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Regular Expressions by Cameron Laird

Plenty of headroom left for Perl

A special column on the second annual Perl conference

September  1998
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September 1, 1998: Plenty of headroom left for Perl Three acronyms dominate the news from the recent O'Reilly Perl conference: JPL, XML, and LDAP. If you couldn't make it to San Jose last month, find out what you missed right here. (800 words) September 15, 1998: Tcl community faces branch points This latest installment focuses on happenings at the Sixth Tcl/Tk Conference in San Diego, CA the week of September 14-18. (800 words)

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Sure, The Perl Conference 2.0, hosted by O'Reilly and Associates August 17 through 20, testified to Perl's dramatic growth. The facilities and organization were more polished than last year, the big applications profiled were even bigger, and the vendor presentations were more professional.

What struck us most, though, is that Perl is still racing hard to reach an even brighter future. For example, one of Perl's greatest attractions for years has been the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network (CPAN), a collection of freely redistributable Perl modules, extensions, and applications. CPAN is the standard for free software sites: it's fast, reliable, usable, and up to date.

Spotlight on Perl
  • The Perl Conference wrap-up
  • How can you champion Perl?
  • Conference news on JPL, XML, and LDAP
  • Java-Apache Project report
  • Open Source Developer Day highlights
  • And not good enough. That's right: not good enough, at least, for the attendees who laid out detailed plans for future improvements, including:

    This theme of building on existing strengths recurred throughout the week. Perl Mongers (vernacular for the local user groups devoted to Perl) seemed to multiply almost by the hour during the conference. It's not just quantity, though -- the global Perl Mongers organization works behind the scenes to improve the infrastructure for local groups, strengthen intercooperation, and promote communication. Perl Mongers are so active and generous that they make it hard for individual practitioners to be anything but successful in their Perl careers.

    There was lots to write about at this year's conference. This column has space for only the most important technical advances unveiled during the week, but see Spotlight on Perl above for links to related stories. Three acronyms in the news -- JPL, LDAP, and XML -- highlight Perl's ability to cooperate with other technologies.

    Technical announcements
    The Java-Perl tool (JPL) is a recent creation of Perl author Larry Wall. Until now, it's been commercially available from O'Reilly & Associates as a component of its Perl Resource Kit. O'Reilly announced during the conference that JPL will now be freely usable and redistributable -- it will be released under the same license as Perl itself. Wall continues to work on JPL, and plans such improvements as compilation of Perl into Java bytecodes.

    The Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) is a subject you'll hear more and more about in coming months. It's the standard way to engineer applications that solve problems such as: tell me about all the printers I can reach on our local network, and: if users have already logged in to a network machine, why do they have to give the same information when they start up the corporate database? LDAP is like picture phones and ISDN: the technology's been around a while, but there have been problems delivering it successfully to real-life users. One of the constraints has been that the early programming interfaces were only in C, or, more recently, C++ and Java. Regular Expressions readers recognize that this is a guaranteed formula for keeping a subject esoteric and error-ridden. At the conference, though, Netscape announced its donation of a Perl-LDAP module to its Mozilla open source affiliate. We expect LDAP usage to explode as quality scripting interfaces become available. In future columns, we'll cover both the range of LDAP interfaces (to Rexx, PHP, Tcl, Python, JavaScript) and their application in such large-scale organizations as major automobile, pharmaceutical, and retail corporations.

    As successful as JPL and PerLDAP look to be, they'll remain subjects for specialists. The Extensible Markup Language (XML), though, hits squarely in the developer mass market. XML is (roughly) an extension to the HyperText Markup Language (HTML) poised to be even more indispensable than the latter. When that happens, Wall wants Perl to be the language of choice for implementing XML applications. XML is certainly a technology ideal for scripting, and Perl is already one of the leaders in correctly implementing an XML interface.

    Demonstrations during the week gave early adopters an overview of how Perl and XML work together. Also, Wall confirmed that Perl 5.006 is on track to fully support Unicode. Unicode is the technical standard which will make it possible for computer programs to work with any human language as handily as they now process English.

    The commercial side
    While open source software certainly had a high profile throughout the week, the conference was a balanced one. In fact, commercial exhibitor Tony Darugar, co-founder of Binary Evolution, told us "I was very surprised to find a large demand for our product on Apache even though mod_perl exists. So it seems commercial ventures can happily co-exist with the free software community."

    The Perl community circulates several characteristic mottoes and aphorisms. Perhaps the most important of these is, There's more than one way to do it. Commercial, free, hobbyist, corporate, Unix, Win*, Mac, mainframe, system administration, Web development -- Perl is happy to grow in every one of these dimensions.

    Looking ahead
    Coming soon: The one true scripting language; why IBM is promoting Object Rexx; PHP; scripting big business; the Regular Expressions FAQ, and more.


    September 15, 1998: Tcl community faces branch points
    Our last installment covered what happened at the Perl Conference in August. This time, we look forward to what is happening this week, September 14-18, at the Sixth Tcl/Tk Conference, in San Diego, CA.

    The Consortium's role
    This conference is most important for the outcomes that cannot be predicted in advance. Usenix has scheduled its typically artful mix of education, promotion, entertainment, and functional wiring for the technically-inclined audience it knows well. This is a group hungry to learn about "multithreaded testing frameworks" and "automation of Web content delivery," and there are more high-quality sessions than any one of the several hundred attendees can hope to absorb.

