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The Perl echo chamber, marketing and … is Perl really dying?

Cosimo Streppone
Expert Breaker of Production Systems
Originally published at streppone.it on ・8 min read

Recently I came across this tweet from Curtis/Ovid, which references longer post about a proposal to integrate a better, more modern object-oriented “system” (Corinna) in Perl 5.

The proposal itself is not what I’d like to address here. I haven’t followed Corinna’s evolution. I believe it goes in a positive direction for the language, FWIW.

From that original tweet, a comment from Rafael followed:

[…] but I’m still wondering what are the real factors that make companies seek an exit strategy from Perl 5. Who makes this kind of expensive decision, and why? I suspect obscure OO syntax is not a major one.

This is what I replied with:

This is indicative of the fundamental problem in the Perl echo chamber. Some people still have no idea why companies are moving away from Perl. If you want to hear the perspective from someone who has seen this happen in multiple companies, let me know :-)

Sorry for this premise, but I was afraid what follows would make no sense otherwise.

Why is Perl dying today?

First of all, I don’t think “ is dying” is a useful question to ask, nor it is indicative of anything particularly interesting. I’m sure everyone reading this will have encountered plenty of “C is dying”, “Java is dying” or similar, and yet, C and Java are still being used everywhere. In one sense, no language really dies ever. In Perl’s situation, things are slightly different though, as (I believe) Python slowly conquered Perl’s space over time.

What does it mean for a language to die, or to be dead?

From an end user point of view , let’s say a random programmer employed in a company or freelance, a language could be dying if a task they want to accomplish using that language is hard because there are no supporting libraries for it (think CPAN or PyPi), or the libraries are so old they don’t work anymore. That situation surely conveys the idea that the language is not in use anymore, or very few people must be using that language. One would expect that a common task in 2021 must be easy to accomplish with a language worth using in 2021.

What about a company ‘s point of view? The reality is that companies don’t have an opinion on languages, only people do. Teams do have an opinion on languages. The group dynamics inside a team influence what languages are acceptable for current and new projects.

Is Perl dying then?

My experience

Some years ago I was a fairly active member of the Perl community, I attended and presented at various Perl conferences around Europe, talking about my experience using Perl at a few small and large companies.

I remember picking up Perl for the first time based on a suggestion from my manager back then. He gave me a hard copy print-out of the whole of Perl 5.004 man pages, and said: “We are going to use this language. It’s amazing, take some time to study it and we’ll start!”. This was 1998, and I had such a fantastic time :-). I was such a noob, but Perl was amazing. It could do everything you needed and then some, and it was easy and simple. The language was fast already back then, and it got faster over time. At that point in time, I was working in a very small company, we were three people initially, and we ended up writing a complete web framework from scratch that is still in use today, after more than 20 years. If that’s not phenomenal, I don’t know what is. It’d be cool to talk about this framework: it was more advanced than anything that’s ever been done even considering it’s 2021… a story for another time.

And by the way, we were running our Perl code on *anything*, and I mean anything, Windows PCs, Linux, Netware and even AS/400, a limited subset of it at least, at a time when Java’s “write once, run everywhere” was just an empty marketing promise. Remember this was the time of Netscape Navigator and Java applets. Ramblings, I know, but perhaps useful to understand where things have gone wrong.

In 2007, I left my job in Italy and moved to Norway to work for Opera Software. Back then, Opera’s browser was still running the Presto engine, and a little department inside Opera was in charge of web services. That’s where I was headed. Most services there were written in Perl. Glorious times for me, I would learn an awful lot there, meet a lot of skilled developers. Soon after I started working there, 2007, some colleagues were already making fun of Perl. It’s a “write-only language”, “not meant for serious stuff”, “lack of web frameworks”, etc… Those were the times when Python frameworks started to emerge, some of which would eventually disappear. I remember a few colleagues strongly arguing to move to this Python framework called Pylons, and then eventually to Django.

I believe this general attitude towards Perl originated from different factors:

  • personal preference towards other languages and/or dislike towards Perl
  • the desire to be working with the latest “hip” framework or language
  • the discomfort of maintaining an aging codebase with problems

These factors exist and are legitimate reasons to want to move away from any language or framework. I’m not saying they are justified, but I do understand why people wanted that. In our field, I have seen it’s quite common to try and avoid the objective difficulties of maintaining a legacy project, going the greener way of an overly optimistic rewrite, which normally ends in tears.

Throughout the years, I noticed other contributing factors to the progressive abandonment of Perl, even in companies like Opera.

I’ll mention two that I experienced directly:

  1. Outdated or non existent supporting libraries
  2. Teams composition

There was a time a few years ago, when CPAN was awesome, the best language support system in existence and every other language community was envying it. CPAN pretty much was selling Perl by itself. In my case, the libraries on CPAN educated me and made me adopt a testing culture that no other language (in my knowledge) had before Perl. Today, seeing npm modules being installed without running tests makes me uncomfortable :-)

Then over time (years) a shift happened. You would search on CPAN for a library that would help you with a common task and you wouldn’t find anything, or you would only find quick hacks that didn’t really work properly. In my case, I remember the first example of that being OAuth2. If I had to speculate, I would say this is a product of many elements, one of which is the average age of Perl programmers getting higher.

