Python Training by Dan Bader

Assert Statements in Python

How to use assertions to help automatically detect errors in your Python programs in order to make them more reliable and easier to debug.

What Are Assertions & What Are They Good For?

Python’s assert statement is a debugging aid that tests a condition. If the condition is true, it does nothing and your program just continues to execute. But if the assert condition evaluates to false, it raises an AssertionError exception with an optional error message.

The proper use of assertions is to inform developers about unrecoverable errors in a program. They’re not intended to signal expected error conditions, like “file not found”, where a user can take corrective action or just try again.

Another way to look at it is to say that assertions are internal self-checks for your program. They work by declaring some conditions as impossible in your code. If one of these conditions doesn’t hold that means there’s a bug in the program.

If your program is bug-free, these conditions will never occur. But if they do occur the program will crash with an assertion error telling you exactly which “impossible” condition was triggered. This makes it much easier to track down and fix bugs in your programs.

To summarize: Python’s assert statement is a debugging aid, not a mechanism for handling run-time errors. The goal of using assertions is to let developers find the likely root cause of a bug more quickly. An assertion error should never be raised unless there’s a bug in your program.

Assert in Python — An Example

Here’s a simple example so you can see where assertions might come in handy. I tried to give this some semblance of a real world problem you might actually encounter in one of your programs.

Suppose you were building an online store with Python. You’re working to add a discount coupon functionality to the system and eventually write the following apply_discount function:

def apply_discount(product, discount):
    price = int(product['price'] * (1.0 - discount))
    assert 0 <= price <= product['price']
    return price

Notice the assert statement in there? It will guarantee that, no matter what, discounted prices cannot be lower than $0 and they cannot be higher than the original price of the product.

Let’s make sure this actually works as intended if we call this function to apply a valid discount:

#
# Our example product: Nice shoes for $149.00
#
>>> shoes = {'name': 'Fancy Shoes', 'price': 14900}

#
# 25% off -> $111.75
#
>>> apply_discount(shoes, 0.25)
11175

Alright, this worked nicely. Now, let’s try to apply some invalid discounts:

#
# A "200% off" discount:
#
>>> apply_discount(shoes, 2.0)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<input>", line 1, in <module>
    apply_discount(prod, 2.0)
  File "<input>", line 4, in apply_discount
    assert 0 <= price <= product['price']
AssertionError

#
# A "-30% off" discount:
#
>>> apply_discount(shoes, -0.3)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<input>", line 1, in <module>
    apply_discount(prod, -0.3)
  File "<input>", line 4, in apply_discount
    assert 0 <= price <= product['price']
AssertionError

As you can see, trying to apply an invalid discount raises an AssertionError exception that points out the line with the violated assertion condition. If we ever encounter one of these errors while testing our online store it will be easy to find out what happened by looking at the traceback.

This is the power of assertions, in a nutshell.

Python’s Assert Syntax

It’s always a good idea to study up on how a language feature is actually implemented in Python before you start using it. So let’s take a quick look at the syntax for the assert statement according to the Python docs:

assert_stmt ::= "assert" expression1 ["," expression2]

In this case expression1 is the condition we test, and the optional expression2 is an error message that’s displayed if the assertion fails.

At execution time, the Python interpreter transforms each assert statement into roughly the following:

if __debug__:
    if not expression1:
        raise AssertionError(expression2)

You can use expression2 to pass an optional error message that will be displayed with the AssertionError in the traceback. This can simplify debugging even further—for example, I’ve seen code like this:

if cond == 'x':
    do_x()
elif cond == 'y':
    do_y()
else:
    assert False, ("This should never happen, but it does occasionally. "
                   "We're currently trying to figure out why. "
                   "Email dbader if you encounter this in the wild.")

Is this ugly? Well, yes. But it’s definitely a valid and helpful technique if you’re faced with a heisenbug-type issue in one of your applications. 😉

Common Pitfalls With Using Asserts in Python

Before you move on, there are two important caveats with using assertions in Python that I’d like to call out.

The first one has to do with introducing security risks and bugs into your applications, and the second one is about a syntax quirk that makes it easy to write useless assertions.

