MirBSD manpage: perlfilter(1)

PERLFILTER(1)   Perl Programmers Reference Guide    PERLFILTER(1)


     perlfilter - Source Filters


     This article is about a little-known feature of Perl called
     source filters. Source filters alter the program text of a
     module before Perl sees it, much as a C preprocessor alters
     the source text of a C program before the compiler sees it.
     This article tells you more about what source filters are,
     how they work, and how to write your own.

     The original purpose of source filters was to let you
     encrypt your program source to prevent casual piracy. This
     isn't all they can do, as you'll soon learn. But first, the


     Before the Perl interpreter can execute a Perl script, it
     must first read it from a file into memory for parsing and
     compilation. If that script itself includes other scripts
     with a "use" or "require" statement, then each of those
     scripts will have to be read from their respective files as

     Now think of each logical connection between the Perl parser
     and an individual file as a source stream. A source stream
     is created when the Perl parser opens a file, it continues
     to exist as the source code is read into memory, and it is
     destroyed when Perl is finished parsing the file. If the
     parser encounters a "require" or "use" statement in a source
     stream, a new and distinct stream is created just for that

     The diagram below represents a single source stream, with
     the flow of source from a Perl script file on the left into
     the Perl parser on the right. This is how Perl normally

         file -------> parser

     There are two important points to remember:

     1.   Although there can be any number of source streams in
          existence at any given time, only one will be active.

     2.   Every source stream is associated with only one file.

     A source filter is a special kind of Perl module that inter-
     cepts and modifies a source stream before it reaches the
     parser. A source filter changes our diagram like this:

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         file ----> filter ----> parser

     If that doesn't make much sense, consider the analogy of a
     command pipeline. Say you have a shell script stored in the
     compressed file trial.gz. The simple pipeline command below
     runs the script without needing to create a temporary file
     to hold the uncompressed file.

         gunzip -c trial.gz | sh

     In this case, the data flow from the pipeline can be
     represented as follows:

         trial.gz ----> gunzip ----> sh

     With source filters, you can store the text of your script
     compressed and use a source filter to uncompress it for
     Perl's parser:

          compressed           gunzip
         Perl program ---> source filter ---> parser


     So how do you use a source filter in a Perl script? Above, I
     said that a source filter is just a special kind of module.
     Like all Perl modules, a source filter is invoked with a use

     Say you want to pass your Perl source through the C prepro-
     cessor before execution. You could use the existing "-P"
     command line option to do this, but as it happens, the
     source filters distribution comes with a C preprocessor
     filter module called Filter::cpp. Let's use that instead.

     Below is an example program, "cpp_test", which makes use of
     this filter. Line numbers have been added to allow specific
     lines to be referenced easily.

         1: use Filter::cpp;
         2: #define TRUE 1
         3: $a = TRUE;
         4: print "a = $a\n";

     When you execute this script, Perl creates a source stream
     for the file. Before the parser processes any of the lines
     from the file, the source stream looks like this:

         cpp_test ---------> parser

     Line 1, "use Filter::cpp", includes and installs the "cpp"
     filter module. All source filters work this way. The use
     statement is compiled and executed at compile time, before

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     any more of the file is read, and it attaches the cpp filter
     to the source stream behind the scenes. Now the data flow
     looks like this:

         cpp_test ----> cpp filter ----> parser

     As the parser reads the second and subsequent lines from the
     source stream, it feeds those lines through the "cpp" source
     filter before processing them. The "cpp" filter simply
     passes each line through the real C preprocessor. The output
     from the C preprocessor is then inserted back into the
     source stream by the filter.

                       .-> cpp --.
                       |         |
                       |         |
                       |       <-'
        cpp_test ----> cpp filter ----> parser

     The parser then sees the following code:

         use Filter::cpp;
         $a = 1;
         print "a = $a\n";

     Let's consider what happens when the filtered code includes
     another module with use:

         1: use Filter::cpp;
         2: #define TRUE 1
         3: use Fred;
         4: $a = TRUE;
         5: print "a = $a\n";

     The "cpp" filter does not apply to the text of the Fred
     module, only to the text of the file that used it
     ("cpp_test"). Although the use statement on line 3 will pass
     through the cpp filter, the module that gets included
     ("Fred") will not. The source streams look like this after
     line 3 has been parsed and before line 4 is parsed:

         cpp_test ---> cpp filter ---> parser (INACTIVE)

         Fred.pm ----> parser

     As you can see, a new stream has been created for reading
     the source from "Fred.pm". This stream will remain active
     until all of "Fred.pm" has been parsed. The source stream
     for "cpp_test" will still exist, but is inactive. Once the
     parser has finished reading Fred.pm, the source stream asso-
     ciated with it will be destroyed. The source stream for
     "cpp_test" then becomes active again and the parser reads

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     line 4 and subsequent lines from "cpp_test".

