Product Review:
PerlBuilder 2.0


David Mertz, Ph.D.
Gnosis Software, Inc.
October 2000

At A Glance

Creator: Solutionsoft <info@solutionsoft.com> Price/License: Commercial ($149 Standard, $249 Professional) Home Page:http://www.solutionsoft.com/index.html Requirements: Win32 or Linux (Professional only)

Background

OK, I have a confession to start this review. Perl confuses me. Sure, I have written a script here and there to perform a bit of text processing, and modified a few others. But I am far from being one of those Perl wizards who know just what each funny symbol means in each unusual context. Therefore, I was quite excited by the advertised capabilities of Perl Builder:

Whether you are a programmer or an HTML author/Website designer without a programming background, Perl Builder 2.0 Standard makes it fast and easy to create and test scripts.
Perl Builder's powerful CGI Wizard lets you design form-handling scripts visually. You can create scripts to handle any HTML form, validate user input, save user data to a file on your website, send multiple automatic emails, and then display personalized HTML output to the user--all without writing code!

What Is Perl Builder?

Here's the lowdown: Perl Builder is a good IDE for working with Perl projects--in fact, it is a very good IDE. But don't count on doing any realistic CGI projects without writing mostly your own code. A lot of products have floated claims of "codeless" application development "wizards" or "assistants." None of them lives up to promises, so it is no shock that Perl Builder doesn't do this either.

Solutionsoft gave its marketers a bit too much rope; that was a mistake, sure. But Solutionsoft also let its developers create a quite excellent Perl development environment; so any sins are more than compensated.

Rather than focus on drag-and-drop everything, and endless toolbars and widgets for every task (as some IDE's do), Perl Builder chooses to create a good code editor accompanied by a collection of all the most useful tools for running, testing, timing, debugging, and understanding code. In my opinion, this is the right way to go. The one limitation to Solutionsoft's approach is that Perl Builder is not really of particular facility in developing GUI applications; there is no widget pallet or properties lists (how many Perl programmers really use OOP anyway?). But what Perl Builder sells itself on is its ability to aid a developer of CGI's and batch scripts. For that, it is ideal.

The basic interface to Perl Builder is a multi-tabbed text editor with a couple of special tabs for web-browser-like input and output (and for simulation of standard output or piped output). The text editor part is quite good (but obviously specific to Perl-related files for many features). You get what you would expect in a programmers' text editor: syntax highlighting, bookmarks, indent/outdent of blocks, regular expression search and replace (it is Perl, after all); automation of commenting. Per its IDE function, you get a nice dialog called "Subroutine Navigator." You don't get folding (which the free PythonWin has in about the same niche), which might be nice. You also do not get text-document features like wordwrap and reformatting options; but then, you don't need those to edit Perl code. One thing you do get is an amazingly powerful editor macro language (no prize awarded for guessing what it is).

Beyond the editor itself Perl Builder has the extra features you want in an IDE. You can set breakpoints in your code, and variable watches, and timers. It is easy to both debug and profile your code in this manner. With breakpoints, you get the usual options about stepping through code and running to other breakpoints. Watches can include any variable you want, but a quick watchlist of standard variables is available in another dialog. The dialogs associated with the various code analysis functions are usually always-on-top windows that let you see what is going on even as you are running or editing code in the main frame. Perl Builder does not use dockable panes for these functions in the style of many MS applications (the feel is similar to many XWindow interfaces, even though Perl Builder's first home is MS-Windows).

The way that Perl Builder "simulates" a CGI is really quite helpful. You can enter input in a browser-like tabbed-pane, and find the HTML output in another pane (with a button to view it in an actual web browser). For working with command-line applications, the "Interactive I/O" floating dialog is equally convenient. Between these two simulations, you can stay within Perl Builder for almost all of your development cycle (one always wants to test the final thing in the actual production environment, of course). That makes for a nice advantage over a plain text editor.

One thing I really like about Perl Builder is its help system. Integrated into Perl Builder are both WinHelp versions of a Perl function reference, a nice "pod Viewer", and links to a variety of online (or locally mirrored) help documents. When viewing CPAN's standard Perl documentation, Perl Builder wraps the help in a navigation frame, which works nicely.

Is It Worth It?

The final question about Perl Builder might be the toughest. Perl is free as in both beer and speech. A lot of Perl developers probably have sentiments toward the latter sort of freedom especially. Perl Builder is nicely done, but in a way doesn't do all that much more than some good free text editors. Is it worth giving up both a couple hundred dollars and access to the IDE's source to use Perl Builder? I guess my answers is "probably" I am not particularly poor, but am quite ideological. So Perl Builder might be a mixed-bag for me. But in the end, using Perl Builder doesn't do anything to restrict the source code I develop using it, and it is quite likely to save me a fair number of hours of work in the meantime (should I ever become less confused by Perl).

About The Author

If David Mertz were more paraleiptically inclined, he might deny his subliminal endorsement of another P--- language. You can reach him at mertz@gnosis.cx, and find copious biographical details by rooting around athttp://gnosis.cx/publish/.