Embedding Python: How To Confuse Python and Yourself

This is a cautionary tale about how embedded Python finds its runtime files under Windows. Don’t worry, though — everyone lives happily ever after.

The story begins with a client’s request to build an executable under Windows that embeds Python. This is not so hard; there is documentation for embedding Python.

I had two versions of Python installed on my Windows virtual machine because I was experimenting with different Pythons at the time. (Doesn’t everyone go through an experimental phase in their youth?) In C:\Python27 I had installed 64-bit Python 2.7.9 from Python.org, and in C:\Users\philip\Miniconda2 I had installed 64-bit Python 2.7.11 from Continuum. The 2.7.9 version was an older install. I was only interested in using the 2.7.11 version.

My executable’s C code told Python where to find its runtime files —

Py_SetPythonHome("C:/Users/philip/Miniconda2");

After compiling and linking, I ran my Python-embedding executable which imported my hello_world.py file. It printed “Hello world!” as expected.

Here Come the Dragons

I thought everything was fine until I added these print statements to my Python code —

import sys
print sys.exec_prefix
print sys.version

The output was not what I expected —

C:/Users/philip/Miniconda2

2.7.9 (default, Dec 10 2014, 12:28:03) [MSC v.1500 64 bit (AMD64)]

This is contradictory! The Miniconda Python was 2.7.11, yet sys.version identified itself as Python 2.7.9. How can the same module report two different Pythons simultaneously?

What Went Wrong

The sys module reported information about two Pythons simultaneously because I was mixing parts from two different Python runtimes simultaneously.

Python’s runtime consists of a dynamically loaded library (python27.dll), the standard library which is largely written in Python itself, and an executable. The executable is usually python.exe, but in this case it was my C program that embedded Python. When my C program asked Windows to find python27.dll, Windows searched for it in these directories as documented in the Windows DLL search strategy  —

  1. The directory where the executable module for the current process is located.
  2. The current directory.
  3. The Windows system directory (usually C:\Windows\system32).
  4. The Windows directory (usually C:\Windows).
  5. The directories listed in the PATH environment variable.

My problem was that Windows found C:\Windows\system32\python27.dll first, and that was from my Python 2.7.9 installation. Meanwhile, my call to Py_SetPythonHome() had told Python to use the standard library from Miniconda Python. The value of sys.version comes from a string hardcoded in the runtime DLL, while sys.exec_prefix is derived from the value I passed in Py_SetPythonHome(). I was using the standard library from one Python installation, and the runtime DLL from another.

Consequences

Although I didn’t experiment with this for long, I might not have noticed that there was a problem if I hadn’t been lucky enough to double check my Python setup with the sys module. The standard library probably doesn’t care about which interpreter it runs under. I can imagine a few cases may exist where changes/bug fixes were made to the Python part of the standard library for versions 2.7.10 and 2.7.11 that rely on corresponding changes to the binary runtime, and that code might behave badly.

Both of the Pythons I was using were built with the same compiler, so theoretically binary extensions like numpy should run just fine under either Python. But I could certainly forgive numpy if it crashed as a result.

In short, this is neither a typical nor a supported use of Python which puts it in the “Here there be dragons” category.

The Solution

The solution was very simple. I copied C:\Users\philip\Miniconda2\python27.dll into the same directory as my custom executable. Since that’s the first location Windows searches when loading a DLL, it isolates my code from other Python DLLs that might appear in (or disappear from) other locations in the file system. Problem solved!

3 thoughts on “Embedding Python: How To Confuse Python and Yourself”

  1. I just stumbled over the exact same problem.
    I always thought that PATH has higher priority thant %WINDIR%\System32.
    Just like you, I only noticed this by looking at my program’s log output which shows sys.version.
    The goal of my program setup is to be independent from the standard python installation and not disturbing it. On Linux, there’s virtualenv for this.
    I really hate the fact that the installer puts python27.dll into the %WINDIR%\System32 directory. It seems so useless! I’d much prefer e the DLL right next to python.exe.

    1. You’re right that virtualenv is a solution to this problem. It should work on Windows just fine. Have you run into trouble with it?

      I agree that putting python27.dll into C:\windows\system32 is annoying. I assume it’s done to make Windows updates easier, but I’m only guessing.

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