What are metaclasses in Python?


Answers

Classes as objects

Before understanding metaclasses, you need to master classes in Python. And Python has a very peculiar idea of what classes are, borrowed from the Smalltalk language.

In most languages, classes are just pieces of code that describe how to produce an object. That's kinda true in Python too:

>>> class ObjectCreator(object):
...       pass
...

>>> my_object = ObjectCreator()
>>> print(my_object)
<__main__.ObjectCreator object at 0x8974f2c>

But classes are more than that in Python. Classes are objects too.

Yes, objects.

As soon as you use the keyword class, Python executes it and creates an OBJECT. The instruction

>>> class ObjectCreator(object):
...       pass
...

creates in memory an object with the name "ObjectCreator".

This object (the class) is itself capable of creating objects (the instances), and this is why it's a class.

But still, it's an object, and therefore:

  • you can assign it to a variable
  • you can copy it
  • you can add attributes to it
  • you can pass it as a function parameter

e.g.:

>>> print(ObjectCreator) # you can print a class because it's an object
<class '__main__.ObjectCreator'>
>>> def echo(o):
...       print(o)
...
>>> echo(ObjectCreator) # you can pass a class as a parameter
<class '__main__.ObjectCreator'>
>>> print(hasattr(ObjectCreator, 'new_attribute'))
False
>>> ObjectCreator.new_attribute = 'foo' # you can add attributes to a class
>>> print(hasattr(ObjectCreator, 'new_attribute'))
True
>>> print(ObjectCreator.new_attribute)
foo
>>> ObjectCreatorMirror = ObjectCreator # you can assign a class to a variable
>>> print(ObjectCreatorMirror.new_attribute)
foo
>>> print(ObjectCreatorMirror())
<__main__.ObjectCreator object at 0x8997b4c>

Creating classes dynamically

Since classes are objects, you can create them on the fly, like any object.

First, you can create a class in a function using class:

>>> def choose_class(name):
...     if name == 'foo':
...         class Foo(object):
...             pass
...         return Foo # return the class, not an instance
...     else:
...         class Bar(object):
...             pass
...         return Bar
...
>>> MyClass = choose_class('foo')
>>> print(MyClass) # the function returns a class, not an instance
<class '__main__.Foo'>
>>> print(MyClass()) # you can create an object from this class
<__main__.Foo object at 0x89c6d4c>

But it's not so dynamic, since you still have to write the whole class yourself.

Since classes are objects, they must be generated by something.

When you use the class keyword, Python creates this object automatically. But as with most things in Python, it gives you a way to do it manually.

Remember the function type? The good old function that lets you know what type an object is:

>>> print(type(1))
<type 'int'>
>>> print(type("1"))
<type 'str'>
>>> print(type(ObjectCreator))
<type 'type'>
>>> print(type(ObjectCreator()))
<class '__main__.ObjectCreator'>

Well, type has a completely different ability, it can also create classes on the fly. type can take the description of a class as parameters, and return a class.

(I know, it's silly that the same function can have two completely different uses according to the parameters you pass to it. It's an issue due to backwards compatibility in Python)

type works this way:

type(name of the class,
     tuple of the parent class (for inheritance, can be empty),
     dictionary containing attributes names and values)

e.g.:

>>> class MyShinyClass(object):
...       pass

can be created manually this way:

>>> MyShinyClass = type('MyShinyClass', (), {}) # returns a class object
>>> print(MyShinyClass)
<class '__main__.MyShinyClass'>
>>> print(MyShinyClass()) # create an instance with the class
<__main__.MyShinyClass object at 0x8997cec>

You'll notice that we use "MyShinyClass" as the name of the class and as the variable to hold the class reference. They can be different, but there is no reason to complicate things.

type accepts a dictionary to define the attributes of the class. So:

>>> class Foo(object):
...       bar = True

Can be translated to:

>>> Foo = type('Foo', (), {'bar':True})

And used as a normal class:

>>> print(Foo)
<class '__main__.Foo'>
>>> print(Foo.bar)
True
>>> f = Foo()
>>> print(f)
<__main__.Foo object at 0x8a9b84c>
>>> print(f.bar)
True

And of course, you can inherit from it, so:

>>>   class FooChild(Foo):
...         pass

would be:

>>> FooChild = type('FooChild', (Foo,), {})
>>> print(FooChild)
<class '__main__.FooChild'>
>>> print(FooChild.bar) # bar is inherited from Foo
True

Eventually you'll want to add methods to your class. Just define a function with the proper signature and assign it as an attribute.

