python init vs - What is a mixin, and why are they useful?





7 Answers

First, you should note that mixins only exist in multiple-inheritance languages. You can't do a mixin in Java or C#.

Basically, a mixin is a stand-alone base type that provides limited functionality and polymorphic resonance for a child class. If you're thinking in C#, think of an interface that you don't have to actually implement because it's already implemented; you just inherit from it and benefit from its functionality.

Mixins are typically narrow in scope and not meant to be extended.

[edit -- as to why:]

I suppose I should address why, since you asked. The big benefit is that you don't have to do it yourself over and over again. In C#, the biggest place where a mixin could benefit might be from the Disposal pattern. Whenever you implement IDisposable, you almost always want to follow the same pattern, but you end up writing and re-writing the same basic code with minor variations. If there were an extendable Disposal mixin, you could save yourself a lot of extra typing.

[edit 2 -- to answer your other questions]

What separates a mixin from multiple inheritance? Is it just a matter of semantics?

Yes. The difference between a mixin and standard multiple inheritance is just a matter of semantics; a class that has multiple inheritance might utilize a mixin as part of that multiple inheritance.

The point of a mixin is to create a type that can be "mixed in" to any other type via inheritance without affecting the inheriting type while still offering some beneficial functionality for that type.

Again, think of an interface that is already implemented.

I personally don't use mixins since I develop primarily in a language that doesn't support them, so I'm having a really difficult time coming up with a decent example that will just supply that "ahah!" moment for you. But I'll try again. I'm going to use an example that's contrived -- most languages already provide the feature in some way or another -- but that will, hopefully, explain how mixins are supposed to be created and used. Here goes:

Suppose you have a type that you want to be able to serialize to and from XML. You want the type to provide a "ToXML" method that returns a string containing an XML fragment with the data values of the type, and a "FromXML" that allows the type to reconstruct its data values from an XML fragment in a string. Again, this is a contrived example, so perhaps you use a file stream, or an XML Writer class from your language's runtime library... whatever. The point is that you want to serialize your object to XML and get a new object back from XML.

The other important point in this example is that you want to do this in a generic way. You don't want to have to implement a "ToXML" and "FromXML" method for every type that you want to serialize, you want some generic means of ensuring that your type will do this and it just works. You want code reuse.

If your language supported it, you could create the XmlSerializable mixin to do your work for you. This type would implement the ToXML and the FromXML methods. It would, using some mechanism that's not important to the example, be capable of gathering all the necessary data from any type that it's mixed in with to build the XML fragment returned by ToXML and it would be equally capable of restoring that data when FromXML is called.

And.. that's it. To use it, you would have any type that needs to be serialized to XML inherit from XmlSerializable. Whenever you needed to serialize or deserialize that type, you would simply call ToXML or FromXML. In fact, since XmlSerializable is a fully-fledged type and polymorphic, you could conceivably build a document serializer that doesn't know anything about your original type, accepting only, say, an array of XmlSerializable types.

Now imagine using this scenario for other things, like creating a mixin that ensures that every class that mixes it in logs every method call, or a mixin that provides transactionality to the type that mixes it in. The list can go on and on.

If you just think of a mixin as a small base type designed to add a small amount of functionality to a type without otherwise affecting that type, then you're golden.

Hopefully. :)

inheritance best practices

In "Programming Python", Mark Lutz mentions "mixins". I'm from a C/C++/C# background and I have not heard the term before. What is a mixin?

Reading between the lines of this example (which I've linked to because it's quite long), I'm presuming it's a case of using multiple inheritance to extend a class as opposed to 'proper' subclassing. Is this right?

Why would I want to do that rather than put the new functionality into a subclass? For that matter, why would a mixin/multiple inheritance approach be better than using composition?

What separates a mixin from multiple inheritance? Is it just a matter of semantics?




I think of them as a disciplined way of using multiple inheritance - because ultimately a mixin is just another python class that (might) follow the conventions about classes that are called mixins.

My understanding of the conventions that govern something you would call a Mixin are that a Mixin:

  • adds methods but not instance variables (class constants are OK)
  • only inherits from object (in Python)

That way it limits the potential complexity of multiple inheritance, and makes it reasonably easy to track the flow of your program by limiting where you have to look (compared to full multiple inheritance). They are similar to ruby modules.

If I want to add instance variables (with more flexibility than allowed for by single inheritance) then I tend to go for composition.

Having said that, I have seen classes called XYZMixin that do have instance variables.




What separates a mixin from multiple inheritance? Is it just a matter of semantics?

A mixin is a limited form of multiple inheritance. In some languages the mechanism for adding a mixin to a class is slightly different (in terms of syntax) from that of inheritance.

In the context of Python especially, a mixin is a parent class that provides functionality to subclasses but is not intended to be instantiated itself.

What might cause you to say, "that's just multiple inheritance, not really a mixin" is if the class that might be confused for a mixin can actually be instantiated and used - so indeed it is a semantic, and very real, difference.

Example of Multiple Inheritance

This example, from the documentation, is an OrderedCounter:

class OrderedCounter(Counter, OrderedDict):
     'Counter that remembers the order elements are first encountered'

     def __repr__(self):
         return '%s(%r)' % (self.__class__.__name__, OrderedDict(self))

     def __reduce__(self):
         return self.__class__, (OrderedDict(self),)

It subclasses both the Counter and the OrderedDict from the collections module.

