This PEP proposes to add a new set of import hooks that offer better
customization of the Python import mechanism. Contrary to the
current __import__ hook, a new-style hook can be injected into the
existing scheme, allowing for a finer grained control of how modules
are found and how they are loaded.
The only way to customize the import mechanism is currently to
override the built-in __import__ function. However, overriding
__import__ has many problems. To begin with:
- An __import__ replacement needs to *fully* reimplement the entire
import mechanism, or call the original __import__ before or after
the custom code.
- It has very complex semantics and responsibilities.
- __import__ gets called even for modules that are already in
sys.modules, which is almost never what you want, unless you're
writing some sort of monitoring tool.
The situation gets worse when you need to extend the import
mechanism from C: it's currently impossible, apart from hacking
Python's import.c or reimplementing much of import.c from scratch.
There is a fairly long history of tools written in Python that allow
extending the import mechanism in various way, based on the
__import__ hook. The Standard Library includes two such tools:
ihooks.py (by GvR) and imputil.py (Greg Stein), but perhaps the most
famous is iu.py by Gordon McMillan, available as part of his
Installer  package. Their usefulness is somewhat limited because
they are written in Python; bootstrapping issues need to worked
around as you can't load the module containing the hook with the
hook itself. So if you want the entire Standard Library to be
loadable from an import hook, the hook must be written in C.
This section lists several existing applications that depend on
import hooks. Among these, a lot of duplicate work was done that
could have been saved if there had been a more flexible import hook
at the time. This PEP should make life a lot easier for similar
projects in the future.
Extending the import mechanism is needed when you want to load
modules that are stored in a non-standard way. Examples include
modules that are bundled together in an archive; byte code that is
not stored in a pyc formatted file; modules that are loaded from a
database over a network.
The work on this PEP was partly triggered by the implementation of
PEP 273 , which adds imports from Zip archives as a built-in
feature to Python. While the PEP itself was widely accepted as a
must-have feature, the implementation left a few things to desire.
For one thing it went through great lengths to integrate itself with
import.c, adding lots of code that was either specific for Zip file
imports or *not* specific to Zip imports, yet was not generally
useful (or even desirable) either. Yet the PEP 273 implementation
can hardly be blamed for this: it is simply extremely hard to do,
given the current state of import.c.
Packaging applications for end users is a typical use case for
import hooks, if not *the* typical use case. Distributing lots of
source or pyc files around is not always appropriate (let alone a
separate Python installation), so there is a frequent desire to
package all needed modules in a single file. So frequent in fact
that multiple solutions have been implemented over the years.
The oldest one is included with the Python source code: Freeze .
It puts marshalled byte code into static objects in C source code.
Freeze's "import hook" is hard wired into import.c, and has a couple
of issues. Later solutions include Fredrik Lundh's Squeeze ,
Gordon McMillan's Installer  and Thomas Heller's py2exe .
MacPython ships with a tool called BuildApplication.
Squeeze, Installer and py2exe use an __import__ based scheme (py2exe
currently uses Installer's iu.py, Squeeze used ihooks.py), MacPython
has two Mac-specific import hooks hard wired into import.c, that are
similar to the Freeze hook. The hooks proposed in this PEP enables
us (at least in theory; it's not a short term goal) to get rid of
the hard coded hooks in import.c, and would allow the
__import__-based tools to get rid of most of their import.c
Before work on the design and implementation of this PEP was
started, a new BuildApplication-like tool for MacOS X prompted one
of the authors of this PEP (JvR) to expose the table of frozen
modules to Python, in the imp module. The main reason was to be
able to use the freeze import hook (avoiding fancy __import__
support), yet to also be able to supply a set of modules at
runtime. This resulted in sf patch #642578 , which was
mysteriously accepted (mostly because nobody seemed to care either
way ;-). Yet it is completely superfluous when this PEP gets
accepted, as it offers a much nicer and general way to do the same
While experimenting with alternative implementation ideas to get
built-in Zip import, it was discovered that achieving this is
possible with only a fairly small amount of changes to import.c.
