Perl and Its Uses
In 1986, Larry Wall found himself working on a task which involved generating reports from a lot of text files with cross references. Being a UNIX programmer, and because the problem involved manipulating the contents of text files, he started to use awk for the task. But it soon became clear that awk wasn’t up to the job. So rather than waste any more of his time, he invented a new language and wrote an interpreter for it. If that seems like a paradox, it isn’t really-it’s always a bit more of an effort to set yourself up with the right tools, but if you do it right, the effort pays off. The new language had an emphasis on system management and text handling. After a few revisions, it could handle regular expressions, signals, and network sockets, too. It became known as Perl and quickly became popular for the programmers.
Perl meant the Practical Extraction Report Language. However, programmers also refer to is as the Pathologically Eclectic Rubbish Lister. Or even, Practically Everything Really Likable. Perl is a programming language which can be used for a large variety of tasks. A typical simple use of Perl would be for extracting information from a text file and printing out a report or for converting a text file into another form. But Perl provides a large number of tools for quite complicated problems, including systems programming. Programs written in Perl are called Perl scripts, whereas the term the perl program refers to the system program named perl for executing Perl scripts.
If you have used shell scripts or awk or sed or similar Unix utilities for various purposes, you will find that you can normally use Perl for those and many other purposes, and the code tends to be more compact. And if you haven’t used such utilities but have started thinking you might have need for them, then perhaps what you really need to learn is Perl instead of all kinds of futilities.
Perl is implemented as an interpreted (not compiled) language. Thus, the execution of a Perl script tends to use more CPU time than a corresponding C program, for instance. On the other hand, computers tend to get faster and faster, and writing something in Perl instead of C tends to save your time.
Perl programs bear a passing resemblance to C programs, perhaps because Perl was written in C, or perhaps because Larry found some of its syntactic conventions handy. But Perl is less pedantic and a lot more concise than C. Perl can handle low-level tasks quite well, particularly since Perl 5, when the whole messy business of references was put on a sound footing. In this sense, it has a lot in common with C. But Perl handles the internals of data types, memory allocation, and such automatically and seamlessly.
Perl is free. The full source code and documentation are free to copy, compile, print, and give away. Any programs you write in Perl are yours to do with as you please; there are no royalties to pay and no restrictions on distributing them as far as Perl is concerned. It’s not completely “public domain,” though, and for very good reason. If the source were completely public domain, it would be possible for someone to make minor alterations to it, compile it, and sell it-in other words, to rip off its creator. On the other hand, without distributing the source code, it’s hard to make sure that everyone who wants to can use it.
The GNU General Public License is one way to distribute free software without the danger of someone taking advantage of you. Under this type of license, source code may be distributed freely and used by anybody, but any programs derived using such code must be released under the same type of license. In other words, if you derive any of your source code from GNU-licensed source code, you have to release your source code to anyone who wants it.
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