Configuration-friendly apps

Published on , under Programming, tagged with python, best-practices, configuration, architecture and tools.

configuration management

Configuration is just another API of your app. It allows us to preset or modify it's behavior based on where it is installed and how it will be executed, providing more flexibility to the users of such software.

Configuration management is an important aspect of the architecture of any system. But it is sometimes overlooked.

The purpose of this post is to explore a proposed solution for proper config management in general, and for a python app in particular.

Types of configuration

Hold on a moment. Configuration understood as a mechanism of altering the state and behavior of a program can be very broad.

We are interested in the deterministic configuration that presets the state of a program, without having to interact with it, like static config files or environment variables.

On the other hand, there's the runtime configuration, which is set when the user interacts with the system. User preferences are a typical example of this kind.

It may not always apply, but a general rule of thumb is to separate config by how it affects code: Code that varies depending on where it is run (static), as oposed on how it is used (runtime).

We make the distinction because the later is not very general and is up to the developer to decide how to manage it. If it is a desktop app, a file or a sqlite database might suffice, but for a cloud app, maybe a distributed key-value store is needed.

Project (app) vs Library

The first thing to determine is the type of software that needs to be configured. There is a difference between configuring a library vs configuring a project.

Lets see an example of how sqlalchemy, a database toolkit library, provides us with the needed building blocks for us to use as we please.

from sqlalchemy import Column, Integer, String
from sqlalchemy.ext.declarative import declarative_base
from sqlalchemy import create_engine

Base = declarative_base()

class Person(Base):
    __tablename__ = 'person'
    id = Column(Integer, primary_key=True)
    name = Column(String(250), nullable=False)

# Engine used to store data
engine = create_engine('sqlite:///sqlalchemy_example.db')

# Create all tables in the engine.

A library is meant to be a reusable piece of code that should not make assumptions on where and how it is going to be used.

Imagine if sqlalchemy gathered it's engine configuration from an environment variable SQLALCHEMY_ENGINE=sqlite:///sqlalchemy_example.db or a file in /etc/sqlalchemy/engine.cfg. It would be complicated for an app reuse that library to connect to different databases.

For this reason a library should be only configured through code, and never require env variables or configuration files to exist in order to be used.

A project might use many libraries that require different configs (a database connector, s3 storage, etc). So it is in charge of gathering required config and using these libraries.

In this case, it is the app's responsibility to gather the connection settings and use the library to connect to two separate databases, because the app knows what it needs, not the library.

How to configure a project (or application)

It is important to provide a clear separation of configuration and code. This is because config varies substantially across deploys and executions, code should not. The same code can be run inside a container or in a regular machine, it can be executed in production or in testing environments.

Where to get configuration from

Configuration for a project might come from different sources, like .ini files, envirionment variables, etc.

For example, there is a common pattern to read configurations in environment variables1 that look similar to the code below:

if os.environ.get("DEBUG", False):

Why is getting config variables directly a bad idea?

If env var DEBUG=False this code will print True because os.environ.get("DEBUG", False) will return an string ‘False’ instead of a boolean False. And a non-empty string has a True boolean value. We can't (dis|en)able debug with env var DEBUG=yes|no, DEBUG=1|0, DEBUG=True|False. We need to start casting/parsing everywhere.

If we want to use this configuration during development we need to define this env var all the time. We can't define this setting in a configuration file that will be used if DEBUG envvar is not defined.

Well designed applications allow different ways to be configured. A proper settings-discoverability chain goes as follows:

  1. CLI args, mostly used to allow users do some exploration while running your program.
  2. Environment variables, that can be set in .bashrc or .env files and, since they are global, they should have some sort of prefix like MYAPP_*.
  3. Config files in different directories, that also imply some hierarchy. For example: config files in /etc/myapp/settings.ini are applied system-wide, while ~/.config/myapp/settings.ini take precedence and are user-specific.
  4. Hardcoded constants.

The rises the need to consolidate configuration in a single source of truth to avoid having config management scattered all over the codebase.

All this configuration management should be handled before the program starts, to avoid parsing files, or passing CLI args everywhere. So ideally we would have a single file where settings are gathered, parsed and processed. The app imports that config module and distributes it to all the different libraries it is using.

An example startup script for your app could be:

import argparse
import os
import configparser
from app import main
from collections import ChainMap

defaults = {'debug': False}

parser = argparse.ArgumentParser()
args = parser.parse_args()
cli_args = {key: value for key, value in vars(args).items() if value}

iniparser = configparser.ConfigParser()['/etc/app/config.ini', os.path.expanduser('~/.myapp.ini')]
ini = iniparser['app']

config = ChainMap(cli_args, os.environ, ini, defaults)

if __name___ == '__main__':

This snippet uses ChainMap3 to lookup values in different dictionary-like objects. To our convenience, the configparser module has builtin support to read multiple .ini files and merge them.

