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.

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

PopChar 7.1 - Floating window shows avai...
We're also selling a 5-license family pack for only $25.99! PopChar helps you get the most out of your font collection. With its crystal-clear interface, PopChar X provides a frustration-free way to... Read more
BBEdit 11.1.1 - Powerful text and HTML e...
BBEdit is the leading professional HTML and text editor for the Mac. Specifically crafted in response to the needs of Web authors and software developers, this award-winning product provides a... Read more
Picasa 3.9.139 - Organize, edit, and sha...
Picasa and Picasa Web Albums allows you to organize, edit, and upload your photos to the Web from your computer in quick, simple steps. Arrange your photos into folders and albums and erase their... Read more
Mac DVDRipper Pro 5.0.5 - Copy, backup,...
Mac DVDRipper Pro is the DVD backup solution that lets you protect your DVDs from scratches, save your batteries by reading your movies from your hard disk, manage your collection with just a few... Read more
NetShade 6.2 - Browse privately using an...
This promotion is for NetShade and 1 year of Proxy and VPN services NetShade is an anonymous proxy and VPN app+service for Mac. Unblock your Internet through NetShade's high-speed proxy and VPN... Read more
CrossOver 14.1.3 - Run Windows apps on y...
CrossOver can get your Windows productivity applications and PC games up and running on your Mac quickly and easily. CrossOver runs the Windows software that you need on Mac at home, in the office,... Read more
Little Snitch 3.5.3 - Alerts you about o...
Little Snitch gives you control over your private outgoing data. Track background activity As soon as your computer connects to the Internet, applications often have permission to send any... Read more
OmniGraffle Pro 6.2.3 - Create diagrams,...
OmniGraffle Pro helps you draw beautiful diagrams, family trees, flow charts, org charts, layouts, and (mathematically speaking) any other directed or non-directed graphs. We've had people use... Read more
OmniFocus 2.2 - GTD task manager with iO...
OmniFocus helps you manage your tasks the way that you want, freeing you to focus your attention on the things that matter to you most. Capturing tasks and ideas is always a keyboard shortcut away in... Read more
1Password 5.3.2 - Powerful password mana...
1Password is a password manager that uniquely brings you both security and convenience. It is the only program that provides anti-phishing protection and goes beyond password management by adding Web... Read more