>>> def echo_bar(self):
...       print(self.bar)
...
>>> FooChild = type('FooChild', (Foo,), {'echo_bar': echo_bar})
>>> hasattr(Foo, 'echo_bar')
False
>>> hasattr(FooChild, 'echo_bar')
True
>>> my_foo = FooChild()
>>> my_foo.echo_bar()
True

And you can add even more methods after you dynamically create the class, just like adding methods to a normally created class object.

>>> def echo_bar_more(self):
...       print('yet another method')
...
>>> FooChild.echo_bar_more = echo_bar_more
>>> hasattr(FooChild, 'echo_bar_more')
True

You see where we are going: in Python, classes are objects, and you can create a class on the fly, dynamically.

This is what Python does when you use the keyword class, and it does so by using a metaclass.

What are metaclasses (finally)

Metaclasses are the 'stuff' that creates classes.

You define classes in order to create objects, right?

But we learned that Python classes are objects.

Well, metaclasses are what create these objects. They are the classes' classes, you can picture them this way:

MyClass = MetaClass()
my_object = MyClass()

You've seen that type lets you do something like this:

MyClass = type('MyClass', (), {})

It's because the function type is in fact a metaclass. type is the metaclass Python uses to create all classes behind the scenes.

Now you wonder why the heck is it written in lowercase, and not Type?

Well, I guess it's a matter of consistency with str, the class that creates strings objects, and int the class that creates integer objects. type is just the class that creates class objects.

You see that by checking the __class__ attribute.

Everything, and I mean everything, is an object in Python. That includes ints, strings, functions and classes. All of them are objects. And all of them have been created from a class:

>>> age = 35
>>> age.__class__
<type 'int'>
>>> name = 'bob'
>>> name.__class__
<type 'str'>
>>> def foo(): pass
>>> foo.__class__
<type 'function'>
>>> class Bar(object): pass
>>> b = Bar()
>>> b.__class__
<class '__main__.Bar'>

Now, what is the __class__ of any __class__ ?

>>> age.__class__.__class__
<type 'type'>
>>> name.__class__.__class__
<type 'type'>
>>> foo.__class__.__class__
<type 'type'>
>>> b.__class__.__class__
<type 'type'>

So, a metaclass is just the stuff that creates class objects.

You can call it a 'class factory' if you wish.

type is the built-in metaclass Python uses, but of course, you can create your own metaclass.

The __metaclass__ attribute

You can add a __metaclass__ attribute when you write a class:

class Foo(object):
    __metaclass__ = something...
    [...]

If you do so, Python will use the metaclass to create the class Foo.

Careful, it's tricky.

You write class Foo(object) first, but the class object Foo is not created in memory yet.

Python will look for __metaclass__ in the class definition. If it finds it, it will use it to create the object class Foo. If it doesn't, it will use type to create the class.

Read that several times.

When you do:

class Foo(Bar):
    pass

Python does the following:

Is there a __metaclass__ attribute in Foo?

If yes, create in memory a class object (I said a class object, stay with me here), with the name Foo by using what is in __metaclass__.

If Python can't find __metaclass__, it will look for a __metaclass__ at the MODULE level, and try to do the same (but only for classes that don't inherit anything, basically old-style classes).

Then if it can't find any __metaclass__ at all, it will use the Bar's (the first parent) own metaclass (which might be the default type) to create the class object.

Be careful here that the __metaclass__ attribute will not be inherited, the metaclass of the parent (Bar.__class__) will be. If Bar used a __metaclass__ attribute that created Bar with type() (and not type.__new__()), the subclasses will not inherit that behavior.

Now the big question is, what can you put in __metaclass__ ?

The answer is: something that can create a class.

And what can create a class? type, or anything that subclasses or uses it.

Custom metaclasses

The main purpose of a metaclass is to change the class automatically, when it's created.

You usually do this for APIs, where you want to create classes matching the current context.

Imagine a stupid example, where you decide that all classes in your module should have their attributes written in uppercase. There are several ways to do this, but one way is to set __metaclass__ at the module level.

