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Understand Django: Anatomy Of An Application

mblayman profile image Matt Layman Originally published at mattlayman.com ・8 min read

In the previous Understand Django article, we got deep into the Django administrators site. We saw what the site was and how to configure and customize it. In this article, we will examine what goes into an application. Applications are core elements of a Django project.

What Is An Application?

Before getting to what a Django application is, we probably need to start with what it is not because the terminology is confusing. In the world of web development, developers may call a website a "web application."

In Django parlance, a "web application" is a Django project. All of the pieces that come together to make a website are a project. The primary components within the project are called applications. In other words, a Django project is built from one or more Django applications.

This situation is quite similar to Python packages. The software industry often describes the software unit as a "package." We think of pip, npm, or apt as "package" managers. This leads to a similar naming problem because Python also calls any directory with a __init__.py file a "package" as well.

In reality, the code that you download using pip is technically called a "distribution." Even though we colloquially talk about Python downloads from PyPI as packages, we're really talking about distributions, and a distribution is a unit that contains one or more Python packages.

Hopefully, you now understand the relationship of applications in Django.

Your "web application" is a Django project composed of one more Django applications.

Application Structure

Let's look at fully loaded Django application to see the fairly standard structure that you will encounter in Django projects.

An application usually tries to capture a core concept within your system. For this article, we will use movies as the concept we want to model.

Let's see what a default scaffold includes, then build it up with all the extras.

(venv) $ ./manage.py startapp movies
(venv) $ tree movies
movies
├── __init__.py
├── admin.py
├── apps.py
├── migrations
│   └── __init__.py
├── models.py
├── tests.py
└── views.py

admin.py: This file is where all your ModelAdmin classes live to power how the movies app will appear in the Django admin. You can learn more about the admin /understand-django/administer-all-the-things/

apps.py: This file is for the AppConfig of the application. We will discuss the AppConfig and how to use it later in this article.

migrations: This directory is where all database migrations are stored for the application. Any model changes for this app will generate a migration and created a numbered migration file in this directory. More info about migrations is /understand-django/store-data-with-models/

models.py: This file is the home for all the Django Model classes in the application. The models represent all your database data. Learn more about models /understand-django/store-data-with-models/

tests.py: This file is for automated tests. We'll cover automated tests in Django in a future article. For now, you can know that I always delete this file and replace it with a tests package. A tests package is superior because you can split out to more focused files like test_models.py to know where the appropriate tests are.

views.py: This file is where Django view functions or classes go. Views are the glue code that connect your URL routes to your database models. I wrote about views /understand-django/views-on-views/

That's everything that comes with a generated app, but what other files are missing that you will commonly see in a Django application?

urls.py: This file is often used to create routes that logically group all movie related functionality. The urls.py file would power all the routes in something like www.mysite.com/movies/. Information on URLs is /understand-django/urls-lead-way/

forms.py: When you use Django Form classes to interact with users, this is the file where forms are stored. You can discover more on forms /understand-django/user-interaction-forms/

templatetags: This directory is a Python package that would include a module like movies_tags.py where you'd define any custom template tags to use when rendering your templates. Custom tags are a topic /understand-django/templates-user-interfaces/

templates: This directory can store templates that the application will render. I personally prefer using a project-wide templates directory as discussed /understand-django/templates-user-interfaces/ but templates directories are commonly found, especially for third party applications that you may pull into your project.

static: For static files that you want to display like images, you can use the static directory. We'll discuss static files more in a future article.

management: Users can extend Django with custom commands that can be called via manage.py. Those commands are stored in this package. Custom commands are a future topic in this series.

locale: When doing translations and internationalization, the translation files must have a home. That's the purpose of the locale directory. We'll learn more about internationalization (i18n) and localization (l10n) in a future article.

managers.py: This file is not always used, but if your application has a lot of custom managers, then you may want to separate them from your models in this file. Managers are a topic /understand-django/store-data-with-models/

Most applications will not have all of these pieces, but this should give you an idea of what things are when you are exploring Django apps in the wild on your own. Here's what our final sample tree would look like.

(venv) $ tree movies
movies
├── __init__.py
├── admin.py
├── apps.py
├── forms.py
├── locale
│   └── es
│       └── LC_MESSAGES
│           ├── django.mo
│           └── django.po
├── management
│   ├── __init__.py
│   └── commands
│       ├── __init__.py
│       └── do_movie_stuff.py
├── managers.py
├── migrations
│   ├── 0001_initial.py
│   └── __init__.py
├── models.py
├── static
│   └── movies
│       └── moviereel.png
├── templates
│   └── movies
│       ├── index.html
│       └── movie_detail.html
├── templatestags
│   ├── __init__.py
│   └── movies_tags.py
├── tests
│   ├── __init__.py
│   ├── test_models.py
│   └── test_views.py
├── urls.py
└── views.py

Loading applications

We've now seen what's in a Django application and have an idea of an app's composition. How does Django load applications?