MooVee - Your Movies Guru (Entertainmen...
MooVee - Your Movies Guru 1.0 Device: iOS iPhone Category: Entertainment Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: MooVee helps you effortlessly manage your movies, on your iPhone. | Read more »
Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions (Games)
Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions 1.0.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0.0 (iTunes) Description: Enjoy the next chapter in the award-winning Geometry Wars franchise and enjoy stunning, console-quality... | Read more »
CHAOS RINGS Ⅲ (Games)
CHAOS RINGS Ⅲ 1.0.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $19.99, Version: 1.0.0 (iTunes) Description: The newest addition to the popular smartphone RPG series is finally here! ・CHAOS RINGS Overview | Read more »
The Popular Insight Series of Travel Gui...
Getting around in a country when you can't understand the primary language can be tough. Fortunately there are several options available to help wold travellers with the important stuff like giving directions to a cab driver or asking where the... | Read more »
Desktop Dungeons is Now on the iPad Desp...
Desktop Dungeons has been a well-loved roguelike on PC for quite some time, and now it's finally available for the iPad! Just the iPad, though. Sorry iPhone users. [Read more] | Read more »
Moleskine Timepage – Calendar for iCloud...
Moleskine Timepage – Calendar for iCloud, Google & Exchange 1.0 Device: iOS iPhone Category: Productivity Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: The most elegant calendar for your pocket and wrist, Timepage is a... | Read more »
QuizUp Gets Social in its New Update
Plain Vanilla Corp has released a new and improved version of their popular trivia game, QuizUp. The app now emphasizes social play so you can challenge friends from all over the world. [Read more] | Read more »
The Deep (Games)
The Deep 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Swipe Controls Delve into the deep in this retro rogue-like! Swipe to move your diver around and keep away from the enemies as you... | Read more »
Sproggiwood (Games)
Sproggiwood 1.2.8 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $9.99, Version: 1.2.8 (iTunes) Description: Sproggiwood was developed for devices with at least 1GB of RAM. We recommend you only download Sproggiwood if your device... | Read more »
Battle of Gods: Ascension (Games)
Battle of Gods: Ascension 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: TURN-BASED TACTICAL COMBATFight tactical battles against the forces of Hades! In Battle of Gods: Ascension you play... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Apple refurbished 2014 13-inch Retina MacBook...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished 2014 13″ Retina MacBook Pros available for up to $400 off original MSRP, starting at $979. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and... Read more
What Would the ideal Apple Productivity Platf...
For the past four years I’ve kept a foot in both the Mac and iPad camps respectively. my daily computing hours divided about 50/50 between the two devices with remarkable consistency. However, there’... Read more
PageMeUp 1.2.1 Ten Dollar Page Layout Applica...
Paris, France-based Softobe, an OS X software development company, has announced that their PageMeUp v. 1.2.1, is available on the Mac App Store for $9.99. The license can be installed on up to 5... Read more
Eight New Products For USB Type-C Application...
Fresco Logic, specialists in advanced connectivity technologies and ICs, has introduced two new product families targeting the Type-C connector recently introduced across a number of consumer... Read more
Scripps National Spelling Bee Launches Buzzwo...
Scripps National Spelling Bee fans can monitor the action at the 2015 Spelling Bee with the new Buzzworthy app for iOS, Android and Windows mobile devices. The free Buzzworthy app provides friendly... Read more
13-inch 2.5GHz MacBook Pro on sale for $120 o...
B&H Photo has the 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook Pro on sale for $979 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $120 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price for this model (except for Apple’... Read more
27-inch 3.3GHz 5K iMac on sale for $1899, $10...
B&H Photo has the new 27″ 3.3GHz 5K iMac on sale for $1899.99 including free shipping plus NY tax only. Their price is $100 off MSRP. Read more
Save up to $50 on iPad Air 2, NY tax only, fr...
B&H Photo has iPad Air 2s on sale for up to $50 off MSRP including free shipping plus NY sales tax only: - 16GB iPad Air 2 WiFi: $469 $30 off - 64GB iPad Air 2 WiFi: $549.99 $50 off - 128GB iPad... Read more
Updated Mac Price Trackers
We’ve updated our Mac Price Trackers with the latest information on prices, bundles, and availability on systems from Apple’s authorized internet/catalog resellers: - 15″ MacBook Pros - 13″ MacBook... Read more
New 13-inch 2.9GHz Retina MacBook Pro on sale...
B&H Photo has the 13″ 2.9GHz/512GB Retina MacBook Pro on sale for $1699.99 including free shipping plus NY tax only. Their price is $100 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price for this model from... Read more

Jobs Board

Program Manager, *Apple* Community Support...
**Job Summary** Apple Support Communities ( discussions. apple .com) helps customers get the most from their Apple products and services by providing access to Read more
Senior Data Scientist, *Apple* Retail - Onl...
**Job Summary** Apple Retail - Online sells Apple products to customers around the world. In addition to selling Apple products with unique services such as iPad Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant - Retail Sales...
**Job Summary** As an Apple Solutions Consultant (ASC) you are the link between our customers and our products. Your role is to drive the Apple business in a retail Read more
*Apple* Watch SW Application Project Manager...
**Job Summary** The Apple Watch software team is looking for an Application Engineering Project Manager to work on new projects for Apple . The successful candidate Read more
Engineering Manager for *Apple* Maps on the...
…the Maps App Team get to take part in just about any new feature in Apple Maps, often contributing a majority of the feature work. In our day-to-day engineering work, we Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.