TweetFollow Us on Twitter

A Brief Look at Perl

Volume Number: 18 (2002)
Issue Number: 8
Column Tag: Section 7

A Brief Look at Perl

a real gem of a scripting language

by Rich Morin

Last month's column closed with some short descriptions of BSD's scripting languages. It offered some opinions, but stopped short of recommending any particular language. This month, I'll get a bit braver, explaining why you might want to use Perl for most of your BSDish scripting needs.

First, however, I should caution that Perl is not always the appropriate choice. If you're modifying a system shell script, don't try to rewrite it in Perl. Just use the language the script is written in (typically the Bourne Shell). If you are just mechanizing a simple list of commands, Perl is probably overkill, but see below. Finally, if the script has to run early in the startup process, the Perl interpreter may not be available.

For new, substantial scripts, however, I would strongly recommend that you use Perl. Here are some reasons:

  • efficiency - The Perl interpreter, unlike the shells, seldom has to start up new processes. This means that substantial Perl scripts will often run much faster than equivalent shell scripts. I found this out several years ago, when I transliterated several large shell scripts to Perl. The run times went down by a factor of five!

  • syntax - Most shells have very weak notions of syntax. One result of this, in Mac OS X, is that white space in file names can be interpreted as splitting the names into multiple tokens. Perl handles strings in a much more sophisticated manner, so it doesn't get confused.

  • integration - Unlike shell scripts, which may stitch together dozens of commands, Perl is an integrated language. This eliminates a great deal of hassle and possible confusion.

  • facilities - Perl has powerful data structures, convenient control-flow operators, and access to almost any imaginable system call. The shells have none of these features. As a result, a Perl program can often do things that would be essentially impossible in any shell.

  • support - Perl has numerous books, a vast library of modules, and a very active user community. Most shells have few to none of these resoueces.

  • portability - Perl scripts can be run on essentially any modern operating system. With a little forethought, they can run unmodified on several different systems. The shells, in contrast, only work on BSD and other Unix-like systems.

Having said all of this, perhaps I should tell you some of the bad news about Perl:

  • complexity - Perl is a very large language, with some really peculiar nooks and crannies. Even if you don't use all of these features, you may well encounter them in a module or some other bit of code you "inherit".

  • informality - Perl's motto ("There's More Than One Way To Do It" gives fair warning that this isn't a nice tidy "orthogonal" language. In fact, Larry Wall (Perl's creator) says that Perl is a "diagonal" language; cutting across the middle often speed things up!

  • mutability - Unlike the shells, Perl is still evolving. Perl 5 has (mostly) stabilized, but Perl 6 development is quite active. So, you might need to relearn some things in a few years.

Show me some code!

This being MacTech, you're probably wondering when you're going to see some actual Perl code. Well, here's a short Perl script that I hacked together to do some backups. It's not a full-featured backup utility, by any means, but it gets the job done (and shows off some Perl language features)...

#!/usr/bin/env perl
#
# macbac - Create backup files, using tar(1).
#
# Written by Rich Morin, CFCL, 2002.06
{
  $date = `date +%y%m%d.%H%M`;
  chomp($date);
  @dir = ('/Users/rdm',
          '/Volumes/Work');
  for $dir (@dir) {
    $bac = cvt($dir);
    $cmd = "nice -10 tar czf $bac $dir";
    printf(">>> %s\n", $cmd);
    system($cmd);
  }
}
sub cvt {  # convert the directory name
  my ($tmp) = @_;
 
  $tmp =~ s|/|.|g;
  $tmp =~ s|\s|_|g;
  return("/Backups/$date$tmp.tgz");
}
  

The first line of any BSD script, as discussed previously, tells the system which program should be invoked as the interpreter for the following lines. Because I may decide to install a later version of the Perl interpreter at some point (e.g., in /usr/local/bin), I don't want to specify a full path name for the Perl interpreter. So, I tell the system to run /usr/bin/env, letting it find and run the appropriate version of Perl.

The remainder of the script, in any case, is read by the Perl interpreter. Perl's syntax and feature set are borrowed from a variety of (mostly Unix) languages and tools, including awk, Basic-Plus, C, sed, sh, and tr. This makes Perl seem familiar to Unix aficionados, but can cause some culture shock to others. Stay calm; it's not really all that bad!

Unlike C, Perl has no "block comments". So, I use a column of sharp signs (#) for my header comments. I also like to wrap the "main" routine in braces. This causes its contents to be indented at the same level as the contents of any sub (routine). It also gives me a visual cue that this is a "block" of code.

I could have asked Perl to grab and format the date information (and should have, if I were trying for cross-OS portability), but the method above shows off Perl's ability to run BSD commands and retrieve their results. The backquotes tell Perl to run the enclosed command, returning the result as a text string. The result gets put into a scalar variable, $date. The chomp() function, by the way, removes the trailing newline from date's output.