     You can use more than one source filter on a single file.
     Similarly, you can reuse the same filter in as many files as
     you like.

     For example, if you have a uuencoded and compressed source
     file, it is possible to stack a uudecode filter and an
     uncompression filter like this:

         use Filter::uudecode; use Filter::uncompress;

     Once the first line has been processed, the flow will look
     like this:

         file ---> uudecode ---> uncompress ---> parser
                    filter         filter

     Data flows through filters in the same order they appear in
     the source file. The uudecode filter appeared before the
     uncompress filter, so the source file will be uudecoded
     before it's uncompressed.


     There are three ways to write your own source filter. You
     can write it in C, use an external program as a filter, or
     write the filter in Perl. I won't cover the first two in any
     great detail, so I'll get them out of the way first. Writing
     the filter in Perl is most convenient, so I'll devote the
     most space to it.


     The first of the three available techniques is to write the
     filter completely in C. The external module you create
     interfaces directly with the source filter hooks provided by

     The advantage of this technique is that you have complete
     control over the implementation of your filter. The big
     disadvantage is the increased complexity required to write
     the filter - not only do you need to understand the source
     filter hooks, but you also need a reasonable knowledge of
     Perl guts. One of the few times it is worth going to this
     trouble is when writing a source scrambler. The "decrypt"
     filter (which unscrambles the source before Perl parses it)
     included with the source filter distribution is an example
     of a C source filter (see Decryption Filters, below).

     Decryption Filters

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          All decryption filters work on the principle of "secu-
          rity through obscurity." Regardless of how well you
          write a decryption filter and how strong your encryp-
          tion algorithm, anyone determined enough can retrieve
          the original source code. The reason is quite simple -
          once the decryption filter has decrypted the source
          back to its original form, fragments of it will be
          stored in the computer's memory as Perl parses it. The
          source might only be in memory for a short period of
          time, but anyone possessing a debugger, skill, and lots
          of patience can eventually reconstruct your program.

          That said, there are a number of steps that can be
          taken to make life difficult for the potential cracker.
          The most important: Write your decryption filter in C
          and statically link the decryption module into the Perl
          binary. For further tips to make life difficult for the
          potential cracker, see the file decrypt.pm in the
          source filters module.


     An alternative to writing the filter in C is to create a
     separate executable in the language of your choice. The
     separate executable reads from standard input, does whatever
     processing is necessary, and writes the filtered data to
     standard output. "Filter:cpp" is an example of a source
     filter implemented as a separate executable - the executable
     is the C preprocessor bundled with your C compiler.

     The source filter distribution includes two modules that
     simplify this task: "Filter::exec" and "Filter::sh". Both
     allow you to run any external executable. Both use a copro-
     cess to control the flow of data into and out of the exter-
     nal executable. (For details on coprocesses, see Stephens,
     W.R. "Advanced Programming in the UNIX Environment."
     Addison-Wesley, ISBN 0-210-56317-7, pages 441-445.) The
     difference between them is that "Filter::exec" spawns the
     external command directly, while "Filter::sh" spawns a shell
     to execute the external command. (Unix uses the Bourne
     shell; NT uses the cmd shell.) Spawning a shell allows you
     to make use of the shell metacharacters and redirection

     Here is an example script that uses "Filter::sh":

         use Filter::sh 'tr XYZ PQR';
         $a = 1;
         print "XYZ a = $a\n";

     The output you'll get when the script is executed:

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         PQR a = 1

     Writing a source filter as a separate executable works fine,
     but a small performance penalty is incurred. For example, if
     you execute the small example above, a separate subprocess
     will be created to run the Unix "tr" command. Each use of
     the filter requires its own subprocess. If creating sub-
     processes is expensive on your system, you might want to
     consider one of the other options for creating source


     The easiest and most portable option available for creating
     your own source filter is to write it completely in Perl. To
     distinguish this from the previous two techniques, I'll call
     it a Perl source filter.

     To help understand how to write a Perl source filter we need
     an example to study. Here is a complete source filter that
     performs rot13 decoding. (Rot13 is a very simple encryption
     scheme used in Usenet postings to hide the contents of
     offensive posts. It moves every letter forward thirteen
     places, so that A becomes N, B becomes O, and Z becomes M.)

        package Rot13;

        use Filter::Util::Call;

        sub import {
           my ($type) = @_;
           my ($ref) = [];
           filter_add(bless $ref);

        sub filter {
           my ($self) = @_;
           my ($status);

              if ($status = filter_read()) > 0;


     All Perl source filters are implemented as Perl classes and
     have the same basic structure as the example above.

