Supporting Python 2 and Python 3

skbio simultaneously supports Python 2.7 and 3.3+ by writing code that works unchanged in both major versions.

As a compatibility layer, we’re using the future project which “allows you to use a single, clean Python 3.x-compatible codebase to support both Python 2 and Python 3 with minimal overhead”. It includes functionality from “six, IPython, Jinja2, Django, and Pandas”.

So far, this notes are based on issues that have appeared when porting skbio, so it is not a complete guide. Refer to the official porting guide and the python-future docs for more information.

Importing __future__

For consistency across versions, every Python file should start with the following imports:

# ----------------------------------------------------------------------------
# Copyright (c) 2013--, scikit-bio development team.
# Distributed under the terms of the Modified BSD License.
# The full license is in the file COPYING.txt, distributed with this software.
# ----------------------------------------------------------------------------

from __future__ import absolute_import, division, print_function



Builtin iterators in Python 2 usually return lists, and have an alternative that returns and iterator (i.e., range and xrange, items and iteritems). In Python 3, only the iterator version exists but it uses the list-returning name (i.e., range and items).

When iterating over the resulting object, the recommended approach depends on efficiency concerns:

  • If iteration only happens over a few items, you can use the functions that exist both in Python 2 and Python 3.
  • If the number of iterations can be large and efficiency is important, use the future package.
Small # of iterations (returns lists in py2, iterators in py3) Efficient versions (always iterators) Notes
range future.builtins.range  
map Prefer lists comprehensions or for loops in general. Avoid calling functions that cause side effects when using map. Gotcha: Py3’s map stops when the shortest iterable is exhausted, but Py2’s pads them with None till the longest iterable is exhausted.
filter future.builtins.filter  
functools.reduce functools.reduce Avoid using the global reduce available in Py2 (it is the same as the functools one)
d.items() future.utils.viewitems(d) Efficient iteration over d and set-like behaviour
d.values() future.utils.viewvalues(d) Efficient iteration over d and set-like behaviour
d.keys() future.utils.viewkeys(d) Hardly ever needed, as iterating over a dictionary yields keys (thus sorted(d) returns the sorted keys).

When not directly iterating over an iterator, don’t write code that relies on list-like behaviour: you may need to cast it explicitly. The following snippets show some possible issues:

a = zip(...)
b = zip(...)
c = a + b  # succeeds in Py2 (list concatenation), TypeError in Py3
s = map(int, range(2))
1 in s  # True (membership testing in a list is an O(n) bad idea)
0 in s  # True in Py2, False in Py3

In Py2, s is a list, so clearly (1 in [0, 1]) == True and (0 in [0, 1]) == True. In Py3, s is an iterator and the items it yields are discarded. Let’s see an example with a generator to try and make it more clear:

>>> s = ((i, print(i)) for i in [0, 1, 2])  # print will let us see the iteration
>>> (1, None) in s  # Starts iterating over s...
1                   # ...till it finds (1, None)
>>> (0, None) in s  # Continues iterating over s
2                   # s is exhausted
False               # but (0, None) isn't there

Advancing an iterator

Always use the next function, which is available from Python 2.6 onwards. Never call the next method, which doesn’t exist in Py3.

Implementing new iterators

Implement the __next__ special method, like in Py3, and decorate the class:

from future.utils import implements_iterator

class ParameterIterBase(object):
def __next__(self):
    return next(self._generator)

It is also possible to subclass from future.builtins.object. In this case, no decorator is needed.

Changes in the standard library

To deal with modules that live under a different place, future provides a context manager:

# Example from future's documentation
from future import standard_library

with standard_library.hooks():
    from http.client import HttpConnection
    from itertools import filterfalse
    import html.parser
    import queue

StringIO and BytesIO

In Py2 there are three flavours of StringIO: a pure Python module (StringIO), an accelerated version (cStringIO), and another one in the io module. They all behave in a slightly different way, with differnt memory and performance characteristics. So far, we’re using:

from future.utils.six import StringIO

It refers to io.StringIO in Py3, and StringIO.StringIO in Py2.

If you need a binary file-like object (see the Text vs bytes section), use future.utils.six.BytesIO, which refers to io.BytesIO in Py3, and StringIO.StringIO in Py2.

Text vs bytes

This is a fundamental change between Py2 and Py3. It is very important to always distinguish text from bytes.

String literals that are to be treated as bytes need the b prefix. String literals that are text need either the u prefix or from __future__ import unicode_literals at the top.

