Matt Makai, Python & Java web developer. Washington, D.C.-based Developer Evangelist for Twilio.

Author of Full Stack Python and Coding Across America.

I am @mattmakai on Twitter and makaimc on GitHub.

Python Context Managers

During my talk to django-district last night, I explained that Django 1.4 drops support for Python 2.4 because the core committers wanted to use Python's context managers. Python 2.4 would not suffice because context managers are a Python 2.5+ feature.

Someone in the audience asked what a context manager is, and I was annoyed with myself for not having a clear, concise answer. So to paraphrase the old saying, now "there's a blog post for that."

Python Context Managers

A context manager is created syntactically using the 'with' statement. Here is an example:

with open("example.txt") as f:
    data = f.read()
    print len(data)

The code above opens a file, reads its contents, and prints the length of the string read from the file. Since we are using the with statement, the file will always be closed after it is read. This behavior is because the 'with' statement performs actions on entry (the __enter__ method) and on exit (the __exit__ method), regardless of how the block of code exits. See this blog post with a detailed explanation of the process a context manager runs through.

The context manager essentially can be thought of as an alternative to a try-finally block (before context managers these blocks were more common). So the concise way of explaining a context manager is that it is a statement that defines the runtime context for how a block of code should be executed. Context managers are particularly useful for locking/unlocking as well as setting or reseting state before a code block is executed.


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