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       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 basics.


       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 well.

       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 file.

       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 operates.

           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 intercepts and
       modifies a source stream before it reaches the parser. A source filter
       changes our diagram like this:

           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

           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 statement.

       Say you want to pass your Perl source through the C preprocessor before
       execution. As it happens, the source filters distribution comes with a
       C preprocessor filter module called Filter::cpp.

       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 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)

  ----> parser

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

           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 Perl.

       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
            All decryption filters work on the principle of "security through
            obscurity." Regardless of how well you write a decryption filter
            and how strong your encryption algorithm is, 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
            in the source filters distribution.


       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 coprocess to control the flow of data
       into and out of the external 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 facilities.

       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:

           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 subprocesses is expensive on your system, you might want to
       consider one of the other options for creating source filters.


       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()".

       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 automatically 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 section 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()" function.

       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 function 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

           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";

           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 environment variable, "DEBUG". Debugging code is enabled if the
       variable exists, otherwise it is disabled.

       Two special marker lines will bracket debugging code, like this:

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

       The filter ensures that Perl parses the code between the <DEBUG_BEGIN>
       and "DEBUG_END" markers only when the "DEBUG" environment variable
       exists. 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 comment
       lines. When "DEBUG" isn't set, we need a way to disable 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;

              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, InTraceBlock, is true
       when the filter has encountered a "DEBUG_BEGIN" line, but has not yet
       encountered the following "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

                 # 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 easily:

           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" environment variable can then be used to control which
       blocks get included.

       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 support 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:

           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.


       Source filters only work on the string level, thus are highly limited
       in its ability to change source code on the fly. It cannot detect
       comments, quoted strings, heredocs, it is no replacement for a real
       parser.  The only stable usage for source filters are encryption,
       compression, or the byteloader, to translate binary code back to source

       See for example the limitations in Switch, which uses source filters,
       and thus is does not work inside a string eval, the presence of regexes
       with embedded newlines that are specified with raw "/.../" delimiters
       and don't have a modifier "//x" are indistinguishable from code chunks
       beginning with the division operator "/". As a workaround you must use
       "m/.../" or "m?...?" for such patterns. Also, the presence of regexes
       specified with raw "?...?" delimiters may cause mysterious errors. The
       workaround is to use "m?...?" instead.  See

       Currently the content of the "__DATA__" block is not filtered.

       Currently internal buffer lengths are limited to 32-bit only.


       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, but on the
            other hand totally ignore the text after "__DATA__".


       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


       Paul Marquess <>

       Reini Urban <>


       The first version of 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.

perl v5.34.0                      2020-11-18                   PERLFILTER(1pm)

perl 5.34.0 - Generated Fri Feb 25 19:51:52 CST 2022
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