What is it?
Shipped with HP-UX, supported by AIX and included by Sun in its Solaris-based alternative to the Linux Lamp stack, Perl is a scripting language favoured by systems administrators as a "glue" language. From the mid-1990s, Perl was also the first choice for developing CGI (Common Gateway Interface) scripts, and remains popular with web and network developers.
Originally intended for text manipulation as well as rapid application development, Perl was developed at a time when hardware costs were coming down and programmer costs rising, and is designed to make the best use of developer's time. As a result, it is practical rather than pretty, and not for those who like their code elegant. As the standard textbook, Programming Perl, has it: "Perl is a language for getting your job done". It's easy to learn, however, with extensive support available from the open-source community.
Where did it originate?
Perl's creator Larry Wall began work on the language in 1987 while working at Unisys. In addition to C, he took bits and pieces from Fortran, Lisp, Ada and and other languages. Perl 5, the current version, was released in 1994, introducing features like modularity for code reuse.
What's it for?
According to the HP-UX Perl download site, "Perl's process, file, and text manipulation facilities make it particularly well-suited for tasks involving quick prototyping, system utilities, software tools, system management tasks, database access, graphical programming, networking, and world wide web programming. These strengths make it especially popular with system administrators and CGI script authors." HP has optimised Perl for HP-UX on both PA Risc and Itanium processors, and delivers it on its Foundation Operating Environment media. The database integration interface supports DB2 and Oracle as well as Postgres and MySQL.
What makes it special?
Hundreds of freely downloadable code modules are available from the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network, CPAN.
How difficult is it to master?
Experienced C programmers and Unix systems administrators can become productive with Perl almost at once, and improve their skills as they go along. Beginners can also pick it up quickly, although the heady freedom Perl offers is probably best enjoyed by those who have already learned coding disciplines from another language.
What systems does it run on?
Unix and Linux, Macintosh and Windows, legacy operating systems like VMS.
What's coming up?
Perl 6 - perhaps. Perl 6 will be a radical revision, including borrowings from more recent languages such as Ruby and Python, and is not intended to be backward-compatible. But although some Perl 6 features can be downloaded, another year has passed with the only release information being given as "when it's ready". Even when it is, work will continue on Perl 5, which is likely to remain mainstream for years to come.
See perl.com, perl.org, and Perl Mongers. The Perl "Bible", Programming Perl, published by O'Reilly and Associates, has a camel on the cover, which has become emblematic of Perl, rather like the Linux penguin.
Jobs and money
Perl developers £25,000 to £35,000 Unix systems administrators with Perl £30,000 to £40,000.