Python alternative to Docker

Deploying a Python app to a server is surprisingly hard. Without blinking, you’ll be dealing with virtual environments and a host of other complications.

The landscape of deployment methods is huge. What if I told you that there is a way to build your app into a single file and it isn’t a Docker container?

In this article, we’re going to look at common ways of deploying Python apps. We’ll explore the touted benefits of Docker containers to understand why containers are so popular for web apps. Finally, we’ll look at an alternative to Docker that may be a lot simpler for your Python web app and compare and contrast this alternative against Docker.

App deployment 101

The core goal of deploying a web application on the internet can be summarized in a few words:

Get your application code to a server (machine) where it can run and be reached by people on the internet.

In that statement are many explicit and implicit requirements for your web app. Some of the big requirements look like:

  1. You must have an app.
  2. You must have a machine that can store the app.
  3. You must have a mechanism to get the app to the machines.
  4. You must have a web server that can run the app.
  5. Your machine must be reachable at a domain on the internet.
  6. Your machine must be secure (for some reasonable level of “secure” based on your business needs).

This article assumes you already have an application. If you don’t, Python has a great set of web frameworks to help you build the app you want. In my totally biased opinion, Django is a great (if not the best) place to start.

Platform as a Service (PaaS) sidebar

At this stage, I would do you a huge disservice if I did not highlight the awesome value of a Platform as a Service (PaaS).

If you’re starting a new web application and time-to-market is very important to you, then (PLEASE!) consider trading money for time by using a PaaS. I’m not sponsored by any PaaS for telling you this, but a PaaS (like Heroku or PythonAnywhere) will save you oodles of time for a bit more cash up-front.

Seriously, check it out.

Seriously, check it out.

Since your time is extremely valuable in an early stage business, I’d suggest that a PaaS should be your go-to deployment target. Your future self will thank you as you’re able to focus on your problem rather than deal with servers.

End sidebar.

Still here? Good. I think this topic is still very interesting as we dive into the guts.

From app to server

Once you’ve created your Minimum Viable Product (MVP) application, you need to be able to show it off to the world. We can do that by getting access to a server via a hosting service.

Hosting services include big players like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud Platform (GCP), or Microsoft Azure. These large companies offer tons of products ranging from managed databases to content delivery networks to satellite ground station control (I'm not kidding about that last one!). The trade-off is having all these products is dealing with lots of configuration options.

Other hosting services offer Virtual Private Servers (VPS) with a smaller number of extra services. The services tend to have simpler offerings aimed at smaller businesses. Some popular players in this space are DigitalOcean (DO) or Linode.

After you select a hosting service and have a machine to use on their cloud, there is a lot to configure. This configuration is done with software known as provisioning tools. Ansible and SaltStack are commonly used in the Python space.

Provisioning tools can do virtually anything on a server. You can use them to:

  • Install packages from the operating system’s package manager.
  • Run processes like load balancers and monitoring software.
  • Add cron jobs to execute tasks on a schedule.
  • Configure Python applications.

When we talk about doing a deployment, we’re generally referring to running a provisioning tool to make changes to your server infrastructure.

The challenge with these tools is that they execute directly on the environment by default. This means that if the provisioning tool fails and halts, you can leave your server in a weird, intermediate state.

The best strategy to increase reliability of your provisioning tools (and, thus, your deployment) is to do less.

How much is in your Python app?

For a Python application, your server needs:

  • The app code.
  • The app’s dependencies.
  • A web server to run the app.

Seems simple, right? Hold on a second.

I’ll outline one way to do that and you can see all that’s involved.

  • To get the app code, clone your git repository onto the server.
  • To clone the repository, add an ssh deployment key to get access to the repo.
  • To add an ssh deployment key, control it in an encrypted location that your provisioning tool can access.
  • To add app dependencies, create a virtual environment.
  • Use pip to install dependencies into the virtual environment.
  • If any packages require C extensions (like lxml or PIL), use your package manager to install C development headers and libraries like libjpeg.
  • Make sure a compiler is installed so it can compile the extensions.
  • Install a web server.
  • Configure the web server to use the app code.
  • If you have static assets like CSS and JavaScript, install all the pre-processors and toolchains required to build and minify these static assets (this can be a HUGE task!).

