Advanced Perl Programming

by Sriram Srinivasan

Cover image

Publisher: O'Reilly
Copyright: August 1997
ISBN: 1-56592-220-4
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 392

Buy at Powell's Books

Note that this is a review of the first edition of Advanced Perl Programming. It has subsequently been updated by a different author (Simon Cozens) in a new second edition released in 2005. I haven't read that book and can't comment on how it changed, although I do know that it was updated substantially.

The problem with buying lots of books is that one frequently doesn't read them soon after purchase. And while nearly all fiction and most non-fiction doesn't have a time limit, technical books are more of a problem. As you might have guessed from the publication date and subject matter of this book, it's one I waited too long to read.

I picked up Advanced Perl Programming not too long after it was first published in 1997. I bought it primarily for the chapters on XS programming, since I was just starting to develop and help maintain code that built Perl interfaces for C libraries. And then it sat on my bookshelf in the office, and then at home, until it was 16 years old. That's problematic for a general Perl programming guide; it's particularly troublesome for a book that dives deep into internals. That said, I still got some interesting information from it.

Advanced Perl Programming is something of a grab bag of different and largely unrelated topics. It starts with a data structures overview (which is mostly about references), covers typeglobs and the Perl symbol table, briefly discusses closures, and then dives deeper into eval. That's followed by an overview of modules and object-oriented programming in Perl. The general Perl topics close with a solid (if outdated) discussion of tied objects and a somewhat rambling and remarkably general discussion of persistance. Srinivasan then covers some recommended module APIs for networking and graphics (Tk, specifically) while working through some complex examples, takes a deeper dive into eval and code generation, and concludes with three chapters on XS and embedded Perl interpreters.

This is all solid material, but a lot of it is at least partly obsolete. The chapters on modules and object-oriented programming fare the worst; you'll find much better guides to those topics elsewhere. Data structures also fare poorly, partly because Srinivasan is still happy to use symbolic references, now considered bad style due to lack of compile-time checking. (That does mean, though, that this is one of the best introductions to symbolic references that you'll find, since few other Perl programmers discuss them.) But the rest of the book is fairly solid, if limited by age. If I'd read it when I first started with XS, it would have indeed helped. Advanced Perl Programming contains a succinct and clear overview of Perl internals and data representation (assuming, of course, it's not changed drastically, but I didn't notice any significant issues from what I know of internals from quite a lot of XS programming), particularly when combined with the earlier chapter on typeglobs and the symbol table.

It is interesting, though, to see how much accepted Perl style has changed. Srinivasan is quite fond of eval with a scalar argument to construct code at runtime, something that most current authors recommend against when it can be avoided. The loss of static syntax checking means the technique is often hard to debug and can cause surprising runtime errors. Several of the more advanced tricks in this book are built on that framework, including a moderately interesting templating system that he constructs from scratch in this book. The examples here are also missing the focus on use strict, warnings, and avoiding special variables and unusual constructs that you see in more recent Perl books.

This is a very thoughtful book, with several structural techniques that I appreciated and would like to see more technical writers use. One is the comparisons to the approaches of other languages at the end of most chapters. It puts Perl's approach in a broader context and encourages thought about alternative ways to view a particular feature and implementation tradeoffs in Perl's choices. Another is the careful discussion of design approaches and possibilities during the construction of larger examples. I think there's a tendency in technical books to spend a lot of time developing the best possible implementation of something and then show that completed example. Even with a detailed analysis of its construction, this can be less useful than a broader discussion of possible approaches, including dead ends.

The problem, of course, is that 16 years is a long time, even for a relatively mature programming language, and Perl has changed. There are significant improvements not only to the standard library but to Perl core functionality that have happened since this book was written. The chapter on tying, which is otherwise excellent, is badly out of date on what functionality and methods are available and is no longer a reliable guide to using that feature except for simple cases. Similar problems plague the chapter on persistence, which develops the concept from basics that most programmers reading an advanced book no longer need, and which has been rendered mostly obsolete by further developments in the Perl module ecosystem.

I think the best parts of this book, the ones that cover material that I think is still relatively accurate and that are not well-covered by other resources, are the chapters on typeglobs and on XS. The typeglob discussion is both clear and informative, covering material and techniques that are used in a few core Perl modules and that I've never seen adequately addressed elsewhere. I'd subsequently picked up XS and Perl embedding the hard way: lots of trial and error and reading difficult POD documentation. I wish I'd read this book earlier, since Srinivasan does a great job of basic orientation. He doesn't go far enough for me (the book I probably wanted was Extending and Embedding Perl by Jenness and Cozens, published five years later), but I would have been up and running with basic XS much faster by starting here.

If this were 1997, or even 2000, I would probably recommend this book, albeit with a few caveats. Higher Order Perl is the place you should go for discussion of closures, rather than here (although of course it didn't exist then). I wasn't fond of string eval even in 1997, and I still think it produces code that, while efficient and quite powerful, is horribly difficult to understand. And the introduction to modules is adequate but not compelling; most other introductions to object-oriented programming and module construction in Perl are better. But even discarding those chapters (and the mostly unnecessary Tk reference), there's a lot of great material here that would have been quite helpful in 2000.

Unfortunately, this is not the sort of technical book that ages well, and while I did pick up some useful background knowledge and a much better understanding of typeglobs, I mostly read this book because I wanted to salvage some knowledge from a book that sat for far too long on my shelves. There's really no reason to buy it today, particularly given that a second edition has been published. If you run across it in a library, there are a few chapters that are still worth reading, but by and large if you know enough Perl to know where to be careful of landmines due to changes in Perl since the book was written, you also know enough Perl to not really need this book.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-05-27

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21