Sunday, October 6, 2013

Perl Does the Heavy Lifting

by Dietrich Schmitz

By metrics of late, I am an old dinosaur. You see, I cling to technology viewed by some as either falling out of use or just not good enough by their measure.

My eyebrow furrows as I read stories on programming trends and I chuckle at others with what is passed off as being genuinely novel.

The evangelicals proclaim: "A new scripting language with full Object-Oriented Programming (OOP) support for Javascript" (sigh) -- or, "We all should be using node.js." -- #facepalm. Which is not to say that my personal views should preclude the possibility that there are genuinely new programming paradigms at play, allowing each language to grow its own ecosystem. Indeed, they exist. It's just that many languages have been influenced by Perl, including Python, PHP, Ruby, ECMAScript, Javascript, and Windows PowerShell. Use the right tool for the right job but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

One Language for All

I do hate web programming -- mostly because it often requires knowing several languages to cobble the 'moving parts' together into a functioning website. Somehow, I feel it is a kludge. There are, of course, Model View Controller (MVC) frameworks which ease the burden of programming but still one must switch hats from html to templates to css to sql to scripting languages, both server- and client-side details. The level of effort required to get up a website varies according to requirements, scale and implementation details.

The goal of language frameworks like Google Web Toolkit (GWT) attempts to unify all coding into one language. GWT uses Java but in actuality doesn't conform to the GPLv2 with certain proprietary bindings either changed or omitted by Google. Follow-on efforts like Go and Dart are off to a slow start and their adoption depends on a Google-Apps for Business and Google-Apps-Engine centric approach. That's fine if you don't care that you've been 'roped in' by Google and want to focus on one language for everything, but if not, then such language implementations simply won't do. Enter PHP, Perl, Python with solutions all their own. What makes one better than the other can be very subjective and the degree of hair-splitting rivals the religious experience.

There are some good reasons why Perl has lasted just a little over 25 years. The struggle (or failure depending on your view) to get Perl 6 off the ground is perhaps indicative of just how dependent we are on Perl 5.x and how comprehensive a code base it has become, which continues to thrive as represented by CPAN, the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network. The name is quite appropriate and descriptive of a body of work done by thousands over the years since Perl's inception. So, to some extent, when discussion turns to 'one language for all', I prefer to think it has already been done -- Perl facilitates writing everything in a dynamic scripting application environment.


Undertaking any software development project, however large, requires careful planning and consideration of key factors that can make the difference between overall success and failure. chromatic at wrote a story entitled Mrs. Feynman's Advice on Programming Language Popularity Contests, and distills a concise list of his project management concerns:

If we actually talked to people about what they wanted, we'd find out that they care about things like:
How easy is it to hire and/or train people in a language?
What are the deployment concerns for the language?
What are the security and support channels like?
How many programmers do you need to accomplish a task?
Is the language and its ecosystem suitable for one task or another?
Will a cancellation of the language by its primary vendor or abandonment by its single author or forking of its community have any detrimental effect on recruiting and retaining?
Does the language and its ecosystem support the desired platforms?
Will choosing this language solve more problems than it creates?

Popularity and Expressiveness

Every software development project requires finding talent. And, the degree to which programmers specialize in one language verses another varies and dictates the level to which resources are available in a given region to hire. have put together their own annual analysis of programming languages and with two stories, we see to what extent the level of popularity and design integrate with two graphs shown directly below:
Redmonk Programming Language Rankings: 2013

Median-Weighted Programming Language Expressiveness

So, it becomes readily apparent that Perl is still 'in the game' as it were -- holding its own quite well despite its aged status. That speaks volumes not just about its flexibility and durability, but its enduring capabilities and true reliability. It is truly industrial strength and up to meeting the demands of small- to enterprise-scale projects.

Platform Support

Perl runs across multiple hardware platforms, including Windows, OSX, Linux, BSD Unix, IBM's AIX and other Unix dialects. It is pretty much a given that the majority of Linux Distributions will have Perl installed by default.

Vendor Support

Third party Vendor support for Perl remains strong with ongoing contributions coming from ActiveState and Strawberry Perl.

Industrial Strength Uses and Applications

So where is Perl in use? It's not just for the web.

Perl is being and has been used in places you might not have guessed -- such as Computer Chip Design, Bioinformatics, the Human Genome Project, Systems Integration, Data Warehouse ETL, EDI, and the popular Internet LAMP stack to name just a few places.

Major applications written in Perl include WebGUI, cPanel, RT, Bugzilla, TWiki, and Movable Type [Edit: Marco Vittorini was good enough to mention in a comment that DuckDuckGo's engine is written in Perl].

Websites that make use of Perl extensively include familiar names like Amazon,,, ImDb,, Livejournal and Slashdot (/.). Recently, even Greg Kroah-Hartman has found Perl useful at the Linux Foundation.

Frameworks and Third-Party Tools

All of the above notwithstanding, while developers will write one-off scripts larger scale projects of increasing complexity need the leverage of pre-programmed routines referred to as 'Frameworks'. Third-Party Perl Frameworks include, Catalyst, Mojolicious, Dancer, Moose, in addition to thousands of other pre-made, tested, certified modules at CPAN. There isn't any shortage of bolt-on parts from which to resource needed functionality. This saves much man-hour time expense and reliability of CPAN's rigid testing certification process ensures bugs will be minimized in the course of program development.


No one programming language is a panacea. That isn't the point here. But one should not forsake a language by virtue of its age. Perl continues to broaden and grow, anneal, case harden like a fine steel Ginzu knife. Regardless of rumors of its demise, Perl remains 'alive and well', stolid, ready to serve those who avail themselves to it for many years to come.

Perl does the heavy lifting. -- Dietrich

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