This way, all classes of this module will be created using this metaclass, and we just have to tell the metaclass to turn all attributes to uppercase.

Luckily, __metaclass__ can actually be any callable, it doesn't need to be a formal class (I know, something with 'class' in its name doesn't need to be a class, go figure... but it's helpful).

So we will start with a simple example, by using a function.

# the metaclass will automatically get passed the same argument
# that you usually pass to `type`
def upper_attr(future_class_name, future_class_parents, future_class_attr):
    """
      Return a class object, with the list of its attribute turned
      into uppercase.
    """

    # pick up any attribute that doesn't start with '__' and uppercase it
    uppercase_attr = {}
    for name, val in future_class_attr.items():
        if not name.startswith('__'):
            uppercase_attr[name.upper()] = val
        else:
            uppercase_attr[name] = val

    # let `type` do the class creation
    return type(future_class_name, future_class_parents, uppercase_attr)

__metaclass__ = upper_attr # this will affect all classes in the module

class Foo(): # global __metaclass__ won't work with "object" though
    # but we can define __metaclass__ here instead to affect only this class
    # and this will work with "object" children
    bar = 'bip'

print(hasattr(Foo, 'bar'))
# Out: False
print(hasattr(Foo, 'BAR'))
# Out: True

f = Foo()
print(f.BAR)
# Out: 'bip'

Now, let's do exactly the same, but using a real class for a metaclass:

# remember that `type` is actually a class like `str` and `int`
# so you can inherit from it
class UpperAttrMetaclass(type):
    # __new__ is the method called before __init__
    # it's the method that creates the object and returns it
    # while __init__ just initializes the object passed as parameter
    # you rarely use __new__, except when you want to control how the object
    # is created.
    # here the created object is the class, and we want to customize it
    # so we override __new__
    # you can do some stuff in __init__ too if you wish
    # some advanced use involves overriding __call__ as well, but we won't
    # see this
    def __new__(upperattr_metaclass, future_class_name,
                future_class_parents, future_class_attr):

        uppercase_attr = {}
        for name, val in future_class_attr.items():
            if not name.startswith('__'):
                uppercase_attr[name.upper()] = val
            else:
                uppercase_attr[name] = val

        return type(future_class_name, future_class_parents, uppercase_attr)

But this is not really OOP. We call type directly and we don't override or call the parent __new__. Let's do it:

class UpperAttrMetaclass(type):

    def __new__(upperattr_metaclass, future_class_name,
                future_class_parents, future_class_attr):

        uppercase_attr = {}
        for name, val in future_class_attr.items():
            if not name.startswith('__'):
                uppercase_attr[name.upper()] = val
            else:
                uppercase_attr[name] = val

        # reuse the type.__new__ method
        # this is basic OOP, nothing magic in there
        return type.__new__(upperattr_metaclass, future_class_name,
                            future_class_parents, uppercase_attr)

You may have noticed the extra argument upperattr_metaclass. There is nothing special about it: __new__ always receives the class it's defined in, as first parameter. Just like you have self for ordinary methods which receive the instance as first parameter, or the defining class for class methods.

Of course, the names I used here are long for the sake of clarity, but like for self, all the arguments have conventional names. So a real production metaclass would look like this:

class UpperAttrMetaclass(type):

    def __new__(cls, clsname, bases, dct):

        uppercase_attr = {}
        for name, val in dct.items():
            if not name.startswith('__'):
                uppercase_attr[name.upper()] = val
            else:
                uppercase_attr[name] = val

        return type.__new__(cls, clsname, bases, uppercase_attr)

We can make it even cleaner by using super, which will ease inheritance (because yes, you can have metaclasses, inheriting from metaclasses, inheriting from type):

class UpperAttrMetaclass(type):

    def __new__(cls, clsname, bases, dct):

        uppercase_attr = {}
        for name, val in dct.items():
            if not name.startswith('__'):
                uppercase_attr[name.upper()] = val
            else:
                uppercase_attr[name] = val

        return super(UpperAttrMetaclass, cls).__new__(cls, clsname, bases, uppercase_attr)

That's it. There is really nothing more about metaclasses.

