Friday, December 17, 2021, marked the thirty-​fourth birthday of the Perl programming language, and coincidentally this year saw the release of version 5.34. There are plenty of Perl developers out there who haven’t kept up with recent (and not-​so-​recent) improvements to the language and its ecosystem, so I thought I might list a batch. (You may have seen some of these before in May’s post Perl can do that now!”)

The feature pragma

Perl v5.10 was released in December 2007, and with it came feature, a way of enabling new syntax without breaking backward compatibility. You can enable individual features by name (e.g., use feature qw(say fc); for the say and fc keywords), or by using a feature bundle based on the Perl version that introduced them. For example, the following:

use feature ':5.34';

…gives you the equivalent of:

use feature qw(bareword_filehandles bitwise current_sub evalbytes fc indirect multidimensional postderef_qq say state switch unicode_eval unicode_strings);

Boy, that’s a mouthful. Feature bundles are good. The corresponding bundle also gets implicitly loaded if you specify a minimum required Perl version, e.g., with use v5.32;. If you use v5.12; or higher, strict mode is enabled for free. So just say:

use v5.34;

And lastly, one-​liners can use the -E switch instead of -e to enable all features for that version of Perl, so you can say the following on the command line:

perl -E 'say "Hello world!"'

Instead of:

perl -e 'print "Hello world!\n"'

Which is great when you’re trying to save some typing.

The experimental pragma

Sometimes new Perl features need to be driven a couple of releases around the block before their behavior settles. Those experiments are documented in the perlexperiment page, and usually, you need both a use feature (see above) and no warnings statement to safely enable them. Or you can simply pass a list to use experimental of the features you want, e.g.:

use experimental qw(isa postderef signatures);

Ever-​expanding warnings categories

March 2000 saw the release of Perl 5.6, and with it, the expansion of the -w command-​line switch to a system of fine-​grained controls for warning against dubious constructs” that can be turned on and off depending on the lexical scope. What started as 26 main and 20 subcategories has expanded into 31 main and 43 subcategories, including warnings for the aforementioned experimental features.

As the relevant Perl::Critic policy says, Using warnings, and paying attention to what they say, is probably the single most effective way to improve the quality of your code.” If you must violate warnings (perhaps because you’re rehabilitating some legacy code), you can isolate such violations to a small scope and individual categories. Check out the strictures module on CPAN if you’d like to go further and make a safe subset of these categories fatal during development.

Document other recently-​introduced syntax with Syntax::Construct

Not every new bit of Perl syntax is enabled with a feature guard. For the rest, there’s E. Choroba’s Syntax::Construct module on CPAN. Rather than having to remember which version of Perl introduced what, Syntax::Construct lets you declare only what you use and provides a helpful error message if someone tries to run your code on an older unsupported version. Between it and the feature pragma, you can prevent many head-​scratching moments and give your users a chance to either upgrade or workaround.

Make built-​in functions throw exceptions with autodie

Many of Perl’s built-​in functions only return false on failure, requiring the developer to check every time whether a file can be opened or a system command executed. The lexical autodie pragma replaces them with versions that raise an exception with an object that can be interrogated for further details. No matter how many functions or methods deep a problem occurs, you can choose to catch it and respond appropriately. This leads us to…

try/​catch exception handling and Feature::Compat::Try

This year’s Perl v5.34 release introduced experimental try/​catch syntax for exception handling that should look more familiar to users of other languages while handling the issues surrounding using block eval and testing of the special $@ variable. If you need to remain compatible with older versions of Perl (back to v5.14), just use the Feature::Compat::Try module from CPAN to automatically select either v5.34’s native try/​catch or a subset of the functionality provided by Syntax::Keyword::Try.

Pluggable keywords

The abovementioned Syntax::Keyword::Try was made possible by the introduction of a pluggable keyword mechanism in 2010’s Perl v5.12. So was the Future::AsyncAwait asynchronous programming library and the Object::Pad testbed for new object-​oriented Perl syntax. If you’re handy with C and Perl’s XS glue language, check out Paul LeoNerd” Evans’ XS::Parse::Keyword module to get a leg up on developing your own syntax module.

Define packages with versions and blocks

Perl v5.12 also helped reduce clutter by enabling a package namespace declaration to also include a version number, instead of requiring a separate our $VERSION = ...; v5.14 further refined packages to be specified in code blocks, so a namespace declaration can be the same as a lexical scope. Putting the two together gives you:

package Local::NewHotness v1.2.3 {
    ...
}

Instead of:

{
    package Local::OldAndBusted;
    use version 0.77; our $VERSION = version->declare("v1.2.3");
    ...
}

I know which I’d rather do. (Though you may want to also use Syntax::Construct qw(package-version package-block); to help along with older installations as described above.)

