LTI Tools: Putting Cookies in the Frame

Last year I ran into a problem with IMS LTI in some versions of Internet Explorer. It turns out that my LTI tool was assuming it was OK to save cookies in the browser but IE was assuming it wasn't. Chuck has written about this briefly on his blog and the advice given there is basically now best practice and documented in the specification itself. See LTI, Frames and Cookies – Oh MY!

So I just spent the day trying to implement something like this ready for my QTI migration tool to become an LTI tool rather than a desktop application and it was much harder than I thought it would be.

Firstly, why is this happening? Well if your tool is launched in a frame inside the tool consumer then you are probably falling in to the definition of 'third party' as far as cookies are concerned. There is clearly a balance to be had between privacy and utility here. If you think about it, framed pages probably know who framed them and so something innocuous like an advert for an online store could use cookies to piece together a browser history of every site you visited that included their ad. That's why when you visit your favourite online store after browsing some informational site to do product research the store seems to already know what you want to buy.

Cynics will see a battle between companies like Google and Amazon who make money by encouraging you to find products online (and buy them) and Microsoft who are more into the business of selling software and services, especially to businesses who may not appreciate having their purchasing department gamed. Perhaps it is no wonder that Amazon found themselves in court in Seattle having to defend their technical implementation of P3P.

It turns out that IE can/could be persuaded to accept your tool's cookie if your tool publishes a privacy policy which IE isn't able to parse. I don't want to appear too dismissive but I simply cannot understand how decisions about privacy can be codified into policies that computers can then read and execute with any degree of usefulness. Stackoverflow has some advice on how to do it 'properly' if you are that way inclined, however.

For the rest of us, we're going to have to get used to the idea that cookies may not be accepted and follow Chuck's advice to workaround the issue by opening a new window. It isn't just IE now anyway, by default Safari will block cookies in this situation too. Yes, the solution is horrible, but how horrible?

Some time ago I wrote some Python classes to help implement basic LTI. That felt like a good starting point for my new LTI tool. Here's Safari, pointing at the IMS LTI test harness which I've just primed with the URL of my tool: http://localhost:8081/launch

In the next shot, I've scrolled down to where the action is going to take place. I've opened Safari's developer tools so we can see something of what is happening with cookies.

So what happens when I hit "Press to Launch"? It all happens rather quickly but the frame POSTs to my launch page, which then redirects to a cookie test page. That page realises that the cookies didn't stick and shows a form which autosubmits, popping up a new window with my tool content in. The content is not very interesting but here's how my browser looked immediately after:

There's a real risk that this window will be blocked by a pop-up blocker. Indeed, Chrome does seem to block this type of pop-up window. In fact, Chrome allows the original frame to use cookies so on that browser the pop-up doesn't need to fire. I only tripped the blocker during simulated tests. Still, it is clear that you do need to consider that LTI tools may neither have access to cookies nor be able to pop-up a new window automatically. To cover this case my app has a button that allows you to open the window manually instead, if I change tabs back to the Tool Consumer page you'll see how my pop-up sequence has left the original page/frame.

Notice that Safari now shows my two cookies. These cookies were set by the new window, not by the content of this frame, even though they show up in this view. They show me that my tool has not only displayed its content but has successfully created a cookie-trackable session.

The code required to make this happen is more complex than I thought. I've tried to represent my session construction logic in diagramatic form. Each box represents a request. The top line contains the incoming cookie values ('-' means missing) and the page name. The next line indicates the values of some key query parameters used to pass Session information, Return URL and whether or not a pop-up Window has been opened. The final line shows the out-going cookies. If you follow the right hand path from top to bottom you see a hit to the home page of the tool (aka launch page) with no cookies. It sets the values 0/A and redirects to the test page which confirms that cookies work, outputs a new session identifier (B) and redirects to the content. The left-turns in the sequence show the paths taken when cookies that were set are blocked by the browser.

Why does the session get rewritten from value A to B during the sequence? Just a bit of paranoia. Exposing session identifiers in URLs is considered bad form because they can be easily leaked. Having taken the risk of passing the initial session identifier through the query string we regenerate it to prevent any form of session hijacking or fixation attacks. This is quite a complex issue and is related to other weaknesses such as cross-site request forgery. I found Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) Prevention Cheat Sheet very useful reading!

I will check the code for this into my Pyslet GitHub project shortly, if you want a preview please get in touch or comment on this post. The code is too complex to show in the blog post itself.


Basic Authentication, SSL and Pyslet's HTTP/OData client

Pyslet is my Python package for Standards in Learning Education and Training and represents a packaging up of the core of my QTI migration script code in a form that makes it easier for other developers to use. Earlier this year I released Pyslet to PyPi and moved development to Github to make it easier for people to download, install and engage with the source code.

Note: this article updated 2017-05-24 with code correction (see comments for details).

Warning: The code in this article will work with the latest Pyslet master from Github, and with any distribution on or later than pyslet-0.5.20141113. At the time of writing the version on PyPi has not been updated!

A recent issue that came up concerns Pyslet's HTTP client. The client is the base class for Pyslet's OData client. In my own work I often use this client to access OData feeds protected with HTTP's basic authentication but I've never properly documented how to do it. There are two approaches...

