Perl Scripts for editing

Even though we do have IDEs with quite powerful refactoring mechanisms for many languages, it is still sometimes useful, to have another automated editing mechanism.

Why would that be the case?

Some examples:

In some cases there was an SQL script to create the database tables, which had been written first. From that classes and even CRUD operations in something like JDBC or DBI can be created. Even though most Java-projects that I have seen recently prefer using Hibernate (or more generally JPA2), there are some benefits in doing just plain old JDBC. This requires some discipline in writing the SQL in a uniform way and it was sometimes even necessary to have „magical comments“ that were ignored by the DB, but used by the script. This can save a lot of work and errors.

In some cases there were large numbers of HTML files. Now a similar kind of change had to be applied to each of them. Using a Script to parse the HTML file and to apply the changes can save a lot of work and provide consistency that is often badly needed. And if the whole thing happens in the context of an agile project, then the stakeholders might want to see the outcome and come up with further ideas. No big deal, just change the transformation scripts and check it out again. I recommend thinking in terms of larger transformation steps. Then I would retain the original files and apply the script for the step until the outcome is ok. Then this can be committed to git and the next step can be worked on. If the intermediate results are not useful for anybody else, just wait with the push or better work on a branch.

Sometimes refactorings have to be done that are not easily supported by the IDE. For example a whole bunch of classes need to be moved to different packages according to some new naming rule. Just find all the classes with their old package names, then move to the new directory structure and rename imports and package declarations to the new structure. This can easily be done with a Script. Always remember to be careful if there is Reflection involved, this will most likely break all refactorings, no matter if by IDE or by script.

Also it is often useful to use scripts to analyze code and to find occurrences of certain patterns.

These things can be done with scripts in Ruby, Python, Perl or Raku. All of these are valid options. Ruby and Raku are somewhat more sophisticated languages than the other two. And Perl and Raku have the most sophisticated Regex capabilities. I would assume that Raku is the best choice, if you start from scratch, it even supports grammars out of the box, which might be a way to address such issues. Perl has it as add on libraries. Of course it is also useful to work with what you know. But sometimes it is worth learning the right tool instead of just using the golden hammer to put in screws.

So in my case the tool for this is currently Perl. It does the job, is available more or less everywhere and I know it well enough. It might be worth moving to Raku in the future.

Some things that often work for simple scripts are the following:

Try to start with normalizing the input files, this might be the first transformation step. Remove trailing spaces, replace tabs with spaces, maybe normalize idention, replace line endings by LF only without CR. In HTML replace HTML-entities for UNICODE-characters by the appropriate Unicode characters, convert everything to UTF-8 etc.
If you have data like phone numbers and dates in the file that are meaningful for your further steps, bring them to a standard format. Of course always depending on your local circumstances, but this is usually the right way to go. This might be partially done with an external tool like xmllint.

For the next steps we need to consider the issue that we have multiple lines. There are regex-variants that do not stop at line boundaries. But if we read the content line wise, it can still be a bit more work. Sometimes it is easier to just replace line feeds by some marker string that does not otherwise occur in your files (check it before!) and then apply usual regex on this longer line.

What we often need is a regex that finds the shortest and not the longest match. If we write something like /a.*b/, this will look for a sequence that starts with an „a“ and ends with the last „b“ that can be found. Often we want to end with the first „b“. This can be achieved by /a.*?b/.

Another pattern that is often useful for such scripts is to work with a state machine. If a certain pattern is discovered, we react to it depending on the state and possibly change the state. So we can apply changes to something only if it occurs in a certain context.

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