=head1 NAME

Magazine_Article_02 - What Is Perl 6 ?

=head1 AUTHOR

chromatic L<chromatic@oreilly.com>

=head1 VERSION

Its published January 12, 2006 on perl.com and not changed since.
Find the original under:


=head1 ARTICLE

Perl 6 is the long-awaited redesign and reimplementation of the popular and
venerable Perl programming language. It's not out yet--nor is there an official
release date--but the design and implementations make continual progress.

=head2 Why Perl 6

Innumerable programmers, hackers, system administrators, hobbyists, and dabblers
write Perl 5 quite successfully. The language doesn't have the marketing budget
of large consulting companies, hardware manufacturers, or tool vendors pushing
it, yet people still use it to get their jobs done.

Why argue with that success? Why redesign a language that's working for so many
people and in so many domains? Sure, Perl 5 has some warts, but it does a lot of
things very well.

=head3 What's Right with Perl 5

As Adam Turoff explained once, Perl has two subtle advantages: I<manipulexity> 
and I<whipuptitude> (L<http://use.perl.org/%7Eziggy/journal/26131>). It's very 
important to be able to solve the problem at hand simply and easily without 
languages and tools and syntax getting in your way. That's whipuptitude. 
Manipulexity is the ability to use simple tools and build a sufficiently 
complex solution to a complex problem.

Not everyone who starts learning Perl for whipuptitude needs manipulexity
right away, if ever, but having a tool that supports both is amazingly useful.
That's where Perl's always aimed--making the easy things easy and the hard
things possible, even if you don't traditionally think of yourself as a

Many of Perl 5's other benefits fall out from this philosophy. For example,
though the popular conception is that Perl 5 is mostly a procedural language,
there are plenty of functional programming features available--iterators,
higher-order functions, lexical closures, filters, and more. The (admittedly
minimal) object system also has a surprising amount of flexibility. Several 
CPAN modules provide various types of encapsulation, access control, and 
dispatch. There are even refinements of the object system itself, exploring 
such techniques as prototype-based refinement, mixins, and traits.

There's more than one way to do it, but many of those ways are freely 
available and freely usable from the CPAN. The premier repository system 
of Perl libraries and components contains thousands of modules, from simple
packagings of common idioms to huge interfaces to graphical packages, databases,
and web servers. With few exceptions, the community of CPAN contributors have 
solved nearly any common problem you can think of (and many uncommon ones, too).

It's difficult to say whether Perl excels as a glue language because of the
CPAN or that CPAN has succeeded because Perl excels as a glue language, but
being able to munge data between two other programs, processes, libraries,
or machines is highly useful. Perl's text processing powers have few peers.
Sure, you I<can> build the single perfect command-line consisting of several
small CLI utilities, but it's rare to do it more cleanly or concisely than
with Perl.

=head3 What's Wrong with Perl 5

Perl 5 isn't perfect, though, and some of its flaws are more apparent the closer
Perl 6 comes to completion. 

Perhaps the biggest imperfection of Perl 5 is its internals. Though much of the
design is clever, there are also places of obsolescence and interdependence, as
well as optimizations that no one remembers, but no one can delete without
affecting too many other parts of the system. Refactoring an
eleven-plus-year-old software project that runs on seventy-odd platforms and has
to retain backwards compatibility with itself on many levels is daunting, and
there are few people qualified to do it. It's also exceedingly difficult to
recruit new people for such a task. 

Backwards compatibility in general hampers Perl 5 in other ways. Even though
stability of interface and behavior is good in many ways, baking in an
almost-right idea makes it difficult to sell people on the absolutely right 
idea later, especially if it takes years to discover what the true solution 
really is. For example, the long-deprecated and long-denigrated pseudohash 
feature was, partly, a way to improve object orientation. However, the Perl 6
approach (using opaque objects) solves the same problem without introducing 
the complexity and performance problems that pseudohashes did. 

As another example, it's much too late to remove formats from Perl 5 without
breaking backwards compatibility from Perl 1. However, using formats requires
the use of global variables (or scary trickery), with all of the associated
maintainability and encapsulation problems.

This points to one of the most subtle flaws of Perl 5: its single
implementation is its specification. Certainly there is a growing test 
suite that explores Perl's behavior in known situations, but too many of 
these tests exist to ensure that no one accidentally breaks an obscure 
feature of a particular implementation that no one really thought about but 
someone somewhere relies on in an important piece of code. You I<could>
recreate Perl from its tests--after a fashion. 

Perl 6 will likely also use its test suite as its primary specification, but as
Larry Wall puts it, "We're just trying to start with the right tests this time." 

Even if the Perl 5 codebase <em>did</em> follow a specification, its design is
inelegant in many places. It's also very difficult to expand. Many good ideas
that would make code easier to write and maintain are too impractical to
support. It's a good prototype, but it's not code that you would want to keep if
you had the option to do something different. 

