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Batteries sold separately

Published on: April 8, 2008    Categories: Misc, Python, Usability

At first glance, Google’s App Engine looks like a great way to build the next big web application; you get access to a massively scalable infrastructure, you get access to a huge existing authentication system, you get baked-in stats, you get all sorts of cool goodies.

Oh, and you get Python, which is a great language for writing web applications, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t take some pleasure in Django being available out of the box.

Personally I don’t really care one way or another about hosting code with Google, or letting a data store sit on their servers; the terms of service, if you read them, are surprisingly reasonable, and you don’t hand over any rights to peek at user data by hosting an application with Google, so that’s a non-issue.


The overwhelming strength of Python is its libraries. Not just the standard modules that come with Python itself, but the whole ecosystem of third-party stuff that makes Python so incredibly useful for writing web applications. And that’s where, as far as I can tell, App Engine falls over. Unless I’m missing something, Google’s URL fetch module is the only way you’re allowed to talk to the rest of the Web, and that pretty much sinks the platform.

I understand that they need to sandbox things for safety, but cutting off the standard Python modules for doing URL retriveal and speaking HTTP throws out an unbelievably large amount of software that you’ll now either have to rewrite or fork:

The list just goes on and on; all this stuff needs to either be rewritten to use Google’s API, or needs to be forked and patched. And it seems you can just forget about anything that isn’t doing HTTP. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: it looks like a simply vast amount of useful Python software is going to be verboten on App Engine.

I have a very hard time believing, if this is how it works, that it’ll really be useful for Python web developers. And if/when other languages are supported on the platform, they’ll have similar problems.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that a free-to-start-with, massively-scalable service for hosting web applications isn’t cool. I’m just not sure that’s what Google App Engine is; they’ve got the scalable bit and the hosting bit, but there’s a surprising lack of, well, “web” and “application” going on here.