Introducing Descriptors and Properties

Note: This article was first published the May 2008 issue of Python Magazine

Introducing Descriptors and Properties

Mark Mruss

New-style classes were introduced to Python with the release of Python 2.2. And with these new-style classes came descriptors and properties. This article will introduce the descriptor protocol, descriptors, and properties.


New-style classes were introduced to Python with the release of Python 2.2. A new-style class is any class that is derived from the object base class. New-style classes give Python programmers many new (and initially confusing) features. One such feature is the descriptor protocol, and more specifically descriptors themselves.

Descriptors give Python programmers the ability to easily and efficiently create “managed attributes”. Managed attributes can be thought of as attributes that are not accessed directly. Instead their access is “managed” by something else, generally a class or a function.

If you haven’t come across this before you are probably wondering why one would want to manage attribute access? One reason might be that you don’t want people to be able to delete the attribute. Another reason may be that you need to ensure that your attribute data is always valid. Or perhaps attribute x is based on attribute y, so every time the value of y changes you want to update the value of x. From these few examples you can see the many possible cases where you might want to control access to certain attributes.

For those of you familiar with other programming languages, this type of access is often referred to as “getters and setters”. In many language, implementing “getters and setters” means using private variables and public functions that get and set the variable’s value. Since Python doesn’t (really) have private variables, the descriptor protocol is basically a built-in and Python-ic way to way to achieve something similar.

This article will introduce you to the descriptor protocol, descriptors, and properties. It will focus on demonstrating how to use them to create managed attributes. Since the descriptor protocol requires new-style classes, all of the examples in this article require Python 2.2 or newer.

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