Linux Zone Feature: Regina And Netrexx

Scripting with Free Software Rexx Implementations

David Mertz, Ph.D.
Text Processor, Gnosis Software, Inc.
January, 2004

It is easy to get lost in the world of "little languages"--quite a few have been written to scratch some itch of a company, individual or project. Rexx is one of these languages, with a long history of use on IBM OS's, and good current implementations for Linux and other Free Software operating systsems. Moreover, David argues that Rexx occupies a useful ecological niche between the relative crudeness of shell scripting and the cumbersome formality of full systems languages. Many Linux programmers and systems administrators would benefit from adding a Rexx implementation to their collection of go-to tools.

About Rexx

The Rexx programming language was first created in 1979, as a very high level scripting language that had a particularly strong facility for text processing tasks. Since Rexx's inception, IBM has included versions of Rexx with most of its operating systems--all the way from its mainframes, to its mid-level systems, to end user OS's like OS/2 and PC-DOS. Other OS makers, such as Amiga, have also integrated Rexx as an always-available system scripting language. A number of ISVs, moreover, have created Rexx environments for many platforms. Somewhat late in the game, ANSI officially adopted a standard for Rexx in 1996.

Nowadays (especially on Linux or BSD-derived OS's), most of those older implementations of Rexx are primarily interesting as historical footnotes. However, two currently maintained implementations of Rexx remain available across a wide range of platforms, including Linux, MacOSX and Windows: Regina and NetRexx. Regina is a native executable, available as Free Software source code, or pre-compiled to a large number of platforms--install it pretty much as you would any other programming language interpreter. NetRexx is an interesting hybrid. Much like Jython or Jacl, NetRexx compiles Rexx source code into Java bytecodes, and (optionally) runs the resulting .class file within a JVM.

In capabilities and programming level, Rexx can be compared most closely to bash plus the GNU text utilities (throwing in grep and sed for good measure); or maybe to awk or Perl. Certainly Rexx has more of a quick-and-dirty feel to it than do, e.g., Python, Ruby, or Java. The verbosity--or rather, conciseness--of Rexx is similar to that of Perl, Python, Ruby or TCL. And Rexx is certainly Turing-complete, enables modules and structured programming, and has libraries for tasks such as GUI interfaces, network programming, database access. But its most natural target is in automation of system scripting and text processing tasks. As with shell scripting, Rexx allows very natural and transparent control of external application; but compared to bash (or tcsh, ksh, etc.), Rexx contains a much richer collection of built-in control structures and (text processing) functions.

Stylistically, the IBM/mainframe roots of Rexx show in its case insensitive commands; and to a lesser degree in the relative sparcity of punctuation it uses (prefering keywords to symbols). I tend to find that these qualities aid readability; but this is mostly a matter of individual taste.

A Start At Streams And Stacks

As a simple conceit, let me present a number of versions of a very simple utility that lists files and numbers them. One feature that Rexx has in common with shell scripting is that it has a relatively impovershed collection of functions for working with the underlying operating system--mostly limited to the the ability to open, read, and modify files. For most anything else, you rely on external utilities to perform the job at hand. The utility numbered-1.rexx simply processes STDIN:


DO i=1 UNTIL lines()==0
  IF line\="" THEN
    SAY i || ") " || line

The ubiquitous instruction PARSE can read from various sources. In this case, it puts the next line of STDIN into the variable line. We also check if a line is blank, and skip showing and numbering it if so. For example, combined with ls we can get:

piping command to numbered-1

$ ls | ./numbered-1.rexx
1) ls-1.rexx
2) ls-2.rexx
3) ls-3.rexx
4) ls-4.rexx
5) ls-5.rexx
6) ls-6.rexx
7) numbered-1.rexx
8) numbered-2.rexx

You can equally pipe any other command in.