The // defined-​or operator

This is an easy win from Perl v5.10:

defined $foo ? $foo : $bar  # replace this
$foo // $bar                # with this

And:

$foo = $bar unless defined $foo  # replace this
$foo //= $bar                    # with this

Perfect for assigning defaults to variables.

state variables only initialize once

Speaking of variables, ever want one to keep its old value the next time a scope is entered, like in a sub? Declare it with state instead of my. Before Perl v5.10, you needed to use a closure instead.

Save some typing with say

Perl v5.10’s bumper crop of enhancements also included the say function, which handles the common use case of printing a string or list of strings with a newline. It’s less noise in your code and saves you four characters. What’s not to love?

Note unimplemented code with ...

The ... ellipsis statement (colloquially yada-​yada”) gives you an easy placeholder for yet-​to-​be-​implemented code. It parses OK but will throw an exception if executed. Hopefully, your test coverage (or at least static analysis) will catch it before your users do.

Loop and enumerate arrays with each, keys, and values

The each, keys, and values functions have always been able to operate on hashes. Perl v5.12 and above make them work on arrays, too. The latter two are mainly for consistency, but you can use each to iterate over an array’s indices and values at the same time:

while (my ($index, $value) = each @array) {
    ...
}

This can be problematic in non-​trivial loops, but I’ve found it helpful in quick scripts and one-liners.

delete local hash (and array) entries

Ever needed to delete an entry from a hash (e.g, an environment variable from %ENV or a signal handler from %SIG) just inside a block? Perl v5.12 lets you do that with delete local.

Paired hash slices

Jumping forward to 2014’s Perl v5.20, the new %foo{'bar', 'baz'} syntax enables you to slice a subset of a hash with its keys and values intact. Very helpful for cherry-​picking or aggregating many hashes into one. For example:

my %args = (
    verbose => 1,
    name    => 'Mark',
    extra   => 'pizza',
);
# don't frob the pizza
$my_object->frob( %args{ qw(verbose name) };

Paired array slices

Not to be left out, you can also slice arrays in the same way, in this case returning indices and values:

my @letters = 'a' .. 'z';
my @subset_kv = %letters[16, 5, 18, 12];
# @subset_kv is now (16, 'p', 5, 'e', 18, 'r', 12, 'l')

More readable dereferencing

Perl v5.20 introduced and v5.24 de-​experimentalized a more readable postfix dereferencing syntax for navigating nested data structures. Instead of using {braces} or smooshing sigils to the left of identifiers, you can use a postfixed sigil-and-star:

push @$array_ref,    1, 2, 3;  # noisy
push @{$array_ref},  1, 2, 3;  # a little easier
push $array_ref->@*, 1, 2, 3;  # read from left to right

So much of web development is slinging around and picking apart complicated data structures via JSON, so I welcome anything like this to reduce the cognitive load.

when as a statement modifier

Starting in Perl v5.12, you can use the experimental switch features when keyword as a postfix modifier. For example:

for ($foo) {
    $a =  1 when /^abc/;
    $a = 42 when /^dna/;
    ...
}

But I don’t recommend when, given, or givens smartmatch operations as they were retconned as experiments in 2013’s Perl v5.18 and have remained so due to their tricky behavior. I wrote about some alternatives using stable syntax back in February.

Simple class inheritance with use parent

Sometimes in older object-​oriented Perl code, you’ll see use base as a pragma to establish inheritance from another class. Older still is the direct manipulation of the package’s special @ISA array. In most cases, both should be avoided in favor of use parent, which was added to core in Perl v5.10.1.

Mind you, if you’re following the Perl object-​oriented tutorial’s advice and have selected an OO system from CPAN, use its subclassing mechanism if it has one. Moose, Moo, and Class::Accessor’s antlers” mode all provide an extends function; Object::Pad provides an :isa attribute on its class keyword.

Test for class membership with the isa operator

As an alternative to the isa() method provided to all Perl objects, Perl v5.32 introduced the experimental isa infix operator:

$my_object->isa('Local::MyClass')
# or
$my_object isa Local::MyClass

The latter can take either a bareword class name or string expression, but more importantly, it’s safer as it also returns false if the left argument is undefined or isn’t a blessed object reference. The older isa() method will throw an exception in the former case and might return true if called as a class method when $my_object is actually a string of a class name that’s the same as or inherits from isa()s argument.

Lexical subroutines

Introduced in Perl v5.18 and de-​experimentalized in 2017’s Perl v5.26, you can now precede sub declarations with my, state, or our. One use of the first two is truly private functions and methods, as described in this 2018 Dave Jacoby blog and as part of Neil Bowers’ 2014 survey of private function techniques.

