## Copyright Notice

This text is copyright by CMP Media, LLC, and is used with their permission. Further distribution or use is not permitted.This text has appeared in an edited form in SysAdmin/PerformanceComputing/UnixReview magazine. However, the version you are reading here is as the author originally submitted the article for publication, not after their editors applied their creativity.

Please read all the information in the table of contents before using this article.

# Unix Review Column 5 (November 1995)

Like most algorithmic languages, Perl provides a mechanism to place portions of the code into a ``subroutine''. Subroutines can be used to provide easy re-use of algorithms, especially when someone else has written the code. Subroutines can also make it easier to follow the logic of a program, because the details of a subroutine are hidden away from its use. In this column, I'm going to talk about the basics of subroutine invocation and linkage, from parameters to recursion.

Let's take a simple problem. You have a bunch of numbers in @data, and you want to know the sum total of those numbers. You could write code that looks like this:

... code ... $sum = 0; foreach (@data) { $sum += $_; } # now use $sum

This initializes the value $sum to zero, and then adds each element of @data into the current value of $sum. We can wrap this up into a subroutine like so:

sub sum_data { $sum = 0; foreach (@data) { $sum += $_; } }

and when we want to set $sum equal to the current value of @data, simply invoke the subroutine:

&sum_data();

This works. I can type the code to add @data into $sum once, somewhere in the program (often towards the end), and then re-use the code repeatedly by invoking the subroutine from different places in the main part of the code.

The result is left in the variable $sum. However, every subroutine invocation also returns a value, because technically the invocation is always within some expression. (In this case, the expression's value is thrown away.) This ``return value'' of a subroutine is whatever expression is evaluated last within the subroutine. As it turns out, the last thing evaluated in this subroutine is always the $sum += $_ line, which will result in the return value being the same as $sum!

So, we can write the subroutine invocation like this:

$total = &sum_data();

and $total will also be the same value as $sum. Or even:

$two_total = &sum_data() + &sum_data();

which evaluates the sum twice, ending up in $two_total. This is wasteful, of course, and would probably be reduced to:

$two_total = 2 * &sum_data();

in a real program.

If you can't tell that $sum is the return value of &sum_data(), you can also put $sum explictly as the last expression evaluated, like so:

sub sum_data { $sum = 0; foreach (@data) { $sum += $_; } $sum; # return value }

Note that $sum as an expression on its own is enough to make it the last expression evaluated within the subroutine, and therefore the return value of the subroutine.

This subroutine is interesting, but it is limited to computing the sum of values in the @data array. What if we had @data_one and @data_two? We'd have to write a different version of &sum_data() for each array. Well, no, that's not necessary. Just as a subroutine can return back a value, it can also take a list of values as arguments or parameters:

$total = &sum_this(@data);

In this case, the values of @data are collected up into a new array called @_ within the subroutine, like so:

sub sum_this { $sum = 0; foreach (@_) { $sum += $_; } $sum; }

Note that all I've done is change @data to @_, which holds the values of the passed-in parameters. The values passed to the subroutine are constructed from any list. For example, I can also say:

$more_total = &sum_this(5,@data);

which will prepend 5 to @data, yielding an array in @_ that is one element larger than @data.

The routine &sum_this is pretty useful now. However, what if I'm using the $sum variable in some other part of my program? By default, all variables within a subroutine refer to the global use of those variables, so the &sum_this routine will clobber whatever value was previously in $sum. To fix this, I can (and should) make the $sum variable local to the subroutine:

sub sum_this { my $sum = 0; foreach (@_) { $sum += $_; } $sum; }

Now, for the duration of this routine, the variable $sum refers not to a global $sum, but to a new local variable that is thrown away as soon as the subroutine returns.

If you are not yet up to Perl version 5 (released roughly a year ago, but surprisingly, some have not gotten with the program yet), you can use Perl version 4's construct called ``local'', which performs a similar function:

sub sum_this { local($sum) = 0; foreach (@_) { $sum += $_; } $sum; }

However, had this subroutine (with ``local'' instead of ``my'') called another subroutine, any reference in that subroutine to $sum would have accessed this subroutine's $sum, rather than the global $sum, and that can get quite confusing to say the least.

If you had a program with &sum_data, and also added &sum_this, you could rewrite &sum_data in terms of &sum_this like so:

sub sum_data { &sum_this(@data); }

I have done this from time to time as I rewrite specific subroutines into general ones.