Another related shift I remember from those years is companies publishing their APIs/SDKs started dismissing Perl, at first relying on some CPAN module to eventually appear, then completely omitting Perl support. In the beginning, we politely complained to those companies, trying to make a point, but unfortunately there was no turning back. These days almost no SDK comes with a Perl component.

The second major aspect I have experienced is related to teams. In 2012 I was tasked with writing my first ever greenfield project, entirely from scratch, a project that would turn out to be one of the things I’m most proud of, Opera Discover , an online news recommendation system for the Opera browser, still working today! A team of three veteran engineers (myself included) was assembled, and there and then, we were faced with a decision: what language should we use for this?

While I was most experienced in Perl and knew Python a little, the other two colleagues didn’t know Perl. They had experience in C++ mostly, as this was Opera after all. We were chosen not based on our programming language expertise, rather (I suppose) based on our capability to tackle such a big and complex project. While I could have proposed that the project be written in Perl, in good conscience I knew that choice was not viable. Django was readily available and could provide a wide range of functionality we actually needed. No alternative in the Perl world could come close to such a good value proposition. The fact that Python was (like Perl had been for me!) a very accessible choice, simple to pick up, easily installed on any Linux system, and with plenty of solid up-to-date libraries, made the choice obvious.

With the Discover project, I started learning Python properly as a day-to-day programming language. I remember being horrified (and making fun of) the httplib2/httplib3 situation initially. Then I learned about the requests module and forgot all about it. This is to say, Python also has its quirks of course. The disastrous Python 2 vs Python 3 decision in the Python community caused a lot of grief and uncertainty for people (Perl could have learned something from that…). Nowadays, that’s a non-argument, everything runs on Python 3 and if you still haven’t moved, you will soon.

In general, having learned Python quite well, my mindset with regards to programming and my job changed completely. I’m not a Perl programmer. I’m not a Python programmer either. I can use different tools whenever they are more suited to what I need to do. In fact, in my last four years I have written software in NodeJS and Java of all things… I used to despise and make fun of Java, but I had never worked on any professional project before. While I do maintain that Java has some horrible aspects, contrary to my expectations, I have enjoyed working with it, it has an efficient runtime, awesome threading, solid libraries and debugging/inspection tools.

Conclusions

While I do understand Ovid’s point about wanting to keep the business going, and enjoying Perl as a language, I have personally moved on many years ago. I still use Perl for the occasional script when it’s convenient, but for other use cases, like web APIs, I prefer Python and FastAPI, PyTorch for machine learning, etc.. so my conclusion is that it’s the libraries and the ecosystem that drive language use, and not the language itself.

A better OO system will unfortunately do nothing for Perl (in my opinion at least). Better marketing will without a doubt do nothing for Perl. As if a prettier website could change the situation and the aspects I talked about… it can’t! The situation we have in front of us in 2021 is the result of technological and social changes started at least a decade ago.

I realize this may be an incoherent post. Sorry about that, I tried to write it right away or it would have probably never come out.

If you have questions or comments, let me know and I’ll try to address them if I can.

Most importantly, I do not wish to convince anyone that what I wrote is true. It is simply my experience. If there’s one thing I wish people would take from it, it’s to move away from the thought of yourself being a “X Programmer” and broaden your horizons and set of tools available to you. It was a tremendously positive move for myself, one I wished I had done before.

Peace.

Discussion (3)

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szabgab profile image
Gabor Szabo • Edited

Good analysis. Let me add a few point:

I think the lack of up-to-date libraries and the reluctance of companies to provide their API/SDK in Perl was already a result of the decline in the number of enthusiastic Perl programmer. By that time many of the more adventurous people have moved to other languages and created libraries there. Increasingly the people who were left using Perl were the more conservative (at least in their choice of programming language) people who did not want to make changes.

I think there was a small technical issue that started the decline of Perl: PHP was a little bit easier to get started with for web applications (rename .html to .php instead of all the CGI setups) made PHP a much easier choice in the late 90's.

Then came the Python community that made despising Perl a cultural norm. For many years it was a key part of their promotional strategy. I remember reading the "Learning Python" book a few years ago and seeing that even then, years after Python became a lot more popular than Perl they still kept the "Python is better than Perl" at the opening of the book.
I don't know if the Perl community had any chance countering this.

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smonff profile image
🌌 Sébastien Feugère ☔

First page of the Python tutorial : « Python is applicable to a much larger problem domain than Awk or even Perl, yet many things are at least as easy in Python as in those languages ».

I would say, ok, maybe for the second part, but the first one, I don’t know, they should just update the documentation, this is so rude.

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cosimo profile image
Cosimo Streppone Author

Thanks for commenting. I wish to emphasize that mine is not an analysis. Apart from the "Conclusions" paragraph, what this post intended was to share my personal perspective on what happened with Perl slowly fading out of my professional day-to-day activity.

It is still there, I still like it a lot and occasionally use it as well, but it is just one of many other tools at my disposal.