Subroutine signatures

I’ve written and presented extensively about signatures and alternatives over the past year, so I won’t repeat that here. I’ll just add that the Perl 5 Porters development mailing list has been making a concerted effort over the past month to hash out the remaining issues towards rendering this feature non-​experimental. The popular Mojolicious real-​time web framework also provides a shortcut for enabling signatures and uses them extensively in examples.

Indented here-​documents with <<~

Perl has had shell-​style here-​document” syntax for embedding multi-​line strings of quoted text for a long time. Starting with Perl v5.26, you can precede the delimiting string with a ~ character and Perl will both allow the ending delimiter to be indented as well as strip indentation from the embedded text. This allows for much more readable embedded code such as runs of HTML and SQL. For example:

if ($do_query) {
    my $rows_deleted = $dbh->do(<<~'END_SQL', undef, 42);
      DELETE FROM table
      WHERE status = ?
      END_SQL
    say "$rows_deleted rows were deleted."; 
}

More readable chained comparisons

When I learned math in school, my teachers and textbooks would often describe multiple comparisons and inequalities as a single expression. Unfortunately, when it came time to learn programming every computer language I saw required them to be broken up with a series of and (or &&) operators. With Perl v5.32, this is no more:

if ( $x < $y && $y <= $z ) { ... }  # old way
if ( $x < $y <= $z )       { ... }  # new way

It’s more concise, less noisy, and more like what regular math looks like.

Self-​documenting named regular expression captures

Perl’s expressive regular expression matching and text-​processing prowess are legendary, although overuse and poor use of readability enhancements often turn people away from them (and Perl in general). We often use regexps for extracting data from a matched pattern. For example:

if ( /Time: (..):(..):(..)/ ) {  # parse out values
    say "$1 hours, $2 minutes, $3 seconds";
}

Named capture groups, introduced in Perl v5.10, make both the pattern more obvious and retrieval of its data less cryptic:

if ( /Time: (?<hours>..):(?<minutes>..):(?<seconds>..)/ ) {
    say "$+{hours} hours, $+{minutes} minutes, $+{seconds} seconds";
}

More readable regexp character classes

The /x regular expression modifier already enables better readability by telling the parser to ignore most whitespace, allowing you to break up complicated patterns into spaced-​out groups and multiple lines with code comments. With Perl v5.26 you can specify /xx to also ignore spaces and tabs inside [bracketed] character classes, turning this:

/[d-eg-i3-7]/
/[!@"#$%^&*()=?<>']/

…into this:

/ [d-e g-i 3-7]/xx
/[ ! @ " # $ % ^ & * () = ? <> ' ]/xx

Set default regexp flags with the re pragma

Beginning with Perl v5.14, writing use re '/xms'; (or any combination of regular expression modifier flags) will turn on those flags until the end of that lexical scope, saving you the trouble of remembering them every time.

Non-​destructive substitution with s///r and tr///r

The s/// substitution and tr/// transliteration operators typically change their input directly, often in conjunction with the =~ binding operator:

s/foo/bar/;  # changes the first foo to bar in $_
$baz =~ s/foo/bar/;  # the same but in $baz

But what if you want to leave the original untouched, such as when processing an array of strings with a map? With Perl v5.14 and above, add the /r flag, which makes the substitution on a copy and returns the result:

my @changed = map { s/foo/bar/r } @original;

Unicode case-​folding with fc for better string comparisons

Unicode and character encoding in general are complicated beasts. Perl has handled Unicode since v5.6 and has kept pace with fixes and support for updated standards in the intervening decades. If you need to test if two strings are equal regardless of case, use the fc function introduced in Perl v5.16.

Safer processing of file arguments with <<>>

The <> null filehandle or diamond operator” is often used in while loops to process input per line coming either from standard input (e.g., piped from another program) or from a list of files on the command line. Unfortunately, it uses a form of Perl’s open function that interprets special characters such as pipes (|) that would allow it to insecurely run external commands. Using the <<>> double diamond” operator introduced in Perl v5.22 forces open to treat all command-​line arguments as file names only. For older Perls, the perlop documentation recommends the ARGV::readonly CPAN module.

Safer loading of Perl libraries and modules from @INC

Perl v5.26 removed the ability for all programs to load modules by default from the current directory, closing a security vulnerability originally identified and fixed as CVE-20161238 in previous versions’ included scripts. If your code relied on this unsafe behavior, the v5.26 release notes include steps on how to adapt.

HTTP::Tiny simple HTTP/1.1 client included

To bootstrap access to CPAN on the web in the possible absence of external tools like curl or wget, Perl v5.14 began including the HTTP::Tiny module. You can also use it in your programs if you need a simple web client with no dependencies.