The script then tells Perl to create an array variable named @dir and load it with a list containing two text strings. I use single quotes to wrap these strings, indicating that I don't want Perl to do any variable interpolation (see below) or other tricks.

The for loop sets $dir, successively, to each of the values in @dir. Note that the sigil (e.g., $, @) is part of a Perl variable's name, so @dir and $dir are two different variables. This seems a bit weird at first, but ends up being quite handy as you get used to it.

The cvt() routine shows off some of Perl's capabilities and peculiarities. First, it grabs @_ (the array of calling parameters) and copies the contents into a private list of variables. In this case, the list only has one element, but it might well have more.

The next two lines tell Perl to do global substitutions of periods for slashes and underscores for "white space". This gives me "flattened" names (no directory levels) without any annoying spaces, tabs, etc. This is a trivial example of Perl's powerful "regular expression" capability. Regular expressions can be used to perform all sorts of magic on text strings. In fact, there is a substantial book on regular expressions alone!

The last line tells Perl to "interpolate" the variables $bac and $date into a text string. The use of double quotes tells Perl to look for dollar signs and other "magic" characters. Note that, although $tmp is a private variable, $date is shared with the main routine. Finally, the return is not strictly needed (the value of the last expression evaluated in a sub is automatically returned), but I think it adds to the clarity of the code.

Returning to the main routine, we build up a command string, print it (ala C), and hand it off to the operating system to be run. Look up the man pages for nice and tar to see what their roles are in this script.

In a script of this size, there isn't much room to get into Perl's fancier aspects. Next month, I'll give you a more substantial taste of its data structures and control flow, as well as listing some useful Perl resources. If you can't wait to get started, however, just bop over to www.perl.{org,com}...


Rich Morin has been using computers since 1970, Unix since 1983, and Mac-based Unix since 1986 (when he helped Apple create A/UX 1.0). When he isn't writing this column, Rich runs Prime Time Freeware (www.ptf.com), a publisher of books and CD-ROMs for the Free and Open Source software community. Feel free to write to Rich at rdm@ptf.com.

 
AAPL
$100.96
Apple Inc.
-0.83
MSFT
$47.52
Microsoft Corpora
+0.84
GOOG
$596.08
Google Inc.
+6.81

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

WhatRoute 1.13.0 - Geographically trace...
WhatRoute is designed to find the names of all the routers an IP packet passes through on its way from your Mac to a destination host. It also measures the round-trip time from your Mac to the... Read more
Chromium 37.0.2062.122 - Fast and stable...
Chromium is an open-source browser project that aims to build a safer, faster, and more stable way for all Internet users to experience the web. FreeSMUG-Free OpenSource Mac User Group build is... Read more
Attachment Tamer 3.1.14b9 - Take control...
Attachment Tamer gives you control over attachment handling in Apple Mail. It fixes the most annoying Apple Mail flaws, ensures compatibility with other email software, and allows you to set up how... Read more
Duplicate Annihilator 5.0 - Find and del...
Duplicate Annihilator takes on the time-consuming task of comparing the images in your iPhoto library using effective algorithms to make sure that no duplicate escapes. Duplicate Annihilator detects... Read more
jAlbum Pro 12.2 - Organize your digital...
jAlbum Pro has all the features you love in jAlbum, but comes with a commercial license. With jAlbum, you can create gorgeous custom photo galleries for the Web without writing a line of code!... Read more
jAlbum 12.2 - Create custom photo galler...
With jAlbum, you can create gorgeous custom photo galleries for the Web without writing a line of code! Beginner-friendly, with pro results Simply drag and drop photos into groups, choose a design... Read more
Quicken 2015 2.0.4 - Complete personal f...
Quicken 2015 helps you manage all your personal finances in one place, so you can see where you're spending and where you can save. Quicken automatically categorizes your financial transactions,... Read more
iMazing 1.0 - Complete iOS device manage...
iMazing (formerly DiskAid) is the ultimate iOS device manager with capabilities far beyond what iTunes offers. With iMazing and your iOS device (iPhone, iPad, or iPod), you can: Copy music to and... Read more
Xcode 6.0.1 - Integrated development env...
Apple Xcode is Apple Computer's integrated development environment (IDE) for OS X. The full Xcode package is free to ADC members and includes all the tools you need to create, debug, and optimize... Read more
Apple Safari 7.1 - Apple's Web brow...
Apple Safari in OS X Mavericks brings you all-new ways to find and enjoy the best of the web. It works with iCloud to give you a seamless browsing experience across all your devices. It looks out for... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