Both Counter and OrderedDict are intended to be instantiated and used on their own. However, by subclassing them both, we can have a counter that is ordered and reuses the code in each object.

This is a powerful way to reuse code, but it can also be problematic. If it turns out there's a bug in one of the objects, fixing it without care could create a bug in the subclass.

Example of a Mixin

Mixins are usually promoted as the way to get code reuse without potential coupling issues that cooperative multiple inheritance, like the OrderedCounter, could have. When you use mixins, you use functionality that isn't as tightly coupled to the data.

Unlike the example above, a mixin is not intended to be used on its own. It provides new or different functionality.

For example, the standard library has a couple of mixins in the socketserver library.

Forking and threading versions of each type of server can be created using these mix-in classes. For instance, ThreadingUDPServer is created as follows:

class ThreadingUDPServer(ThreadingMixIn, UDPServer):
    pass

The mix-in class comes first, since it overrides a method defined in UDPServer. Setting the various attributes also changes the behavior of the underlying server mechanism.

In this case, the mixin methods override the methods in the UDPServer object definition to allow for concurrency.

The overridden method appears to be process_request and it also provides another method, process_request_thread. Here it is from the source code:

class ThreadingMixIn:
        """Mix-in class to handle each request in a new thread."""

        # Decides how threads will act upon termination of the
        # main process
        daemon_threads = False

        def process_request_thread(self, request, client_address):
            """Same as in BaseServer but as a thread.
            In addition, exception handling is done here.
            """
            try:
                self.finish_request(request, client_address)
            except Exception:
                self.handle_error(request, client_address)
            finally:
                self.shutdown_request(request)

        def process_request(self, request, client_address):
            """Start a new thread to process the request."""
            t = threading.Thread(target = self.process_request_thread,
                                 args = (request, client_address))
            t.daemon = self.daemon_threads
            t.start()

A Contrived Example

This is a mixin that is mostly for demonstration purposes - most objects will evolve beyond the usefulness of this repr:

class SimpleInitReprMixin(object):
    """mixin, don't instantiate - useful for classes instantiable
    by keyword arguments to their __init__ method.
    """
    __slots__ = () # allow subclasses to use __slots__ to prevent __dict__
    def __repr__(self):
        kwarg_strings = []
        d = getattr(self, '__dict__', None)
        if d is not None:
            for k, v in d.items():
                kwarg_strings.append('{k}={v}'.format(k=k, v=repr(v)))
        slots = getattr(self, '__slots__', None)
        if slots is not None:
            for k in slots:
                v = getattr(self, k, None)
                kwarg_strings.append('{k}={v}'.format(k=k, v=repr(v)))
        return '{name}({kwargs})'.format(
          name=type(self).__name__,
          kwargs=', '.join(kwarg_strings)
          )

and usage would be:

class Foo(SimpleInitReprMixin): # add other mixins and/or extend another class here
    __slots__ = 'foo',
    def __init__(self, foo=None):
        self.foo = foo
        super(Foo, self).__init__()

And usage:

>>> f1 = Foo('bar')
>>> f2 = Foo()
>>> f1
Foo(foo='bar')
>>> f2
Foo(foo=None)



Perhaps a couple of examples will help.

If you're building a class and you want it to act like a dictionary, you can define all the various __ __ methods necessary. But that's a bit of a pain. As an alternative, you can just define a few, and inherit (in addition to any other inheritance) from UserDict.DictMixin (moved to collections.DictMixin in py3k). This will have the effect of automatically defining all the rest of the dictionary api.

A second example: the GUI toolkit wxPython allows you to make list controls with multiple columns (like, say, the file display in Windows Explorer). By default, these lists are fairly basic. You can add additional functionality, such as the ability to sort the list by a particular column by clicking on the column header, by inheriting from ListCtrl and adding appropriate mixins.




Maybe an example from ruby can help:

You can include the mixin Comparable and define one function "<=>(other)", the mixin provides all those functions:

<(other)
>(other)
==(other)
<=(other)
>=(other)
between?(other)

It does this by invoking <=>(other) and giving back the right result.

"instance <=> other" returns 0 if both objects are equal, less than 0 if instance is bigger than other and more than 0 if other is bigger.




mixin gives a way to add functionality in a class, i.e you can interact with methods defined in a module by including the module inside the desired class. Though ruby doesn't supports multiple inheritance but provides mixin as an alternative to achieve that.

here is an example that explains how multiple inheritance is achieved using mixin.

module A    # you create a module
    def a1  # lets have a method 'a1' in it
    end
    def a2  # Another method 'a2'
    end
end

module B    # let's say we have another module
    def b1  # A method 'b1'
    end
    def b2  #another method b2
    end
end

class Sample    # we create a class 'Sample'
    include A   # including module 'A' in the class 'Sample' (mixin)
    include B   # including module B as well

    def S1      #class 'Sample' contains a method 's1'
    end
end

samp = Sample.new    # creating an instance object 'samp'

# we can access methods from module A and B in our class(power of mixin)

samp.a1     # accessing method 'a1' from module A
samp.a2     # accessing method 'a2' from module A
samp.b1     # accessing method 'b1' from module B
samp.b2     # accessing method 'a2' from module B
samp.s1     # accessing method 's1' inside the class Sample



I read that you have a c# background. So a good starting point might be a mixin implementation for .NET.

You might want to check out the codeplex project at http://remix.codeplex.com/

Watch the lang.net Symposium link to get an overview. There is still more to come on documentation on codeplex page.

regards Stefan




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