Test2: The next generation of Perl testing frameworks

Forked and refactored from the venerable Test::Builder (the basis for the Test::More library that many are familiar with), Test2 was included in the core module library beginning with Perl v5.26. I’ve experimented recently with using the Test2::Suite CPAN library instead of Test::More and it looks pretty good. I’m also intrigued by Test2::Harness’ support for threading, forking, and preloading modules to reduce test run times.

Task::Kensho: Where to start for recommended Perl modules

This last item may not be included when you install Perl, but it’s where I turn for a collection of well-​regarded CPAN modules for accomplishing a wide variety of common tasks spanning from asynchronous programming to XML. Use it as a starting point or interactively select the mix of libraries appropriate to your project.


And there you have it: a selection of 34 features, enhancements, and improvements for the first 34 years of Perl. What’s your favorite? Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments.

Look, I get it. You don’t like the Perl programming language or have otherwise disregarded it as dead.” (Or perhaps you haven’t, in which case please check out my other blog posts!) It has weird noisy syntax, mixing regular expressions, sigils on variable names, various braces and brackets for data structures, and a menagerie of cryptic special variables. It’s old: 34 years in December, with a history of (sometimes amateur) developers that have used and abused that syntax to ship code of questionable quality. Maybe you grudgingly accept its utility but think it should die gracefully, maintained only to run legacy applications.

But you know what? Perl’s still going. It’s had a steady cadence of yearly releases for the past decade, introducing new features and fencing in bad behavior while maintaining an admirable level of backward compatibility. Yes, there was a too-​long adventure developing what started as Perl 6, but that language now has its own identity as Raku and even has facilities for mixing Perl with its native code or vice versa.

And then there’s CPAN, the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network: a continually-​updated collection of over 200,000 open-​source modules written by over 14,000 authors, the best of which are well-​tested and ‑documented (applying peer pressure to those that fall short), presented through a search engine and front-​end built by scores of contributors. Through CPAN you can find distributions for things like:

All of this is available through a mature installation toolchain that doesn’t break from month to month.

Finally and most importantly, there’s the global Perl community. The COVID-​19 pandemic has put a damper on the hundreds of global Perl Mongers groups’ meetups, but that hasn’t stopped the yearly Perl and Raku Conference from meeting virtually. (In the past there have also been yearly European and Asian conferences, occasional forays into South America and Russia, as well as hackathons and workshops worldwide.) There are IRC servers and channels for chat, mailing lists galore, blogs (yes, apart from this one), and a quirky social network that predates Facebook and Twitter.

So no, Perl isn’t dead or even dying, but if you don’t like it and favor something newer, that’s OK! Technologies can coexist on their own merits and advocates of one don’t have to beat down their contemporaries to be successful. Perl happens to be battle-​tested (to borrow a term from my friend Curtis Ovid” Poe), it runs large parts of the Web (speaking from direct and ongoing experience in the hosting business here), and it’s still evolving to meet the needs of its users.

woman in black tank top and blue denim jeans

This blog has devoted a fair amount of attention to the popular and multifaceted object-​oriented system Moose and its lightweight subset Moo. I’ve also covered Object::Pad, the testbed of concepts and syntax for Corinna, the proposed next-​generation Perl core OO system. But what if your project is too memory‑, performance‑, or dependency-​constrained for these options?

It turns out that CPAN has a rich history of lighter-​weight OO modules to meet many different needs. If you can live with their trade-​offs, they’re worth investigating instead of rolling your own layer over Perl’s OO. Here are a few.

Class::Struct

Class::Structs main claim to fame is its inclusion in the standard Perl distribution, so there’s no need to install dependencies from CPAN. It provides a syntax for defining classes as C‑style structs at either compile time or runtime. (There’s no speed advantage to the former; it just means that your class will be built as if you had written the accessors yourself as subs.) Here’s an example:

#!/usr/bin/env perl

use v5.24; # for strict, say, and postfix dereferencing
use warnings;

package Local::MyClass;
use Class::Struct (
    foo => '$',
    bar => '@',
    baz => '%',
);

package main;

my $obj = Local::MyClass->new(
    foo => 'hello',
    bar => [1, 2, 3],
    baz => { name => 'Mark'},
);

say $obj->foo, ' ', $obj->baz('name');
say join ',', $obj->bar->@*;

# replace the name element of baz
$obj->baz(name => 'Sharon');

# replace the second element of bar
$obj->bar(1, 'replaced');
say $obj->foo, ' ', $obj->baz('name');
say join ',', $obj->bar->@*;

And here’s the output:

hello Mark
1,2,3
hello Sharon
1,replaced,3

Note that Class::Struct supports accessors for scalar, array, and hash types, as well as other classes (not demonstrated). Consult the module’s documentation for the different ways to define and retrieve them.