The simplest way, and the way I used to do it, is to override the client object itself and add the Authorization header at the point where each request is queued.

from pyslet.http.client import Client

class MyAuthenticatedClient(Client):

    # add an __init__ method to set some credentials 
    # in the client

    def queue_request(self, request):
        # add in the authorization credentials
        if (self.credentials is not None and
                not request.has_header("Authorization")):
            super(MyAuthenticatedClient, self).queue_request(request)

This works OK but it forces the issue a bit and will result in the credentials being sent to all URLs, which you may not want. The credentials object should be an instance of pyslet.http.auth.BasicCredentials which takes care of correctly formatting the header. Here is some sample code to create that object:

from pyslet.http.auth import BasicCredentials
from pyslet.rfc2396 import URI

credentials = BasicCredentials()
credentials.userid = "user@example.com"
credentials.password = "secretPa$$word"
credentials.protectionSpace = URI.from_octets(

With the above code, str(credentials) returns the string: 'Basic dXNlckBleGFtcGxlLmNvbTpzZWNyZXRQYSQkd29yZA==' which is what you'd expect to pass in the Authorization header.

To make this code play more nicely with the HTTP standard I added some core-support to the HTTP client itself, so you don't need to override the class anymore. The HTTP client now has a credential store and an add_credentials method. Once added, the following happens when a 401 response is received:

  1. The client iterates through any received challenges
  2. Each challenge is matched against the stored credentials
  3. If matching credentials are found then an Authorization header is added and the request resent
  4. If the request receives another 401 response the credentials are removed from the store and we go back to (1)

This process terminates when there are no more credentials that match any of the challenges or when a code other than 401 is received.

If the matching credentials are BasicCredentials (and that's the only type Pyslet supports out of the box!), then some additional logic gets activated on success. RFC 2617 says that for basic authentication, a challenge implies that all paths "at or deeper than the depth of the last symbolic element in the path field" fall into the same protection space. Therefore, when credentials are used successfully, Pyslet adds the path to the credentials using BasicCredentials.add_success_path. Next time a request is sent to a URL on the same server with a path that meets this criterium the Authorization header will be added pre-emptively.

If you want to pre-empt the 401 handling completely then you just need to add a suitable path to the credentials before you add them to the client. So if you know your credentials are good for everything in /website/~user/ you could continue the above code like this:


That last slash is really important, if you leave it off it will add everything in '/website/' to your protection space which is probably not what you want.


If you're going to pass basic auth credentials around you really should be using https. Python makes it a bit tricky to use HTTPs and be sure that you are using a trusted connection. Pyslet tries to make this a little bit easier. Here's what I do.

  1. With Firefox, go to the site in question and check that SSL is working properly
  2. Export the certificate from the site in PEM format and save to disk, e.g., www.example.com.crt
  3. Repeat for any other sites I want my python script to work with.
  4. Concatenate the files together and save them to, say, 'certificates.pem'
  5. Pass this file name to the HTTP (or OData) client constructor.
from pyslet.http.client import Client

my_client = Client(ca_certs='certificates.pem')

In this code, I've assumed that the credentials were created as above. To be really sure you are secure here, try grabbing a file from a different site or, even better, generate a self-signed certificate and use that instead. (The master version of Pyslet currently has such a certificate ready made in unittests/data_rfc2616/server.crt). Now pass that file for ca_certs and check that you get SSL errors! If you don't, something is broken and you should proceed with caution, or you may just be on a Mac (see notes in Is Python's SSL module correctly validating certificates... for details). And don't pass None for ca_certs as that tells the ssl module not to check at all!

If you don't like messing around with the certificates, and you are using a machine and network that is pretty trustworthy and from which you would happily do your internet banking then the following can be used to proxy for the browser method:

import ssl, string
import pyslet.rfc2396 as uri

certs = []
for s in ('https://www.example.com', 'https://www.example2.com', ):
    # add other sites to the above tuple as you like
    url = uri.URI.from_octets(s)
    with open('certificates.pem', 'wb') as f:

Passing the ssl_version is optional above but the default setting in many Python installations will use the discredited SSLv3 or worse and your server may refuse to serve you, I know mine does! Set it to a protocol you trust.

Remember that you'll have to do this every so often because server certificates expire. You can always grab the certificate authority's certificate instead (and thereby trust a whole slew of sites at once) but if you're going that far then there are better recipes for finding and re-using the built-in machine certificate store anyway. The beauty of this method is that you can self-sign a server certificate you trust and connect to it securely with a Python client without having to mess around with certificate authorities at all, provided you can safely courier the certificate from your server to your client that is! If you are one of the growing number of people who think the whole trust thing is broken anyway since Snowden then this may be an attractive option.

With thanks to @bolhovsky on Github for bringing the need for this article to my attention.


VMWare Fusion, Windows 8 and British Keyboards

I've been running VMWare Fusion for years to run a dual monitor setup with one screen Mac and the other screen 'PC'.  I recently upgraded to VMWare Fusion 7 and my Windows 7 virtual machine kept working just fine.  However I recently had to start from scratch with a new VM to install Windows 8.1.  I realise that there may be upgrade routes via Windows 8 but, after two hours on the phone with Microsoft technical support for an unrelated issue I personally decided that a clean install would be the way to go.

The problem is, the keyboard just doesn't work properly in the default setup.  It is years since I had to play with these things and it took me a while to figure out how to put mappings in place that make my British keyboard do the right thing.  There may actually be a problem with Fusion 7 if this forum thread is anything to go by.

The symptoms are that the '@' symbol, which is typed with shift-2 on the Mac keyboard was coming out as double-quote like it would on a PC keyboard and try as I might I could not figure out how to type a back-slash at first at all.