This sounds (and potentially is) pretty horrible, so you might at least want to skim these two caveats or read their summaries below.

Caveat #1 – Don’t Use Asserts for Data Validation

Asserts can be turned off globally in the Python interpreter. Don’t rely on assert expressions to be executed for data validation or data processing.

The biggest caveat with using asserts in Python is that assertions can be globally disabled with the -O and -OO command line switches, as well as the PYTHONOPTIMIZE environment variable in CPython.

This turns any assert statement into a null-operation: the assertions simply get compiled away and won’t be evaluated, which means that none of the conditional expressions will be executed.

This is an intentional design decision used similarly by many other programming languages. As a side-effect it becomes extremely dangerous to use assert statements as a quick and easy way to validate input data.

Let me explain—if your program uses asserts to check if a function argument contains a “wrong” or unexpected value this can backfire quickly and lead to bugs or security holes.

Let’s take a look at a simple example. Imagine you’re building an online store application with Python. Somewhere in your application code there’s a function to delete a product as per a user’s request:

def delete_product(product_id, user):
    assert user.is_admin(), 'Must have admin privileges to delete'
    assert store.product_exists(product_id), 'Unknown product id'
    store.find_product(product_id).delete()

Take a close look at this function. What happens if assertions are disabled?

There are two serious issues in this three-line function example, caused by the incorrect use of assert statements:

  1. Checking for admin privileges with an assert statement is dangerous. If assertions are disabled in the Python interpreter, this turns into a null-op. Therefore any user can now delete products. The privileges check doesn’t even run. This likely introduces a security problem and opens the door for attackers to destroy or severely damage the data in your customer’s or company’s online store. Not good.
  2. The product_exists() check is skipped when assertions are disabled. This means find_product() can now be called with invalid product ids—which could lead to more severe bugs depending on how our program is written. In the worst case this could be an avenue for someone to launch Denial of Service attacks against our store. If the store app crashes if we attempt to delete an unknown product, it might be possible for an attacker to bombard it with invalid delete requests and cause an outage.

How might we avoid these problems? The answer is to not use assertions to do data validation. Instead we could do our validation with regular if-statements and raise validation exceptions if necessary. Like so:

def delete_product(product_id, user):
    if not user.is_admin():
        raise AuthError('Must have admin privileges to delete')

    if not store.product_exists(product_id):
        raise ValueError('Unknown product id')

    store.find_product(product_id).delete()

This updated example also has the benefit that instead of raising unspecific AssertionError exceptions, it now raises semantically correct exceptions like ValueError or AuthError (which we’d have to define ourselves).

Caveat #2 – Asserts That Never Fail

It’s easy to accidentally write Python assert statements that always evaluate to true. I’ve been bitten by this myself in the past. I wrote a longer article about this specific issue you can check out by clicking here.

Alternatively, here’s the executive summary:

When you pass a tuple as the first argument in an assert statement, the assertion always evaluates as true and therefore never fails.

For example, this assertion will never fail:

assert(1 == 2, 'This should fail')

This has to do with non-empty tuples always being truthy in Python. If you pass a tuple to an assert statement it leads to the assert condition to always be true—which in turn leads to the above assert statement being useless because it can never fail and trigger an exception.

It’s relatively easy to accidentally write bad multi-line asserts due to this unintuitive behavior. This quickly leads to broken test cases that give a false sense of security in our test code. Imagine you had this assertion somewhere in your unit test suite:

assert (
    counter == 10,
    'It should have counted all the items'
)

Upon first inspection this test case looks completely fine. However, this test case would never catch an incorrect result: it always evaluates to True, regardless of the state of the counter variable.

Like I said, it’s rather easy to shoot yourself in the foot with this (mine still hurts). Luckily, there are some countermeasures you can apply to prevent this syntax quirk from causing trouble:

>> Read the full article on bogus assertions to get the dirty details.

Python Assertions — Summary

Despite these caveats I believe that Python’s assertions are a powerful debugging tool that’s frequently underused by Python developers.

Understanding how assertions work and when to apply them can help you write more maintainable and easier to debug Python programs. It’s a great skill to learn that will help bring your Python to the next level and make you a more well-rounded Pythonista.

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This article was filed under: programming, and python.

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