Class::Accessor

Class::Accessor does one thing: it makes accessors and mutators (also known as getters and setters) for fields in your class. Okay, it actually does another thing: it provides your class with a new method to initialize those fields. Those accessors can be read-​write, read-​only, or write-​only. (Why would you want write-​only accessors?) You can define any of them using either its historical class methods or a Moose-​like attribute syntax.

If you’re trying to squeeze every bit of performance out of your code and can sacrifice a little flexibility in altering accessor behavior, you can opt for Class::Accessor::Fast or Class::Accessor::Faster. The former still uses hash references under the hood to represent objects and the latter uses array references. The main Class::Accessor documentation contains an efficiency comparison of the three for your edification.

Here’s an example script using Class::Accessor::Faster and the Moose-​like syntax:

#!/usr/bin/env perl

use v5.12; # for strict and say
use warnings;

package Local::MyClass;
use Class::Accessor::Faster 'moose-like';

has readwrite => (is => 'rw');
has readonly  => (is => 'ro');

package main;

my $obj = Local::MyClass->new( { # must be a hash reference
    readwrite => 'hello',
    readonly  => 'world',
} );

say $obj->readwrite, ' ', $obj->readonly;
$obj->readwrite('greetings');
say $obj->readwrite, ' ', $obj->readonly;

# throws an error
$obj->readonly('Cleveland');

And here is its output:

hello world
greetings world
'main' cannot alter the value of 'readonly' on objects of class 'Local::MyClass' at ./caf.pl line 24.

Class::Tiny

Class::Tiny both does less and more than Class::Accessor. All of its generated accessors are read-​write, but you can also give their attributes lazy defaults. Its generated constructor takes arguments via either a Class::Accessor-style hash reference or a plain list of key/​value pairs, so that’s a little more convenient. It also supports Moose-​style BUILDARGS, BUILD, and DEMOLISH methods for argument adjustment, validation, and object cleanup, respectively.

It’s a toss-​up as to which of the previous two is better.” You’ll have to examine their respective features and determine which ones map to your needs.

Here’s an example script that shows a few of Class::Tiny’s unique features:

#!/usr/bin/env perl

use v5.12; # for strict and say
use warnings;

package Local::MyClass;
use Class::Tiny qw<foo bar>,
{
    baz       => 'default baz',
    timestamp => sub { time },
};

package main;

my $obj = Local::MyClass->new( # plain key-values OK
    foo => 'hello',
    bar => 'world',
);

say $obj->foo, ' ', $obj->bar;
say 'Object built on ', scalar localtime $obj->timestamp;
$obj->foo('greetings');
$obj->bar('Cleveland');
say $obj->foo, ' ', $obj->bar;
say $obj->baz;

And its output:

hello world
Object built on Tue Sep  7 09:00:00 2021
greetings Cleveland
default baz

Object::Tiny

For an even more minimalist approach, consider Object::Tiny. Its accessors are read-​only, it gives you a simple constructor, and that’s it. Its documentation lists a number of reasons why it can be superior to Class::Accessor, including lower memory usage and less typing. There’s also a fork called Object::Tiny::RW that adds read-​write support to its accessors.

Class::Tiny’s documentation contains a feature table comparison of it, Object::Tiny, and Class::Accessor. This may help you decide which to use.

Here’s an example script:

#!/usr/bin/env perl

use v5.12; # for strict and say
use warnings;

package Local::MyClass;
use Object::Tiny qw<foo bar>;

package main;

my $obj = Local::MyClass->new(
    foo => 'hello',
    bar => 'world',
);

say $obj->foo, ' ', $obj->bar;

# has no effect unless you use Object::Tiny::RW
$obj->foo('greetings');
say $obj->foo, ' ', $obj->bar;

And its output:

hello world
hello world

Add some speed with XS

If the above options are still too slow and you don’t mind requiring a C compiler to install them, there are variants that use Perl’s XS interface instead of pure Perl code:

Roles with Role::Tiny

If you’re eyeing Moose and Moo’s support for roles (also known as traits) as an alternative to inheritance but still want to keep things light with one of the above modules, you’re in luck. The Role::Tiny module lets you compose methods into consuming classes with Moo-​like syntax and will pull in Common Lisp Object System-style method modifier support from Class::Method::Modifiers if you need it. It does mean another couple of CPAN dependencies, so if that’s a problem in your situation you’ll just have to live without roles.

Here’s an example script with a role and a consuming class that uses Class::Tiny. The role requires that its consumers implement a required_method, provides a foo method that uses it, and a method modifier for bar.

