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.