Book Review: Perl Best Practices
We all have done it, haven't we? We've looked at source code--either our own or someone else's--and asked that age-old programming question: "What is this code doing?". When code is written in Perl, the aforementioned question probably is uttered more than it needs to be, as Perl--the ever-popular duct tape of the Internet--often is used to produce code that is hard to understand. This problem is exasperated by the Perl community's near obsession with letting programmers work in whatever way suits them. Although the Perl motto, "There's more than one way to do it", often can be a strength, it also can work against large projects and team efforts. This may be especially true if every team member's code is a law-unto-itself when it comes to style, coding standards, layout and idioms used. Typically, if this is the case, you end up with a Perl code base that is unmaintainable.
In tackling this problem head-on, Damian Conway is nothing if not brave. In his latest book, Perl Best Practices, Damian attacks subjects that should be close to the heart of every Perl programmer: coding standards, styles and development practices and behaviors. In 500 pages or so, Conway presents what he believes to be a consistent set of standards and styles for developing maintainable code when using Perl. Almost magically, there are 256 of these guidelines in the book, offering help to Perl programmers of every ability.
Conway's bravery comes from his decision to highlight the problems that programmers can get themselves into when programming in Perl. Typically, these problems are with Perl as opposed to the programmer, and there's plenty of criticism of the programming language adored by the majority of Conway's readership. Conway's saving grace is that, having criticized, he then proceeds to demonstrate a technique or practice for avoiding that which he criticized. Make no mistake, some of Conway's advice is controversial. Indeed, the outright banning of unless is highlighted by Conway himself as potentially raising a few eyebrows. And, there's plenty of other guidelines that will produce gasps and grunts from many a Perl programmer. As an example, consider the "Don't use bareword filehandles" guideline from the start of Chapter 10, which warns against writing code such as this:
open FILE, '<', $filename or croak "Can't open '$filename': $OS_ERROR";
If you are reading this and wondering what's wrong with the above code, don't despair. On the surface, nothing is too wrong with the code, as it does indeed open a file and assign it to a filehandle. What can happen, though, is this innocent-looking code can lead to problems when systems grow to anything larger than a 20-line throw-away script. It is more robust, reliable, efficient and maintainable to rewrite the above code using an indirect filehandle, like so:
open my $FILE, '<', $filename or croak "Can't open '$filename': $OS_ERROR";
Why it is important to do this is covered in detail by Conway. After reading his reasoning, it is hard to argue against or ignore what's being advised, even though every other Perl book I've ever seen--including mine--open files using a bareword filehandle. Of course, it is at times such as this that Conway's advice and explanations become invaluable. By describing the awfulness that can result from not adhering to the guidelines and then following up with a robust solution, many a late-night or multi-day debugging session can be avoided. Programmer sanity is, without a doubt, something to strive for and maintain. It is clear that one of Conway's main goals in writing this book is to keep you and others that read your code sane by steering the programmer away from many of Perl's pitfalls.
While working through the book, I learned a lot about the current problems with Perl 5. I found myself constantly reciting the same prayer, "Oh my, please let them fix that in Perl 6." All indications within Perl Best Practices say that these things will be fixed. However, as Perl 5 will be around for quite some time, Conway's book has real value now that will only increase as time goes by. Even when Perl 6 does arrive, the majority of the guidelines will remain valid and should continue to be followed.
Of interest is the long list of technical reviewers thanked at the start of the book: it includes some of the biggest names in the Perl world. So Perl Best Practices is not simply Conway's best practices, but the best practices actually practiced by the inner circle that Conway identifies.
One small gripe is I wish the guidelines had been numbered, for ease of reference. Nice touches include the decision to highlight "good code" in bold mono throughout the text and "bad code" in regular mono. The book also provides plenty of references to supporting material on the Web. The jokes, when they come, often are something special.
As all Perl programmers know, there's an awful lot to Perl, and there's an awful lot of Perl to learn. In addition to covering the essential material, Conway's book discusses some of the darker recesses (features?) of Perl that I've never seen covered anywhere else. By working through Perl Best Practices, you will become a better Perl programmer, even if you decide not to adopt the guidelines offered to you. From my own point of view, I'd like to see a CPAN icon that indicates whether a submitted module conforms to Conway's 256 guidelines. I'd like to build my future applications using shared modules that I know I'll be comfortable reading, amending and working with.
For now, I'm off to update my Perl Tutorial to conform to Conway's guidelines. I'm also looking forward to the first official release of Perl 6. Damian Conway's Perl Best Practices is a must-have.
Paul Barry lectures at the Institute of Technology, Carlow, in Ireland. He is the author of two textbooks that use Perl. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Fast/Flexible Linux OS Recovery
On Demand Now
In this live one-hour webinar, learn how to enhance your existing backup strategies for complete disaster recovery preparedness using Storix System Backup Administrator (SBAdmin), a highly flexible full-system recovery solution for UNIX and Linux systems.
Join Linux Journal's Shawn Powers and David Huffman, President/CEO, Storix, Inc.
Free to Linux Journal readers.Register Now!
- Download "Linux Management with Red Hat Satellite: Measuring Business Impact and ROI"
- Client-Side Performance
- Peppermint 7 Released
- Libarchive Security Flaw Discovered
- Sony Settles in Linux Battle
- Maru OS Brings Debian to Your Phone
- Git 2.9 Released
- Snappy Moves to New Platforms
- The Giant Zero, Part 0.x
- Profiles and RC Files
With all the industry talk about the benefits of Linux on Power and all the performance advantages offered by its open architecture, you may be considering a move in that direction. If you are thinking about analytics, big data and cloud computing, you would be right to evaluate Power. The idea of using commodity x86 hardware and replacing it every three years is an outdated cost model. It doesn’t consider the total cost of ownership, and it doesn’t consider the advantage of real processing power, high-availability and multithreading like a demon.
This ebook takes a look at some of the practical applications of the Linux on Power platform and ways you might bring all the performance power of this open architecture to bear for your organization. There are no smoke and mirrors here—just hard, cold, empirical evidence provided by independent sources. I also consider some innovative ways Linux on Power will be used in the future.Get the Guide