History of Cheetah

In Spring 2001, several members of the webware-discuss mailing list expressed the need for a template engine. Webware like Python is great for organizing logic, but they both suffer when you need to do extensive variable interpolation into large pieces of text, or to build up a text string from its nested parts. Python’s {%} operator gets you only so far, the syntax is cumbersome, and you have to use a separate format string for each nested part. Most of us had used template systems from other platforms-chiefly Zope’s DTML, PHPLib’s Template object and Java’s Velocity-and wanted to port something like those so it could be used both in Webware servlets and in standalone Python programs.

Since I (Mike Orr) am writing this history, I’ll describe how I encountered Cheetah. I had written a template module called PlowPlate based on PHPLib’s Template library. Like PHPLib, it used regular expressions to search and destroy-er, replace-placeholders, behaved like a dictionary to specify placeholder values, contained no directives, but did have BEGIN and END markers which could be used to extract a named block (subtemplate). Meanwhile, Tavis Rudd was also on webware-discuss and interested in templates, and he lived just a few hours away. So on 12 May 2001 we met in Vancouver at a gelato shop on Denman Street and discussed Webware, and he drew on a napkin the outline of a template system he was working on.

[Note from Tavis: Mikes got the dates and sequence of things a little out of order, but what the hell …]

Instead of filling the template by search-and-replace, he wanted to break it up into parts. This was a primitive form of template compiling: do the time-consuming work once and put it to a state where you can fill the template quickly multiple times. A template without directives happens to break down naturally into a list of alternating text/placeholder pairs. The odd subscript values are literal strings; the even subscripts are string keys into a dictionary of placeholder values. The project was called TemplateServer.

In a couple months, Tavis decided that instead of compiling to a list, he wanted to compile to Python source code: a series of {write} calls that would output into a file-like object. This was the nucleus that became Cheetah. I thought that idea was stupid, but it turned out that this not-so-stupid idea blew all the others out of the water in terms of performance.

Another thing Tavis pushed hard for from near the beginning was “display logic”, or simple directives like {#for}, {#if} and {#echo}. (OK, {#echo} came later, but conceptually it belongs here. I thought display logic was even stupider than compiling to Python source code because it would just lead to “DTML hell”-complicated templates that are hard to read and maintain, and for which you have to learn (and debug) a whole new language when Python does it just fine. But others (hi Chuck!) had templates that were maintained by secretaries who didn’t know Python, and the secretaries needed display logic, so that was that. Finally, after working with Cheetah templates (with display logic) and PlowPlate templates (with just blocks rather than display logic), I realized Tavis was smarter than I was and display logic really did belong in the template.

The next step was making directives for all the Python flow-control statements: {#while}, {#try}, {#assert}, etc. Some of them we couldn’t think of a use for. Nevertheless, they were easy to code, and “somebody” would probably need them “someday”, so we may as well implement them now.

During all this, Chuck Esterbrook, Ian Bicking and others offered (and still offer) their support and suggestions, and Chuck gave us feedback about his use of Cheetah-its first deployment in a commercial production environment. Later, Edmund Lian became our #1 bug reporter and suggester as he used Cheetah in his web applications.

We were going to release 1.0 in January 2002, but we decided to delay it until more people used it in real-world situations and gave us feedback about what is still needed. This has led to many refinements, and we have added (and removed) features according to this feedback. Nevertheless, Cheetah has been changing but stable since the late-binding rewrite in fall 2001, and anybody who keeps up with the cheetah-discuss mailing list will know when changes occur that require modifying one’s template, and since most people use point releases rather than CVS, they generally have a few week’s warning about any significant changes.