#!/usr/bin/env perl

use v5.12; # for strict and say
use warnings;

package Local::MyRole;
use Role::Tiny;

requires 'required_method';

sub foo {
    my $self = shift;
    say $self->required_method();
}

before bar => sub {
    warn 'About to call bar...';
};

package Local::MyClass;
use Class::Tiny {name => ''};
use Role::Tiny::With;
with 'Local::MyRole';

sub bar {
    my ($self, $greeting) = @_;
    say "$greeting ", $self->name;
}

sub required_method {
    my $self = shift;
    return 'Required by Local::MyRole';
}

package main;

my $obj = Local::MyClass->new(name => 'Mark');
$obj->bar('hello');

$obj->name('Sharon');
$obj->bar('salutations');

$obj->foo();

And its output:

About to call bar... at ./rt.pl line 17.
hello Mark
About to call bar... at ./rt.pl line 17.
salutations Sharon
Required by Local::MyRole

What’s your favorite?

There will always be those who insist on writing everything longhand, but modules like these can save a lot of time and typing as well as reduce errors. Do you have a favorite, maybe something I missed? Let me know in the comments.

Introduction: The current state of play

Perl has very minimal” support for object-​oriented (OO) programming out of the box by its own admission. It’s class-​based but classes are just packages used differently. Objects are just data structures blessed into a class, methods are just subroutines whose first argument is an object or class name, and attributes/​properties are often just the key-​value pair of a hash stored in the object. (This last is a feature shared with JavaScript, whose prototype-​based objects are just collections of key-​value pairs with the keys addressed as properties.) You’ve got polymorphism, inheritance, and it’s up to you to enforce encapsulation.

This can take a lot of work to use effectively. To help address that, several systems have been developed over the years to reduce boilerplate and provide modern (or postmodern”) OO features that developers from other languages expect. My favorite for a while has been Moo: it’s got the features I need 90% of the time like built-​in constructors, roles (an alternative to composition through inheritance), attributes, type validation, and method modifiers for enhanced polymorphism. And if I need to dig around in the guts of classes, attributes, and the like I can always upgrade to Moo’s big brother Moose and its meta-​object protocol with minimal effort.

Corinna, Object::Pad, and porting dbcritic

But there’s a new kid on the block. Curtis Ovid” Poe has been spearheading Corinna, an effort to bring effective OO to the Perl core and leapfrog [emphasis his] the capabilities of many OO languages today.” No CPAN modules, no chain of dependencies; just solid OO features and syntax built-​in. And while Corinna is a ways off from shipping, Paul LeoNerd” Evans (maybe I should get a cool nickname too?) has been implementing some of these ideas as new Perl keyword syntax in his Object::Pad module.

Both Ovid and LeoNerd have been asking developers to try out Object::Pad, not just as a new toy, but to get feedback on what works and what needs to be added. So I thought I’d try porting an older small Moo-​based project named dbcritic to this new reality. In the process, I learned some of the advantages and disadvantages of working with Object::Pad. Hopefully, this can inform both it and Corinna’s evolution as well as other curious developers’ evaluations. You can follow my coding efforts in this GitHub branch.

First, the marquee result: the code for App::DBCritic (the class I started with) is cleaner and shorter, with 33 lines shaved off so far. Mainly this is due to Object::Pad’s more concise attribute syntax (called slots” in its documentation) and lack of explicit support for Moo’s attribute coercion. I only used the latter for one attribute in the Moo version and I’m not sure it worked particularly well, so it wasn’t hard to jettison. But if your code supports coercions extensively, you’ll have to look into Object::Pad’s BUILD or ADJUST phase blocks for now.

Before, a Moo attribute with various options:

has schema => (
    is        => 'ro',
    coerce    => 1,
    lazy      => 1,
    default   => \&_build_schema,
    coerce    => \&_coerce_schema,
    predicate => 1,
);

After, an Object::Pad slot. No coercion and builder code is handled in a later ADJUST block:

has $schema :reader :param = undef;

Speaking of ADJUST blocks, it took a little bit of insight from the #perl IRC channel to realize that they were the appropriate place for setting slot defaults that are computed from other slots. Previously I was using a maze of dependencies mixing Moo lazy attributes and builder methods. Clarifying the main set of optional constructor arguments into a single ADJUST block helped untangle things, so this might be an indication that lazy attributes are an antipattern when trying to write clean code. It’s also worth noting that Object::Pad ADJUST blocks run on object construction, whereas Moo lazy attributes are only built when needed. This tends to matter for database access.