The solution is to go to the VM's settings, duplicate the profile you are using (VMWare created a Windows 8 profile for me) and then add some custom mappings. I found this a bit counter intuitive because you need to start by opening something like Notepad in the VM and experimenting until you find the characters you want, note down the key combination you pressed to get them and then switch to the profile screen and add a mapping from the keys you want to press to the key combinations you just discovered work. A picture will help...

This is the double quote on my keyboard but without the custom profile it types '@', a simple switch with Shift-2 that almost all Mac users are probably already familiar with.
The reverse mapping of the above
Turns out that the backslash key types a hash/number/sharp sign on the PC so we map Option-3 to that if, like me, you have become habituated to the Apple way.
Turns out that the backslash is now typed by the section sign (that's the curly thing that looks like a tiny spiral-arm galaxy).
Lastly, you may have to hunt for the '~', but it gets typed when you hit shift-backslash on the PC. On the Mac it appears over the back-quote or back-tick symbol.

That's the most important ones. Note that shift-3 correctly types the pound-sterling sign '£' so I didn't have to touch that at all. I have no idea how one types a section sign or the combined plus-minus '±' sign on the PC but in my line of work there is very little call for them. I warmly invite readers to add their own suggested mappings as comments to this post!


Adding OData support to Django with Pyslet: First Thoughts

A couple of weeks ago I got an interesting tweet from @d34dl0ck, here it is:

This got me thinking, but as I know very little about Django I had to do a bit of research first. Here's my read-back of what Django's data layer does in the form of a concept mapping from OData to Django. In this table the objects are listed in containment order and the use case of using OData to expose data managed by a Django-based website is assumed. (See below for thoughts on consuming OData in Django as if it were a data source.)

OData ConceptDjango ConceptPyslet Concept
DataServices Django website: the purpose of OData is to provide access to your application's data-layer through a standard API for machine-to-machine communication rather than through an HTML-based web view for human consumption. Instance of the DataServices class, typically parsed from a metadata XML file.
Schema No direct equivalent. In OData, the purpose of the schema is to provide a namespace in which definitions of the other elements take place. In Django this information will be spread around your Python source code in the form of class definitions that support the remaining concepts. Instance of the Schema class, typically parsed from a metadata XML file.
EntityContainer The database. An OData service can define multiple containers but there is always a default container - something that corresponds closely with the way Django links to multiple databases. Most OData services probably only define a single container and I would expect that most Django applications use the default database. If you do define custom database routers to map different models to different databases then that information would need to be represented in the corresponding Schema(s). In Pyslet, an EntityContainer is defined by an instance of the EntityContainer class but this instance is handed to a storage layer during application startup and this storage layer class binds concrete implementations of the data access API to the EntitySets it contains.
EntitySet Your model class. A model class maps to a table in the Django database. In OData the metadata file contains the information about which container contains an EntitySet and the EntityType definition in that file contains the actual definitions of the types and field names. In contrast, in Django these are defined using class attributes in the Python code. Pyslet sticks closely to the OData API here and parses definitions from the metadata file. As a result an EntitySet instance is created that represents this part of the model and it is up to the object responsible for interfacing to the storage layer to provide concrete bindings.
Entity An instance of a model class. An instance of the Entity object, typically instantiated by the storage object bound to the EntitySet.

Where do you start?

Step 1: As you can see from the above table, Pyslet depends fairly heavily on the metadata file so a good way to start would be to create a metadata file that corresponds to the parts of your Django data model you want to expose. You have some freedom here but if you are messing about with multiple databases in Django it makes sense to organise these as separate entity containers. You can't create relationships across containers in Pyslet which mirrors the equivalent restriction in Django.

Step 2: You now need to provide a storage object that maps Pyslet's DAL onto the Django DAL. This involves creating a sub-class of the EntityCollection object from Pyslet. To get a feel for the API my suggestion would be to create a class for a specific model initially and then, once this is working, consider how you might use Python's built-in introspection to write a more general object.

To start with, you don't need to do too much. EntityCollection objects are just like dictionaries but you only need to override itervalues and __getitem__ to get some sort of implementation going. There are simple wrappers that will (inefficiently) handle ordering and filtering for you to start with so itervalues can be very simple...

def itervalues(self):
    return self.OrderEntities(

All you need to do is write the entityGenerator method (the name is up to you) and yield Entity instances from your Django model. This looks pretty simple in Django, something like Customer.objects.all() where Customer is the name of a model class would appear to return all customer instances. You need to yield an Entity object from Pyslet's DAL for each customer instance and populate the property values from the fields of the returned model instance.

Implementing __getitem__ is probably also very easy, especially when you are using simple keys. Something like Customer.objects.get(pk=1) and then a similar mapping to the above seems like it would work for implementing basic resource look up by key. Look at the in-memory collection class implementation for the details of how to check the filter and populate the field values, it's in pyslet/odata2/memds.py.

Probably the hardest part of defining an EntityCollection object is getting the constructor right. You'll want to pass through the Model class from Django so that you can make calls like the above:

def __init__(self,djangoModel,**kwArgs):

Step 3: Load the metadata from a file, then bind your EntityCollection class or classes to the EntitySets. Something like this might work:

import pyslet.odata2.metadata as edmx
with open('DjangoAppMetadata.xml','rb') as f:
# customers is an EntitySet instance

The Customer object here is your Django model object for Customers and the DjangoCollection object is the EntityCollection object you created in Step 2. Each time someone opens the customers entity set a new DjangoCollection object will be created and Customer will be passed as the djangoModel parameter.