Within that set of actions are many points that can fail. Can we get those steps out of the deployment process?

Option A: Docker container

Docker is designed to help with this problem. The core idea with Docker is that the steps outlined above are done separately from the production server and put inside of a container.

Using a special building process, Docker will put all the output like Python code, dependencies, compiled extensions, and static assets into the container.

The container is the interesting piece in this equation. What is it?

A container is single file called an image that uses special filesystem structure to store all of your app. It’s not a full operating system like a virtual machine. Instead, a Docker daemon (which is a background program) interacts with the kernel of the server’s operating system to run the image.

The image itself doesn’t run. It acts as a cookie cutter template. The Docker daemon uses this template to start a container instance. The instance is the actual running process that will execute your application’s code.

If this is starting to feel complicated, then your software developer spidey sense is tingling correctly. Containers are a powerful technology and used by large business enterprises who need to scale to large amounts of user load.

The benefit of a container is that it is an interchangeable part with a clear interface that can be moved around easily. In fact, “container” is meant to conjure the image of a shipping container which has similar properties.

The downside of containers is that they introduce a lot of additional overhead to your system. If you’re running your own infrastructure on a VPS, then you must bear the burden of managing the Docker daemon and other pieces related to containers.

Containers aren't always the best fit.

Containers aren't always the best fit.

Containers also bring overhead to your software development process. The developer tooling is getting better like Microsoft’s recent announcement of VS Code Container support, but not all editors support this kind of interface. That means that editing and debugging in a container may be harder than a flow on your local OS.

Option B: Shiv, a bundled Python app

Instead of putting large chunks of an operating system into a container, what if you could bundle your Python app into a single executable file? That’s exactly what Shiv does. Shiv is a project from LinkedIn.

Shiv uses one of the more unknown corners of the Python language, Python Zip Applications. Zipapps are not a new feature in Python. The zipapp PEP, PEP 441, gained approval in 2015. But what is a zipapp?

Zipapps are a way to execute Python code directly from a Zip-formatted archive file. Python will execute this file by adding any packages within it to the Python path, and then running a __main__.py file that is at the root of the archive. The benefit of this scheme is that it is ONE executable file. Being a single file makes it trivial to track as a versioned “build artifact.”

A build artifact refers to an output from some build process. Artifacts are often what deployments will install on a server. In a normal Python application, you might consider your app code as a build artifact, and each dependency as its own build artifact. The more artifacts that a system has, the higher the odds of failure and more opportunity to have mismatches between artifacts.

With a Shiv app, all of your app code and dependencies are bundled together. This produces a single unit that will either work or fail. If it fails, don’t ship it! Having one artifact eliminates the possibility of a bad interaction getting to your production system.

For instance, let’s consider a more traditional Python app. Suppose that your app is tested in Continuous Integration (CI) with package A at version 2. If that app code is deployed to a server, it’s possible that package A is not updated and the server has version 1. Your application may begin to fail because the two different pieces weren’t tested together.

Now consider the Shiv app version of this scenario. A Shiv app is constructed in CI and bundles your app code with package A at version 2. When the tests pass, that entire unit is deployed and should work because there is no opportunity for you app code to interact with package A at version 1.

I think this is a big win!

By using a single build artifact, we are removing the risk of deploying broken code. The risk moves from the production system that can affect customers to the CI system that cannot affect customers.

Let’s look at how to get started with Shiv so you can get these benefits.

Shiv in practice

The first step is to install Shiv.

$ pip install shiv

I like to keep all of my development toolchain tools like Shiv in a requirements-dev.txt file, but do what works for you whether that means using Pipenv or some kind of requirements file.

Once you’ve install Shiv, you’ll have access to a shiv command line tool.

Before we can use Shiv, we have to do some preparatory work to our app. Shiv wants to work with Python packages so we need to package our app.

Whirlwind packaging tutorial

Packaging is a large topic, but I’ll try to provide a reasonable example. If you want to deep dive into packaging, check out the Python Packaging User Guide.

To make a package for a standard Django app, we minimally need:

  1. A setup.py file to tell Python core metadata and where the code is.
  2. A MANIFEST.in to tell Python where your data files (like templates) are.

Disclaimer: There are loads of methods for dealing with packaging. If you’re a packaging expert and don’t like the method I listed, sorry.

