Following on from my previous post on Python and our new course on Python for Test Engineers which takes an elementary approach, I felt it was time to pay homage to that wonderful language once again but this time focusing on its applicability for Rapid Application Development.
The Higher Level the Language; The More Productive the Programmer
I love writing Python. I’ll be honest, it’s the closest I’ll get to writing executable pseudo-code which best mirrors how my mind works and I’m sure I can’t be alone in this. When coding in Python, its dynamic nature means you can sculpt and remodel your code as you express your ideas; this process gives a better understanding of the codes impact as well as providing more accurate estimates for how long a given task will take as there are fewer unknowns in the language itself.
“But Python is for high level applications!” – sorry but the world of embedded is evolving, Embedded Linux is everywhere with its “everything is a file” interface for things that were predominantly the domain of device drivers – I can manipulate framebuffers, SPI and I2C busses and GPIO using Python and even microcontrollers, that last bastion of embedded, are getting in on the action with the recently Kickstarted Micropython which brings Python further into traditional “deeply embedded” territory.
Python as a System Programming Language
An argument I get from other developers is that Python isn’t a real systems programming language – yes, you can script in it but that’s not how “Real coders” write software. Well, when those real Scotsmen, uh, coders take time from etching ones and zeroes directly into their hard disc platters and explain what they mean it typically comes down to a misunderstanding of Pythons capabilities.
“I need threading”
“Uh, swell, but I also need IPC/Networking”
“I also need serial comms”
OK, not built in but how about the cross-platform PySerial?
“And what about my existing programs?”
Python can handle all of those things with aplomb and also affords you ready-to-roll web services, file handling, parsing of data in XML/JSON form or plain text using regular expressions. Maybe you want to interact with the latest pluggable devices using PyUSB and you’ll lose track of the many ways to show a Graphical User Interface that it’s more akin to a beauty pageant.
As we move forward, multimedia is increasingly a key part in product development, many devices need to push and manipulate video and sound and once again, Python provides a huge leg up whether via simple graphics manipulation using Pillow, image processing using scikit-image or even live and post-processing of video using gstreamer or MoviePy respectively.
Reducing Time to Market
Time to market is the phrase that pays in the world of product development – it defines our coding deadlines, the features we can ship with and the very nature of our products and we’re always under pressure to reduce it.
Research indicates  that designing and writing a program in Python (or similar scripting language) typically takes half as long and requires half as much code as an equivalent C or C++ program.
Given that the number of lines we, as programmers, can write in a given time is constant and not dependent on the language or its type we can infer that with a higher level language such as Python, we get a much higher instructions-per-line metric and developers only have to spend half as long coding as our C++ wielding brethren. I can be more productive than if I was using C++ safe in the knowledge that the same task will require less code in Python.
This is how we get our minimum viable product, this is how we crush our time to market – we code smarter, not harder.
Of Data Types and Paradigms
Data types are important as they define the information we can hold in a variable. Built-in types are a godsend in Python – we have lists, dictionaries, sets and many more and we don’t need to track down and incorporate 3rd party libraries to provide neither them, nor the functions to manipulate them.
This ability to develop as you prototype means that you can develop supporting routines as you go and so to do the types of data you will need to handle which means you can pivot and rearchitect as you develop your software.
Python is a multi-paradigm language (urgh, sorry!) that allows us as programmers to use procedural, object-oriented and functional where it makes sense without shoe-horning one into the other.
One thing that has been on the increase is that Python is entering into areas traditionally aligned with domain specific tools such as Matlab and similar but as the power of Python is becoming apparent, modelling in one language and porting it to something like C is losing out to the decision to model, develop and code in just one language.
Add-on Libraries such as NumPy, SciPy and many others allow a combined model of modelling and deployment that affords huge benefits in a multi-disciplinary team as everyone speaks the same language: Python.
Good enough is good enough
Python isn’t just a prototyping language – you don’t need to throw away any of your code, companies are readily using Python for their deployed products as they evolve from RAD ideas to fully-fledged, production ready programs.
Python may not be everyone’s cup of tea and it has its limitations – it’s never going to offer the performance per watt you’d get from hand-coded assembly – but more often than not it’s good enough to get to market and, as companies are finding out, it’s good enough to keep you in the market.
Inquire today about how we can help you kick start your development process with Python.
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Co-Founder and Director of Feabhas since 1995.
Niall has been designing and programming embedded systems for over 30 years. He has worked in different sectors, including aerospace, telecomms, government and banking.
His current interest lie in IoT Security and Agile for Embedded Systems.