Step 4: Test that the model is working by using the interpreter or a simple script to open the customers object (the EntitySet) and make queries with the Pyslet DAL API. If it works, you can wrap it with an OData server class and just hook the resulting wsgi object to your web server and you have hacked something together.

Post hack

You'll want to look at Pyslet's expression objects and figure out how to map these onto the query objects used by Django. Although OData provides a rich query syntax you don't need to support it all, just reject stuff you don't want to implement. Simple queries look like they'd map to things you can pass to the filter method in Django fairly easily. In fact, one of the problems with OData is that it is very general - almost SQL over the web - and your application's data layer is probably optimised for some queries and not others. Do you want to allow people to search your zillion-record table using a query that forces a full table scan? Probably not.

You'll also want to look at navigation properties which map fairly neatly to the relationship fields. The Django DAL and Pyslet's DAL are not miles apart here so you should be able to create NavigationCollection objects (equivalent to the class you created in Step 2 above) for these. At this point, the power of OData will begin to come alive for you.

Making it Django-like

I'm not an expert on what is and is not Django like but I did notice that there is a Feed concept for exposing RSS in Django. If the post hack process has left you with a useful implementation then some sort of OData equivalent object might be a useful addition. Given that Django tends to do much of the heavy lifting you could think about providing an OData feed object. It probably isn't too hard to auto-generate the metadata from something like class attributes on such an object. Pyslet's OData server is a wsgi application so provided Django can route requests to it you'll probably end up with something that is fairly nicely integrated - even if it can't do that out of the box it should be trivial to provide a simple Django request handler that fakes a wsgi call.

Consuming OData

Normally you think of consuming OData as being easier than providing it but for Django you'd be tempted to consider exposing OData as a data source, perhaps as an auxiliary database containing some models that are externally stored. This would allow you to use the power of Django to create an application which mashed up data from OData sources as if that data were stored in a locally accessible database.

This appears to be a more ambitious project: Django non-rel appears to be a separate project and it isn't clear how easy it would be to intermingle data coming form an OData source with data coming from local databases. It is unlikely that you'd want to use OData for all data in your application. The alternative might be to try and write a Python DB API interface for Pyslet's DAL and then get Django treating it like a proper database. That would mean parsing SQL, which is nasty, but it might be the lesser of two evils.

Of course, there's nothing stopping you using Pyslet's builtin OData client class directly in your code to augment your custom views with data pulled from an external source. One of the features of Pyslet's OData client is that it treats the remote server like a data source, keeping persistent HTTP connections open, managing multi-threaded access and and pipelining requests to improve throughput. That should make it fairly easy to integrate into your Django application.


A Dictionary-like Python interface for OData Part III: a SQL-backed OData Server

This is the third and last part of a series of three posts that introduce my OData framework for Python. To recap:

  1. In Part I I introduced a new data access layer I've written for Python that is modelled on the conventions of OData. In that post I validated the API by writing a concrete implementation in the form of an OData client.
  2. In Part II I used the same API and wrote a concrete implementation using a simple in-memory storage model. I also introduced the OData server functionality to expose the API via the OData protocol.
  3. In this part, I conclude this mini-series with a quick look at another concrete implementation of the API which wraps Python's DB API allowing you to store data in a SQL environment.

As before, you can download the source code from the QTIMigration Tool & Pyslet home page. I wrote a brief tutorial on using the SQL backed classes to take care of some of the technical details.

Rain or Shine?

To make this project a little more interesting I went looking for a real data set to play with. I'm a bit of a weather watcher at home and for almost 20 years I've enjoyed using a local weather station run by a research group at the University of Cambridge. The group is currently part of the Cambridge Computer Laboratory and the station has moved to the William Gates building.

The Database

The SQL implementation comes in two halves. The base classes are as close to standard SQL as I could get and then a small 'shim' sits over the top which binds to a specific database implementation. The Python DB API takes you most of the way, including helping out with the correct form of parameterisation to use. For this example project I used SQLite because the driver is typically available in Python implementations straight out of the box.

I wrote the OData-style metadata document first and used it to automatically generate the CREATE TABLE commands but in most cases you'll probably have an existing database or want to edit the generated scripts and run them by hand. The main table in my schema got created from this SQL:

CREATE TABLE "DataPoints" (
    "Temperature" REAL,
    "Humidity" SMALLINT,
    "DewPoint" REAL,
    "Pressure" SMALLINT,
    "WindSpeed" REAL,
    "WindDirection" TEXT,
    "WindSpeedMax" REAL,
    "SunRainStart" REAL,
    "Sun" REAL,
    "Rain" REAL,
    "DataPointNotes_ID" INTEGER,
    PRIMARY KEY ("TimePoint"),
    CONSTRAINT "DataPointNotes" FOREIGN KEY ("DataPointNotes_ID") REFERENCES "Notes"("ID"))

To expose the database via my new data-access-layer API you just load the XML metadata, create a SQL container object containing the concrete implementation and then you can access the data in exactly the same way as I did in Part's I and II. The code that consumes the API doesn't need to know if the data source is an OData client, an in memory dummy source or a full-blown SQL database. Once I'd loaded the data, here is a simple session with the Python interpreter that shows you the API in action.