This allowed to factor out the Zip-specific stuff into a new source
file, while at the same time creating a *general* new import hook
scheme: the one you're reading about now.
An earlier design allowed non-string objects on sys.path. Such an
object would have the necessary methods to handle an import. This
has two disadvantages: 1) it breaks code that assumes all items on
sys.path are strings; 2) it is not compatible with the PYTHONPATH
environment variable. The latter is directly needed for Zip
imports. A compromise came from Jython: allow string *subclasses*
on sys.path, which would then act as importer objects. This avoids
some breakage, and seems to work well for Jython (where it is used
to load modules from .jar files), but it was perceived as an "ugly
This lead to a more elaborate scheme, (mostly copied from McMillan's
iu.py) in which each in a list of candidates is asked whether it can
handle the sys.path item, until one is found that can. This list of
candidates is a new object in the sys module: sys.path_hooks.
Traversing sys.path_hooks for each path item for each new import can
be expensive, so the results are cached in another new object in the
sys module: sys.path_importer_cache. It maps sys.path entries to
To minimize the impact on import.c as well as to avoid adding extra
overhead, it was chosen to not add an explicit hook and importer
object for the existing file system import logic (as iu.py has), but
to simply fall back to the built-in logic if no hook on
sys.path_hooks could handle the path item. If this is the case, a
None value is stored in sys.path_importer_cache, again to avoid
repeated lookups. (Later we can go further and add a real importer
object for the built-in mechanism, for now, the None fallback scheme
A question was raised: what about importers that don't need *any*
entry on sys.path? (Built-in and frozen modules fall into that
category.) Again, Gordon McMillan to the rescue: iu.py contains a
thing he calls the "metapath". In this PEP's implementation, it's a
list of importer objects that is traversed *before* sys.path. This
list is yet another new object in the sys.module: sys.meta_path.
Currently, this list is empty by default, and frozen and built-in
module imports are done after traversing sys.meta_path, but still
before sys.path. (Again, later we can add real frozen, built-in and
sys.path importer objects on sys.meta_path, allowing for some extra
flexibility, but this could be done as a "phase 2" project, possibly
for Python 2.4. It would be the finishing touch as then *every*
import would go through sys.meta_path, making it the central import
Specification part 1: The Importer Protocol
This PEP introduces a new protocol: the "Importer Protocol". It is
important to understand the context in which the protocol operates,
so here is a brief overview of the outer shells of the import
When an import statement is encountered, the interpreter looks up
the __import__ function in the built-in name space. __import__ is
then called with four arguments, amongst which are the name of the
module being imported (may be a dotted name) and a reference to the
current global namespace.
The built-in __import__ function (known as PyImport_ImportModuleEx
in import.c) will then check to see whether the module doing the
import is a package or a submodule of a package. If it is indeed a
(submodule of a) package, it first tries to do the import relative
to the package (the parent package for a submodule). For example if
a package named "spam" does "import eggs", it will first look for a
module named "spam.eggs". If that fails, the import continues as an
absolute import: it will look for a module named "eggs". Dotted
name imports work pretty much the same: if package "spam" does
"import eggs.bacon" (and "spam.eggs" exists and is itself a
package), "spam.eggs.bacon" is tried. If that fails "eggs.bacon" is
tried. (There are more subtleties that are not described here, but
these are not relevant for implementers of the Importer Protocol.)
Deeper down in the mechanism, a dotted name import is split up by
its components. For "import spam.ham", first an "import spam" is
done, and only when that succeeds is "ham" imported as a submodule
The Importer Protocol operates at this level of *individual*
imports. By the time an importer gets a request for "spam.ham",
module "spam" has already been imported.
