Technologies for a new Plone Controller

by Laurence Rowe on Nov 14, 2011

With the release of Plone 4.1 we have a completely new Windows installer with a much more simple build process which will hopefully lead to more timely releases for Windows installer users. Unfortunately along the way we lost the Plone Controller GUI for starting/stopping instances. Quite independently, Apple's dropping of support for wxPython with the release of Mac OS X Lion means that we're also losing the GUI controller for that platform.

During the 'hallway track' of the Plone Conference I spent a little time discussing this with Alex Limi and Steve McMahon. We all thought the GUI controllers could be really helpful for those downloading and evaluating Plone, but we obviously needed a more sustainable base on which to build a controller. Given we're all web developers, HTML/CSS/Javascript seems the obvious GUI framework. But the prospect of running a special web server to run this makes me uncomfortable, especially considering some people are likely to use the official installer as the basis for production deployments.

Surely then it must be possible to deploy a web application in a dedicated browser window without running a separate web server? Over the past few days I've been investigating the possibilities. Ideally we want a cross platform solution (especially important given the few core developers running Windows.) And a development model that makes both writing the controller and GUI familiar to Python web developers and makes building the Controller application as simple as possible.

Appcelerator Titanium Desktop

Titanium Desktop is a free and Open Source framework for building applications that run in a dedicated WebKit window using HTML/CSS/Javascript with support code running behind it in Python/PHP/Ruby. Appcelerator will build packages of your application for multiple platforms (Mac/Windows/Linux) on their servers. Their model is based on building an AJAX type application with all updates happening over Javascript (or indeed Python) calls that bridge over to the backend code. This makes it difficult to reuse the Request/Response model most web application developers are used to.

Basic app bundle size: 52MB (includes WebKit, but not Python framework)


On the Mac, PyObjC allows Python users to build applications using a variety of APIs exposed by the operating system, including the WebKit framework. One can simply create a window containing a browser control and plug in a custom NSURLProtocol handler to handle requests. There's some simple example code that renders pydocs.

It's easy to see how this model can be extended to run requests through an embedded WSGI app, giving us a familiar development model. Creating a binary with py2app was easy, but clearly small browser part would be Mac only.

Basic app bundle size: 17MB (includes Python, but not WebKit framework)

Qt and PySide

Qt also wraps WebKit and PySide offers an equivalent wrapping to PyObjC. Looking at a couple of examples (one, two) I could quickly see how a very similar application could be built. Qt is cross platform so the same code would run on both Windows and Mac (and Linux as well if required.) Building a working .app bundle is definitely rather tricky. I had some problems running py2app, needing the dev version of it and all its dependencies. Even then it crashed on exit. The alternatives of cx_Freeze, bbfreeze and bundlebuilder also failed in one way or other for me.

Basic app bundle size: 123MB (includes Python, Qt and QtWebKit frameworks)

A tool named Hatchet may be able to help cut this down.

Various other alternatives

From the Python Wiki:

  • XULRunner + PyXPCOM. As Python is subordinate in this configuration it would require learning a lot of XUL and XPCOM to get a working application.
  • PyWebKitGTK. Not a good solution for the Mac as GTK runs under X11.
  • PyWin32 and MSHTML. Would result in a nice small executable for windows users, though on the downside it would involve Win32 programming and using the IE layout engine. I was unable to find much documentation on writing IInternetProtocol handlers with PyWin32.


I think building something with PySide and Qt will be a good first step. It should be simple enough to provide alternative frontends should that be required. Maybe we even want to separate the backend application from the frontend to avoid requiring developers to rebuild the frontend while changing the controller.

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