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Learning Perl on Win32 Systems

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Previous: Acknowledgments for the Win32 EditionChapter 1Next: 1.2 Purpose of Perl
 

1. Introduction

Contents:
History of Perl
Purpose of Perl
Availability
Support
Basic Concepts
A Stroll Through Perl
Exercises

1.1 History of Perl

Perl is a language designed for people who need to get things done. Written by the amazing Larry Wall as a kind of glue language to tie together all of the loose ends of everyday computing life, Perl is a tool for leveraging the skills and tools that you already have. Perl has become an indispensable boon to Windows NT webmasters, power users, administrators, and programmers who have discovered how much easier it is to get their work done when Perl is doing some of it for them.

Do you know a little about C? Then you probably already know a lot about Perl. In fact, if you have used any programming or scripting language before, you might be surprised at how familiar Perl looks. Perl is not only an easy language to use, but also makes great use of your existing tools and solutions.

Perl is an easy language, but it's also a rich language, offering lots of functionality right out of the box. You'll be surprised at how much you can do with just a little bit of Perl code. Often, rewriting a small scrap of Perl wizardry requires hundreds of lines of C. Some languages that let you do a lot with a little don't let you do a whole lot. Perl not only lets you do a lot, it lets you do so with minimal effort. And if you run into something that you can't do in Perl, you'll find most likely that Perl will cooperate quite nicely with whatever you do have to do it in.

For many addicts, Perl is more than a language, it's an entire culture. For many folks, Perl was an indispensable part of their UNIX toolkits that they took with them to new environments. As a result, Perl grew, and became even more general and more powerful. What was once just an exceptional text-processing language that bound UNIX programs together has become a widespread language that seems to bind much of the Internet together. Perl is now used to create web pages, read Usenet news, do system adminstration and systems programming, write network clients and servers, and much more.

The three chief virtues of a Perl programmer (indeed, of any programmer) are sometimes said to be laziness, impatience, and hubris. Although these may seem like undesirable qualities at first blush (just ask your SO), there's more to this than there appears to be.

Laziness is the quality that makes you take great efforts to reduce the overall amount of work that you have to do. Lazy programmers are apt to develop reusable and general solutions that can be used in more than one place, and are more apt to document what they do, so that they don't have to ever waste time or torture their brains figuring it out again.

Impatient programmers get angry whenever they have to do anything that the computer could be doing for them. Hence, they develop programs that anticipate their needs and solve problems for them, so that they can do less (there's that laziness again) while accomplishing more.

Finally, hubris is that quality which makes programmers write programs that they want other people to see (and be able to maintain). Hubris is also a quality that promotes innovation: if you think that you have a better way and you're not afraid to prove it, you're often right.

Odd ideas for a culture, perhaps, but effective ones. Here's another tenet of the Perl way: "There's more than one way to do it." What this means is that Perl programmers are a results-oriented lot. They're likely to applaud any tool that gets the job done, regardless of whether or not the code looks like something they would have written. Another side effect of this tenet that particularly endears itself to Win32 Perl programmers is that Perl is highly portable. Although ready-made scripts that you find on the Net may use existing UNIX tools or UNIX system calls that aren't portable to the Windows environment (this scenario has led Win32 programmers to say, "There's more than one way to do it, and it's a good thing, because most of the ways don't work"), you can nearly always find a way to make them work (and nobody will make fun of you if your solution is perhaps somewhat less than elegant).

True to this philosophy, Perl stands for either Practical Extraction and Report Language or Pathologically Eclectic Rubbish Lister (both derivations are sanctioned by the Perl community). Perl for Win32 sprang into existence when Microsoft commissioned ActiveState Tool Corporation (formerly Hip Communications) to do a port for inclusion in the Windows NT Resource Kit. ActiveState is still improving Perl for Win32, extending it with functionality specific to the Win32 platforms, and incorporating the best and most appropriate new features as they are added to the core Perl distribution.

You'll find that Perl for Win32 uses some of the coolest and most compelling technologies available to Windows programmers including OLE automation, ODBC database connectivity, ActiveX scripting, and much more. The source code for Perl (including Perl for Win32) is freely available and freely redistributable. If you want to extend Perl to provide additional features, or embed the interpreter in your own application, you can easily do so.

You'll also find that the Perl community believes in (and practices) information and code sharing. There is an archive network (called the CPAN, for Comprehensive Perl Archive Network), where you can find thousands of existing Perl programs and code fragments.

In addition to a vast body of high quality pre-written code, Perl excels at rapid application development. Part of this is due to the powerful qualities of language that let you do lots of work with a few statements - another part is due to the Perl development tools themselves.

Perl is an interpreted language, but it might work a little bit differently from other interpreted languages that you've used. Perl is actually both a compiler and an interpreter. When you invoke the Perl interpreter on a Perl script file, the file is first compiled and optimized, then efficiently executed. Not only does this allow for efficient runtime execution, it also promotes a quick development cycle, in which you can quickly make changes and rerun your script without going through a long compile and link cycle.

In spite of Perl's relatively free syntax, you can easily develop correct Perl programs. Not only is there a Perl debugger, but the compiler itself will issue informative warnings when you're treading on thin ice. Furthermore, the interpreter doesn't execute unless the program compiles completely. This feature saves you from the common interpreted-language nightmare in which the first half of your program works and does something to a file, and then the second half doesn't.


Previous: Acknowledgments for the Win32 EditionLearning Perl on Win32 SystemsNext: 1.2 Purpose of Perl
Acknowledgments for the Win32 EditionBook Index1.2 Purpose of Perl