Win32 Perl Language Grows Up

It’s been a big summer for Win32 Perl. In July, the Perl Porters, a group of volunteer programmers, released Perl 5.005, the first version of Perl for Win32 that is completely compatible with Perl for Unix. Then, in August, O’Reilly & Associates (Sebastopol, Calif., www.oreilly.com) released the Perl Resource Kit Win32 edition, a boxed set containing four exclusive Perl books, a host of commercial and open source applications, and more than 400 Perl modules, in addition to the new version of Perl.

Practical Extraction and Report Language, commonly known as Perl, was birthed from the primordial soup of Unix shell scripting by its founding father Larry Wall. As an open source language, Perl grew quickly as its adoring fans helped mold it and port it to almost every major platform available.

But because of Perl’s Unix roots, early versions of Perl for Windows lagged far behind those available for Unix, which created compatibility problems. Nevertheless, two Win32 versions have been available for some time: one created by ActiveState Tool Corp. (Vancouver, British Columbia, www.activestate.com), a company formed by Dick Hardt and O’Reilly to create Perl development tools; and another created and maintained by programmer Sarathy Gurusamy.

At a breakfast meeting during last year’s Perl Conference, a movement began to merge "core" Perl with Perl for Win32. The meeting, set up by Gina Blaber, director of software for O’Reilly, included Perl creator Larry Wall, ActiveState’s Dick Hardt, Sarathy Gurusamy, and several other Perl gurus. Now, 1 year later, the integration of Win32 Perl into the core Perl distribution means that users can finally run Perl scripts on multiple platforms with little or no modification.

In the meantime, O’Reilly worked on its Resource Kit. In addition to exclusive books that provide documentation on Perl for Win32, the kit provides hundreds of prewritten Perl code packages, called modules, that give the developer broad access to system functions, including shares, groups, users, processes and the registry. Other modules can transform scripts into COM objects and ActiveX controls. Graphical toolkit widget modules enable the developer to create GUI front ends in Perl. The kit also includes ActiveState’s Visual Package Manager, which puts a graphical user interface on module management, and ActiveState’s graphical Perl debugger.

Perl has been a long-standing tool in the Unix Webmaster’s arsenal. It sits behind the scenes on a multitude of Web sites, turning forms into e-mail, accessing databases and creating dynamically generated Web pages. With the inclusion of Perl for ISAPI, O’Reilly’s Resource Kit enables CGI to run within the process space of the Web server, which dramatically increases execution speed. Another addition is PerlScript, an ActiveX scripting engine that allows the use of Perl in any ActiveX scripting host, such as Active Server Pages, Internet Explorer and Microsoft Scripting Host. Full documentation on these features is included.

The importance of the new release and the O’Reilly Resource Kit extends beyond Web development to NT network administration, according to Bill Birthisel, owner of Birthisel Engineering, a consulting firm in Wisconsin, who beta-tested the Perl Win32 kit. "To an administrator used to seeing the world of software neatly divided into operating system and applications, the Win32 Perl kit will be a dazzling revelation," he says. "It empowers both administrators and users. One no longer needs hundreds of dollars in development tools and days of effort and weeks of advanced study in order to create a custom solution to what should be a simple problem."

Of course, the corporate mindset about using an open source programming tool is a complex one. Many IS managers worry about future support. But according to Birthisel, this is not a valid concern. "In addition to support from O'Reilly and ActiveState, there are active Perl users and developers throughout the world. User groups, mailing lists and Usenet news groups abound. A quick search on DejaNews (www.dejanews.com), will uncover the answers to most user and administrator questions. It's open source if you ever need an in-depth analysis. Many of the primary developers remain active within the Perl community," he says.

This new Perl seems to represent a growth in thinking for NT, O’Reilly’s Blaber adds. "Perl has been called the glue language of the Internet, and frankly, it’s glue language for more then just the Internet; it’s an incredibly powerful tool for seemingly disparate pieces."

Perl 5.005 can be downloaded for free from www.perl.com/CPAN-local/CPAN.html.