WSGI and WSGI Middleware is Easy

Really, its quite simple.

If you already knew that, this post isn't going to enlighten you at all. If WSGI had been one of those things you kept saying to yourself, “Oh, yea, I'll learn that someday”, consider this a short intro to all the info a web developer and to some extent a framework author, will likely care about.

All the gory details of WSGI along with a nice overview are available in PEP 333. As I'm mainly interested in it as a web developer, or as the PEP refers to it, a “application developer”, I'll be focusing on that aspect.

Basic Usage

WSGI is intended to bridge the gap in deploying Python web applications that might use different frameworks in a more uniform manner. A web application that implements the WSGI interface can be called in the same way as any other web application that implements WSGI. The basic call of a web application using WSGI is quite straight forward (example straight from the PEP):

def simple_app(environ, start_response):
    """Simplest possible application object"""
    status = '200 OK'
    response_headers = [('Content-type','text/plain')]
    start_response(status, response_headers)
    return ['Hello world!\n']

That really shouldn't scare anyone who remembers the ‘good' old days when your CGI scripts had to write every little bit of the content to the web browser. environ is merely a dict thats loaded with some common CGI environment variables that anyone who has worked with CGI applications should recognize. The start_response is a Callable that the web application uses to start the response, send the status, as well as the typical response headers.

Pretty basic stuff so far, but as web developers, we're not even likely to need to know that much. This is because we don't need to muck around with setting the status and dumping our content out, our web framework takes care of it for us (the majority of which now support WSGI).

WSGI Middleware

Despite the acronym and somewhat ambiguous ‘Middleware' term, WSGI Middleware isn't any big deal either. Take a good look at the code fragment above… its just a function. It could be any Callable, since the server (which we don't care about) is just going to call it. We could wrap that Callable inside another one without much hassle. I could even show you an example of some WSGI middleware code, but I'll leave that for you to explore.

The thing to remember here, is that your entire web application can be called with that one simple command up above. As such, other functions or classes can wrap around your web application object and do other things before and/or after your web application gets called. That's really all WSGI middleware is.

There is currently WSGI middleware that will:

  • Handle web application errors
  • Provide session support
  • Profile your web application
  • Deal with Login authentication
  • and Gzip the output

I'm sure there's even more I'm missing. The three I cited here come with Python Paste, and using them is rather easy. Let's assume I wanted to trap the traceback our basic web application shown above throws, and have it emailed to us (if for some reason it died a nasty death). Here's what the code would look like:

from paste.exceptions.errormiddleware import ErrorMiddleware
wrapped_app = ErrorMiddleware(simple_app, global_conf, debug=False,

That's it, we've now used WSGI Middleware. If you wanted to add profiling on top of that, you'd just pass the wrapped_app in as an argument to another WSGI Middleware class.

Now instead of telling your server to use simple_app as your WSGI web application, you just have it use wrapped_app. Notice that we just passed in simple_app as an argument to the ErrorMiddleware class. global_conf is a dict that Paste builds for us based on the Paste config file, so we don't have to worry about that here either. The other 3 keyword arguments are visible in the ErrorMiddleware docs and I think its pretty obvious what they all are for.

Other WSGI Middleware, like the session middleware, will add extra keys to the environ dict that gets passed into your web application. That way you can get to objects or variables the middleware has setup for your use. There's nothing hidden or mysterious here, just one Callable calling another.

PEP 333 calls this the “middleware stack”. I like to think of it as function wrappers, or object wrappers since each one is a Callable. We're just passing an object into a new object as an argument, and so on.

Running a WSGI Callable

Ah yes you're wondering, great, we got this function that takes two arguments and throws out the response, now how do we make it run? There's several packages that adapt a WSGI Callable to some more common forms of running a web application.

Probably the easiest of these to use, and the one that Paste has in it, is the flup package. It contains several different WSGI servers that will take your WSGI Callable, and make it available either as Fast CGI, SCGI, or AJP. I'd highly suggest checking out that page as it also contains an example of using several bits of WSGI Middleware back to back.

If you were hesitant or unsure what WSGI and WSGI Middleware was before, hopefully this post has helped. It really is pretty basic, and by putting common tasks like error handling into WSGI Middleware it can help people using other frameworks avoid repeating existing work.

Ben Bangert
Ben Bangert
Software Contriver

Code. Homebrew. Hike. Rollerblade.