View Source – HTML, JavaScript and CSS...
View Source – HTML, JavaScript and CSS 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Utilities Price: $.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: View Source is an app plus an iOS 8 Safari extension that makes it easy to do one key web developer... | Read more »
Avenged Sevenfold’s Hail To The King: De...
Avenged Sevenfold’s Hail To The King: Deathbat is Coming to iOS on October 16th Posted by Jessica Fisher on September 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] Just in time for Halloween, on October 16 Avenged Sevenfold will be launching | Read more »
Talisman Has Gone Universal – Can Now be...
Talisman Has Gone Universal – Can Now be Played on the iPhone Posted by Jessica Fisher on September 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
Tap Army Review
Tap Army Review By Jennifer Allen on September 19th, 2014 Our Rating: :: SHOOT EM ALLUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Mindless but fun, Tap Army is a lane-based shooter that should help you relieve some stress.   | Read more »
Monsters! Volcanoes! Loot! Epic Island f...
Monsters! Volcanoes! Loot! | Read more »
Plunder Pirates: Tips, Tricks, Strategie...
Ahoy There, Seadogs: Interested in knowing our thoughts on all this plundering and pirating? Check out our Plunder Pirates Review! Have you just downloaded the rather enjoyable pirate-em-up Plunder Pirates and are in need of some assistance? Never... | Read more »
Goat Simulator Review
Goat Simulator Review By Lee Hamlet on September 19th, 2014 Our Rating: :: THE GRUFFEST OF BILLY GOATSUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Unleash chaos as a grumpy goat in this humorous but short-lived casual game.   | Read more »
A New and Improved Wunderlist is Here fo...
A New and Improved Wunderlist is Here for iOS 8 Posted by Jessica Fisher on September 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Evernote Update for iOS 8 Adds Web Clipp...
Evernote Update for iOS 8 Adds Web Clipping, Quick Notes, and More Posted by Ellis Spice on September 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
Apple Names Ultimate Productivity Bundl...
Apple Names Ultimate Productivity Bundle by Readdle as the Essential Bundle on the App Store Posted by Jessica Fisher on September 19th, 2014 [ permalink | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Mac Pros available for up to $260 off MSRP
Adorama has Mac Pros on sale for up to $260 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and Adorama charges sales tax in NY & NJ only: - 4-core Mac Pro: $2839.99, $160 off MSRP - 6-core Mac Pro: $3739.99, $260... Read more
13-inch 2.6GHz/256GB Retina MacBook Pros avai...
B&H Photo has the 13″ 2.6GHz/256GB Retina MacBook Pro on sale for $1379 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $120 off MSRP. Read more
Previous-generation 15-inch 2.0GHz Retina Mac...
B&H Photo has leftover previous-generation 15″ 2.0GHz Retina MacBook Pros now available for $1599 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $400 off original MSRP. B&H... Read more
21″ 2.7GHz iMac available for $1179, save $12...
Adorama has 21″ 2.7GHz Hawell iMacs on sale for $1179.99 including free shipping. Their price is $120 off MSRP. NY and NJ sales tax only. Read more
iOS 8 Adoption Rate Slower than iOS 7, 6, Hit...
Apple began pushing out iOS 8 updates to eligible devices around 1pm ET on September 17, 2014. However, unlike with iOS 7, which boasted a wide variety of differences from its predecessor iOS 6, in... Read more
LIkely Final Definitive OS X 10.9.5 Mavericks...
Apple has released what will almost certainly be the last incremental version number update of OS X 10.9 Mavericks (save for futire security updates) before OS X 10.10 Yosemite is released next month... Read more
Fingerprints, Apple Pay and Identity Theft Wa...
On Sep 9th, CEO Tim Cook unveiled Apple Pay, along with the new iPhone 6 and iWatch. Apple Pay is a newly developed technology that utilizes a near field communication (NFC) to enable customer... Read more
Amazon Introduces Two All-New Kindles
Amazon on Thursday introduced the 7th generation of its Kindle dedicated e-reader device: Kindle Voyage, its top-of-the-line e-reader, and the new $79 Kindle, with a 20% faster processor, twice the... Read more
Save up to $300 on the price of a new Mac wit...
Purchase a new Mac or iPad at The Apple Store for Education and take up to $300 off MSRP. All teachers, students, and staff of any educational institution qualify for the discount. Shipping is free,... Read more
13-inch 2.8GHz Retina MacBook Pro available f...
B&H Photo has the new 2014 13″ 2.8GHz Retina MacBook Pro on sale for $1699.99 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. They’ll also include free copies of Parallels Desktop and LoJack for... Read more

Jobs Board

Project Manager, *Apple* Financial Services...
**Job Summary** Apple Financial Services (AFS) offers consumers, businesses and educational institutions ways to finance Apple purchases. We work with national and Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.