The setup.py file looks like:

from setuptools import find_packages, setup

setup(
    name="myapp",
    version="1.0.0"
    packages=find_packages(),
    include_package_data=True,
)

The two things worth calling out are:

  1. find_packages does all the heavy lifting of finding your Python code for your app.
  2. include_package_data=True tells setuptools to use the MANIFEST.in file to get package data.

The MANIFEST.in file would look something like:

recursive-include myapp/templates *

This assumes that you have a Python package called myapp that contains a templates directory that has template files in it. Because it uses recursive-include, the packaging system will include all files in the templates directory even if they are nested within other directories.

That’s enough to make a package by running python setup.py sdist!

Using shiv and your shiny new package

We want to put all of the packaged code for the app and dependencies into a single place. This will give Shiv a clear spot to bundle all the code together. Now that you’ve got a package, this process is done in a single command.

If you have all your dependencies in a requirements.txt file, you can run:

$ pip install . -r requirements.txt --target dist/

The dot (.) in the command instructs pip to use install what it can find locally. That means it will find your setup.py file and install your app.

The -r requirements.txt is pip’s method for installing a list of packages in a single swoop. This is how all your dependencies are installed.

But where are we installing to? That’s what the --target flag does. The target flag makes pip put all the code into a location of your choosing instead of the standard site-packages directory where installed packages would normally go.

Once all the code is in the dist directory, we’re ready to build the Shiv app. Let’s look at the command to do that.

shiv --site-packages dist --compressed \
    -p '/usr/bin/env python3' \
    -o myapp.pyz \
    -e myapp.main:main

The --site-packages flag tells Shiv the location of the code. --compressed instructs Shiv to use a compressed format when building the zip archive.

The -p flag describes where Shiv should look for Python when it runs. By using /usr/bin/env, we can tell Shiv to look for whatever version of Python it can find on the path. This is a useful trick because it could resolve to different paths like /usr/bin/python3 or /usr/local/bin/python3 depending on how your OS installs Python. This technique can avoid subtle breakage that would occur if you specify a path to Python that doesn’t exist in a target environment.

The -o flag is the output file name. When I use this in Continuous Integration, I provide a name like myapp-${CIRCLECI_SHA1}.pyz so I can uniquely identify the version that CI generates.

Finally, the -e flag guides Shiv where to find the entry point of your application. In the example, the portion before the colon is a module path and the part after the colon is a function name. That means that Shiv would try to execute a main function that is located in a myapp/main.py file in the project.

Update: @LorenCarvalho, author of Shiv, messaged me to say that Shiv can pass its extra options to pip. That means you can skip the pip command above and replace the pip and shiv commands with this single Shiv command:

shiv --compressed \
    -p '/usr/bin/env python3' \
    -o myapp.pyz \
    -e myapp.main:main \
    . -r requirements.txt

Thanks, Loren!

What’s in main?

To this point, I’ve excluded what you put in your main function? If you’re running a webapp, main should run the web server.

For my side project built on Django, the main function looks a bit like:

import sys
from gunicorn.app import wsgiapp

def main():
    os.environ.setdefault("DJANGO_SETTINGS_MODULE", "settings.development")
    django.setup()

    sys.argv.append("conductor.wsgi:application")
    wsgiapp.run()

My project uses the popular Gunicorn web server. The function includes enough information that the app can load the WSGI entry point without additional instruction. The result is that I can start the application without any additional flags.

$ ./conductor.pyz
[2019-09-17 02:50:06 +0000] [INFO] Starting gunicorn 19.9.0
[2019-09-17 02:50:06 +0000] [INFO] Listening at: http://127.0.0.1:8000 (85833)
[2019-09-17 02:50:06 +0000] [INFO] Using worker: sync
[2019-09-17 02:50:06 +0000] [INFO] Booting worker with pid: 85844

There are some really nice properties of this approach that I hope you noticed:

  1. The code doesn’t have to run in a virtual environment.
  2. No external tool (namely, a web server) must be called.

Hooking into deployment

With a functioning Shiv app in hand, you can hook the app into deployment. Note that this doesn’t mean eliminating your deployment tool. If you’re configuring your own environment on a VPS, then there are plenty of parts in a fully functioning system. A Shiv app doesn’t eliminate those parts, but it reduces the number of tasks related to the Python app code.