A single executable file

Another anti-pattern to be aware of is having as many configuration modules as environment there are:,,, etc, and including different logic on them.

A very simple example of custom logic is:

PLUGINS = ['foo', 'bar']

from base_settings import *

Should be a single

config = ConfigParser('config.ini')

# this is what the app uses

Which gets its config from a local ini file for example:

# /etc/app/config.ini for everyone
BASE_PLUGINS = foo,bar

# ~/.config/app/config.ini that a user overrides based on the template

This way the only thing that changes is pure configuration variables, but the same configuration code gets executed everywhere. We also were able to separate configuration from code, which gives us some nice features:

  1. Ship configuration separately from code. There is no need to modify code in order to change it's behavior.
  2. Plain text files are universal 5. Can be edited with any text editor, no need to mess with db connectors/sql/scripts to configure an app.
  3. No need to know a programming language to configure the app. Vagrant, for example, uses Ruby for it's Vagrantfile, it is a bummer to have to learn the syntax of a language just to use a tool.
  4. Since config files are not executable, they can partially override other config files in a line of hierarchy, as opposed to .vimrc files for example, that are executable and have to be forked to be adapted and a base config cannot be shared for all users in the system).

The example of configuring plugins is not accidental. The idea is to show that if you need to enable the user to do some scripting as customization, do so through a plugin system, but never through scriptable config files.

The settings.template trick

We still need a way to bundle settings for different environments: QA, stating, production, test, Bill's dev machine, etc

Also, a litmus test for whether an app has all config correctly factored out of the code is whether the codebase could be made open source at any moment, without compromising any credentials. What this means is that credentials and secrets should also be kept outside the codebase and made configurable.

So secrets and environment dependant settings have to be handled somehow.

Config files are very convenient since they can be version-controlled, can be put into templates by Config Management/Orchestration tools and come handy when developing.

Following the example above, a config.ini.template could look like this:

# config.ini.template that each environment can implement
# EXTRA_PLUGINS = one_plugin,another_plugin
# SECRET_KEY = <change me>

Even env vars can be put into a file (typically named .env) that gets loaded before the program starts. Many tools that manage processes/containers, like docker-compose and systemd, or even libraries have support for loading them.

It is common practice to put an example settings.template file that is in the VCS, and then provide a way to copy + populate that template to a name that is excluded by your VCS so that we never accidentally commit that. These files might also be tracked by VCS, but encrypted, like it is done with Ansible Vault.

Devops tools

Code needs to be packaged, distributed, configured, installed, executed and monitored.

These are all steps that make use of external tools that are not part of the codebase and should be replaceable. An app could be packaged for Ubuntu or Windows differently, can be installed manually or put in a container. For this reason, code should be as agnostic of these steps as possible and delegate that to another actor called: Installer/Builder.

This new actor can be one or many tools combined, for example docker-compose, yum, gcc, ansible, etc.

The installer actor is the one that knows how to bind code with the right configuration it needs and how to do it (through env vars or files or cli args or all of them). Because it knows the configuration it needs to inject into the project, it makes a good candidate to manage configuration templates for files, vars that will be injected into the environment, or how to keep secret/sensitive information protected.

The development and operations flow has two clearly distinct realms:

+-------+           +-------+          +--------+         +-------+         +-------+
|       |           |       |          |        |         |       |         |       |
| code  +---------->| build +--------->|        |<--------+service|<--------+ conf  +
|       |           |       |          |        |         |       |         |       |
+-------+           +-------+          |        |         +-------+         +-------+
                                       |        |
                    +-------+          |        |         +-------+         +-------+
                    |       |          |        |         |       |         |       |
                    | conf  +--------->|release |<--------+service|<--------+ conf  +
                    |       |          |        |         |       |         |       |
                    +-------+          |        |         +-------+         +-------+
                                       |        |
                    +-------+          |        |         +-------+         +-------+
                    |       |          |        |         |       |         |       |
                    | deps  +--------->|        |<--------+service|<--------+ conf  +
                    |       |          |        |         |       |         |       |
                    +-------+          +--------+         +-------          +-------+

|    code realm     |                   Devops/CM/Orchestraion realm                |

Notice that developers are also users of the software, that need to configure it and are constantly doing micro-releases while developing.