The ADJUST block for the $schema slot:

ADJUST {
    my @connect_info = ( $dsn, $username, $password );
    if ($class_name and eval "require $class_name") {
        $schema = $class_name->connect(@connect_info);
    }
    elsif ( not ( blessed($schema) and $schema->isa('DBIx::Class::Schema') ) ) {
        local $SIG{__WARN__} = sub {
            if ( $_[0] !~ / has no primary key at /ms ) {
                print {*STDERR} $_[0];
            }
        };
        $schema = App::DBCritic::Loader->connect(@connect_info);
    }
    croak 'No schema defined' if not $schema;
}

Object::Pad’s slots have one great advantage over Moo and Moose attributes: they directly support Perl array and hash data structures, while the latter only supports scalars and references contained in scalars. This means methods in your class can eliminate a dereferencing step, again leading to cleaner code. I used this specifically in the @violations array and %elements hash slots and was very pleased with the results.

The @violations and %elements slots and their ADJUST blocks:

has %elements;

ADJUST {
    %elements = (
        Schema       => [$schema],
        ResultSource => [ map { $schema->source($_) } $schema->sources ],
        ResultSet    => [ map { $schema->resultset($_) } $schema->sources ],
    );
}

has @violations;

ADJUST {
    @violations = map { $self->_policy_loop( $_, $elements{$_} ) }
        keys %elements;
}

method violations { wantarray ? @violations : \@violations }

Issues

I did have some development lifecycle issues with Object::Pad, but they’re mainly a result of its future-​facing syntax. I had to give up using perltidy and perlcritic in my build and test phases, respectively: perltidy doesn’t understand slot attributes like :reader and :param and will emit an error file (but code still compiles), and several of the perlcritic policies I use report problems because its PPI parser doesn’t recognize the new syntax. I could add exceptions in the perlcriticrc file and litter my code with more ## no critic annotations than it already had, but at this point, it was easier to just disable it entirely.

Another thing I had to disable for now was my Dist::Zilla::Plugin::Test::UnusedVars-generated Test::Vars test for detecting unused variables, as it reports multiple failures for the hidden @(Object::Pad/slots) variable. It does have options for ignoring certain variables, though, so I can explore using those and possibly file a pull request to ignore that variable by default.

Conclusion: The future looks bright

Overall I’m satisfied with Object::Pad and by extension some of the syntax that Corinna will introduce. I’m going to try porting the rest of dbcritic and see if I can work around the issues I listed above without giving up the kwalitee improvement tools I’m used to. I’ll post my findings if I feel it merits another blog.

What do you think? Is this the future of object-​oriented Perl? Let me know in the comments below.

I publish Perl stories on this blog once a week, and it seems every time there’s at least one response on social media that amounts to, I hate Perl because of its weird syntax.” Or, It looks like line noise.” (Perl seems to have outlasted that one—when’s the last time you used an acoustic modem?) Or the quote attributed to Keith Bostic: The only language that looks the same before and after RSA encryption.”

So let’s address, confront, and demystify this hate. What are these objectionable syntactical, noisy, possibly encrypted bits? And why does Perl have them?

Regular expressions

Regular expressions, or regexps, are not unique to Perl. JavaScript has them. Java has them. Python has them as well as another module that adds even more features. It’s hard to find a language that doesn’t have them, either natively or through the use of a library. It’s common to want to search text using some kind of pattern, and regexps provide a fairly standardized if terse mini-​language for doing so. There’s even a C‑based library called PCRE, or Perl Compatible Regular Expressions,” enabling many other pieces of software to embed a regexp engine that’s inspired by (though not quite compatible) with Perl’s syntax.

Being itself inspired by Unix tools like grep, sed, and awk, Perl incorporated regular expressions into the language as few other languages have, with binding operators of =~ and !~ enabling easy matching and substitutions against expressions, and pre-​compilation of regexps into their own type of value. Perl then added the ability to separate regexps by whitespace to improve readability, use different delimiters to avoid the leaning-​toothpick syndrome of escaping slash (/) characters with backslashes (\), and name your capture groups and backreferences when substituting or extracting strings.

All this is to say that Perl regular expressions can be some of the most readable and robust when used to their full potential. Early on this helped cement Perl’s reputation as a text-​processing powerhouse, though the core of regexps’ succinct syntax can result in difficult-​to-​read code. Such inscrutable examples can be found in any language that implements regular expressions; at least Perl offers the enhancements mentioned above.

Sigils

Perl has three built-​in data types that enable you to build all other data structures no matter how complex. Its variable names are always preceded by a sigil, which is just a fancy term for a symbol or punctuation mark.

  • A scalar contains a string of characters, a number, or a reference to something, and is preceded with a $ (dollar sign).
  • An array is an ordered list of scalars beginning with an element numbered 0 and is preceded with a @ (at sign). 
  • A hash, or associative array, is an unordered collection of scalars indexed by string keys and is preceded with a % (percent sign).

