Embperl: Modern Templates

Mr. Lerner introduces us to a template system for Perl: what it is, how it works and how to use it.
Automatic Table Generation

Embperl has many features, far too many to describe here. My favorite feature is its ability to create HTML tables automatically, filling them in as necessary. Embperl looks for the beginning of an HTML table, marked with a <TABLE> tag, before filling it in. In order to do this, Embperl expects you to use a number of “magic” variables within the table. You can set the exact behavior with Embperl's $tabmode, but the basic idea is that within a table, $row (a magic variable) begins at 0 and increments until it reaches $maxrows (another magic variable). When an expression within the table returns “undefined”, Embperl exits from the table loop and stops incrementing $row. We can thus get a nicely formatted listing of environment variables with this code:

[- @keys = sort keys %ENV -]
<Table border=2>
[- $index = $row -]
<td>[+ $keys[$row] +] </td>
<td>[+ $ENV{$keys[$index]} +] </td>

Notice how we first defined each array outside of the table definition. We then used $row (which is incremented automatically by Embperl) to retrieve each element from @keys.

Using the magic table fill-in procedure can be extremely powerful, but it requires you to change your programming style somewhat. Nevertheless, the potential uses for it in database applications are tremendous, since it greatly cuts down on the amount of necessary coding.

If you look at the list of environment variables, you might notice QUERY_STRING is unset. When invoking programs, QUERY_STRING is normally set by appending a question mark (?) and a string to a URL, but there is no reason why we cannot use the same syntax with Embperl documents, as in http://localhost/embperl/env.html?foo.

If the above environment-printing Embperl file is called env.html, then invoking it with the foo parameter should give QUERY_STRING a value.

Indeed, we can even use Embperl documents as the “action” of a CGI program. Grabbing values from the %fdat hash, Perl blocks within our document can retrieve form values, use them, and even construct a document based on them.

Embperl does require a slightly different style of programming than is usual in Perl. Typically, Perl is written in blocks of code, with each code returning a value. Embperl is much terser, with pairs of square brackets occurring much more often than Perl's curly braces. Of course, the style presented in the Embperl documentation and the above examples does not have to be your own; you can put entire Perl programs between square brackets.

The trend seems to be toward using templates and databases to design web sites, with more and more products appearing on the market that claim to do such things. The combination of Linux, Apache, mod_perl and Embperl not only makes for a cost-effective solution, but also a powerful combination of programming tools that is hard to beat. Next month, we will look at Embperl a bit more closely, and learn how we can use it with databases to easily create personalized home pages.


Reuven M. Lerner is an Internet and Web consultant living in Haifa, Israel, who has been using the Web since early 1993. In his spare time, he cooks, reads and volunteers with educational projects in his community. You can reach him at reuven@netvision.net.il.