A concept at the core of Rexx is juggling multiple stacks/streams. In bash-like fashion, anything in Rexx that is not recognized as an internal instruction or function is assumed to be an external utility. There is no special function or syntax for calling an external command. Taking advantage of the Regina utility, rxqueue that puts output onto the Rexx stack, we can write a "numbered ls" utility as:


"ls | rxqueue"
DO i=1 WHILE queued() \= 0
  SAY i || ") " || line

Some instructions in Rexx may explicitly specify a stack to operate on; but other instructions operate within an environment which you configure with the ADDRESS instruction. STDIN, STDOUT, STDERR, files, and in-memory data stacks are all handled in a uniform and elegant fashion. Above we used the external rxqueue utility, but we can equally well redirect output of utilities right within Rexx. For example:


DO i=1 WHILE queued() \= 0
  PARSE PULL line; SAY i || ") " || line; END

It might appear that the ADDRESS command is grabbing the output of just the ls utility; but it is actually changing the general execution environment for later external calls, e.g. this behaves identically:


DO i=1 WHILE queued()\=0; PARSE PULL ln; SAY i||") "||ln; END

Any subsequent external commands, if they are run in the default SYSTEM environment, will direct their output to the default FIFO.(first-in-first-out). You could also output to a LIFO instead (either named or default)--the difference being that a FIFO adds to the "bottom" of the stack, and a LIFO to the "top." The instructions PUSH and QUEUE correspond to LIFO and FIFO operations on the stack. The instruction PULL or PARSE PULL take a string off the top of the stack.

Another useful stack to look at is that of the command-line arguments to a Rexx script. For example, we might want to execute an arbitrary command in our numbering utility, not always ls:


DO i=1 WHILE queued()\=0; PARSE PULL ln; SAY i||") "||ln; END

For example:

passing command to numbered-1

$ ./numbered-2.rexx ps -a -x
2)     1  ??  Ss     0:00.00 /sbin/init
3)     2  ??  Ss     0:00.19 /sbin/mach_init
4)    51  ??  Ss     0:01.95 kextd

PARSE PULL can be used to pull lines from user input. Following the example of the execution of the argument cmd, you could write a shell or interactive environment in Rexx (perhaps running either external utilities or built-in commands, much like bash).

Stem Variables And Associative Arrays

In Rexx--somewhat like in TCL--to a large extent everything is a string. Having stacks and streams composed of lines gives you a simple list or array of strings. But mostly, strings simply act like other datatypes as needed. For example, a string that contains a suitable representation of a number (digits, decimal, an exponent "e", etc.) can be used in arithmetic operations. For processing reports, log files, and the like, this is exactly the behavior you want.

Rexx, however, does have one additional standard datatype: associative arrays. In Rexx they go under the name "stem variables," but the concept is very similar that of dictionaries in many other languages. The syntax for stem variables will be oddly familiar to users of OOP languages like Java, Python, or Ruby: a dot separates "objects" and their "attributes." This is not really object-orientation, but the syntax does (accidentally) highlight the degree to which an object resembles a particularly robust dictionary; there are OOP extensions to Rexx out there, but this article will not address them.

Not every string is valid Rexx symbol--which restricts the keys in the dictionary--but Rexx is pretty liberal about its symbol names, compared to most languages. E.g.

Using stem variables in Rexx

$ cat stems.rexx
foo.X_! = 1
foo.X_!1.23 = 2
foo.fop.fip = 3
foo.fop = 4
SAY foo.X_! # foo.X_!1.23 # foo.fop.fip # foo.fop # foo.fop.NOPE
$ ./stems.rexx
1 # 2 # 3 # 4 # FOO.FOP.NOPE

A couple features stand out in the example. We set a value for both a stem and its compound (e.g. foo.fop and foo.fop.fip). Also notice that the undefined symbol foo.fop.nope simply stands for its own spelling, absent an assignment to the contrary. This lets us skip quotes in most situations. Case of names is normalized to upper case in most Rexx contexts.

One useful trick is to set a value for the dotted stem, which then acts as a default value for compound names based on the stem. For the next example, we also make use of the capability to ADDRESS the sequential numbered symbols of a compound name as an output environment:


ls. = UNDEF
DO i=1
    SAY i || ") " || ls.i

As soon as the loop gets to some compound variable name that was not populated by the output of the external ls utility, we detect the default value of "UNDEF" and leave the loop (if the output might contain that string, a false collision could occur, however).

Rexx also has an error handling system that lets you SIGNAL conditions, and handle them appropriately. Instead of checking for a default compound value, you can also catch the access to an undefined variable. E.g.:


DO i=1
    SAY i || ") " || ls.i

Just to round our ls variants out, here is one more that uses a file for its I/O:


DO i=1
    line = linein(files)
    IF line = "" THEN LEAVE
    SAY i || ") " || line
rm files

Since the output stream is a regular file, it is probably good to remove it at the end.

