Why Perl 6?

For about a year now, I’ve been working in Perl 6. Telling this to other people often brings about some confused faces. I’ve grown quite fond of Perl 6 the more I learn about it, yet the general developer community still seems to think Perl is a dirty word. In this article, I will detail some of the features that make me like Perl 6, and why I try to use it wherever possible.

Hassle-free command line arguments

Whet creating an application, you usually want to be able to specify some arguments at runtime. Most times this happens using command line arguments or options. Perl 6 allows you to specify these in the MAIN subroutine signature.

For instance, if I want the application to accept two string arguments, I can do it as easy as this:

sub MAIN (
	Str $arg-one,
	Str $arg-two,
) {
	...
}

Now, if you wanted to add an option like --output=/path/to/file, you can do it just like this:

sub MAIN (
	Str $arg-one,
	Str $arg-two,
	Str :$output,
) {
	...
}

By default, if there’s a MAIN available in your Perl 6 program, but the arguments or options supplied by the user are incorrect, it will display the right way to invoke the command, called the USAGE. Ofcourse, this message can be changed if you wish, but the default is quite good for most use-cases.

However, sometimes you want to add a little explanation to what the argument or option is intended for. Just for a liitle bit of additional user friendliness.

Fear not, for this is also already covered by the defaults. In Perl, there was POD to document your code. In Perl 6, we have POD as well. And these comments can be inspected at runtime to provide the user some information. And that’s exactly what the default USAGE also does. So if you want to add some helpful comments to the arguments or the program itself, simply add the comments where you want them:

#| This is a sample program, just to showcase the awesome stuff available in
#| Perl 6.
sub MAIN (
	Str $arg-one, #= Just a random argument
	Str $arg-two, #= Yet another argument used for showcasing
	Str :$output, #= Last but not least, an option which allows for a value
) {
	...
}

Unicode

What if you could support all languages with a single implementation? That’s where unicode comes in. And Perl 6 currently has the best support for Unicode out of all programming languages available. Its only real competitor seems to be Swift (at the time of writing this).

But not just for handling strings, Perl 6 uses unicode as a core language feature. This means you can use them in your source code as well. And that opens up some nice possibilities. Using the right unicode characters allows you to write cleaner and more concise code, reducing the cognitive load while trying to understand the program.

For instance, if you’re trying to do any kind of math, you can just use the π character as a regular character. Or use the ² to get the square of a certain number. This little piece is completely valid in Perl 6:

my $a = $r² ÷ π;

Now, if you’re thinking "that looks neat, but how am I ever going to write these?", do not worry. Most operating systems and many editors have tools to let you input these. For instance, using vim with vim-perl6, you can just write "pi" and hit space (or type any non-alphabetical character).

But not everyone is using an OS or an editor that makes it easy. And for those people, Perl 6 simply supports using ascii based operators. The previous block could also be written as follows:

my $a = $r ^ 2 / pi;

As unicode becomes more accepted, input methods will hopefully improve to make input easier for everyone in the long run. Those who can already input it easily don’t have to wait for this future, Perl 6 already supports it.

Multithreading

Multi-core processors are virtually everywhere these days. Yet many programming languages still don’t support multithreaded application development natively, if at all. In Perl 6, running something in a different thread is as easy as wrapping it in a start block:

start {
	do-something();
}

start returns a Promise, which you can store in a scalar variable just like any other object. You can check on whether the Promise has completed already and check whether it died, for instance.

Other aspects which can often be spread over multiple threads are loops or maps. For instance, consider the following map function:

@cats.map: {
	$^cat.pat;
}

This will pat each cat in turn, in the order they appear in the list. But you can speed up the patting process by patting multiple cats at the same time. And to get there, all you need to do is add a race:

@cats.race.map: {
	$^cat.pat;
}

This will attempt to pat the cats over multiple threads, speeding up the process to pat all the cats. If the result of the pattings needs to be in the same order as the patting order, you use hyper instead of race:

@cats.hyper.map: {
	$^cat.pat;
}

Object orientation

Object oriented programming seems to be getting out of fashion with the new generation of developers. But it’s still in wide use, being taught at most universities, and is often easy to explain to new developers as well.

And Perl 6 has OO support built into its core:

class Foo
{
	has Str $some-field;

	method bar (
		Str $some-arg,
	) {
		...
	}
}

You can also have multi-dispatch methods on your classes, which are methods with the same names, but accepting different arguments or argument types. For instance:

class Foo
{
	multi method bar (
		Str $some-arg,
	) {
		...
	}

	multi method bar (
		Int $some-arg,
	) {
		...
	}
}

Which method is being used will be decided by the type of argument is being passed in, in this case either a Str or an Int.

Functional programming

Whilst OO is considered being old more and more, functional programming is gaining ground. And this paradigm is fully supported in the core of Perl 6 as well. You’ve seen the map example already while patting cats earlier, for instance.

But there’s much more on the functional playing field, such as the ==> operator, known as the feed operator. It simply passed the output of a statement as the last argument to the next statement:

@grumpy-cats
	==> feed()
	==> pat()
	==> snuggle()
	==> my @happy-cats;

This will take the @grumpy-cats, feed them, pat them, snuggle them and put the result into @happy-cats. You could’ve chained the calls using a . instead, and Perl 6 allows you to do this too. But the ==> looks much more readable to me, which is why I prefer using this instead.

I’m still exploring the functional programming field myself, but these few things have made me happy exploring it.

Community

(Almost) last, but certainly not least, the Perl 6 community is amazing. It’s been the friendliest bunch I’ve been with, both on IRC, their mailing lists and in real life. Everyone is welcoming, and they try to help you whenever they can.

Community is important to help you out whenever you get stuck for whatever reason. A friendly community is the best you can get here to keep you a happy developer yourself as well.

Other little aspects

There’s a few neat things I can do in Perl 6 that I can’t do in (most) other languages, but aren’t important enough to warrant a large section to show them off.

Dashes in names

You can use dashes in names: Things like my $foo-bar is valid, just like method foo-bar. It’s nothing big on itself, but I’ve found it makes reading code much more enjoyable than pascalCase, CamelCase or snake_case.

Gradual typing

You don’t need to use types in Perl 6. But when you want to use them (for making use of multi-dispatch, for example), you can just start using them. If types are added, the compiler will make sure the types are correct. If not, you can always do them yourself (but why would you, when the compiler can do a better job for free).