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What is Python?

Python is a programming language devised in the late 1980s. Now on version 3, it’s still popular with programmers. Named after Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a 1970s BBC TV comedy series, Python’s creators designed the language to be enjoyable for programmers to use. The variables ‘foo’ and ‘bar’ are often used in documentation of programming languages, but in Python, the same demonstrations are generally written with variables named ‘spam’, ‘ham’ and ‘eggs’.

Python is ideal for those who like to mix an object-oriented approach with structured programming. It’s also designed to be easily read and understood by novices thanks to a very simple stylistic form and grammar. The code is intentionally written very clearly and concisely and is easy for inexperienced programmers to review and change. Where many languages use punctuation, Python leans towards using English words, making it visually less cluttered. It is also clearly indented when written to make the code easy to scan.

Python’s functionality can be extended with add-on functions written in C or C+, and it can also be used as a command language with C. Code can also be run from within a Java application, allowing Java variables to be called from within Python and re-used.

Compared to languages that appear impenetrable to the novice, Python is considered to be easier to learn, and its cross-platform compatibility is one of its major benefits. It can be coded in the Terminal app on Mac OS X, but is also often used for security applications, or web applications running on a Unix or Linux server. The language is employed by YouTube, Google and NASA, as well as CERN, the home of the Large Hadron Collider. CERN use Python to decode data from Atlas, one of the LHC sensors. The staff also host Python conferences and uses Python extensively in their physics and computing labs

Python is well established

If you’re venturing into coding with Python for the first time, there is a wealth of support available. Python is used by some of the biggest sites on the internet, despite having a reputation for being ‘slow’ compared to other languages, and there are numerous web resources, tutorials and books which will get you started quickly.

There are lots of options if you’re looking for Python hosting, but some care is needed. Make sure you select the right plan and really drill into the details of your preferred host’s Python offering before you sign up to a long-term hosting commitment.

Python is ideal for web apps

Python is so adaptable, there aren’t many limits to what it can do. It’s ideal for web development because it’s quick to write yet can be used in advanced, sophisticated applications. All kinds of companies, from Bittorrent to YouTube, have used (or currently use) Python, and it plays a part in processing some of the most cutting-edge scientific data on Earth at NASA and CERN. Its versatility and simplicity make it an ideal choice for web apps as well.

If you’re new to running Python on the web, you might want to check that your host offers Python tech support for free - just in case you need a hand getting things set up in the beginning.

Warning: some hosts don’t offer Python

Naturally, you should ensure that Python is installed on your chosen web host’s server before you sign up: some hosts, particularly those who offer shared hosting, don’t offer it at all. That’s usually because inexperienced programmers can slow an entire server by coding inefficiently, bringing down other customers’ sites in the process. Malicious programmers could cause problems in a shared environment since mod_python isn’t locked down as tightly as mod_php on Apache.

Check for available frameworks, and ascertain the version of Python and mod_python the host is running: Python 2 and Python 3 are quite different, and you may find the version your host has is not entirely backward-compatible.

Python has pre-requisites

Check the interpreter that your host is using and make sure it’s suitable for your needs. Some interpreters are out-dated, and requests for an upgrade may fall on deaf ears. Ensure you have shell access and that the Apache installation supports CGI and mod_wsgi.

It’s also worth checking the host’s policy on Python modules. Some hosts are happy to install whatever you need, and will do so relatively quickly - for example, within 24 hours. Other hosts may have policies around which modules they will allow, and they will refuse to install anything that’s unproven or untested.

Also, check that your host will allow you to run persistent processes (sometimes called ‘long-running processes), particularly if you have your heart set on a cheaper plan, such as a shared hosting plan. Many hosts don’t because these processes are, by nature, resource hogs. If you need to run persistent processes, you may be best off investing in a virtual private server (VPS) instead, or bite the bullet and get a dedicate server - an expensive option, but one which will allow you to code whatever you like, however you like. Be wary of this option if you don’t want to spend time fixing things on your server that you accidentally break along the way.

If you want to exclusively code in Python or base a large amount of your coding around it, it’s best to personally email the host before signing up to a contract. They may have a special plan for Python at a reasonable cost that gives you more freedom and flexibility.

Pros and Cons

Python is used by all kinds of companies and organisations, including Google, NASA and CERN. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) decodes its critical ATLAS data using Python. It's also great for websites because:

  • It supports HTTP and MIME out of the box
  • Extensions can be coded in C or C++
  • Python can be run from Java applications
  • Programmers can easily connect to databases to bring content into their projects
  • There are tens of thousands of pre-made, freely available packages to speed up development and potentially cut costs

The main problems with Python are:

  • It's difficult to spot mistakes until it's time to run the code, which makes debugging cumbersome
  • It can be slow, so you'll need a speedy host to compensate
  • Unless you're an experienced developer, learning Python solo is a challenge. There's plenty of support, but filtering it takes time
  • Hosts that have Python installed may not be able to help you if you run into a technical problem
  • Few hosts will provide Python support on a shared hosting plan, so it's not a cheap undertaking

Choosing a Host

The best option for Python is a dedicated server. While it's an expensive option, a dedicated server comes more or less without limitations, so you can take control of your Python install. If you don't want to go dedicated, you would be best off with a Virtual Private Server (VPS), rather than a shared hosting plan. In fact, most hosts won't support Python on shared hosting, since it's too easy for inexperienced coders to bring a server down unwittingly.

When choosing a web host for Python:

  • Make sure that your chosen package has Python support in the specs. Not all hosts install it
  • Check the interpreter version, since a host may be reluctant to update an old interpreter if there's little demand
  • Ascertain which modules are installed, and what the policy is regarding new modules. Some hosts are keen to add new modules on request, and will respond quickly. Others may take days or weeks, or refuse to add them at all
  • Make sure your host will allow you to run persistent processes; on shared hosting, this is unlikely
  • Check that you have shell access

If you plan to spend a lot of time working with Python, look for a host that specializes in it, rather than going for the cheapest host and hoping for the best. In the long run, you'll find it's far easier to pay slightly more for a host that's supportive and keeps their Python install up to date.

Additionally, the host will expect you to run persistent processes and won't penalise you for it. Use the host's email support or Live Chat to ask them about Python before committing yourself to a monthly spend.

Python Frequently Asked Questions

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