receive, send):
    ...

scope is a serializable dictionary providing the context for the current connection. receive is an awaitable which can be used to recieve incoming messages. send is an awaitable that can be used to send replies.

It’s a pretty low-level set of primitives (and less obvious than a simple request/response)—and that’s because ASGI is about more than just the standard HTTP request/response cycle. This contract works for HTTP, WebSockets and potentially any other protocol that needs to asynchronously send and receive data.

It’s an extremely elegant piece of protocol design, informed by Andrew’s experience with Django Channels, SOA protocols (we are co-workers at Eventbrite where we’ve both been heavily involved in Eventbrite’s SOA mechanism) and Andrew’s extensive conversations with other maintainers in the Python web community.

The ASGI protocol really is turtles all the way down—it’s a simple, well defined contract which can be composed together to implement all kinds of interesting web architectural patterns.

My asgi-cors library was my first attempt at building an ASGI turtle. The implementation is a simple Python decorator which, when applied to another ASGI callable, adds HTTP CORS headers based on the parameters you pass to the decorator. The library has zero installation dependencies (it has test dependencies on pytest and friends) and can be used on any HTTP ASGI project.

Building asgi-cors completely sold me on ASGI as the turtle pattern I had been desiring for over a decade!

Datasette plugins and ASGI

Which brings me to Datasette.

One of the most promising components of Datasette is its plugin mechanism. Based on pluggy (extracted from pytest), Datasette Plugins allow new features to be added to Datasette without needing to change the underlying code. This means new features can be built, packaged and shipped entirely independently of the core project. A list of currently available plugins can be found here.

WordPress is very solid blogging engine. Add in the plugin ecosystem around it and it can be used to build literally any CMS you can possibly imagine.

My dream for Datasette is to apply the same model: I want a strong core for publishing and exploring data that’s enhanced by plugins to solve a huge array of data analysis, visualization and API-backed problems.

Datasette has a range of plugin hooks already, but I’ve so far held back on implementing the most useful class of hooks: hooks that allow developers to add entirely new URL routes exposing completely custom functionality.

The reason I held back is that I wanted to be confident that the contract I was offering was something I would continue to support moving forward. A plugin system isn’t much good if the core implementation keeps on changing in backwards-incompatible ways.

ASGI is the exact contract I’ve been waiting for. It’s not quite ready yet, but you can follow #520: prepare_asgi plugin hook (thoughts and suggestions welcome!) to be the first to hear about this hook when it lands. I’m planning to use it to make my asgi-cors library available as a plugin, after which I’m excited to start exploring the idea of bringing authentication plugins to Datasette (and to the wider ASGI world in general).

I’m hoping that many Datasette ASGI plugins will exist in a form that allows them to be used by other ASGI applications as well.

I also plan to use ASGI to make components of Datasette itself available to other ASGI applications. If you just want a single instance of Datasette’s table view to be embedded somewhere in your URL configuration you should be able to do that by routing traffic directly to the ASGI-compatible view class.

I’m really excited about exploring the intersection of ASGI turtles-all-the-way-down and pluggy’s powerful mechanism for gluing components together. Both WSGI and Django’s reusable apps have attempted to create a reusable ecosystem in the past, to limited levels of success. Let’s see if ASGI can finally make the turtle dream come true.

Further reading

Hello ASGI by Tom Christie is the best introduction to ASGI I’ve seen. Tom is the author of the Uvicorn ASGI server (used by Datasette as-of this evening) and Starlette, a delightfully well-designd ASGI web framework. I’ve learned an enormous amount about ASGI by reading Tom’s code. Tom also gave a talk about ASGI at DjangoCon Europe a few months ago.

If you haven’t read A Django Async Roadmap by Andrew Godwin last year you should absolutely catch up. More than just talking about ASGI, Andrew sketches out a detailed and actionable plan for bringing asyncio to Django core. Andrew landeded the first Django core ASGI code based on the plan just a few days ago.

If you’re interested in the details of Datasette’s ASGI implementation, I posted detailed commentary on issue #272 over the past thirteen months as I researched and finalized my approach. I added further commentary to the associated pull request, which gathers together the 34 commits it took to ship the feature (squashed into a single commit to master).

This is Porting Datasette to ASGI, and Turtles all the way down by Simon Willison, posted on 23rd June 2019.

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