A subroutine can return a list of values rather than just a single value (a scalar). Let's hack on this subroutine a bit to get it to return all the intermediate sums instead of just the final sum:

sub sum_this { my $sum = 0; my @sums; for (@_) { $sum += $_; push(@sums,$sum); } @sums; }

Now, what's going on here? I'm creating a new array called @sums that will hold the incremental results of adding each new element to the sum. As each sum is calculated, it is pushed onto the end of the list. When the loop is complete, the value of @sums is returned. This means I can call this subroutine like so:

@result = &sum_this(1,2,3); print "@result\n"; # prints "1 3 6\n"

What happens when I call this subroutine in a scalar context (such as assigning the result to a scalar)? Well, the scalar context gets passed down into the last expression evaluated -- in this case, the name of @sums. The name of an array in a scalar context is the number of elements in the array, so we'll get:

$what = &sum_this(1,2,3); print $what;

which will print ``3'', the number of elements in the return value. With a little bit of trickery, we can combine the two kinds of subroutines into one:

sub sum_this { my $sum = 0; my @sums; for (@_) { $sum += $_; push(@sums,$sum); } if (wantarray) { @sums; } else { $sum; } }

In this case, if the subroutine is being invoked in an array context (assigned to an array, for example), the builtin value ``wantarray'' is true, and the @sums array is returned. If not, the builtin value ``wantarray'' is false, so $sum gets returned instead.

Now, we get results like this:

$total = &sum_this(1,2,3); # gets 6 @totals = &sum_this(1,2,3); # gets 1,3,6

Obviously, a subroutine designer has a lot of flexibility. If you implement a general-purpose subroutine for others, be sure to consider what it does in a scalar and array context, and if sense, use the wantarray construct to make sure that it returns an appropriate value.

Like most algorithmic languages, Perl supports recursive subroutines. This means that a subroutine can call itself to perform a part of the task. A classic example of this is a subroutine to calculate a Fibonacci number F(n), defined as follows:

F(0) = 0; F(1) = 1; F(n) = F(n-1)+F(n-2) for n > 1;

Now, this definition can be translated directly into a Perl subroutine as follows:

sub F { my ($n) = @_; if ($n == 0) { 0; } elsif ($n == 1) { 1; } else { &F($n - 1) + &F($n - 2); } }

This will indeed generate the correct result. However, for a large
value of $n, the subroutine will be called repeatedly with the exact
same values of numbers smaller than $n. For example, the call to
compute `F(10)`

will compute `F(9)`

and F(8). However, the call to
compute `F(9)`

will also call `F(8)`

again, and so on.

A quick solution to this is to maintain a cache of the previous return values. Let's call the cache @F_cache, and use it as follows:

sub F { my ($n) = @_; if ($n == 0) { 0; } elsif ($n == 1) { 1; } elsif ($F_cache[$n]) { $F_cache[$n]; } else { $F_cache[$n] = &F($n - 1) + &F($n - 2); } }

Now, if a number greater than 1 is passed into this function, one of two things can happen: (1) if the number has been computed already, we simply return the computed value, or (2) if the number hasn't been computed, we compute the value, and remember it for a possible future invocation. Note that the assignment to @F_cache is also the return value.

I've used this technique on many subroutines that have an expensive value to calculate. For example, mapping the IP number to a name via DNS can take a little while, so I wrote a routine that remembers the previous return values that it has seen, thereby saving the second and subsequent lookups (at least in this particular invocation of the program). The subroutine looked like this:

sub ip_to_name { if ($ip_to_name{$_[0]}) { $ip_to_name{$_[0]}; } else { $ip_to_name{$_[0]} = ... calculations ... } } Here, the first parameter $_[0] is looked up as the key of an associative array. If the entry is found, that value is returned immediately, otherwise a new value is calculated and remembered for future invocations. This kind of cache is a speed-up only when the subroutine is likely to be called with multiple instances of the same argument -- otherwise, you're just wasting time.

I hope you've enjoyed this little excursion into subroutines. Next time, I'll probably talk about something different.

Randal L. Schwartz is a renowned expert on the Perl programming language (the lifeblood of the Internet), having contributed to a dozen top-selling books on the subject, and over 200 magazine articles. Schwartz runs a Perl training and consulting company (Stonehenge Consulting Services, Inc of Portland, Oregon), and is a highly sought-after speaker for his masterful stage combination of technical skill, comedic timing, and crowd rapport. And he's a pretty good Karaoke singer, winning contests regularly.

Schwartz can be reached for comment at merlyn@stonehenge.com or +1 503 777-0095, and welcomes questions on Perl and other related topics.