A brief introduction: Unicode, UTF-8, ASCII...

A string can be seen as a sequence of characters. According to the Unicode standard, each character is represented by a code point (a number). For example, character ñ is represented by the Unicode code point U+00F1. Code points are still abstract and can be stored in a number of ways, including even little or big endian formats. There are many encodings that map code points to byte values (encode) and back (decode). Three important ones are ASCII, UTF-8 and latin-1:

  • ASCII is a 7 bit encoding that can handle a very limited range of Unicode code points (not even the one corresponding to character ñ).
  • UTF-8 is an encoding that can represent every Unicode character. It is ASCII-compatible because code points that can also be represented by ASCII are mapped to the same byte value by UTF-8 and ASCII. ñ is represented by the byte sequence xC3xB1.
  • latin-1 is an ASCII-compatible 8 bit encoding that maps the first 256 Unicode code points to their byte values. That is, the Unicode code point U+00F1 (character ñ) is directly encoded as 0xF1 in latin-1. The Py2 str type loosely worked by assuming everything was encoded in latin-1.

Text processing

After going through Nick Coghlan’s “Processing Text Files in Python 3” I think the way forward is to process ASCII-like files (fasta, fastq) as binary files, and decode to strings some parts, if necessary. This is faster than processing them as text files, especially in Py3. In fact, it seems (from functions like _phred_to_ascii*) that these formats are in fact mixed binary and ASCII, which I think puts us in the same place as people dealing with network protocols: it’s more cumbersome to do in Py3, especially before Python 3.5 arrives, which will reintroduce binary string interpolation).


Comparing bytes and text strings always returns False in Python 3 (as they’re incompatible types, and comparisons are required to succeed by the language):

>>> b'GATCAT' == 'GATCAT'

Calling str on a bytes instance returns a string with the b prefix and quotes, which will give unexpected results when using string formatting:

>>> "Sequence {}".format(b'GATCAT')
"Sequence b'GATCAT'"

If you actually want to construct a text string, bytes objects need to be decoded into text. For example:

>>> "Sequence {}".format(b'GATCAT'.decode('utf-8'))

If you want to efficiently construct a byte string, the most convenient way may be to call b’‘.join(iterable of byte strings), though there are other options like using io.BytesIO or bytearray. For a very small number of byte strings, it may be OK to use the + operator.

Run python with the -b flag to detect these two bug-prone usages, and -bb to turn them into exceptions.

Instance checking: basestring, str, unicode, bytes, long, int


When testing if a variable is a string use future.utils.six.string_types. It refers to basestring in Py2 and str in Py3. binary_type and text_type are also available.


The long type no longer exists in Py2. To test if a number is an integer (int or long in Py2, int in Py3), compare it to the abstract base class Integral:

from numbers import Integral
isinstance(quality, Integral)

Implementing comparisons

If the class you’re defining has a total ordering, either use functools.total_ordering or implement all rich comparison methods if comparison performance is a bottleneck. Don’t implement __cmp__, which was removed in Py3.

However, usually only equality is important and you should only define __eq__. While compatibility with Py2 is kept, __ne__ needs to be implemented too:

def __ne__(self, other):
    """Required in Py2."""
    return not self == other

Otherwise, using the operator != will lead to unexpected results in Py2 because it will compare identity, not equality:

class Foo(object):
    def __eq__(self, other):
        return True

print(Foo() != Foo())

That prints True in Py2 (because each instance has a different id) but prints False in Py3 (the opposite of what __eq__ returns, which is the desired behaviour).

Always test that both == and != are behaving correctly, e.g.:

def test_eq(self):
    gc_1 = GeneticCode(self.sgc)
    gc_2 = GeneticCode(self.sgc)
    self.assertEqual(gc_1, gc_2)

def test_ne(self):
    gc_1 = GeneticCode(self.sgc)
    gc_2 = GeneticCode(self.sgc)
    # Explicitly using !=
    self.assertFalse(gc_1 != gc_2)

Other modules


Try to avoid setting dtypes to a string (i.e., use dtype=np.float64 instead of dtype=’float’, etc). It is may be safe, but some warnings were raised when running Python with the -b flag. Also, field names in structured dtypes need to be bytes (str type) in Py2, but text (str type) in Py3 (issue #2407).


unittest.assertEquals is deprecated. Use unittest.assertEqual instead. The complete list of deprecated testing methods is here