Dynamic Code Patterns: Extending Your Applications with Plugins

This essay is based on my PyCon 2013 presentation of the same title. The presentation was recorded and the video is available online, as are the slides.

Over the past few years I have been doing a lot of work on applications that make heavy use of Python’s ability to load code dynamically at runtime. This essay includes the results of some focused research that I did into patterns for using dynamic code, and the impact that research had on the design of stevedore and ceilometer, an application that uses it

For my analysis, I counted any application or framework that loads code dynamically at runtime to be using plugins. I did not consider delayed execution of hard-coded import statements as plugins, but restricted the research to true dynamic loading. In most cases, the name or location of the code is given through some external mechanism like a configuration file.

Why Use Plugins?

Before examining patterns for using plugins, we should talk about why to use plugins in an application at all.

One important benefit is improved design. Keeping a separation between core and extension code encourages you to think more about abstractions in your design. Building an extensible system can take more work than hardwiring everything, but the results tend to be more flexible and maintainable over the long term.

Plugins are a good way to implement device drivers and other versions of the Strategy pattern. The application can maintain generic core logic, and the plugin can handle the details for interfacing with an outside system or device.

Packaging extensions separately reduces dependency bloat and makes deployment easier to manage and install. Users who do not need some drivers or features can avoid deploying dependencies that are only used by those plugins.

Plugins also provide a convenient way to extend the feature set of an application by hooking new code into well-defined extension points. And having such an extensible system makes it easier for other developers to contribute to your project indirectly by providing add-on packages that are released separately.

Requirements for Ceilometer

I have spent a fair bit of time studying plugin-based architectures over the last year while helping to create ceilometer, the new metering component in OpenStack. Ceilometer measures the resources being used in a cloud deployment so we can bill the tenants for those resources. We collect data like the lifetimes of servers, along with bandwidth and storage consumed.

However, the type and number of things a given cloud deployer will want to charge for will vary, so we wanted a flexible system for taking those measurements. We need to allow deployers to write their own plugins to measure things we haven’t thought of, or that may need to be measured in a way that is private to their configuration (a case we have at DreamHost).

We are expecting a lot of developers who don’t interact with us directly to be trying to write extensions to ceilometer for use in private cloud deployments, so it is also important to clearly document how to create new plugins.

With these things in mind, we designed ceilometer to be flexible in several different areas.


OpenStack is a collection of components that cooperate to provide Infrastructure as a Service features. Each component manages a different aspect of the cloud and uses a message bus to communicate with the other components.

All of the components generate notification messages when events happen (like instances being created or destroyed). Capturing those messages was the first source of data for ceilometer. The notifications contain different metadata depending on the resource that triggered the event, so we needed plugins to translate the notification messages into a standard format for metering.

There aren’t events for all of the things we want to measure for billing, so we also had to create some agents to poll for data. For example, we want to check periodically to see how much CPU capacity each instance has consumed. Some pollsters run on the hypervisor server, and others run on a management server where they can communicate with the other OpenStack components via their APIs.

All of the ceilometer services use another message bus to deliver data to a collector process which uses a storage driver to write data to a database. We support relational and non-relational databases, depending on the choice of the deployer.

This architecture resulted in five sets of plugins for ceilometer. OpenStack includes a message bus abstraction layer and a set of drivers for using RabbitMQ, Qpid, and ZMQ. Since that was already implemented for us, we didn’t have to touch it.

The other 4 sets we created from scratch:

  • The plugins for processing notification messages

  • The pollsters for the compute nodes

  • The central pollsters

  • And the storage driver

The resulting designs use patterns found in other applications and frameworks that use plugins.

Other Plugin-based Applications

During my research, I looked at a few projects that I was already familiar with, either as a user or a developer, and some I had not used before. There are plenty of other examples, but this list was long enough to identify some common patterns and help us with our design.

Blogofile and Sphinx are two apps for working with different forms of text for publishing. They use extensions to add new content processing features.

Mercurial is a command line app that can be extended with new subcommands. Cliff is a library I created for building apps like Mercurial.