>>> import pyslet.odata2.metadata as edmx
>>> import pyslet.odata2.core as core
>>> doc=edmx.Document()
>>> with open('WeatherSchema.xml','rb') as f: doc.Read(f)
>>> from pyslet.odata2.sqlds import SQLiteEntityContainer
>>> container=SQLiteEntityContainer(filePath='weather.db',containerDef=doc.root.DataServices['WeatherSchema.CambridgeWeather'])
>>> weatherData=doc.root.DataServices['WeatherSchema.CambridgeWeather.DataPoints']
>>> collection=weatherData.OpenCollection()
>>> collection.OrderBy(core.CommonExpression.OrderByFromString('WindSpeedMax desc'))
>>> collection.SetPage(5)
>>> for e in collection.iterpage(): print "%s: Max wind speed: %0.1f mph"%(unicode(e['TimePoint'].value),e['WindSpeedMax'].value*1.15078)
2002-10-27T10:30:00: Max wind speed: 85.2 mph
2004-03-20T15:30:00: Max wind speed: 82.9 mph
2007-01-18T14:30:00: Max wind speed: 80.6 mph
2004-03-20T16:00:00: Max wind speed: 78.3 mph
2005-01-08T06:00:00: Max wind speed: 78.3 mph

Notice that the container itself isn't needed when accessing the data because the SQLiteEntityContainer __init__ method takes care of binding the appropriate collection classes to the model passed in. Unfortunately the dataset doesn't go all the way back to the great storm of 1987 which is a shame as at the time I was living in a 5th floor flat perched on top of what I was reliably informed was the highest building in Cambridge not to have some form of structural support. I woke up when the building shook so much my bed moved across the floor.

Setting up a Server

I used the same technique as I did in Part II to wrap the API with an OData server and then had some real fun getting it up and running on Amazon's EC2. Pyslet requires Python 2.7 but EC2 Linux comes with Python 2.6 out of the box. Thanks to this blog article for help with getting Python 2.7 installed. I also had to build mod_wsgi from scratch in order to get it to pick up the version I wanted. Essentially here's what I did:

# Python 2.7 install
sudo yum install make automake gcc gcc-c++ kernel-devel git-core -y
sudo yum install python27-devel -y
# Apache install
#  Thanks to http://docs.aws.amazon.com/AWSEC2/latest/UserGuide/install-LAMP.html
sudo yum groupinstall -y "Web Server"
sudo service httpd start
sudo chkconfig httpd on

And to get mod_wsgi working with Python2.7...

sudo bash
yum install httpd-devel -y
mkdir downloads
cd downloads
wget http://modwsgi.googlecode.com/files/mod_wsgi-3.4.tar.gz
tar -xzvf mod_wsgi-3.4.tar.gz
cd mod_wsgi-3.4
./configure --with-python=/usr/bin/python2.7
make install
# Optional check to ensure that we've got the correct Python linked
# you should see the 2.7 library linked
ldd /etc/httpd/modules/mod_wsgi.so
service httpd restart

To drive the server with mod_wsgi I used a script like this:

#! /usr/bin/env python

import logging, os.path
import pyslet.odata2.metadata as edmx
from pyslet.odata2.sqlds import SQLiteEntityContainer
from pyslet.odata2.server import ReadOnlyServer



with open(os.path.join(HOME_DIR,'WeatherSchema.xml'),'rb') as f:



def application(environ, start_response):
 return server(environ,start_response)

I'm relying on the fact that Apache is configured to run Python internally and that my server object persists between calls. I think by default mod_wsgi serialises calls to the application method but a smarter configuration with a multi-threaded daemon would be OK because the server and container objects are thread safe. There are limits to the underlying SQLite module of course so you may not gain a lot of performance this way but a proper database would help.

Try it out!

If you were watching carefully you'll see that the above script uses a public service root. So let's try the same query but this time using OData. Here it is in Firefox:

Notice that Firefox recognises that the OData feed is an Atom feed and displays the syndication title and updated date. I used the metadata document to map the temperature and the date of the observation to these (you can see they are the same data points as above by the matching dates). The windiest days are never particularly hot or cold in Cambridge because they are almost always associated with Atlantic storms and the sea temperature just doesn't change that much.

The server is hosted at http://odata.pyslet.org/weather


A Dictionary-like Python interface for OData Part II: a Memory-backed OData Server

In my previous post, A Dictionary-like Python interface for OData I introduced a new sub-package I've added to Pyslet to implement support for OData version 2. You can download the latest version of the Pyslet package from the QTI Migration Tool & Pyslet home page.

To recap, I've decided to set about writing my own data access layer for Python that is modelled on the conventions of OData. I've validated the API by writing a concrete implementation in the form of an OData client. In this post I'll introduce the next step in the process which is a simple alternative implementation that uses a different underlying storage model, in other words, an implementation which uses something other than a remote OData server. I'll then expose this implementation as an OData server to validate that my data access layer API works from both perspectives.


Unlike other frameworks for implementing OData services Pyslet starts with the metadata model, it is not automatically generated from your code, you must write it yourself. This differs from the object-first approach taken by other frameworks, illustrated here:

This picture is typical of a project using something like Microsoft's WCF. Essentially, there's a two-step process. You use something like Microsoft's entity framework to generate classes from a database schema, customise the classes a little and then the metadata model is auto-generated from your code model. Of course, you can go straight to code and implement your own code model that implements the appropriate queryable interface but this would typically be done for a specific model.

Contrast this with the approach taken by Pyslet where the entities are not model-specific classes. For example, when modelling the Northwind service there is no Python class called Product as there would be in the approach taken by other frameworks. Instead there is a generalised implementation of Entity which behaves like a dictionary. The main difference is probably that you'll use supplier['Phone'] instead of simply supplier.phone or, if you'd have gone down the getter/setter route, supplier.GetPhone(). In my opinion, this works better than a tighter binding for a number of reasons, but particularly because it makes the user more mindful of when data access is happening and when it isn't.