The protocol involves two objects: an importer and a loader. An
importer object has a single method:
This method will be called with the fully qualified name of the
module. If the importer is installed on sys.meta_path, it will
receive a second argument, which is None for a top-level module, or
package.__path__ for submodules or subpackages. It should return
a loader object if the module was found, or None if it wasn't. If
find_module() raises an exception, it will be propagated to the
caller, aborting the import.
A loader object also has one method:
This method returns the loaded module. In many cases the importer
and loader can be one and the same object: importer.find_module()
would just return self.
The 'fullname' argument of both methods is the fully qualified
module name, for example "spam.eggs.ham". As explained above, when
importer.find_module("spam.eggs.ham") is called, "spam.eggs" has
already been imported and added to sys.modules. However, the
find_module() method isn't necessarily always called during an
actual import: meta tools that analyze import dependencies (such as
freeze, Installer or py2exe) don't actually load modules, so an
importer shouldn't *depend* on the parent package being available in
The load_module() method has a few responsibilities that it must
fulfill *before* it runs any code:
- If there is an existing module object named 'fullname' in
sys.modules, the loader must use that existing module.
(Otherwise, the reload() builtin will not work correctly.)
If a module named 'fullname' does not exist in sys.modules,
the loader must create a new module object and add it to
In C code, all of these requirements can be met simply by using
the PyImport_AddModule() function, which returns the existing
module or creates a new one and adds it to sys.modules for you.
In Python code, you can use something like:
module = sys.modules.setdefault(fullname, new.module(fullname))
to accomplish the same results.
Note that the module object *must* be in sys.modules before the
loader executes the module code. This is crucial because the
module code may (directly or indirectly) import itself; adding
it to sys.modules beforehand prevents unbounded recursion in the
worst case and multiple loading in the best.
- The __file__ attribute must be set. This must be a string, but it
may be a dummy value, for example "<frozen>". The privilege of
not having a __file__ attribute at all is reserved for built-in
- If it's a package, the __path__ variable must be set. This must
be a list, but may be empty if __path__ has no further
significance to the importer (more on this later).
- It should add an __loader__ attribute to the module, set to the
loader object. This is mostly for introspection, but can be used
for importer-specific extras, for example getting data associated
with an importer.
If the module is a Python module (as opposed to a built-in module or
a dynamically loaded extension), it should execute the module's code
in the module's global name space (module.__dict__).
Here is a minimal pattern for a load_module() method:
def load_module(self, fullname):
ispkg, code = self._get_code(fullname)
mod = sys.modules.setdefault(fullname, imp.new_module(fullname))
mod.__file__ = "<%s>" % self.__class__.__name__
mod.__loader__ = self
mod.__path__ = 
exec code in mod.__dict__
Specification part 2: Registering Hooks
There are two types of import hooks: Meta hooks and Path hooks.
Meta hooks are called at the start of import processing, before any
other import processing (so that meta hooks can override sys.path
processing, or frozen modules, or even built-in modules). To
register a meta hook, simply add the importer object to
sys.meta_path (the list of registered meta hooks).
Path hooks are called as part of sys.path (or package.__path__)
processing, at the point where their associated path item is
encountered. A path hook is registered by adding an importer
factory to sys.path_hooks.
sys.path_hooks is a list of callables, which will be checked in
sequence to determine if they can handle a given path item. The
callable is called with one argument, the path item. The callable
must raise ImportError if it is unable to handle the path item, and
return an importer object if it can handle the path item. The
callable is typically the class of the import hook, and hence the
class __init__ method is called. (This is also the reason why it
should raise ImportError: an __init__ method can't return anything.
This would be possible with a __new__ method in a new style class,
but we don't want to require anything about how a hook is
The results of path hook checks are cached in
sys.path_importer_cache, which is a dictionary mapping path entries
to importer objects. The cache is checked before sys.path_hooks is
scanned. If it is necessary to force a rescan of sys.path_hooks, it
is possible to manually clear all or part of
Just like sys.path itself, the new sys variables must have specific
sys.meta_path and sys.path_hooks must be Python lists.
sys.path_importer_cache must be a Python dict.