Virtualenvwrapper is a command line tool that uses hooks in a different way, to extend existing commands but not necessarily add new ones.

Nose and Trac are common developer tools. You’re more likely to have used them than written extensions for them, but they do both use plugins.

Django, Pyramid, and SQLAlchemy are developer libraries that use plugins.

Diamond is a monitoring app with an extensive plugin set, similar to the system we were planning to build for OpenStack.

Nova is the primary component of the OpenStack cloud system. It relies on a large number of drivers for managing different aspects of the computing environment.

I looked at all of this code in an effort to derive ideas about the “right way” to handle plugins for ceilometer. While some of what I will say today may sound critical of the choices made by the developers of the other code, I do have the benefit of hindsight and a different perspective based on looking at the examples all together, as well as different requirements for our project.


The first thing an application has to do with a plugin is find it. The tools I looked at are split between some form of explicit definition of plugins and a scanner that looked for the plugins.


Each of those sets is then further divided between what was being listed or scanned – files on the filesystem, or python import references (either a module, or something inside of a module).

The “Explicit import reference” category means there is a configuration file somewhere and a user lists an importable object in that file.

The “Scan import reference” category means a registry of import strings is being scanned. All of these examples use setuptools and pkg_resources to manage entry points.


After the app finds a plugin, the next step is to decide whether to load it and use it. Most applications require an explicit step to configure extensions. There are times when this makes sense. Developer tools like Django are right to ask the developer to list the desired extensions explicitly, since you’re really bringing that code in statically. The extensions to SQLAlchemy are all enabled, but only one is really used at a time and that is chosen by the database connection string.


However, some of the user applications like Blogofile, Mercurial, and Trac ask the user to explicitly enable extensions through a configuration step that seems like it could be skipped. When I created virtualenvwrapper and cliff, I decided to use installation as a trigger for activation because I wanted to avoid an extra opportunity for misconfiguration. In both of those cases, installing an extension makes it available, so the user can start taking advantage of it immediately.

That’s also true for Nose extensions, although whether or not they are used for a given test suite or test run depends on the options you give nose.


After the app decides whether to load a plugin, the next step is to actually get the code. All of the examples I looked at used two techniques, either calling import explicitly (by using the builtin function, the imp module, or some other variation), or using pkg_resources.


Nose, SQLAlchemy, and Blogofile all use both techniques. Nose falls back to a custom importer if pkg_resources is not installed. SQLAlchemy uses a custom importer for “extensions” distributed with the core but pkg_resources to find separate packages. Blogofile uses pkg_resources to find plugins, coupled with manual scanning and importing of the directories containing those plugins to load their parts.

If I discount the packages I created myself, shown here in italics, there seems to be a clear bias towards creating custom wrappers around import. That route seems easy at first, but all of the implementations I found exhibited some problems with tricky corner cases.

Application/Plugin Integration

After the code for the extension is imported, the next step is to integrate it with the rest of the app. That is, to configure any hooks that need to call into the plugin, pass the plugin any state it needs, etc. I looked at this step along two axes.


First, I considered the granularity of the plugin interface. For “fine” grained plugins, the extension is treated as a standalone object to be called on as needed. In these cases, the code object being loaded is usually a function or a class.

For more “coarse” grained cases, a single plugin will include hooks that are referenced from multiple places in the application. There may be several classes inside the plugin, for example, or templates that are accessed directly by the application, not through a plugin API.

The other axis related to integration looks at how the code provided by the plugin is brought into the application. I found two techniques for doing that.

First, the application can instruct the plugin to integrate itself. That prompting usually takes the form of a setup() or initialization function implemented by the plugin author that calls back to an application context object, registering parts of the plugin explicitly. That registration could also be handled implicitly using an interface library such as the way Trac uses zope.interface.

Second, the application itself can interrogate or inspect the plugin, and make decisions based on the result. This usually means that part of the plugin API is responsible for providing metadata about the plugin itself, not just taking action.

API Enforcement

One common issue with dynamically loaded code is enforcing the plugin API at runtime. This is always a potential issue in dynamic languages, but it comes up frequently with plugins because the code is often written by someone other than the core developer for the application. I saw two basic techniques to help developers get their plugins right: convention and interfaces.