Text Processing Functions

The brief examples above will give readers a bit of the feel of Rexx as a programming language. You can also, of course, define your own procedures and functions--in separate module files, if you wish--and call them either with the CALL instruction or using parenthesized arguments, as with some of the examples that use standard functions.

Perhaps the greatest strength in Rexx as a text processing language is its useful collection of built-in string manipulation functions. Somewhere over half of all the standard Rexx functions are for working with strings, with a chunk of others thrown in for quite readable manipulation of bit vectors. Moreover, even bit vectors are often manipulated (or read in) as strings of ones and zeros:


SAY b2c('01100001') b2c('01100010')         /* --> a b */
SAY bitor(b2c('01100001'), b2c('01100010')) /* --> c   */
SAY bitor('a','b')                          /* --> c   */
/* Function in ARexx, but not ANSI Rexx */
  ARG bits
  return x2c(b2x(bits))

A nice feature of Rexx's text handling functions is the naturalness of treating lines as being composed of whitespace separated words. For textual reports and log files, easily ignoring extraneous whitespace is quite useful--'awk' does something similar, but Python's string.split() quickly gets more "busy" in describing the same operations. In fact, "arrays" is Rexx just amount to whitespace separated strings. The PULL instruction will pull out variables from a general template pattern for a line, which at a minimal case allows word division:


PUSH "a b c d e f"
PULL x y " C " z   /* pull x and y before the C, remainder into z */
SAY x # y # z    /* --> A # B # D E F */

Further dividing strings that may or may not have been pulled with a template is elegant. Functions like wordpos(), word(), wordindex() or words(), subword() let you refer to the "words" in a string as if they made up a list, e.g.:

Working with words in a string

seuss = "The cat in the hat came back"
thehat = wordpos('the hat', seuss)
SAY "'came'" is wordlength(seuss, thehat+2) letters long
/* --> 'came' IS 4 LETTERS LONG */

Of course, you also get a rich collection of character-oriented functions as well. It is equally easy to work with character positions using functions like reverse(), right(), justify(), center(), pos(), or substr() (and others).

Another batch of the built-in functions let you work with dates and numbers in a flexible, report-oriented, way. That is, numbers can be read and written in a variety of formats, with arbitrary (configurable) precision. Dates, similarly, can be read, written and converted among many formats with standard function calls (e.g. day-of-week, days-in-century, European versus US dates, etc.). The flexibility with dates and numbers is probably less often necessary in writing system scripts and processing log files than it is in working with semi-structured output reports from database applications. But when you need it, it is much more robust to have well-tested built-in functions than to write your own ad-hoc converters and formatters.

Wrap Up

Coming more out of an IBM "big-iron" environment than from Unix systems, Rexx is little-known to many Linux programmers and systems administrators. But there remains an important Linux niche where Rexx is a better scripting solution than either the "too-light" bash or ksh shells, or the "too-heavy" interpreted programming languages like Python, Perl, Ruby, TCL, or maybe Scheme. For quick and easily readable scripts that perform text manipulation on the inputs and outputs of external processes, Rexx is hard to beat, and not hard to learn or install.


Regina is the LGPL Rexx implementation used in writing and testing the examples in this article, and for most people will be the best choice for an environment to install. Regina is available on an extremely wide range of platforms, and is fully ANSI compliant (with a few extensions added):

At the URL for Regina, you can also find links to a number of useful Rexx libraries for working with application areas like Tk, Curses, Sockets, SQL, and other areas.

NetRexx is an IBM project for compiling Rexx code for a Java Virtual Machine. While it is certainly possible to use NetRexx for client/workstation scripting needs, the main focus of NetRexx is to allow more rapid development of server-side Java applications (JSP and related technologies):

The Rexx Language Association is a a general advocacy group for the Rexx programming language. Their site contains miscellaneous links to useful libraries and other resources.

IBM also maintains a nice list of Rexx resources. You can find tutorials, references, and links to a variety of modern libraries here:

David Mertz and Andrew Blais have written a tutorial introducing the GNU Text Utilities, which cover a similar range of capabilities to those contained in Rexx.


About The Author

Picture of Author David Mertz' fondness for IBM dates back embarrassingly many decades. David may be reached at [email protected]; his life pored over at And buy his book: Text Processing in Python (