Modifying these variables in place is allowed, as is replacing them
with new objects.
Packages and the role of __path__
If a module has a __path__ attribute, the import mechanism will
treat it as a package. The __path__ variable is used instead of
sys.path when importing submodules of the package. The rules for
sys.path therefore also apply to pkg.__path__. So sys.path_hooks is
also consulted when pkg.__path__ is traversed. Meta importers don't
necessarily use sys.path at all to do their work and may therefore
ignore the value of pkg.__path__. In this case it is still advised
to set it to list, which can be empty.
Optional Extensions to the Importer Protocol
The Importer Protocol defines two optional extensions. One is to
retrieve data files, the other is to support module packaging tools
and/or tools that analyze module dependencies (for example Freeze
). The latter category of tools usually don't actually *load*
modules, they only need to know if and where they are available.
Both extensions are highly recommended for general purpose
importers, but may safely be left out if those features aren't
To retrieve the data for arbitrary "files" from the underlying
storage backend, loader objects may supply a method named get_data:
This method returns the data as a string, or raise IOError if the
"file" wasn't found. It is meant for importers that have some
file-system-like properties. The 'path' argument is a path that can
be constructed by munging module.__file__ (or pkg.__path__ items)
with the os.path.* functions, for example:
d = os.path.dirname(__file__)
data = __loader__.get_data(os.path.join(d, "mydata.txt"))
The following set of methods may be implemented if support for (for
example) Freeze-like tools is desirable. It consists of three
additional methods which, to make it easier for the caller, each of
which should be implemented, or none at all.
All three methods should raise ImportError if the module wasn't
The loader.is_package(fullname) method should return True if the
module specified by 'fullname' is a package and False if it isn't.
The loader.get_code(fullname) method should return the code object
associated with the module, or None if it's a built-in or extension
module. If the loader doesn't have the code object but it _does_
have the source code, it should return the compiled the source code.
(This is so that our caller doesn't also need to check get_source()
if all it needs is the code object.)
The loader.get_source(fullname) method should return the source code
for the module as a string (using newline characters for line
endings) or None if the source is not available (yet it should still
raise ImportError if the module can't be found by the importer at
Integration with the 'imp' module
The new import hooks are not easily integrated in the existing
imp.find_module() and imp.load_module() calls. It's questionable
whether it's possible at all without breaking code; it is better to
simply add a new function to the imp module. The meaning of the
existing imp.find_module() and imp.load_module() calls changes from:
"they expose the built-in import mechanism" to "they expose the
basic *unhooked* built-in import mechanism". They simply won't
invoke any import hooks. A new imp module function is proposed (but
not yet implemented) under the name "get_loader", which is used as
in the following pattern:
loader = imp.get_loader(fullname, path)
if loader is not None:
In the case of a "basic" import, one the imp.find_module() function
would handle, the loader object would be a wrapper for the current
output of imp.find_module(), and loader.load_module() would call
imp.load_module() with that output.
Note that this wrapper is currently not yet implemented, although a
Python prototype exists in the test_importhooks.py script (the
ImpWrapper class) included with the patch.
Existing __import__ hooks will not invoke new-style hooks by magic,
unless they call the original __import__ function as a fallback.
For example, ihooks.py, iu.py and imputil.py are in this sense not
forward compatible with this PEP.
Modules often need supporting data files to do their job,
particularly in the case of complex packages or full applications.
Current practice is generally to locate such files via sys.path (or
a package.__path__ attribute). This approach will not work, in
general, for modules loaded via an import hook.
There are a number of possible ways to address this problem:
- "Don't do that". If a package needs to locate data files via its
__path__, it is not suitable for loading via an import hook. The
package can still be located on a directory in sys.path, as at
present, so this should not be seen as a major issue.