Using a looser binding also helps prevent the type of problems I had during the development of the QTI specification. Lots of people were using Java and JAXB to autogenerate classes from the XML specification (cf autogenerating classes from a database schema) but the QTI model contained a class attribute on most elements to allow for stylesheet support. This class attribute prevented auto-generation because class is a reserved word in the Java language. Trying to fix this up after auto-generation would be madness but fixing it up before turns out to be a little tricky and this glitch seriously damaged the specification's user-experience. We got over it, but I'm wary now and when modelling OData I stepped back from a tighter binding, in part, to prevent hard to fix glitches like the use of Python reserved words as property names.

Allocating Storage

For this blog post I'm using a lightweight in-memory data storage implementation which can be automatically provisioned from the metadata document and I'm going to cheat by making a copy of the metadata document used by the Northwind service. Exposing OData the Pyslet way is a little more work if you already have a SQL database containing your data because I don't have a tool that auto-generates the metadata document from the SQL database schema. Automating the other direction is easy, but more on that in Part III.

I used my web browser to grab a copy of http://services.odata.org/V2/Northwind/Northwind.svc/$metadata and saved it to a file called Northwind.xml. I can then load the model from the interpreter:

>>> import pyslet.odata2.metadata as edmx
>>> doc=edmx.Document()
>>> f=open('Northwind.xml')
>>> doc.Read(f)
>>> f.close()

This special Document class ensures that the model is loaded with the special Pyslet element implementations. The Products entity set can be looked up directly but at the moment it's empty!

>>> productSet=doc.root.DataServices['ODataWeb.Northwind.Model.NorthwindEntities.Products']
>>> products=productSet.OpenCollection()
>>> len(products)
>>> products.close()

This isn't surprising, there is nothing in the metadata model itself which binds it to the data service at services.odata.org. The model isn't linked to any actual storage for the data. By default, the model behaves as if it is bound to an empty read-only data store.

To help me validate that my API can be used for something other than talking to real OData services I've created an object that provisions storage for an EntityContainer (that's like a database in OData) using standard Python dictionaries. By passing the definition of an EntityContainer to the object's constructor I create a binding between the model and this new data store.

>>> from pyslet.odata2.memds import InMemoryEntityContainer
>>> container=InMemoryEntityContainer(doc.root.DataServices['ODataWeb.Northwind.Model.NorthwindEntities'])
>>> products=productSet.OpenCollection()
>>> len(products)

The collection of products is still empty but it is now writeable. I'm going to cheat again to illustrate this by borrowing some code from the previous blog post to open an OData client connected to the real Northwind service.

>>> from pyslet.odata2.client import Client
>>> c=Client("http://services.odata.org/V2/Northwind/Northwind.svc/")
>>> nwProducts=c.feeds['Products'].OpenCollection()

Here's a simple loop to copy the products from the real service into my own collection. It's a bit clumsy in the interpreter but careful typing pays off:

>>> for nwProduct in nwProducts.itervalues():
...   product=collection.CopyEntity(nwProduct)
...   product.SetKey(nwProduct.Key())
...   collection.InsertEntity(product)
>>> len(collection)

To emphasise the difference between my in-memory collection and the live OData service I'll add another record to my copy of this entity set. Fortunately most of the fields are marked as Nullable in the model so to save my fingers I'll just set those that aren't.

>>> product=collection.NewEntity()
>>> product.SetKey(100)
>>> product['ProductName'].SetFromValue("The one and only Pyslet")
>>> product['Discontinued'].SetFromValue(False)
>>> collection.InsertEntity(product)
>>> len(collection)

Now I can do everything I can with the OData client using my copy of the service, I'll filter the entities to make it easier to see:

>>> import pyslet.odata2.core as core
>>> filter=core.CommonExpression.FromString("substringof('one',ProductName)")
>>> collection.Filter(filter)
>>> for p in collection.itervalues(): print p.Key(), p['ProductName'].value
21 Sir Rodney's Scones
32 Mascarpone Fabioli
100 The one and only Pyslet

I can access my own data store using the same API that I used to access a remote OData service in the previous post. In that post, I also claimed that it was easy to wrap my own implementations of this API to expose it as an OData service.

Exposing an OData Server

My OData server class implements the wsgi protocol so it is easy to link it up to a simple http server and tell it to handle a single request.

>>> from pyslet.odata2.server import Server
>>> server=Server("http://localhost:8081/")
>>> server.SetModel(doc)
>>> from wsgiref.simple_server import make_server
>>> httpServer=make_server('',8081,server)
>>> httpServer.handle_request()

My interpreter session is hanging at this point waiting for a single HTTP connection. The Northwind service doesn't have any feed customisations on the Products feed and, as we slavishly copied it, the Atom-view in the browser is a bit boring so I used the excellent JSONView plugin for Firefox and the following URL to hit my service:

http://localhost:8081/Products?$filter=substringof('one',ProductName)&$orderby=ProductID desc&$format=json

This is the same filter as I used in the interpreter before but I've added an ordering and specified my preference for JSON format. Here's the result.