    Peter Salus

    What matters most for Tcl's future, though, is the impression the Tcl/Tk Consortium makes during the week. Last year's conference spawned the Consortium, as leaders in the Tcl community decided to create an organization focused on industrywide promotion of the language. Board Member Michael McLennan, distinguished member of the technical staff with Bell Labs Innovations for Lucent Technologies, explained to us in early September how far the Consortium has come since then: "We've produced a CD-ROM with ready-to-run Tcl/Tk software for Windows 95/NT, Macintosh, and nine different Unix platforms. We've built up a Web site that gets 10,000 hits a day. We have 17 official vendors from all over the world providing discounts on Tcl/Tk products and services. We've run several successful magazine ads. All of this work has helped Tcl/Tk gain momentum." Consortium Director Peter Salus summarizes, "Thanks to the Consortium, Tcl/Tk is no longer `the best-kept secret in programming' (as Brian Kernighan said [at the conference] last year)."

    The CD-ROM in particular is a notable achievement that we'll study in more detail later this fall. The consequence of all this activity, though, is only to establish a base for what McLennan sees as the Consortium's current challenge: "People [who] see the value of our work [must] convince their companies to join the Consortium, giving us the means to move forward." Membership is the large cloud on the Consortium's horizon.

    The plan at the end of last year was to have "a dozen high-profile companies" as (corporate) Consortium members by the beginning of this conference. Lower levels -- and the Consortium's Web site showed only five as September began -- starve the Consortium's budget. If a dozen organizations pay their dues for the coming year, the Consortium gets back to its business, more people learn of and become successful with Tcl, membership expands, and a "virtuous cycle" sets in. If not, the Consortium must throttle back its ambitions, perhaps severely.

    The membership drive has already pushed aside other intentions. Last December, McLennan had these plans: "One area that we'll target right away is a plug-and-play standard for extensions. There are a few places where extensions typically clash. We can solve these problems by creating standards to avoid conflicts. We'll also promote a standard for installing pre-compiled extension libraries." While much of the technical basis for this was done during production of the CD-ROM, nothing has yet been explicitly documented as a standard for extension-writing.

    Heightened openness
    There's plenty of action at the conference even without the high drama of the Consortium's trajectory. What's Tcl's role in development of multimedia systems? Scheduled presentations by speakers from Pixar, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and NBC only hint at the ferment in this area. What will sales of the new CD-ROM be? It will be a while before anyone knows; the Consortium is giving them away during the conference. What direction will Tcl development take from now until next year's conference? That will have to wait for the traditional show-of-hands "Oustervote" of the conference's last day. A few structural changes seem certain, though.

    Scriptics is the for-profit company that Tcl's creator John Ousterhout founded earlier this year. To bring even more voices into decisions about Tcl's functionality, the Scriptics site now hosts a survey form. It's a good survey: easy-to-use, and with specific questions which aptly capture the choices Tcl faces.

    There's also change in other aspects of Scriptics' business. Chief Executive Officer Ousterhout told us last week, "Apparently we haven't been consistent about acknowledging receipt of bug reports in the past, but from now on people should always receive a confirmation that we got their report." Ousterhout has in mind here reports by anyone, not just paying customers, against any of the "core" Tcl releases, not just the ones for which Scriptics charges. Also, although it's not official for outside consumption, Scriptics insiders tell us there's an active internal project to open up the current core sources to outsiders through Concurrent Version System (CVS) technology, as other open source products such as Linux already do.

    Icon and Snobol
    One reader recently wrote us and asked, "How about covering Icon and Snobol (spitbol) too? I use these three languages for all my CGI scripting on WinNT, Linux, Win95, DOS, and OS/2." While we think we're on the leading edge of cross-platform scripting, relying on Icon and Snobol for Common Gateway Interface (CGI) programming across that particular span of platforms impresses us.

    Just last month, we recommended Icon to a different correspondent as an efficient development language for automatic human language translation applications. Then last week, we reconsidered, and pointed him toward one of the more broadly-known scripting languages.

    Here's why: The good news about Icon is that it's reliable, mature, well-designed, and attracts smart people to work on it. The same Peter Salus at the Tcl Conference this week is also the editor-in-chief of Macmillan's Handbook of Programming Languages, which just appeared this summer. While COBOL and Modula didn't make the cut for this prestigious series, it includes a hundred-page chapter on Icon (and its immediate ancestor SNOBOL).

    There's no question that Icon has been a significant language, and remains uniquely powerful for specialized syntactic operations that may arise in analysis of human language. The sad news is that Icon now seems to be in relative decline. The product development cycle is the leisurely academic one of "a new version...every year or two," to quote the official FAQ. Icon is limited in adopting or connecting to such current imperatives as Unicode, COM, CORBA, and XML. Our summary: an excellent language to learn, with limited growth in the commercial arenas where most SunWorld readers toil.

    Administrative notes
    Regular Expressions now has its own permanent URL. You can use the entry in the Resources below as a bookmark to reach the archive of every installment of the column. By next month, Regular Expressions should also have its own FAQ online.

    In just its second month, Regular Expressions has already mutated a bit. The original aim was to mention several cross-language topics in each installment. Our backlog of those grows daily. However, we've found that the need to cover important topics in accurate detail has crowded out the smaller, more specialized (and sometimes more fun!) subjects. What serves you best? Send us a note.


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    About the author
    Cameron Laird and Kathryn Soraiz manage their own software consultancy, Network Engineered Solutions, from just outside Houston, TX. Reach Cameron at Reach Kathryn at

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