Django does not do automatic discovery of Django applications within your project. If you want Django to include an app in your project, you must add the app to your INSTALLED_APPS list in the settings file.

This is a good example of Django following the Python ethos of favoring explicit over implicit. By being explicit, your project is not in danger of including apps that you don't expect. That might seem silly for apps that you write yourself, but you'll be thankful that's the case when some third party package in your virtual environment happens to have a Django app that you don't want in your project.

On startup, when an application is in INSTALLED_APPS, Django will look for an AppConfig class. This class is stored in apps.py from the startapp command and contains metadata about the application.

When Django starts, it will initialize the system by doing the following:

  • Load the settings
  • Configure logging (a topic we'll explore in the future)
  • Initialize an application registry
  • Import each package from the INSTALLED_APPS
  • Import a models module for each application
  • Invoke the ready method of every AppConfig discovered

The ready method is a useful hook for taking action at startup. Since models are already loaded by the time the method is called, it's a safe place to interact with Django.

If you attempt to run setup code before Django is ready, and you try to do something like use the ORM to interact with database data, you'll probably get an AppRegistryNotReady exception. Most apps won't directly need to run startup code, but knowing about the ready hook is a useful piece of knowledge to keep in your back pocket.

Ecosystem Applications

An application is an important tool for grouping the different logical components in your project, but apps also serve another purpose. Apps are the basis for most of the 3rd party extensions in the Django ecosystem.

A big reason to use Django is that the framework takes a "batteries included" approach. Most of the tools that you need to build a website are baked directly into the framework. This is a vastly different approach compared to Flask which provides a relatively small API and depends heavily on third party libraries.

Even though Django includes most of the major pieces for a web application, the framework doesn't include everything. When you want to include more features, Django apps fill in the gaps.

Before you go out to PyPI, we need look no further than the django.contrib package. When you run the startproject command, Django will include a variety of built-in applications that perform different functions. If you don't need some of the functionality, you can opt out by removing the app from your list in INSTALLED_APPS.

I think this is the big difference in philosophy behind the framework. Some developers like starting from an extremely minimal kernel of functionality and build it up based on their needs. Django's philosophy seems to be that you start with an opinionated baseline and pare down what you don't require.

From my point of view, I think the Django philosophy is the right one (shocking, isn't it!? 🤪). The benefit of the Django philosophy is that you leverage the knowledge of people who have built web apps for a very long time. Not only do you leverage that knowledge, you benefit from the polishing applied by the Django developers to integrate the different major systems into a consistent whole. What you're left with is a framework that feels like it belongs together, and I think that is a positive impact on your productivity.

When you build from a minimal kernel and work up, you depend on knowing everything that's required to put something on the web. That means that you know all the pieces and how to bolt them together. But most people don't know all the pieces (because there are so many!).

If you start minimally and don't know the pieces, you'll learn along the way, but what happens when you encounter a new concept that doesn't fit into your original mental model? For instance, security is a critical part that can destroy your mental model when you learn of a class of vulnerabilities that can restrict what is possible to do safely. When you follow this building from scratch approach, I think the final result will naturally be your own custom framework. If that's your thing, awesome. Go for it. For me, I want a framework that is a commodity and commonly understood by many people.

Ok, so, what does this have to do with Django apps? Apps are contained and reusable modules. Because they have a fairly standard structure, a project can integrate a new app quickly. This means you can leverage the knowledge and experience (read: battle scars) of other web developers. The apps all play by the same rules so you, as the developer, spend less time gluing the app into your project and more time benefiting from what it does.

I think this standard structure also makes it easier to experiment with new apps. When I need some new functionality, I will often check Django Packages to look for apps that could meet my needs. In my experience, adding a new app is, in many cases, little more than installing the package, adding the app to the INSTALLED_APPS list, and putting an include in my urls.py file. Some packages require more configuration than that, but I think that the integration cost is low enough for me to experiment rapidly and back out my decision if I discover that an app won't do what I need.

All in all, Django applications make working with the Django ecosystem a more enjoyable experience.

Summary

In this article, we studied Django applications.

We saw:

  • What a Django application is
  • How a Django application is structured
  • How the Django ecosystem benefits from a common format that creates reusable components

Next time we will look into authentication in Django. We will study:

  • How users are created and managed
  • How to deal with permissions for users
  • How to work with users in your views and templates

If you'd like to follow along with the series, please feel free to sign up for my newsletter where I announce all of my new content. If you have other questions, you can reach me online on Twitter where I am @mblayman.

This article first appeared on mattlayman.com.

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Matt Layman

@mblayman

Matt Layman is a software engineer from Frederick, MD. He is an open source software maintainer and advocate for Python.

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