If you use different tools when developing and when deploying, all these scripts and templates will start to increase in number. Ideally, a project should support one set of build tools and use it for development and production. For example: docker everywhere.

Managing config changes

Ideally, programs should have the ability to be notified when there are new configs to be picked up.

This is possible if configuration is provided through files, not so easy if we used environment vars or CLI arguments, in which case we would have to restart the program.

The SIGHUP signal is usually used to trigger a reload of configurations for daemons.

In Python, this can be achieved with the signal module, as the following gist shows:

import os
import signal

def get_config(rel=False):
    import config
    if rel:
    return config

running = True

def run():
    while running:
        # do something with get_config().foo
        # teardown

def signal_handler(signum, frame):
    # Use kill -15 <pid>
    if signum == signal.SIGTERM:
        global running
        running = False  # terminate daemon

    # kill -1 <pid>
    elif signum == signal.SIGHUP:
        get_config(rel=True)  # reload config

signal.signal(signal.SIGHUP, signal_handler)
signal.signal(signal.SIGTERM, signal_handler)

if __name__ == '__main__':

Then, the program can be notified about new config by using kill -1 or, with systemd:

$ sudo systemctl reload application.service

If the app is part of a distributed cloud system, the same principle can still be used. For example, Consul, a tool for service and configuration discovery provides consult-template, a command to populate values from Consul 4 into automatically updated templates that can emit reload commands to programs to pick it up.

$ consul-template \
    -template "/tmp/nginx.ctmpl:/var/nginx/nginx.conf:nginx -s reload" \
    -template "/tmp/redis.ctmpl:/var/redis/redis.conf:service redis restart" \
    -template "/tmp/haproxy.ctmpl:/var/haproxy/haproxy.conf"

As you can see, there is another tool in charge of managing configuration, building it and notifying our code about it.

Introducing prettyconf

Prettyconf is a framework agnostic python library created to make easy the separation of configuration and code. It lets you use the principles we discribed about configuration-discovery.

import argparse
from prettyconf import Configuration
from prettyconf.loaders import CommandLine, Environment, IniFile

parser = argparse.ArgumentParser()

system_config = '/etc/myapp/config.ini'
user_config = '~/.config/myapp.ini'

config = Configuration(

DEBUG_MODE = config('debug', cast=config.boolean, default=False)

With the snippet above, the debug config will be discovered from the command line args, the environment or different .ini files, even following good naming conventions, like checking for DEBUG in the environment but debug in the ini files, and pasing that to a boolean. All these loaders are optional, and won't fail if the files are missing.

With prettyconf there are no excuses not to follow best pratices for configuration management in your app 2.


Don't take responsibility of gathering configuration when developing a library.

In your app, always use a single file that gathers all settings and load it before starting the program.

Keep in mind what belongs to which realm when writing code/scripts. Everything can live in the same repo, but at least they will be in different folders (src/ and ops/, for example). Configuration for each service (Nginx, Postgresql, etc) should be handled separately, by specialized tools.

And speaking of tools, consolidate a very similar set of tool for dev and production envs. Containers are gaining popularity everywhere, use something like docker or ansible-container for both realms.

  1. They are very common, specially among cloud platforms, like AWS lambda functions. It's one of the simplest ways for configuring programs without the need to mess with files (which requires access to a filesystem) or CLI parsers, since this ENV vars are available as is, like an already parsed config file. 

  2. Now, not everything that is configuration should me handled through prettyconf. For example, lektor is a flat-file cms, that lets you define the models in .ini files. This type of configuration that goes beyond doing a setting's key lookup, should be handled apart from prettyconf.

    Another responsability that doesn't belong to prettyconf is populating configuration files of setting variables in the environment, since it is someone else's duty, like python-dotenv

  3. Turns out that using ChainMap you can implement this very simple lookup algorithm

  4. A nice thing about consul-template is that it let's you use the same configuration system on any environment. So when developing locally, you don't care about Consul, you app simply reads a config file. When in production, you can inject dynamic settings and even secrets to the app lookup algorithm. 

  5. The problem with using something other than plain text files is that you will necessarily have to execute a program in order to get the desired configuration out of it. A programming language has control structures, can make calls to the internet, etc, so you can't known in advance the output you will get. PEP518 is a proposal to use a TOML file for this and other issues.

    Take as an example python's You can't execute a file without knowing its dependencies, but currently there is no standard way to know what those dependencies are in an automated fashion without executing the file where that information is stored.

    Another application that faces a similar problem is Vim with it's .vimrc file, it's written in a custom language called VimL. The Xi editor, fixed this problem by switching to TOML files and plugins for extending functionality.