So variable names $look @like %this. Individual elements of arrays or hashes are scalars, so they $look[0] $like{'this'}. (That’s the first element of the @look array counting from zero, and the element in the %like hash with a key of 'this'.)

Perl also has a concept of slices, or selected parts of an array or hash. A slice of an array looks like @this[1, 2, 3], and a slice of a hash looks like @that{'one', 'two', 'three'}. You could write it out long-​hand like ($this[1], $this[2], $this[3]) and ($that{'one'}, $that{'two'}, $that{'three'} but slices are much easier. Plus you can even specify one or more ranges of elements with the .. operator, so @this[0 .. 9] would give you the first ten elements of @this, or @this[0 .. 4, 6 .. 9] would give you nine with the one at index 5 missing. Handy, that.

In other words, the sigil always tells you what you’re going to get. If it’s a single scalar value, it’s preceded with a $; if it’s a list of values, it’s preceded with a @; and if it’s a hash of key-​value pairs, it’s preceded with a %. You never have to be confused about the contents of a variable because the name will tell you what’s inside.

Data structures, anonymous values, and dereferencing

I mentioned earlier that you can build complex data structures from Perl’s three built-​in data types. Constructing them without a lot of intermediate variables requires you to use things like:

  • lists, denoted between ( parentheses )
  • anonymous arrays, denoted between [ square brackets ]
  • and anonymous hashes, denoted between { curly braces }.

Given these tools you could build, say, a scalar referencing an array of street addresses, each address being an anonymous hash:

$addresses = [
  { 'name'    => 'John Doe',
    'address' => '123 Any Street',
    'city'    => 'Anytown',
    'state'   => 'TX',
  },
  { 'name'    => 'Mary Smith',
    'address' => '100 Other Avenue',
    'city'    => 'Whateverville',
    'state'   => 'PA',
  },
];

(The => is just a way to show correspondence between a hash key and its value, and is just a funny way to write a comma (,). And like some other programming languages, it’s OK to have trailing commas in a list as we do for the 'state' entries above; it makes it easier to add more entries later.)

Although I’ve nicely spaced out my example above, you can imagine a less sociable developer might cram everything together without any spaces or newlines. Further, to extract a specific value from this structure this same person might write the following, making you count dollar signs one after another while reading right-​to-​left then left-to-right:

say $$addresses[1]{'name'};

We don’t have to do that, though; we can use arrows that look like -> to dereference our array and hash elements:

say $addresses->[1]->{'name'};

We can even use postfix dereferencing to pull a slice out of this structure, which is just a fancy way of saying always reading left to right”:

say for $addresses->[1]->@{'name', 'city'};

Which prints out:

Mary Smith
Whateverville

Like I said above, the sigil always tells you what you’re going to get. In this case, we got:

  • a sliced list of values with the keys 'name' and 'city' out of…
  • an anonymous hash that was itself the second element (counting from zero, so index of 1) referenced in…
  • an anonymous array which was itself referenced by…
  • the scalar named $addresses.

That’s a mouthful, but complicated data structures often are. That’s why Perl provides a Data Structures Cookbook as the perldsc documentation page, a references tutorial as the perlreftut page, and finally a detailed guide to references and nested data structures as the perlref page.

Special variables

Perl was also inspired by Unix command shell languages like the Bourne shell (sh) or Bourne-​again shell (bash), so it has many special variable names using punctuation. There’s @_ for the array of arguments passed to a subroutine, $$ for the process number the current program is using in the operating system, and so on. Some of these are so common in Perl programs they are written without commentary, but for the others there is always the English module, enabling you to substitute in friendly (or at least more awk-like) names.

With use English; at the top of your program, you can say:

All of these predefined variables, punctuation and English names alike, are documented on the perlvar documentation page.

The choice to use punctuation variables or their English equivalents is up to the developer, and some have more familiarity with and assume their readers understand the punctuation variety. Other less-​friendly developers engage in code golf,” attempting to express their programs in as few keystrokes as possible.

To combat these and other unsociable tendencies, the perlstyle documentation page admonishes, Perl is designed to give you several ways to do anything, so consider picking the most readable one.” Developers can (and should) also use the perlcritic tool and its included policies to encourage best practices, such as prohibiting all but a few common punctuation variables.

Conclusion: Do you still hate Perl?

There are only two kinds of languages: the ones people complain about and the ones nobody uses.

Bjarne Stroustrup, designer of the C++ programming language

It’s easy to hate what you don’t understand. I hope that reading this article has helped you decipher some of Perl’s noisy” quirks as well as its features for increased readability. Let me know in the comments if you’re having trouble grasping any other aspects of the language or its ecosystem, and I’ll do my best to address them in future posts.