From the language level, there are a few inconsistencies, as well. For example,
why should sigils change depending on how you access internal data? (The
canonical answer is "To specify context of the access," but there are other ways 
to mark the same.) When is a block a block, and when is it a hash reference? 
Why does C<SUPER> method redispatch not respect the currently dispatched class 
of the invocant, but only the compiled class? How can you tell the indirect 
object notation's method name barewords from bareword class or function names? 

It can be difficult to decide whether the problem with a certain feature is 
in the design or the implementation. Consider the desire to replace a built-in 
data structure with a user-defined object. Perl 5 requires you to use C<tie> 
and C<overload> to do so. To make this work, the internals check special flags
on I<every> data structure in I<every> opcode to see if the current item has any
magical behavior. This is ugly, slow, inflexible, and difficult to understand. 

The Perl 6 solution is to allow multi-method dispatch, which not only removes
conceptual complexity (at least, MMD is easier to explain than C<tie>) but also 
provides the possibility of a cleaner implementation. 

Perl's flexibility sometimes makes life difficult. In particular, there being
multiple more-or-less equivalent ways to create objects gives people plenty of
opportunities to do clever things they need to do, but it also means that
people tend to choose the easiest (or sometimes cleverest) way to do something,
not necessarily the best way to do something. It's not Perlish to allow only
one way to perform a task, but there's no reason not to provide one really good
and easy way to do something while providing the proper hooks and safety
outlets to customize the solution cleanly. 

Also, there are plenty of language optimizations that turned out to be wrong in
the long term. Many of them were conventions--from pre-existing
<code>awk</code>, shell, Unix, and regular expression cultures--that gave early
Perl a familiarity and aided its initial growth. Yet now that Perl stands on its
own, they can seem counter-productive. 

Redesigning Perl means asking a lot of questions. Why is the method call
operator two characters (one shifted), not a single dot? Why are strictures
disabled by default in programs, not one-liners? Why does dereferencing a
reference take so many characters? (Perl 5 overloaded curly braces in six
different ways. If you can list four, you're doing well.) Why is evaluating a
non-scalar container in scalar context so much less useful than it could be? 

Once you accept that backwards compatibility is standing in the way of progress
and resolve to change things for the better, you have a lot of opportunities to
fix design and implementation decisions that turn out to have been bad--or at
least, not completely correct. 

=head2 Advantages of Perl 6

In exchange for breaking backwards compatibility, at least at the language
level, Perl 6 offers plenty of high-powered language concepts that Perl 5 
didn't support, including: 

=over 2

=item * Multimethods

=item * Coroutines

=item * Continuations

=item * Useful threading

=item * Junctions

=item * Roles

=item * Hyperoperators

=item * Macros

=item * An overridable and reusable grammar

=item * Garbage collection

=item * Improved foreign function interface

=item * Module aliasing and versioning

=item * Improved introspection

=item * Extensible and overridable primitives


=head3 Better Internals

The Parrot project (L<http://www.parrotcode.org/>), led by designer Chip 
Salzenberg and pumpking Leo Toetsch, is producing the new virtual machine 
for the official Perl 6 release.

Parrot is a new design and implementation not specifically tied to Perl 6. Its
goal is to run almost any dynamic language efficiently. Because many of the
designers have plenty of experience with the Perl 5 internals, Parrot tries to
avoid the common mistakes and drawbacks there. One of the first and most
important design decisions is extracting the logic of overridden container
behavior from opcodes into the containers themselves. That is, where you might
have a tied hash in Perl 5, all of the opcodes that deal with hashes have to
check that the hash received is tied. In Parrot, each hash has a specific
interface and all of the opcodes expect the PMC that they receive to implement
that interface. (This is the standard "Replace conditional with polymorphism"

=head3 Better Object Orientation

The de facto OO technique in Perl 5 is blessing a hash and accessing the hash's
members directly as attributes. This is quick and easy, but it has
encapsulation, substitutability, and namespace clashing problems. Those problems
all have solutions: witness several competing CPAN modules that solve them. 

Perl 6 instead provides opaque objects by default, with language support for
creating classes and instances and declaring class and instance attributes. It
also provides multiple ways to customize class and object behavior, from
instantiation to destruction. Where 95 percent of objects can happily use the
defaults, the 5 percent customized classes will still work with the rest of the

Another compelling feature is language support for roles--this is a different
way of describing and encapsulating specific behavior for objects apart from
inheritance or mixins. In brief, a role encapsulates behavior that multiple
classes can perform, so that a function or method signature can expect an object
that does a role, rather than an object that inherits from a particular abstract
base class. This has powerful effects on polymorphism and genericity. Having
role support in the language and the core library will make large
object-oriented systems easier to write and to maintain. 

=head3 Improved Consistency

Sigils, the funny little markers at the start of variables, are invariant.

Return codes make sense, especially in exceptional cases.

Similar things look similar. Different things look different. 
Weird things look weird.

All blocks are closures; all closures are first-class data structures on which
you can set or query properties, for example.