     First, we include the "Filter::Util::Call" module, which
     exports a number of functions into your filter's namespace.
     The filter shown above uses two of these functions,
     "filter_add()" and "filter_read()".

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     Next, we create the filter object and associate it with the
     source stream by defining the "import" function. If you know
     Perl well enough, you know that "import" is called automati-
     cally every time a module is included with a use statement.
     This makes "import" the ideal place to both create and
     install a filter object.

     In the example filter, the object ($ref) is blessed just
     like any other Perl object. Our example uses an anonymous
     array, but this isn't a requirement. Because this example
     doesn't need to store any context information, we could have
     used a scalar or hash reference just as well. The next sec-
     tion demonstrates context data.

     The association between the filter object and the source
     stream is made with the "filter_add()" function. This takes
     a filter object as a parameter ($ref in this case) and
     installs it in the source stream.

     Finally, there is the code that actually does the filtering.
     For this type of Perl source filter, all the filtering is
     done in a method called "filter()". (It is also possible to
     write a Perl source filter using a closure. See the
     "Filter::Util::Call" manual page for more details.) It's
     called every time the Perl parser needs another line of
     source to process. The "filter()" method, in turn, reads
     lines from the source stream using the "filter_read()" func-

     If a line was available from the source stream,
     "filter_read()" returns a status value greater than zero and
     appends the line to $_. A status value of zero indicates
     end-of-file, less than zero means an error. The filter func-
     tion itself is expected to return its status in the same
     way, and put the filtered line it wants written to the
     source stream in $_. The use of $_ accounts for the brevity
     of most Perl source filters.

     In order to make use of the rot13 filter we need some way of
     encoding the source file in rot13 format. The script below,
     "mkrot13", does just that.

         die "usage mkrot13 filename\n" unless @ARGV;
         my $in = $ARGV[0];
         my $out = "$in.tmp";
         open(IN, "<$in") or die "Cannot open file $in: $!\n";
         open(OUT, ">$out") or die "Cannot open file $out: $!\n";

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         print OUT "use Rot13;\n";
         while (<IN>) {
            print OUT;

         close IN;
         close OUT;
         unlink $in;
         rename $out, $in;

     If we encrypt this with "mkrot13":

         print " hello fred \n";

     the result will be this:

         use Rot13;
         cevag "uryyb serq\a";

     Running it produces this output:

         hello fred

     The rot13 example was a trivial example. Here's another
     demonstration that shows off a few more features.

     Say you wanted to include a lot of debugging code in your
     Perl script during development, but you didn't want it
     available in the released product. Source filters offer a
     solution. In order to keep the example simple, let's say you
     wanted the debugging output to be controlled by an environ-
     ment variable, "DEBUG". Debugging code is enabled if the
     variable exists, otherwise it is disabled.

     Two special marker lines will bracket debugging code, like

         ## DEBUG_BEGIN
         if ($year > 1999) {
            warn "Debug: millennium bug in year $year\n";
         ## DEBUG_END

     When the "DEBUG" environment variable exists, the filter
     ensures that Perl parses only the code between the
     "DEBUG_BEGIN" and "DEBUG_END" markers. That means that when
     "DEBUG" does exist, the code above should be passed through
     the filter unchanged. The marker lines can also be passed
     through as-is, because the Perl parser will see them as com-
     ment lines. When "DEBUG" isn't set, we need a way to disable

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     the debug code. A simple way to achieve that is to convert
     the lines between the two markers into comments:

         ## DEBUG_BEGIN
         #if ($year > 1999) {
         #     warn "Debug: millennium bug in year $year\n";
         ## DEBUG_END

     Here is the complete Debug filter:

         package Debug;

         use strict;
         use warnings;
         use Filter::Util::Call;

         use constant TRUE => 1;
         use constant FALSE => 0;

         sub import {
            my ($type) = @_;
            my (%context) = (
              Enabled => defined $ENV{DEBUG},
              InTraceBlock => FALSE,
              Filename => (caller)[1],
              LineNo => 0,
              LastBegin => 0,
            filter_add(bless \%context);

         sub Die {
            my ($self) = shift;
            my ($message) = shift;
            my ($line_no) = shift || $self->{LastBegin};
            die "$message at $self->{Filename} line $line_no.\n"

         sub filter {
            my ($self) = @_;
            my ($status);
            $status = filter_read();
            ++ $self->{LineNo};

