Perl: Jewel in the Rough or Scourge of IT?

Perhaps it’s the rapid pace of change here in the tech world, but it seems scarcely a day can go by without someone declaring some technology or another “dead.”

Take the netbook, for example. People have been saying for years it’s dead; today, however, we have the Chromebook phenomenon.

The command line is another popular target, of course, but few can compete with the Linux desktop itself, the death of which has been trumpeted so many times now that Linux Girl has lost count. Amazing how something that’s “dead” can keep on satisfying so many users!

Well, recently in the Linux community there’s been occasion to discuss another purported “death” — or at least one that’s often wished for. The “victim” this time? None other than Perl.

‘Quite Alive and Well’

Linux Girl

“Perl: The language everyone wants to declare dead” is the title of the Linux Advocates post that started the proverbial ball rolling, and roll it did.

“It seems that many react and cringe when they hear the word Perl,” wrote blogger Dietrich Schmitz. “It’s a funny reaction to me. Because all of the documentation for Perl is superb.”

In fact, “I can assure you from experience that for every one line of Perl, writing an equivalent piece of code in C will yield a ratio of 10 or more lines to accomplish same,” Schmitz explained.

“Will Perl eventually die? Some say it will,” he added. “But if you go by a recent study from RedMonk that measures the spectrum of programming languages in use on GitHub, it is evident that Perl is quite alive and well.”

More than 600 “plus one” votes later, the conversation was still showing no sign of slowing down. Linux Girl took it to the blogosphere’s seedy Punchy Penguin Saloon for some fresh insight.

‘I Would Include Perl’

“To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated,” offered Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien.

“To me there are certain basics you need to have at least some familiarity with to get along well in Linux,” O’Brien explained. “These would be a text editor, shell commands and scripting, and I would include Perl in that list.

“Even if you are not an expert (and I am not), just being able to look at a Perl script and figure out where something went wrong and fix it is so handy,” he concluded.

‘A Kind of Endorsement’

“Perl isn’t dying because the competition, namely python and ruby, is itself idiosyncratic,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza opined.

“If the worst thing one can say about perl is that it makes it easy to write baffling code, that seems to me to actually be a kind of endorsement,” Espinoza added. “I prefer a language which makes it easy to do whatever I like.”

Espinoza has also “been bitten by python’s pointless and baffling indentation blocking when copying and pasting code samples, which validates my distaste for the language overall, and ruby cannot approach perl’s performance,” he said.

“Why does everyone fear perl?” Espinoza concluded. “Tired of typing punctuation?”

‘Perl Should Be Celebrated’

Blogger Robert Pogson doesn’t use Perl himself, but he does use several applications written in Perl, he told Linux Girl.

“I know a lot of systems administrators love it for parsing log-files and such,” he noted. “Anything that increases the usefulness of BASH is a good thing, a part of our culture.

“Perl should be celebrated and preserved for what it is: yet another good tool in the GNU/Linux world of IT,” Pogson opined. “I have enough tools without perl, but it is good that others know how to use it.”

‘More Interesting and Modern’

Perl “will continue so long as there are interested people using it to do things that are important to them, just as other ‘dying’ languages continue along doing important work in various fields,” Google+ blogger Brett Legree offered.

“Quite recently on Google+ I chatted with some friends about Fortran, for instance,” Legree recounted. “I would say that Fortran, like Perl, has been written off by quite a few people who have moved on to ‘more interesting and modern’ languages — whatever that means.”

Yet “well-documented code and robust testing are key no matter what language is being used, and we have to remember that the more mature programming languages have a wealth of reference material and, thanks to free and open source software, excellent examples of code,” he pointed out. “This means that it may be easier for a new user to learn the older languages.”

‘Neither of Them Got the Memo’

Fluency in older programming languages can also lead to some interesting opportunities for contract work, Legree added. “If someone needs to update a legacy code in a very important area, he or she may be willing to pay a *lot* of money,” he added. “Just ask the people who made a mint a few years ago for the Y2K preparations, because they knew COBOL.”

So, will Perl die?

“Perhaps, someday,” Legree concluded. “Is it dying? Well, apparently FreeBSD has been dying for years — I guess neither of them got the memo!”

‘Like Saying Hammers Are Dead’

Last but not least, “why does anybody try to declare a TOOL is ‘dead’?” wondered Slashdot blogger hairyfeet. “It’s like saying hammers are dead. As long as a tool does its job, be it COBOL or VB 6 or Perl, then use it and be happy.”

Indeed, “this ‘language of the week’ junk makes no sense,” hairyfeet opined. Whether something is “the latest and greatest or something written 30 years ago, just use it and ignore these foolish naysayers.”

After all, “it’s the same bunch that says we’re all gonna throw away our PCs to do our work on smartphones, and that instead of using laptops with comfortable keyboards we’ll be poking tablets,” he added. “Ugh.”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

1 Comment

  • Anyone "baffled" by indentation-based scope has apparently never used a modern programming language. Even my Perl code is properly indented!

    And if copy-paste causes problems, it’s not the language but your editor that needs to be changed!

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