As I did this, Python's simple server object logged the following output to my console: - - [24/Feb/2014 11:17:05] "GET /Products?$filter=substringof(%27one%27,ProductName)&$orderby=ProductID%20desc&$format=json HTTP/1.1" 200 1701

The in-memory data store is a bit of a toy, though some more useful applications might be possible. In the OData documentation I go through a tutorial on how to create a lightweight memory-cache of key-value pairs exposed as an OData service. I'm not really suggestion using it in a production environment to replace memcached. What this implementation is really useful for is developing and testing applications that consume the DAL API without needing to be connected to the real data source. Also, it can be wrapped in the OData Server class as shown above and used to provide a more realistic mock of an actual service for testing that your consumer application still works when the data service is remote. I've used it in Pyslet's unit-tests this way.

In the third and final part of this Python and OData series I'll cover a more interesting implementation of the API using the SQLite database.


A Dictionary-like Python interface for OData


This blog post introduces some new modules that I've added to the Pyslet package I wrote. Pyslet's purpose is providing support for Standards for Learning, Education and Training in Python. The new modules implement the OData protocol by providing a dictionary-like interface. You can download pyslet from the QTIMigration Tool & Pyslet home page. There is some documentation linked from the main Pyslet wiki. This blog article is as good a way as any to get you started.

The Problem

Python has a database API which does a good job but it is not the whole solution for data access. Embedding SQL statements in code, grappling with the complexities of parameterization and dealing with individual database quirks makes it useful to have some type of layer between your web app and the database API so that you can tweak your code as you move between data sources.

If SQL has failed to be a really interoperable standard then perhaps OData, the new kid on the block, can fill the vacuum. The standard is sometimes referred to as "ODBC over the web" so it is definitely in this space (after all, who runs their database on the same server as their web app these days?).

My Solution

To solve this problem I decided to set about writing my own data access layer that would be modeled on the conventions of OData but that used some simple concepts in Python. I decided to go down the dictionary-like route, rather than simulating objects with attributes, because I find the code more transparent that way. Implementing methods like __getitem__, __setitem__ and itervalues keeps the data layer abstraction at arms length from the basic python machinery. It is a matter of taste. See what you think.

The vision here is to write a single API (represented by a set of base classes) that can be implemented in different ways to access different data sources. There are three steps:

  1. An implementation that uses the OData protocol to talk to a remote OData service.
  2. An implementation that uses python dictionaries to create a transient in-memory data service for testing.
  3. An implementation that uses the python database API to access a real database.

This blog post is mainly about the first step, which should validate the API as being OData-like and set the groundwork for the others which I'll describe in subsequent blog posts. Incidentally, it turns out to be fairly easy to write an OData server that exposes a data service written to this API, more on that in future posts.

Quick Tutorial

The client implementation uses Python's logging module to provide logging. To make it easier to see what is going on during this walk through I'm going to turn logging up from the default "WARN" to "INFO":

>>> import logging
>>> logging.basicConfig(level=logging.INFO)

To create a new OData client you simply instantiate a Client object passing the URL of the OData service root. Notice that, during construction, the Client object downloads the list of feeds followed by the metadata document. The metadata document is used extensively by this module and is loaded into a DOM-like representation.

>>> from pyslet.odata2.client import Client
>>> c=Client("http://services.odata.org/V2/Northwind/Northwind.svc/")
INFO:root:Sending request to services.odata.org
INFO:root:GET /V2/Northwind/Northwind.svc/ HTTP/1.1
INFO:root:Finished Response, status 200
INFO:root:Sending request to services.odata.org
INFO:root:GET /V2/Northwind/Northwind.svc/$metadata HTTP/1.1
INFO:root:Finished Response, status 200

Client objects have a feeds attribute that is a plain dictionary mapping the exposed feeds (by name) onto EntitySet objects. These objects are part of the metadata model but serve a special purpose in the API as they can be opened (a bit like files or directories) to gain access to the (collections of) entities themselves. Collection objects can be used in the with statement and that's normally how you'd use them but I'm sticking with the interactive terminal for now.

>>> products=c.feeds['Products'].OpenCollection()
>>> for p in products: print p
INFO:root:Sending request to services.odata.org
INFO:root:GET /V2/Northwind/Northwind.svc/Products HTTP/1.1
INFO:root:Finished Response, status 200
... [and so on]
INFO:root:Sending request to services.odata.org
INFO:root:GET /V2/Northwind/Northwind.svc/Products?$skiptoken=20 HTTP/1.1
INFO:root:Finished Response, status 200
... [and so on]

The products collection behaves like a dictionary, iterating through it iterates through the keys in the dictionary. In this case these are the keys of the entities in the collection of products in Microsoft's sample Northwind data service. Notice that the client logs several requests to the server interspersed with the printed output. That's because the server is limiting the maximum page size and the client is following the page links provided. These calls are made as you iterate through the collection allowing you to iterate through very large collections without loading everything in to memory.

The keys alone are of limited interest, let's try a similar loop but this time we'll print the product names as well:

>>> for k,p in products.iteritems(): print k,p['ProductName'].value
INFO:root:Sending request to services.odata.org
INFO:root:GET /V2/Northwind/Northwind.svc/Products HTTP/1.1
INFO:root:Finished Response, status 200
1 Chai
2 Chang
3 Aniseed Syrup
20 Sir Rodney's Marmalade
INFO:root:Sending request to services.odata.org
INFO:root:GET /V2/Northwind/Northwind.svc/Products?$skiptoken=20 HTTP/1.1
INFO:root:Finished Response, status 200
21 Sir Rodney's Scones
22 Gustaf's Knäckebröd
23 Tunnbröd
76 Lakkalikööri
77 Original Frankfurter grüne Soße

Sir Rodney's Scones sound interesting, we can grab an individual record just as we normally would from a dictionary, by using its key.