            # deal with EOF/error first
            if ($status <= 0) {
                $self->Die("DEBUG_BEGIN has no DEBUG_END")
                    if $self->{InTraceBlock};
                return $status;

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            if ($self->{InTraceBlock}) {
               if (/^\s*##\s*DEBUG_BEGIN/ ) {
                   $self->Die("Nested DEBUG_BEGIN", $self->{LineNo})
               } elsif (/^\s*##\s*DEBUG_END/) {
                   $self->{InTraceBlock} = FALSE;

               # comment out the debug lines when the filter is disabled
               s/^/#/ if ! $self->{Enabled};
            } elsif ( /^\s*##\s*DEBUG_BEGIN/ ) {
               $self->{InTraceBlock} = TRUE;
               $self->{LastBegin} = $self->{LineNo};
            } elsif ( /^\s*##\s*DEBUG_END/ ) {
               $self->Die("DEBUG_END has no DEBUG_BEGIN", $self->{LineNo});
            return $status;


     The big difference between this filter and the previous
     example is the use of context data in the filter object. The
     filter object is based on a hash reference, and is used to
     keep various pieces of context information between calls to
     the filter function. All but two of the hash fields are used
     for error reporting. The first of those two, Enabled, is
     used by the filter to determine whether the debugging code
     should be given to the Perl parser. The second, InTra-
     ceBlock, is true when the filter has encountered a
     "DEBUG_BEGIN" line, but has not yet encountered the follow-
     ing "DEBUG_END" line.

     If you ignore all the error checking that most of the code
     does, the essence of the filter is as follows:

         sub filter {
            my ($self) = @_;
            my ($status);
            $status = filter_read();

            # deal with EOF/error first
            return $status if $status <= 0;
            if ($self->{InTraceBlock}) {
               if (/^\s*##\s*DEBUG_END/) {
                  $self->{InTraceBlock} = FALSE

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               # comment out debug lines when the filter is disabled
               s/^/#/ if ! $self->{Enabled};
            } elsif ( /^\s*##\s*DEBUG_BEGIN/ ) {
               $self->{InTraceBlock} = TRUE;
            return $status;

     Be warned: just as the C-preprocessor doesn't know C, the
     Debug filter doesn't know Perl. It can be fooled quite

         print <<EOM;

     Such things aside, you can see that a lot can be achieved
     with a modest amount of code.


     You now have better understanding of what a source filter
     is, and you might even have a possible use for them. If you
     feel like playing with source filters but need a bit of
     inspiration, here are some extra features you could add to
     the Debug filter.

     First, an easy one. Rather than having debugging code that
     is all-or-nothing, it would be much more useful to be able
     to control which specific blocks of debugging code get
     included. Try extending the syntax for debug blocks to allow
     each to be identified. The contents of the "DEBUG" environ-
     ment variable can then be used to control which blocks get

     Once you can identify individual blocks, try allowing them
     to be nested. That isn't difficult either.

     Here is an interesting idea that doesn't involve the Debug
     filter. Currently Perl subroutines have fairly limited sup-
     port for formal parameter lists. You can specify the number
     of parameters and their type, but you still have to manually
     take them out of the @_ array yourself. Write a source
     filter that allows you to have a named parameter list. Such
     a filter would turn this:

         sub MySub ($first, $second, @rest) { ... }

     into this:

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         sub MySub($$@) {
            my ($first) = shift;
            my ($second) = shift;
            my (@rest) = @_;

     Finally, if you feel like a real challenge, have a go at
     writing a full-blown Perl macro preprocessor as a source
     filter. Borrow the useful features from the C preprocessor
     and any other macro processors you know. The tricky bit will
     be choosing how much knowledge of Perl's syntax you want
     your filter to have.


     Some Filters Clobber the "DATA" Handle
          Some source filters use the "DATA" handle to read the
          calling program. When using these source filters you
          cannot rely on this handle, nor expect any particular
          kind of behavior when operating on it.  Filters based
          on Filter::Util::Call (and therefore Filter::Simple) do
          not alter the "DATA" filehandle.


     The Source Filters distribution is available on CPAN, in


     Starting from Perl 5.8 Filter::Util::Call (the core part of
     the Source Filters distribution) is part of the standard
     Perl distribution. Also included is a friendlier interface
     called Filter::Simple, by Damian Conway.


     Paul Marquess <Paul.Marquess@btinternet.com>


     This article originally appeared in The Perl Journal #11,
     and is copyright 1998 The Perl Journal. It appears courtesy
     of Jon Orwant and The Perl Journal.  This document may be
     distributed under the same terms as Perl itself.

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