The Power of the Perl Community

I am a lapsed Perl developer. While I’m a physicist by education, one of my first jobs in the commercial world was on an application called GeneLinker, which was a desktop data analysis tool for genomics that had an embedded Perl engine for user scripting. I was doing a lot of Perl at the time. It was the only scripting language that I allowed people to use at the company because it did everything and it did it very easily. We didn’t need half a dozen little languages. We just needed Perl.

While my work adventures have taken me to various places (working in embedded C, algorithm development for medical imaging, for computer assisted surgery, and some prototyping in Python), I hadn’t really looked at Perl for about 10 years (until I joined ActiveState). And since I’ve been back in the world of Perl, I can see that it’s a very exciting time for the language.

The Power of the Perl Community

What we’re seeing today, I think, is a significant upswing in new adopters of the language. In the survey conducted by ActiveState earlier this year, we found almost half were *new* users to Perl with less than 5 years’ experience with the language. I think there are two big reasons that it’s drawing new people to the language: Perl is very functional, very effective, and very powerful; and the Perl community is open and inclusive (unlike some language communities where you’re either inside the wall or you’re outside).

The strength of the community is what helps keep Perl alive and vibrant. I’ve looked for things in CPAN that I had no reasonable expectation would be there…fairly hard-core numerical stuff, such as ODE solvers…and low and behold, there they were. It has continued to amaze me what’s available on CPAN. It is now 5–10 times bigger than it was in the early 2000s and everything under the sun is just there. This is fairly remarkable.

I think it really speaks to the vitality and robustness of the Perl community. There was this relatively long hiatus where people were struggling, where the community was struggling, with how to get new builds of the language out. However, since 2010, there has been a clockwork-like release cadence and significant feature enhancements drawn from Perl 6 and elsewhere…we have seen that driving growth of the language and that driving adoption. I believe that we are in the midst of a potentially significant Perl renaissance where people are coming back to the language. They’re looking at it with new eyes and they’re finding incredible capabilities in CPAN and in some of these new features.

Perl is Everywhere…and it’s Not Going Anywhere

While Perl is “everywhere”, no one talks about it. Looking at our customers it’s clear that everyone depends on Perl. This had me really wondering…what’s going on here? Why is it that a language that everyone depends on is basically invisible? In my recent talk at YAPC::NA (which will be renamed The Perl Conference going forward), I referred to this as the Perl Paradox. The example I used in my presentation was that of a fork. When forks were introduced as tableware into the English speaking world in the early 1600s, they were controversial. They were talked about. (Apparently, there were church people who condemned them because it was impious not to touch God’s food with your hands.) But forks didn’t go away…they didn’t become obsolete. Forks are everywhere, but nobody talks about them, just like Perl.

We see the importance of Perl when talking to our customers. They just need to move data from a database into files or files into a database, they need to do a bit of processing on weekly sales numbers…the list goes on. All of those small infrastructure tasks, which can add up to a lot, can be handled very effectively by Perl. More than one customer has told us, “Yeah, we have 10,000 production jobs running. Scripts, automation, what have you, that are handling moving data around inside our business, all of which are written in Perl.”

I think we have a very strong bias toward the new, toward the novel, and an implicit assumption that anything which is not new, novel in technology is going away. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I expect that people will be writing Perl long after I am gone and turned to dust. It is a language that solves the problem it was meant to solve extraordinarily well. It will be very hard to replace.

ActiveState is proud to be part of the Perl community…to be sponsoring Perl events (such YAPC::EUROPE and the Perl QA Hackathon),, as well as offering commercially supported Perl distributions for current and legacy versions through ActivePerl.

About the author

Tom Radcliffe has over 20 years experience in software development and
 management in both academia and industry. He is a professional engineer
 (PEO and APEGBC) and holds a PhD in physics from Queen’s University at
 Kingston. Tom brings a passion for quantitative, data-driven processes to
 ActiveState. He is deeply committed to the ideas of Bayesian probability
 theory, and assigns a high Bayesian plausibility to the idea that putting
 the best software tools in the hands of the most creative and capable
 people will make the world a better place.

Tom Radcliffe, Director of Engineering