The reason behind the complexity of the code using metaclasses is not because of metaclasses, it's because you usually use metaclasses to do twisted stuff relying on introspection, manipulating inheritance, vars such as __dict__, etc.

Indeed, metaclasses are especially useful to do black magic, and therefore complicated stuff. But by themselves, they are simple:

  • intercept a class creation
  • modify the class
  • return the modified class

Why would you use metaclasses classes instead of functions?

Since __metaclass__ can accept any callable, why would you use a class since it's obviously more complicated?

There are several reasons to do so:

  • The intention is clear. When you read UpperAttrMetaclass(type), you know what's going to follow
  • You can use OOP. Metaclass can inherit from metaclass, override parent methods. Metaclasses can even use metaclasses.
  • Subclasses of a class will be instances of its metaclass if you specified a metaclass-class, but not with a metaclass-function.
  • You can structure your code better. You never use metaclasses for something as trivial as the above example. It's usually for something complicated. Having the ability to make several methods and group them in one class is very useful to make the code easier to read.
  • You can hook on __new__, __init__ and __call__. Which will allow you to do different stuff. Even if usually you can do it all in __new__, some people are just more comfortable using __init__.
  • These are called metaclasses, damn it! It must mean something!

Why would you use metaclasses?

Now the big question. Why would you use some obscure error prone feature?

Well, usually you don't:

Metaclasses are deeper magic that 99% of users should never worry about. If you wonder whether you need them, you don't (the people who actually need them know with certainty that they need them, and don't need an explanation about why).

Python Guru Tim Peters

The main use case for a metaclass is creating an API. A typical example of this is the Django ORM.

It allows you to define something like this:

class Person(models.Model):
    name = models.CharField(max_length=30)
    age = models.IntegerField()

But if you do this:

guy = Person(name='bob', age='35')
print(guy.age)

It won't return an IntegerField object. It will return an int, and can even take it directly from the database.

This is possible because models.Model defines __metaclass__ and it uses some magic that will turn the Person you just defined with simple statements into a complex hook to a database field.

Django makes something complex look simple by exposing a simple API and using metaclasses, recreating code from this API to do the real job behind the scenes.

The last word

First, you know that classes are objects that can create instances.

Well in fact, classes are themselves instances. Of metaclasses.

>>> class Foo(object): pass
>>> id(Foo)
142630324

Everything is an object in Python, and they are all either instances of classes or instances of metaclasses.

Except for type.

type is actually its own metaclass. This is not something you could reproduce in pure Python, and is done by cheating a little bit at the implementation level.

Secondly, metaclasses are complicated. You may not want to use them for very simple class alterations. You can change classes by using two different techniques:

99% of the time you need class alteration, you are better off using these.

But 98% of the time, you don't need class alteration at all.

Question

What are metaclasses and what do we use them for?




The type() function can return the type of an object or create a new type,

for example, we can create a Hi class with the type() function and do not need to use this way with class Hi(object):

def func(self, name='mike'):
    print('Hi, %s.' % name)

Hi = type('Hi', (object,), dict(hi=func))
h = Hi()
h.hi()
Hi, mike.

type(Hi)
type

type(h)
__main__.Hi

In addition to using type() to create classes dynamically, you can control creation behavior of class and use metaclass.

According to the Python object model, the class is the object, so the class must be an instance of another certain class. By default, a Python class is instance of the type class. That is, type is metaclass of most of the built-in classes and metaclass of user-defined classes.

class ListMetaclass(type):
    def __new__(cls, name, bases, attrs):
        attrs['add'] = lambda self, value: self.append(value)
        return type.__new__(cls, name, bases, attrs)

class CustomList(list, metaclass=ListMetaclass):
    pass

lst = CustomList()
lst.add('custom_list_1')
lst.add('custom_list_2')

lst
['custom_list_1', 'custom_list_2']

Magic will take effect when we passed keyword arguments in metaclass, it indicates the Python interpreter to create the CustomList through ListMetaclass. new (), at this point, we can modify the class definition, for example, and add a new method and then return the revised definition.




Python 3 update

There are (at this point) two key methods in a metaclass:

  • __prepare__, and
  • __new__

__prepare__ lets you supply a custom mapping (such as an OrderedDict) to be used as the namespace while the class is being created. You must return an instance of whatever namespace you choose. If you don't implement __prepare__ a normal dict is used.

