Copy of Armin Rigo’s email (Nov 2018):

FWIW, a “handle” is typically something that users of an API store and pass around, and which can be used to do all operations on some object. It is whatever a specific implementation needs to describe references to an object. In the CPython C API, this is PyObject*. I think that using “handle” for something more abstract is just going to create confusion.

Also FWIW, my own 2 cents on the topic of changing the C API: let’s entirely drop PyObject * and instead use more opaque handles—like a PyHandle that is defined as a pointer-sized C type but is not actually directly a pointer. The main difference this would make is that the user of the API cannot dereference anything from the opaque handle, nor directly compare handles with each other to learn about object identity. They would work exactly like Windows handles or POSIX file descriptors. These handles would be returned by C API calls, and would need to be closed when no longer used. Several different handles may refer to the same object, which stays alive for at least as long as there are open handles to it. Doing it this way would untangle the notion of objects from their actual implementation. In CPython objects would internally use reference counting, a handle is really just a PyObject pointer in disguise, and closing a handle decreases the reference counter. In PyPy we’d have a global table of “open objects”, and a handle would be an index in that table; closing a handle means writing NULL into that table entry. No emulated reference counting needed: we simply use the existing GC to keep alive objects that are referenced from one or more table entries. The cost is limited to a single indirection.

The C API would change a lot, so it’s not reasonable to do that in the CPython repo. But it could be a third-party project, attempting to define an API like this and implement it well on top of both CPython and PyPy. IMHO this might be a better idea than just changing the API of functions defined long ago to make them more regular (e.g. stop returning borrowed references); by now this would mostly mean creating more work for the PyPy team to track and adapt to the changes, with no real benefits.

POSIX and Windows API

POSIX uses file descriptors, int type:

  • open() creates a file descriptor
  • dup() duplicates a file descriptor
  • close() closes a file descriptor

Windows uses an oquaque HANDLE type:

  • CreateFile() creates a handle
  • DuplicateHandle() duplicates a handle
  • CloseHandle() closes a handle