Many of the applications that used convention also had coarse-grained plugin APIs, and so while they may use classes to provide their features, the plugin relies on convention for discovering its configuration.

On the right are applications for which the plugin uses a class hierarchy. In the case of Nose, using the base class is optional, so that’s a quasi-interface. Trac, on the other hand, uses formal interfaces through zope.interface.

Diamond enforces a strict subclassing of its Collector base class.

For cliff I chose to use the abc module to define an abstract base class, but stick with “duck typing” in the actual application. The developer doesn’t have to inherit from the base class, but doing so helps ensure that the implementation is complete.


And the final dimension I looked at was how the plugin code was used at runtime. There were three primary patterns here.

  1. “Drivers” are loaded one at a time, and used directly.

  2. The apps using the “Dispatcher” pattern load all of the extensions, and then make calls to the appropriate one based on name or some other selection criteria when an event happens.

  3. The apps that use the “Iterator” pattern call each extension in turn, so that all of the plugins have a chance to participate in the processing.

Ceilometer Design

This analysis had a direct influence on the choices we made while implementing ceilometer.

Discovery and Import

For finding and loading, we chose to use entry points because they were the simplest solution. All of the apps that work on files instead of import references had issues, ranging from poorly implemented import path munging to packaging and distribution challenges. Even some of the code for working with import references directly was a little hairy. Leaving that to a library that handles the different cases transparently made our life a lot easier.

They are easier for users to install and configure because they don’t have to understand how your code is laid out. That also makes them more resilient in the face of code changes.

Entry points also support different package formats (egg, sdist, operating system packages), so it doesn’t matter how extensions are distributed.

They also make it easier for code to be packaged by the Linux distributions, since the packages don’t have to share overlapping installation directories.

There are alternate implementations of entry-point like systems, but none are so widely used or tested as pkg_resources.

And to further simplify, we always use entry points, even for the plugins we distribute with our core. That eliminates any special cases.


We came up with a somewhat novel solution to manage which plugins are enabled. For Ceilometer we wanted to default to collecting data, but allow deployers to disable certain meters to save storage space if they knew they did not need the data. The solution was to use explicit configuration, but invert it from the normal implementation.

We assume that all of the extensions found should be loaded and used, unless they are explicitly disabled in the configuration file. We did that in the first version to simplify the configuration process, because we assumed most users would want most of the plugins to be used. Defaulting to enabled means users only have to provide a short list of the meters to turn off.

Ceilometer plugins also have a chance, when they are being loaded, to disable themselves automatically. This is especially useful in the polling plugins, which can tell the app to ignore them if the resource they use for collecting measurements is not present (like they work with a different hypervisor, or external service that is not configured).

Letting the plugin disable itself avoids repeated warning messages in the log file as a plugin is asked to poll for data that it cannot retrieve.


For our integration pattern we went with a fine-grained API using inspection. There is a separate namespace for each type of plugin, and each plugin instance refers to a single class. The application loads and instantiates that class, then calls methods on it it to determine what it provides and wants (which notifications to subscribe to and which meters are produced).

This design lets us avoid having repetitious setup or configuration code in each plugin, since they provide data to the application on demand and the application configures itself. The instances don’t know about the application, or each other. They only run when the application calls them, never independently.

API Enforcement

To define the API for each set of plugins we created a separate abstract base class using the abc module. This gives us a way to document each plugin API and Developers who use the base class get some help for free.

Since we don’t enforce the class hierarchy we also watch for unexpected errors from the plugins any time we call into them.


We used all three invocation patterns, in different places.

  1. We only use one storage system at a time, so we treat the storage plugin like a driver.

  2. We load all of the notification plugins, and then dispatch incoming messages to them based on the message content.

  3. We load all of the polling plugins and iterate through them on a regular schedule.


After we had all of this working in ceilometer, I extracted some of the code into stevedore. It wraps pkg_resources with a series of manager classes that implement the loading, enabling, and invocation patterns.