__new__ is responsible for the actual creation/modification of the final class.

A bare-bones, do-nothing-extra metaclass would like:

class Meta(type):

    def __prepare__(metaclass, cls, bases):
        return dict()

    def __new__(metacls, cls, bases, clsdict):
        return super().__new__(metacls, cls, bases, clsdict)

A simple example:

Say you want some simple validation code to run on your attributes -- like it must always be an int or a str. Without a metaclass, your class would look something like:

class Person:
    weight = ValidateType('weight', int)
    age = ValidateType('age', int)
    name = ValidateType('name', str)

As you can see, you have to repeat the name of the attribute twice. This makes typos possible along with irritating bugs.

A simple metaclass can address that problem:

class Person(metaclass=Validator):
    weight = ValidateType(int)
    age = ValidateType(int)
    name = ValidateType(str)

This is what the metaclass would look like (not using __prepare__ since it is not needed):

class Validator(type):
    def __new__(metacls, cls, bases, clsdict):
        # search clsdict looking for ValidateType descriptors
        for name, attr in clsdict.items():
            if isinstance(attr, ValidateType):
                attr.name = name
                attr.attr = '_' + name
        # create final class and return it
        return super().__new__(metacls, cls, bases, clsdict)

A sample run of:

p = Person()
p.weight = 9
print(p.weight)
p.weight = '9'

produces:

9
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "simple_meta.py", line 36, in <module>
    p.weight = '9'
  File "simple_meta.py", line 24, in __set__
    (self.name, self.type, value))
TypeError: weight must be of type(s) <class 'int'> (got '9')

Note: This example is simple enough it could have also been accomplished with a class decorator, but presumably an actual metaclass would be doing much more.

The 'ValidateType' class for reference:

class ValidateType:
    def __init__(self, type):
        self.name = None  # will be set by metaclass
        self.attr = None  # will be set by metaclass
        self.type = type
    def __get__(self, inst, cls):
        if inst is None:
            return self
        else:
            return inst.__dict__[self.attr]
    def __set__(self, inst, value):
        if not isinstance(value, self.type):
            raise TypeError('%s must be of type(s) %s (got %r)' %
                    (self.name, self.type, value))
        else:
            inst.__dict__[self.attr] = value



I think the ONLamp introduction to metaclass programming is well written and gives a really good introduction to the topic despite being several years old already.

http://www.onlamp.com/pub/a/python/2003/04/17/metaclasses.html

In short: A class is a blueprint for the creation of an instance, a metaclass is a blueprint for the creation of a class. It can be easily seen that in Python classes need to be first-class objects too to enable this behavior.

I've never written one myself, but I think one of the nicest uses of metaclasses can be seen in the Django framework. The model classes use a metaclass approach to enable a declarative style of writing new models or form classes. While the metaclass is creating the class, all members get the possibility to customize the class itself.

The thing that's left to say is: If you don't know what metaclasses are, the probability that you will not need them is 99%.




One use for metaclasses is adding new properties and methods to an instance automatically.

For example, if you look at Django models, their definition looks a bit confusing. It looks as if you are only defining class properties:

class Person(models.Model):
    first_name = models.CharField(max_length=30)
    last_name = models.CharField(max_length=30)

However, at runtime the Person objects are filled with all sorts of useful methods. See the source for some amazing metaclassery.




Role of a metaclass's __call__() method when creating a class instance

If you've done Python programming for more than a few months you'll eventually stumble upon code that looks like this:

# define a class
class SomeClass(object):
    # ...
    # some definition here ...
    # ...

# create an instance of it
instance = SomeClass()

# then call the object as if it's a function
result = instance('foo', 'bar')

The latter is possible when you implement the __call__() magic method on the class.

class SomeClass(object):
    # ...
    # some definition here ...
    # ...

    def __call__(self, foo, bar):
        return bar + foo

The __call__() method is invoked when an instance of a class is used as a callable. But as we've seen from previous answers a class itself is an instance of a metaclass, so when we use the class as a callable (i.e. when we create an instance of it) we're actually calling its metaclass's __call__() method. At this point most Python programmers are a bit confused because they've been told that when creating an instance like this instance = SomeClass() you're calling it's __init__() method. Some who've dug a bit deeper know that before __init__() there's __new__(). Well, today another layer of truth is being revealed, before __new__() there's the metaclass's __call__().

