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Item 41: Consider Composing Functionality with Mix-in Classes

Python is an object-oriented language with built-in facilities for making multiple inheritance tractable (see Item 40: “Initialize Parent Classes with super”). However, it’s better to avoid multiple inheritance altogether.

If you find yourself desiring the convenience and encapsulation that come with multiple inheritance, but want to avoid the potential headaches, consider writing a mix-in instead. A mix-in is a class that defines only a small set of additional methods for its child classes to provide. Mix-in classes don’t define their own instance attributes nor require their __init__ constructor to be called.

Writing mix-ins is easy because Python makes it trivial to inspect the current state of any object, regardless of its type. Dynamic inspection means you can write generic functionality just once, in a mix-in, and it can then be applied to many other classes. Mix-ins can be composed and layered to minimize repetitive code and maximize reuse.

For example, say I want the ability to convert a Python object from its in-memory representation to a dictionary that’s ready for serialization. Why not write this functionality generically so I can use it with all my classes?

Here, I define an example mix-in that accomplishes this with a new public method that’s added to any class that inherits from it:

class ToDictMixin:
    def to_dict(self):
        return self._traverse_dict(self.__dict__)

The implementation details are straightforward and rely on dynamic attribute access using hasattr, dynamic type inspection with isinstance, and accessing the instance dictionary __dict__:

def _traverse_dict(self, instance_dict):
    output = {}
    for key, value in instance_dict.items():
        output[key] = self._traverse(key, value)
    return output

def _traverse(self, key, value):
    if isinstance(value, ToDictMixin):
        return value.to_dict()
    elif isinstance(value, dict):
        return self._traverse_dict(value)
    elif isinstance(value, list):
        return [self._traverse(key, i) for i in value]
    elif hasattr(value, '__dict__'):
        return self._traverse_dict(value.__dict__)
    else:
        return value

Here, I define an example class that uses the mix-in to make a dictionary representation of a binary tree:

class BinaryTree(ToDictMixin):
    def __init__(self, value, left=None, right=None):
        self.value = value
        self.left = left
        self.right = right

Translating a large number of related Python objects into a dictionary becomes easy:

tree = BinaryTree(10,
    left=BinaryTree(7, right=BinaryTree(9)),
    right=BinaryTree(13, left=BinaryTree(11)))
print(tree.to_dict())

>>>
{'value': 10,
 'left': {'value': 7,
          'left': None,
          'right': {'value': 9, 'left': None, 'right': None}},
 'right': {'value': 13,
           'left': {'value': 11, 'left': None, 'right': None},
           'right': None}}

The best part about mix-ins is that you can make their generic functionality pluggable so behaviors can be overridden when required. For example, here I define a subclass of BinaryTree that holds a reference to its parent. This circular reference would cause the default implementation of ToDictMixin.to_dict to loop forever:

class BinaryTreeWithParent(BinaryTree):
    def __init__(self, value, left=None,
                 right=None, parent=None):
        super().__init__(value, left=left, right=right)
        self.parent = parent

The solution is to override the BinaryTreeWithParent._traverse method to only process values that matter, preventing cycles encountered by the mix-in. Here, the _traverse override inserts the parent’s numerical value and otherwise defers to the mix-in’s default implementation by using the super built-in function:

def _traverse(self, key, value):
    if (isinstance(value, BinaryTreeWithParent) and
            key == 'parent'):
        return value.value # Prevent cycles
    else:
        return super()._traverse(key, value)

Calling BinaryTreeWithParent.to_dict works without issue because the circular referencing properties aren’t followed:

root = BinaryTreeWithParent(10)
root.left = BinaryTreeWithParent(7, parent=root)
root.left.right = BinaryTreeWithParent(9, parent=root.left)
print(root.to_dict())

>>>
{'value': 10,
 'left': {'value': 7,
          'left': None,
          'right': {'value': 9,
                    'left': None,
                    'right': None,
                    'parent': 7},
          'parent': 10},
 'right': None,
 'parent': None}

By defining BinaryTreeWithParent._traverse, I’ve also enabled any class that has an attribute of type BinaryTreeWithParent to automatically work with the ToDictMixin:

class NamedSubTree(ToDictMixin):
    def __init__(self, name, tree_with_parent):
        self.name = name
        self.tree_with_parent = tree_with_parent

my_tree = NamedSubTree('foobar', root.left.right)
print(my_tree.to_dict()) # No infinite loop

>>>
{'name': 'foobar',
 'tree_with_parent': {'value': 9,
                      'left': None,
                      'right': None,
                      'parent': 7}}

Mix-ins can also be composed together. For example, say I want a mix-in that provides generic JSON serialization for any class. I can do this by assuming that a class provides a to_dict method (which may or may not be provided by the ToDictMixin class):

import json

class JsonMixin:
    @classmethod
    def from_json(cls, data):
        kwargs = json.loads(data)
        return cls(**kwargs)

    def to_json(self):
        return json.dumps(self.to_dict())

Note how the JsonMixin class defines both instance methods and class methods. Mix-ins let you add either kind of behavior to subclasses. In this example, the only requirements of a JsonMixin subclass are providing a to_dict method and taking keyword arguments for the __init__ method (see Item 23: “Provide Optional Behavior with Keyword Arguments” for background).

This mix-in makes it simple to create hierarchies of utility classes that can be serialized to and from JSON with little boilerplate. For example, here I have a hierarchy of data classes representing parts of a datacenter topology:

class DatacenterRack(ToDictMixin, JsonMixin):
    def __init__(self, switch=None, machines=None):
        self.switch = Switch(**switch)
        self.machines = [
            Machine(**kwargs) for kwargs in machines]

class Switch(ToDictMixin, JsonMixin):
    def __init__(self, ports=None, speed=None):
        self.ports = ports
        self.speed = speed

class Machine(ToDictMixin, JsonMixin):
    def __init__(self, cores=None, ram=None, disk=None):
        self.cores = cores
        self.ram = ram
        self.disk = disk

Serializing these classes to and from JSON is simple. Here, I verify that the data is able to be sent round-trip through serializing and deserializing:

serialized = """{
    "switch": {"ports": 5, "speed": 1e9},
    "machines": [
        {"cores": 8, "ram": 32e9, "disk": 5e12},
        {"cores": 4, "ram": 16e9, "disk": 1e12},
        {"cores": 2, "ram": 4e9, "disk": 500e9}
    ]
}"""

deserialized = DatacenterRack.from_json(serialized)
roundtrip = deserialized.to_json()
assert json.loads(serialized) == json.loads(roundtrip)

When you use mix-ins like this, it’s fine if the class you apply JsonMixin to already inherits from JsonMixin higher up in the class hierarchy. The resulting class will behave the same way, thanks to the behavior of super.

Things to Remember

  • Avoid using multiple inheritance with instance attributes and __init__ if mix-in classes can achieve the same outcome.

  • Use pluggable behaviors at the instance level to provide per-class customization when mix-in classes may require it.

  • Mix-ins can include instance methods or class methods, depending on your needs.

  • Compose mix-ins to create complex functionality from simple behaviors.

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