Descriptors are one of the most powerful features of Python. The reason why they're so powerful is because they enable us to control the core operations (get, set, delete)1, of an attribute in a given object, so that we can hook a particular code, controlled by us, in order to modify, change, or extend the original operation.

A descriptor is an object that implements either __get__, __set__, or __delete__.

As of Python 3.6+2 the descriptor protocol entails these methods:

    __get__(self, instance, owner)
    __set__(self, instance, value)
    __delete__(self, instance)
    __set_name__(self, instance, name)

We'll understand better what the parameters mean, once we've seen some examples of descriptors and how they're used.

How to use them

In order to use descriptors we need at least two classes: one for the descriptor itself, and the class that is going to use the descriptor objects (often referred to as the managed class).

Getting Data

Consider this basic example on which I have a fictional manager for video output, that can handle multiple devices. Each device is set with a particular resolution, provided by a user. However, if for some reason one of the devices does not have a rendering resolution set, we want to use a default one, specified on the class definition.

A possible implementation could look like this.

In this case resolution is a descriptor that implements only __get__(). If an instance of the display manager, has a resolution set, it will retrieve just that one. On the other hand, if it does not, then when we access one of the class attributes like, what actually happens is that Python calls:, VideoDriver)

Which executes the code in the __get__() method of the descriptor, which in this case returns the default value, previously passed.

In general3 a code like:


Will be translated to:

type(<instance>).<descriptor>.__get__(<instance>, type(<instance>))

When the descriptor is called from the class, and not the instance, the value of the parameter "instance" is None, but the "owner" is still a reference to the class being invoked (that's probably one of the reasons why these are two separate parameters, instead of just let the user derive the class from the instance, it allows even more flexibility).

For this reason, is common to handle this case, and return the descriptor itself, which is the rationale behind the line:

if instance is None:
    return self

That is why when you define a property in a class, and call it from an instance object, you'll get the result of the computation of the method. However, if you call the property from the class, you get the property object.

Setting Data

Example: imagine we want to have some attributes in an object that are going to be traced, by other attributes that keep track, of how many times their values changed. So, for example, for every attribute <x> on the object, there would be a corresponding count_<x> one, that will keep count of how many times x changed its value. For simplicity let's assume attributes starting with count_<name>, cannot be modified, and those only correspond to the count of attribute <name>.

There may be several ways to address this problem. One way could be overriding __setattr__(). Another option, could be by the means of properties (getters and setters) for each attribute we want to track. Or, we can use descriptors.

Both the properties, and __setattr__() approaches, might be subject to code repetition. Their logic should be repeated for several different properties, unless a property function builder is created (in order to reuse the logic of the property across several variables). As per the __setattr__() strategy, if we need to use this logic in multiple classes we would have to come up with some sort of mixin class, in order to achieve it, and if one of the classes already overrides this method, things might get overcomplicated.

These two options seem rather convoluted. Descriptors it is, then.

The docstring on the Traveller class, pretty much explains its intended use. The important thing about this, is the public interface: it's absolutely transparent for the user. An object that interacts with a Traveller instance, gets a clean interface, with the properties exposed, without having to worry about the underlying implementation.

So, we have two classes, with different responsibilities, but related, because they interact towards a common goal. Traveller has two class attributes that, are objects, instances of the descriptor.

Now let's take a look at the other side of it, the internal working of the descriptor.

Under this schema, Python will translate a call like:

traveller = Traveller() = 'Stockholm'

To the one using the __set__ method in the descriptor, like:, 'Stockholm')

Which means that the __set__ method on the descriptor is going to receive the instance of the object being accessed, as a first parameter, and then the value that is being assigned.

More generally we could say that something like:

obj.<descriptor> = <value>

Translates to:

type(obj).__set__(obj, <value>)

With these two parameters, we can manipulate the interaction any way we want, which makes the protocol really powerful.

In this example, we are taking advantage of this, by querying the original object's attribute dictionary (instance.__dict__), and getting the value in order to compare it with the newly received one. By reading this value, we calculate another attribute which will hold the count of the number of times the attribute was modified, and then, both of them are updated in the original dictionary for the instance.

An important concept to point out is that this implementation not only works, but it also solves the problem in a more generic fashion. In this example, it was the case of a traveller, of whom we wanted to know how many times changed of location, but the exact same object could be used for example to monitor market stocks, variables in an equation, etc. This exposes functionality as a sort of library, toolkit, or even framework. In fact, many well-known frameworks in Python use descriptors to expose their API.

Deleting Data

The __delete__() method is going to be called when an instruction of the type del <instance>.<descriptor> is executed. See the following example.

In this example, we just want a property in the object, that cannot be deleted, and descriptors, again, provide one of the multiple possible implementations.

Caveats and recommendations

  • Remember that descriptors should always be used as class attributes.
  • Data should be stored in each original managed instance, instead of doing data bookkeeping in the descriptor. Each object should have its data in its __dict__.
  • Preserve the ability of accessing the descriptor from the class as well, not only from instances. Mind the case when instance is None, so it can be called as type(instance).descriptor.
  • Do not override __getattribute__(), or they might lose effect.
  • Mind the difference between data and non-data descriptors4.
  • Implement the minimum required interface.

Food for thought

Descriptors provide a framework for abstracting away repetitive access logic. The term framework here is not a coincidence. As the reader might have noticed, by using descriptors, there is an inversion of control (IoC) on the code, because Python will be calling the logic we put under the descriptor methods, when accessing these attributes from the managed instance.

Under this considerations it is correct to think that it behaves as a framework.


Descriptors provide an API, to control the core access to an object's data model, at its low-level operations. By means of descriptors we can control the execution of an object's interface, because they provide a transparent layer between the public interface (what is exposed to users), and the internal representation and storage of data.

They are one of the most powerful features of Python, and their possibilities are virtually unlimited, so in this post we've only scratched the surface of them. More details, such as exploring the different types of descriptors with their internal representation or data, the use of the new __set_name__ magic method, their relation with decorators, and analysis of good implementations, are some of the topics for future entries.


Python Cookbook (3rd edition) - David Beazley & Brian K. Jones


More details about this, will come in a future post.