=head3 Rules and Grammars

One of Perl 5's most useful features is integrated regular expression
support--except they're not all that regular anymore. Nearly every 
problem  Perl 5 has in the whole (inconsistency, wrong shortcuts, 
difficult reusability, inflexible and impenetrable internals) shows up 
in the syntax and  implementation of regular expressions. 

Perl 6 simplifies regular expressions while adding more power, producing rules.
You can reuse and combine rules to produce a grammar. If you apply a grammar to
text (or, perhaps, any type of input including a recursive data structure), you
receive a match tree. 

That sounds quite a bit like what a parser and lexer do--so there's little
surprise that Perl 6 has its own locally overridable grammar that allows you to
make your own syntax changes and redefine the language when you really need to.
Perl 5 supported a similar feature (source filters), but it was fragile, hard to
use, and even harder to re-use in serious programs. 

By making a clean break from regular expressions, the designers had the
opportunity to re-examine the regex syntax. The new syntax is more consistent,
so it's easier to type and to remember the syntaxes of common operations.
There's also more consistency, so that similar features look similar. 

Perl 6 has a Perl 5 compatibility layer, if you prefer quick and dirty and
familiar--but give the new syntax a try, especially for projects where quick
and dirty regular expressions were intractable (more than usual, anyway).

=head2 Where is it Already?

Larry announced the Perl 6 project at OSCON in 2000. Why is it taking so long?
There are several reasons.

First, Perl 5 isn't going anywhere. If anything, the rate of patches and
changes to the code has increased. Cleanups from Ponie and the Phalanx project
(L<http://qa.perl.org/phalanx/>) continue to improve the design and 
implementation, and new features from Perl 6 are making their way into Perl 5.

Second, the opportunity to do the right thing without fear of breaking backwards
compatibility opened up a lot of possibilities for impressive new features.
Reinventing regular expressions as rules and grammars, for example, would have
been difficult while retaining the flavor and syntax of awk and Henry Spencer's
original implementations. The new power and consistency makes rules well worth
the reinvention.

Third, the project is still a volunteer project. Though other languages and
platforms have major corporate support, only a handful of Perl 6 hackers receive
any form of funding to work on the project--and none of them on a full-time

If you want to write actual, working Perl 6 code, it's possible. Pugs has been
able to run quite a bit of the language since last summer. It will soon connect
directly to Parrot again. When that happens, watch out!

=head2 Learning More

This article is merely an overview of some of the reasons for and features
of Perl 6. There are plenty of details available online in writings of the
designers, the mailing lists, and the source code repositories.

=head3 Design Documents

The Perl 6 home (L<http://dev.perl.org/perl6/>) page holds links to most 
of  the design documents for the language. In particular, Larry's Perl 6 
Apocalypses explore a subject area in depth, identifying the problem and 
outlining his thinking about what the solution might be. Damian Conway's 
Perl 6 Exegeses expand upon the idea, showing concrete examples written in 
actual Perl 6 code.

In the past several months, the design team has started to update the Perl 6 
Synopses (L<http://dev.perl.org/perl6/doc/synopsis.html>) instead. Perl 6 
pumpking Patrick Michaud keeps these fresh with the current design. The 
Apocalypses and Exegeses remain online as interesting historical documents 
that take too long to write and revise as changes occur.

=head3 Implementations

Parrot (L<http://www.parrotcode.org/>) has monthly releases. The Parrot 
distribution includes the Parrot Grammar Engine (PGE), which is Patrick's 
implementation of rules and grammars, as well as several languages that 
target Parrot. The most complete implementation is for Tcl, though the Punie 
project (Perl 1 on Parrot) shows the entire suite of compiler tools.

Audrey (nee Autrijus) Tang's Pugs (L<http://www.pugscode.org/>) is an 
unofficial Perl 6 implementation, optimized for fun. As of the time of the 
writing, it supported much of Perl 6, including junctions, multimethods, 
and objects. It targets multiple back-ends, including Haskell, JavaScript,
Perl 5, and Parrot, and moves very quickly. Pugs is a great project in which
to participate--it's very easy to get a committer bit and start writing
tests and fixing bugs. It's currently the main prototype and reference 
implementation.  Time will tell what its role is in the final release.

Ponie is a port of Perl 5 to Parrot. It's a huge refactoring project with 
little glory but a lot of potential usefulness. C hackers are more than 

=head3 Discussion

Most development discussion takes place on several Perl 6 mailing lists:

=over 2

=item * perl6-language discusses Perl 6, the language and features. 

=item * perl6-internals discusses the design and implementation of Parrot 
L<mailto:perl6-internals-subscribe@perl.org> and various languages targeting

=item * perl6-compiler discusses PGE, Pugs, and the interaction of various 
components of the compiler tools. L<mailto:perl6-compiler-subscribe@perl.org>


The #perl6 IRC channel on irc.freenode.net talks about Pugs and Perl 6, while
#parrot on irc.perl.org concentrates on Parrot. There is almost always someone
around in #perl6 to answer questions about Pugs or Perl 6.

Planet Perl Six (L<http://planetsix.perl.org/> aggregates weblogs from several 
designers and developers of various related projects.