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Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Functional programming design pattern: Nested Iterators == Flattening

Here's a functional programming design pattern I uncovered. This may not be news to you, but it was a surprise to me. It cropped up when looking at something that needs parallelization to reduced the elapsed run time.

Consider this data collection process.

for h in some_high_level_collection(arg1):
    for l in h.some_low_level_collection(arg2):
        if some_filter(l):
  "Processing %s %s", h, l)
            some_function(h, l)

This is pretty common in devops world. You might be looking at all repositories in all github organizations. You might be looking at all keys in all AWS S3 buckets under a specific account. You might be looking at all tables owned by all schemas in a database.

It's helpful -- for the moment -- to stay away from taller tree structures like the file system. Traversing the file system involves recursion, and the pattern is slightly different there. We'll get to it, but what made this clear to me was a "simpler" walk through a two-layer hierarchy. 

The nested for-statements aren't really ideal. We can't apply any itertools techniques here. We can't trivially change this to a

In fact, the more we look at this, the worse it is.

Here's something that's a little easier to work with:

def h_l_iter(arg1, arg2):
    for h in some_high_level_collection(arg1):
        for l in h.some_low_level_collection(arg2):
            if some_filter(l):
      "Processing %s %s", h, l)
                yield h, l

itertools.starmap(some_function, h_l_iter(arg1, arg2))

The data gathering has expanded to a few more lines of code. It gained a lot of flexibility. Once we have something that can be used with starmap, it can also be used with other itertools functions to do additional processing steps without breaking the loops into horrible pieces.

I think the pattern here is a kind of "Flattened Map" transformation. The initial design, with nested loops wrapping a process wasn't a good plan. A better plan is to think of the nested loops as a way to flatten the two tiers of the hierarchy into a single iterator. Then a mapping can be applied to process each item from that flat iterator.

Extracting the Filter

We can now tease apart the nested loops to expose the filter. In the version above, the body of the h_l_iter() function binds log-writing with the yield. If we take those two apart, we gain the flexibility of being able to change the filter (or the logging) without an awfully complex rewrite.

T = TypeVar('T')
def logging_iter(source: Iterable[T]) -> Iterator[T]:
    for item in source:"Processing %s", item)
        yield item

def h_l_iter(arg1, arg2):
    for h in some_high_level_collection(arg1):
        for l in h.some_low_level_collection(arg2):
            yield h, l

raw_data = h_l_iter(arg1, arg2)
filtered_subset = logging_iter(filter(some_filter, raw_data))
itertools.starmap(some_function, filtered_subset)

Yes, this is still longer, but all of the details are now exposed in a way that lets me change filters without further breakage.

Now, I can introduce various forms of multiprocessing to improve concurrency.

This transformed a hard-wired set of nest loops, if, and function evaluation into a "Flattener" that can be combined with off-the shelf filtering and mapping functions.

I've snuck in a kind of "tee" operation that writes an iterable sequence to a log. This can be injected at any point in the processing.

Logging the entire "item" value isn't really a great idea. Another mapping is required to create sensible log messages from each item. I've left that out to keep this exposition more focused.

I'm sure others have seen this pattern, but it was eye-opening to me.

Full Flattening

The h_l_iter() function is actually a generator expression. A function isn't needed.

h_l_iter = (
    (h, l) 
    for h in some_high_level_collection(arg1) 
        for l in h.some_low_level_collection(arg2)

This simplification doesn't add much value, but it seems to be general truth. In Python, it's a small change in syntax and therefore, an easy optimization to make.

What About The File System?

When we're working with some a more deeply-nested structure, like the File System, we'll make a small change. We'll replace the h_l_iter() function with a recursive_walk() function.

def recursive_walk(path: Path) -> Iterator[Path]:
    for item in path.glob():
        if item.is_file():
            yield item
        elif item.is_dir():
            yield from recursive_walk(item)

This function has, effectively the same signature as h_l_iter(). It walks a complex structure yielding a flat sequence of items. The other functions used for filtering, logging, and processing don't change, allowing us to build new features from various combinations of these functions.


The too-long version of this is:

Replace for item in iter: process(item) with map(process, iter).

This pattern works for simple, flat items, nested structures, and even recursively-defined trees. It introduces flexibility with no real cost.

The other pattern in play is:

Any for item in iter: for sub-item in item:  processing is "flattening" a hierarchy into a sequence. Replace it with (sub-item for item in iter for sub-item in item).

These felt like blinding revelations to me.


  1. Nice breakdown :-)

    One small typo under Extracting the Filter:
    `Iteratble[T]` should be `Iterable[T]`

  2. Having just been exposed to FP and wanting to implement FP in Python, this post definitely resonates with me. Will definitely check out your Functional Python Programming book. Thanks.


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