>>> scones=products[21]
INFO:root:Sending request to services.odata.org
INFO:root:GET /V2/Northwind/Northwind.svc/Products(21) HTTP/1.1
INFO:root:Finished Response, status 200
>>> for k,v in scones.DataItems(): print k,v.value
ProductID 21
ProductName Sir Rodney's Scones
SupplierID 8
CategoryID 3
QuantityPerUnit 24 pkgs. x 4 pieces
UnitPrice 10.0000
UnitsInStock 3
UnitsOnOrder 40
ReorderLevel 5
Discontinued False

The scones object is an Entity object. It too behaves like a dictionary. The keys are the property names and the values are one of SimpleValue, Complex or DeferredValue. In the snippet above I've used a variation of iteritems which iterates only through the data properties, excluding the navigation properties. In this model, there are no complex properties. The simple values have a value attribute which contains a python representation of the value.

Deferred values (navigation properties) can be used to navigate between Entities. Although deferred values can be opened just like EntitySets, if the model dictates that at most 1 entity can be linked a convenience method called GetEntity can be used to open the collection and read the entity in one call. In this case, a product can have at most one supplier.

>>> supplier=scones['Supplier'].GetEntity()
INFO:root:Sending request to services.odata.org
INFO:root:GET /V2/Northwind/Northwind.svc/Products(21)/Supplier HTTP/1.1
INFO:root:Finished Response, status 200
>>> for k,v in supplier.DataItems(): print k,v.value
SupplierID 8
CompanyName Specialty Biscuits, Ltd.
ContactName Peter Wilson
ContactTitle Sales Representative
Address 29 King's Way
City Manchester
Region None
PostalCode M14 GSD
Country UK
Phone (161) 555-4448
Fax None
HomePage None

Continuing with the dictionary-like theme, attempting to load a non existent entity results in a KeyError:

>>> p=products[211]
INFO:root:Sending request to services.odata.org
INFO:root:GET /V2/Northwind/Northwind.svc/Products(211) HTTP/1.1
INFO:root:Finished Response, status 404
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "", line 1, in 
  File "/Library/Python/2.7/site-packages/pyslet/odata2/client.py", line 165, in __getitem__
 raise KeyError(key)
KeyError: 211

Finally, when we're done, it is a good idea to close the open collection. If we'd used the with statement this step would have been done automatically for us of course.

>>> products.close()


Currently the client only supports OData version 2. Version 3 has now been published and I do intend to update the classes to speak version 3 at some point. If you try and connect to a version 3 service the client will complain when it tries to load the metadata document. There are ways around this limitation, if you are interested add a comment to this post and I'll add some documentation.

The client only speaks XML so if your service only speaks JSON it won't work at the moment. Most of the JSON code is done and tested so adding it shouldn't be a big issue if you are interested.

The client can be used to both read and write to a service, and there are even ways of passing basic authentication credentials. However, if calling an https URL it doesn't do certificate validation at the moment so be warned as your security could be compromised. Python 2.7 does now support certification validation using OpenSLL so this could change quite easily I think.

Moving to Python 3 is non-trivial - let me know if you are interested. I have taken the first steps (running unit tests with "python -3Wd" to force warnings) and, as much as possible, the code is ready for migration. I haven't tried it yet though and I know that some of the older code (we're talking 10-15 years here) is a bit sensitive to the raw/unicode string distinction.

The documentation is currently about 80% accurate and only about 50% useful. Trending upwards though.

Downloading and Installing Pyslet

Pyslet is pure-python. If you are only interested in OData you don't need any other modules, just Python 2.7 and a reasonable setuptools to help you install it. I just upgraded my machine to Mavericks which effectively reset my Python environment. Here's what I did to get Pyslet running.

  1. Installed setuptools
  2. Downloaded the pyslet package tgz and unpacked it (download from here)
  3. Ran python setup.py install


Some lessons are hard! Ten years or so ago I wrote a migration tool to convert QTI version 1 to QTI version 2 format. I wrote it as a Python script and used it to validate the work the project team were doing on the version 2 specification itself. Realising that most people holding QTI content weren't able to easily run a Python script (especially on Windows PCs) my co-chair Pierre Gorissen wrote a small Windows-wrapper for the script using the excellent wxPython and published an installer via his website. From then on, everyone referred to it as "Pierre's migration tool". I'm not bitter, the lesson was clear. No point in writing the tool if you don't package it up in the way people want to use it.

This sentiment brings me to the latest developments with the tool. A few years back I wrote (and blogged about) a module for writing Basic LTI tools in Python. I did this partly to prove that LTI really was simple (I wrote the entire module on a single flight to the US) but also because I believed that the LTI specification was really on to something useful. LTI has been a huge success and offers a quick route for tool developers to gain access to users of learning management systems. It seems obvious that the next version of the QTI Migration Tool should be an LTI tool but moving from a desktop app to a server-based web-app means that I need a data access layer that can persist data and be smarter about things like multiple threads and processes.


Deleting from iCalendar Without Notifying the Organizer - At Last!

Being a bit of a laggard I only just upgraded my Mac to Mavericks a few days ago.  If only I'd known they had fixed the number one most annoying thing about iCalendar in OS X I'd have upgraded ages ago.

Yes, you can now delete an event from your calendar without notifying the organizer.  This has caused me serious pain in the past.  Events sometimes arrive to the wrong email address or get accidentally put in the wrong calendar and previously you had to just leave them there for fear of sending a stupid "Steve declined your event" type email.

Thank you!