Lessons from sixteen years of molecular simulation in Python
A while ago I was chatting with two users of my Molecular Modelling Toolkit (MMTK), a library for molecular simulations written in Python. One of them asked me what I would do differently if I were to write MMTK today. That’s an interesting question, but not the kind of question I can answer in a sentence or two, so I promised to write a blog post about this. Here it is.
First, a bit of history. The first version of MMTK was released about 16 years ago. I don’t have the exact data, but the first message on the MMTK mailing list, announcing MMTK release 1.0b2, is dated 29 May 1997. Back then Python 1.4 was the state of the art and Numerical Python was a young project that was just beginning to stabilize. MMTK was one of the first domain-specific scientific libraries written in Python, at a time when the scientific Python community was very small and its members were mostly considered cranks by their peers. MMTK was designed from the start as a Python library, with relatively small bits of C code for the time-critical stuff (mainly energy evaluation and MD integration), with NumPy arrays at the Python-C interface. This has since become one of the two main approaches to using Python in scientific computing, the other one being wrapper code around libraries written in C/C++ or Fortran.
So what would I do differently if I were to start writing MMTK today? Many things, for different reasons. Lets first get the obvious stuff out of the way: the Python ecosystem has evolved significantly since 1997, and of course I would use Python 3, and Cython instead of C for the time-critical parts. I would also adopt many of the conventions that the community has developed but which weren’t around in 1997. I might even be tempted to use bleeding-edge tools like Numba, although with hesitation: Numba is not only a moving target at this time, but also requires dependencies (I am thinking mostly of LLVM) which are big and non-trivial to install. One lesson I have learned in 16 years of scientific Python is that dependencies can cause more trouble than they are worth. It’s nice in theory to re-use existing tested code, but it also makes installation and deployment more cumbersome.
So far for changes in the Python ecosystem. What has changed as well, though at a slower pace, is the role of computation in science and in particular in molecular simulation. Back in 1997, there were a few molecular simulation ecosystems that operated almost in isolation. The big players were the CHARMM, AMBER, and GROMOS/GROMACS communities. Each of them had their own software, their own file formats, and their own force fields. Members of these communities would of course talk about science to each other, but not share any software or data. Developing new computational methods required a serious investment into one of these ecosystems. That was in fact my main motivation for developing MMTK: I figured that I would be more efficient (not to mention more satisfied) writing a new system from scratch using modern development tools than trying to get familiar with crufty Fortran code. But I adopted basically the same approach with MMTK: I created a new ecosystem without much regard to sharing code or data with the rest of the world. As an illustration, MMTK defines its own trajectory format which I still consider superior to what the rest of the world is doing, but which is undeniably hard to use without MMTK, given that the definition of a universe is stored as an executable Python expression. MMTK also encourages storing data as Python pickle files, which are even harder to deal with for other programs.
Today we are seeing a change in attitude in computational science that I am sure will soon reach the molecular simulation community as well. People are starting to realize that computational results have serious reliability problems. The most publicized case in the structural biology community was the retraction of a few important published protein structures following the discovery of a bug in the data processing software that lead to completely wrong final structures. This and similar events point to the urgent need for better validation of computational results. One aspect of validation is re-running the same computation with different tools. Another aspect is publishing both software and raw data, enabling other scientists to inspect them and check their validity. Technology for sharing scientific code and data exists today (have a look at Github, Bitbucket, and figshare, for example). But in molecular simulation, there are still important practical barriers to such validation attempts, in particular the use of program-specific and badly documented file formats. While MMTK’s file formats are documented, they are still program-specific and thus incompatible with the requirements of the future.
The sentence that I would like to write now is “If I were to rewrite MMTK today, I would use the exchange data formats accepted by the molecular simulation community”. But those formats don’t exist yet, although there are a few initiatives to develop them. My own contribution to this effort is the Mosaic data model and data formats – if you are interested in this subject, please have a look at it and send me your feedback. Mosaic will of course find its way into future versions of MMTK.
Finally, there are things I would do differently because the experience with MMTK has shown that a few initial design decisions were not the best ones. Number one is the absence of stable atom numbers. In MMTK, each atom and molecule is represented by a unique Python object, and there are ways to refer uniquely to everything by using Python expressions. But there is no such thing as a unique order of atoms that would assign a number to each one. Atoms do have numbers by which the low-level C code refers to them, but these numbers can be different every time you run a Python script. My original design goal was to discourage the use of numbers to refer to atoms, because this is an important source of mistakes if the simulated system undergoes changes. But every other molecular simulation program out there uses numbers to refer to atoms, so people are used to them. For interoperability with other programs, atom numbers are fundamental. There are ways to handle such situations, of course, but it’s a constant source of headaches.
The other design aspect that I would change if I were to rewrite MMTK today is the hierarchy of chemical objects. MMTK has Atoms, Groups, Molecules, and Complexes, plus specializations such as AminoAcidResidue (a special Group), PeptideChain (a special Molecule), and Protein (a special Complex). While all of these correspond to some chemical reality, the system is more complex than required for molecular simulation, leading in some situations to code that is bloated by irrelevant special cases. Today I’d go for just Atoms and Groups, with special features of specific kinds of groups indicated by attributes rather than specific classes.