- Locate data files from a standard location, rather than relative
to the module file. A relatively simple approach (which is
supported by distutils) would be to locate data files based on
sys.prefix (or sys.exec_prefix). For example, looking in
os.path.join(sys.prefix, "data", package_name).
- Import hooks could offer a standard way of getting at data files
relative to the module file. The standard zipimport object
provides a method get_data(name) which returns the content of the
"file" called name, as a string. To allow modules to get at the
importer object, zipimport also adds an attribute "__loader__"
to the module, containing the zipimport object used to load the
module. If such an approach is used, it is important that client
code takes care not to break if the get_data method (or the
__loader__ attribute) is not available, so it is not clear that
this approach offers a general answer to the problem.
Requiring loaders to set the module's __loader__ attribute means
that the loader will not get thrown away once the load is complete.
This increases memory usage, and stops loaders from being
lightweight, "throwaway" objects. As loader objects are not
required to offer any useful functionality (any such functionality,
such as the zipimport get_data() method mentioned above, is
optional) it is not clear that the __loader__ attribute will be
helpful, in practice.
On the other hand, importer objects are mostly permanent, as they
live or are kept alive on sys.meta_path, sys.path_importer_cache, so
for a loader to keep a reference to the importer costs us nothing
extra. Whether loaders will ever need to carry so much independent
state for this to become a real issue is questionable.
It was suggested on python-dev that it would be useful to be able to
receive a list of available modules from an importer and/or a list
of available data files for use with the get_data() method. The
protocol could grow two additional extensions, say list_modules()
and list_files(). The latter makes sense on loader objects with a
get_data() method. However, it's a bit unclear which object should
implement list_modules(): the importer or the loader or both?
This PEP is biased towards loading modules from alternative places:
it currently doesn't offer dedicated solutions for loading modules
from alternative file formats or with alternative compilers. In
contrast, the ihooks module from the standard library does have a
fairly straightforward way to do this. The Quixote project  uses
this technique to import PTL files as if they are ordinary Python
modules. To do the same with the new hooks would either mean to add
a new module implementing a subset of ihooks as a new-style
importer, or add a hookable built-in path importer object.
There is no specific support within this PEP for "stacking" hooks.
For example, it is not obvious how to write a hook to load modules
from ..tar.gz files by combining separate hooks to load modules from
.tar and ..gz files. However, there is no support for such stacking
in the existing hook mechanisms (either the basic "replace
__import__" method, or any of the existing import hook modules) and
so this functionality is not an obvious requirement of the new
mechanism. It may be worth considering as a future enhancement,
It is possible (via sys.meta_path) to add hooks which run before
sys.path is processed. However, there is no equivalent way of
adding hooks to run after sys.path is processed. For now, if a hook
is required after sys.path has been processed, it can be simulated
by adding an arbitrary "cookie" string at the end of sys.path, and
having the required hook associated with this cookie, via the normal
sys.path_hooks processing. In the longer term, the path handling
code will become a "real" hook on sys.meta_path, and at that stage
it will be possible to insert user-defined hooks either before or
The PEP 302 implementation has been integrated with Python as of
2.3a1. An earlier version is available as SourceForge patch
#652586, but more interestingly, the SF item contains a fairly
detailed history of the development and design.
PEP 273 has been implemented using PEP 302's import hooks.
References and Footnotes
 Installer by Gordon McMillan
 PEP 273, Import Modules from Zip Archives, Ahlstrom
 The Freeze tool
Tools/freeze/ in a Python source distribution
 py2exe by Thomas Heller
 imp.set_frozenmodules() patch
 The path argument to importer.find_module() is there because the
pkg.__path__ variable may be needed at this point. It may either
come from the actual parent module or be supplied by
imp.find_module() or the proposed imp.get_loader() function.
 Quixote, a framework for developing Web applications
This document has been placed in the public domain.