Let's study the method call chain from specifically the perspective of creating an instance of a class.

This is a metaclass that logs exactly the moment before an instance is created and the moment it's about to return it.

class Meta_1(type):
    def __call__(cls):
        print "Meta_1.__call__() before creating an instance of ", cls
        instance = super(Meta_1, cls).__call__()
        print "Meta_1.__call__() about to return instance."
        return instance

This is a class that uses that metaclass

class Class_1(object):

    __metaclass__ = Meta_1

    def __new__(cls):
        print "Class_1.__new__() before creating an instance."
        instance = super(Class_1, cls).__new__(cls)
        print "Class_1.__new__() about to return instance."
        return instance

    def __init__(self):
        print "entering Class_1.__init__() for instance initialization."
        super(Class_1,self).__init__()
        print "exiting Class_1.__init__()."

And now let's create an instance of Class_1

instance = Class_1()
# Meta_1.__call__() before creating an instance of <class '__main__.Class_1'>.
# Class_1.__new__() before creating an instance.
# Class_1.__new__() about to return instance.
# entering Class_1.__init__() for instance initialization.
# exiting Class_1.__init__().
# Meta_1.__call__() about to return instance.

The code above doesn't actually do anything other than logging the task and then delegating the actual work to the parent (i.e. keeping the default behavior). So with type being Meta_1's parent class, we can imagine that this would be the pseudo implementation of type.__call__():

class type:
    def __call__(cls, *args, **kwarg):

        # ... maybe a few things done to cls here

        # then we call __new__() on the class to create an instance
        instance = cls.__new__(cls, *args, **kwargs)

        # ... maybe a few things done to the instance here

        # then we initialize the instance with its __init__() method
        instance.__init__(*args, **kwargs)

        # ... maybe a few more things done to instance here

        # then we return it
        return instance

We can see that the metaclass's __call__() method is the one that's called first. It then delegates creation of the instance to the class's __new__() method and initialization to the instance's __init__(). It's also the one that ultimately returns the instance.

From the above it stems that the metaclass's __call__() is also given the opportunity to decide whether or not a call to Class_1.__new__() or Class_1.__init__() will eventually be made. Over the course of its execution it could actually return an object that hasn't been touched by either of these methods. Take for example this approach to the singleton pattern:

class Meta_2(type):
    singletons = {}

    def __call__(cls, *args, **kwargs):
        if cls in Meta_2.singletons:
            # we return the only instance and skip a call to __new__() 
            # and __init__()
            print ("{} singleton returning from Meta_2.__call__(), "
                   "skipping creation of new instance.".format(cls))
            return Meta_2.singletons[cls]

        # else if the singleton isn't present we proceed as usual
        print "Meta_2.__call__() before creating an instance."
        instance = super(Meta_2, cls).__call__(*args, **kwargs)
        Meta_2.singletons[cls] = instance
        print "Meta_2.__call__() returning new instance."
        return instance

class Class_2(object):

    __metaclass__ = Meta_2

    def __new__(cls, *args, **kwargs):
        print "Class_2.__new__() before creating instance."
        instance = super(Class_2, cls).__new__(cls)
        print "Class_2.__new__() returning instance."
        return instance

    def __init__(self, *args, **kwargs):
        print "entering Class_2.__init__() for initialization."
        super(Class_2, self).__init__()
        print "exiting Class_2.__init__()."

Let's observe what happens when repeatedly trying to create an object of type Class_2

a = Class_2()
# Meta_2.__call__() before creating an instance.
# Class_2.__new__() before creating instance.
# Class_2.__new__() returning instance.
# entering Class_2.__init__() for initialization.
# exiting Class_2.__init__().
# Meta_2.__call__() returning new instance.

b = Class_2()
# <class '__main__.Class_2'> singleton returning from Meta_2.__call__(), skipping creation of new instance.

c = Class_2()
# <class '__main__.Class_2'> singleton returning from Meta_2.__call__(), skipping creation of new instance.

a is b is c # True



The tl;dr version

The type(obj) function gets you the type of an object.

The type() of a class is its metaclass.

To use a metaclass:

class Foo(object):
    __metaclass__ = MyMetaClass