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Django tips: laying out an application

Published on: September 10, 2006    Categories: Django

Continuing the theme of dealing with common questions from the Django mailing lists and IRC channel, today we’ll look at how to organize the various bits of a Django-based project or application.

Projects versus applications

This is really more of a separate (though related) question, but understanding the distinction Django draws between a “project” and an “application” is a big part of good code layout. Roughly speaking, this is what the two terms mean:

Views, custom manipulators, custom context processors and most other things Django lets you create can all be defined either at the level of the project or of the application, and where you do that should depend on what’s most effective for you; in general, though, they’re best placed inside an application (this increases their portability across projects).

Default project-level file layout

When you run startproject, Django will automatically create a new directory containing four files:

Generally you don’t need to modify this layout, and for compatibility and consistency it’s probably best if you don’t. If you do want to change things, though, here’s what it’s safe to do: and should be left alone.

Default application-level file layout

When you run startapp, Django creates a sub-directory of your project directory, and creates the following files:

The and files (or, if you want to split up your models across multiple files, a directory called models which can act as a Python module) are required; without, Python won’t be able to import from the application, and Django is hard-wired to expect models in a file or module called models. The file, however, is optional and you can delete it if you won’t be providing any views, or rename it if you want to call it something else (though for sake of consistency it’s probably best not to rename it).

Extra special stuff

There are four “special” locations inside your application which can be used in order to take advantage of specific features, so if you want to use these features you don’t have a whole lot of choice in how you set them up:

  1. To define custom template tags or filters, you must create a sub-directory in the application’s directory called templatetags, and it must contain a file named so that it can be imported as a Python module.
  2. To define unit tests which will automatically be noticed by Django’s testing framework, put them in a module called tests (which can be either a file named or a directory called tests). The testing framework will also find any doctests in that module, but the preferred place for those is, of course, the docstrings of the classes or functions they’re designed to test.
  3. To provide custom SQL which will be executed immediately after your application is installed, create a sub-directory called sql inside the application’s directory; the file names should be the same as the names of the models whose tables they’ll operate on; for example, if you have an app named weblog containing a model named Entry, then the file sql/entry.sql inside the app’s directory can be used to modify or insert data into the entries table as soon as it’s been created.
  4. To provide custom Python functions which will run when the application is installed, put them in a file named, and use Django’s internal dispatcher to connect your functions to the post_syncdb signal.

That last one deserves a bit more explanation, so let’s look at it in detail.

Internally, Django uses a package called PyDispatcher to enable its various bits to communicate cleanly with each other. Basically, the dispatcher works like this:

  1. Various parts of Django, as well as other applications, define plain objects called “signals”.
  2. Code which wants other things to be notified of something happening tells the dispatcher to send a particular signal.
  3. Code which wants to be notified when something happens uses the dispatcher’s connect method to listen for a particular signal.

For example, if you wanted to set up a function which would execute any time a new application is installed, you could create a file in your application called, and put this code in it:

from django.dispatch import dispatcher
from django.db.models import signals
def my_syncdb_func():
    # put your code here...
dispatcher.connect(my_syncdb_func, signal=signals.post_syncdb)

Several of the applications bundled with Django use this trick to do various things:

This works because the syncdb function in imports the management files from all the installed and soon-to-be-installed apps in your project; that makes sure any app which needs to can take advantage of the dispatcher.

Other useful conventions

Of course, that doesn’t cover all the things you might want to do within Django, so naturally people end up wondering how they should organize the rest of their code. Generally there’s no need to require standardized layouts or locations for certain functions, but it can be helpful to adhere to a few conventions. So to provide an example, here’s how I generally lay out any additional bits I need in things that I’m working on.

At the project level, I generally don’t add a whole lot; it’s rare that I need to do something that doesn’t make more sense as part of an application. However, if you’re going to be running multiple projects which all use some or all of the same applications, it can be useful to organize your settings carefully. Jacob has, once or twice, pointed out the trick that we use at the Journal-World, and I think it’s fairly useful: we have our code base in one directory structure, and settings files in another, with a “default” settings file at the top level of the settings tree. Settings files for individual sites import the default settings and override anything they need to, or add any extra settings they require. Because Django doesn’t require settings files to live in the same directory tree as the applications their projects use, this is extremely easy and extremely useful to do.

At the application level, I usually drop in a few more files depending on exactly what the application is going to be using:

I don’t always use all of that functionality in an app, but if I do it’s nice to have a convention for it, so that I only need to remember to do from appname import forms or from appname import feeds.

And one more thing…

This is something I’m still in the process of developing, but I also like to have an easy way to test the dependencies my applications have, and to make sure everything is configured properly. The easiest way to do this, in my experience, is to put some code in the application’s which checks for everything the application will need. I wrote up a simple example in a post on the Django developers list, and I’m still working on improving that; there are functions tucked away in which will let you test not only whether an application can be imported and is listed in the INSTALLED_APPS setting, but whether it’s actually been installed into the database.

How do you do it?

I think I’ve covered everything I know of, and every trick I use, for laying out a Django project or application cleanly; if you see something here you like, feel free to start using it. And if I’ve overlooked something cool that you know of, please post it in a comment and let the world know about it :)