To get an app into deployment, you’ll probably need a few pieces.

  • A place to generate your latest Shiv app. Continuous Integration is your best bet here.
  • Storage for the generated pyz app files. I’ve used AWS S3 for this. The possible number of alternatives is nearly endless so pick what you’re comfortable with.
  • Deployment tasks to pull the latest Shiv app from your storage location.
  • Configuration to run the Shiv app from your service’s process manager (e.g., Systemd or Supervisord).

That’s Shiv app deployment in a nutshell. I haven’t painted the complete picture, but I hope you have enough of an idea of how to run a single file Shiv app as an alternative to a more traditional Python app deployment.

Next, let’s compare Docker and Shiv.

Docker vs Shiv

Yeah, I know this is what you really came here to see.

Yeah, I know this is what you really came here to see.

Let’s be clear from the start: Docker and Shiv are both solid tools that can work for your project. As we compare these, I’m not aiming to trash one or the other. If you can see the similarities and differences, you can judge which would be a better fit for your project.

First, Docker:

  • Docker has a huge ecosystem. The tool is not language specific so a lot of energy is invested into it by a broad community.
  • Docker wraps up many OS features and tools. If you pick a big enough container, you can run other commands beyond your web server.
  • If your project isn’t for Python, then Docker will be a much better fit than Shiv. Shiv is very narrowly focused on serving Python applications.
  • Unless you’re extremely careful, Docker images can get huge (it’s not hard to have an image that reaches 2GB). The size becomes burdensome, especially if you don’t have a great internet connection.
  • Docker containers plug into big orchestration systems like Kubernetes. If your organization needs that level of coordination, you’ll know.

What about Shiv?

  • Shiv is tailor-made for Python. That narrow focus means you’ll get a tool devoted to Python-specific needs like bundling your packages together.
  • Shiv apps are simple to keep small. Because the app is the bundled Python code with an entry point, it’s not pulling in extra stuff like compilers or development headers. For instance, my side project is only 23MB.
  • Shiv behaves exactly like an executable. There’s no extra daemon process that is needed to manage the execution (unlike the Docker image and container relationship).
  • In a sense, Shiv is a much smaller ecosystem than the Docker ecosystem. There are not tools that exclusively focus on Shiv apps. On the bright side, Shiv apps are Python zipapps so the Shiv ecosystem is the Python ecosystem.

When to reach for Docker

I would reach for Docker when I’m in a large organization with tons of moving parts. These organizations have scalability requirements and ever evolving architectures like a microservice model that make containers appealing due to container interchangeability.

For instance, Docker is an extremely common choice when working in a Kubernetes environment. The container interface is well established. This common interface means that the management processes within Kubernetes can dynamically scale and start new container instances to react to increases and decreases in web traffic.

Importantly, Docker works well when there is either:

  • A dedicated DevOps/SRE team to support the infrastructure OR
  • A managed service that works with containers like AWS Fargate or using Docker on Heroku.

Smaller organizations who do not have the resources to support container infrastructure may want to seek alternative architectures.

When to reach for Shiv

I would reach for Shiv when I’m managing a more constrained infrastructure and deploying a Python application. Shiv avoids the overhead of container infrastructure at the cost of flexibility.

Shiv works well when:

  • A team has a Python application performing a specific task like a Django application running on Gunicorn.
  • A team wants to deploy to virtual machines and wants to update those machines in-place as little as possible (i.e., non-destructive deploys).

To be clear, I’m sure Shiv can work in large organizations. Remember: Shiv comes from LinkedIn and LinkedIn is not a small organization. My main point is that Shiv is an excellent fit for smaller organizations that are trying to operate with minimal overhead.

What fits for you?

For me, as someone with a side project and the experience to run my own infrastructure, Shiv is great. The tool has helped me clean up deployments so that they are quick and painless.

For you, maybe Docker is still the best fit. Or, perhaps, the simplicity of Shiv piqued your interest and you’re ready to give it a try.

I hope that this article outlined enough for you so that you can make that call and try creating your own Python executable app if you want to.

If you have questions or enjoyed this article, please feel free to message me on Twitter at @mblayman or share if others might be interested too.