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PERLPACKTUT(1pm)       Perl Programmers Reference Guide       PERLPACKTUT(1pm)


       perlpacktut - tutorial on "pack" and "unpack"


       "pack" and "unpack" are two functions for transforming data according
       to a user-defined template, between the guarded way Perl stores values
       and some well-defined representation as might be required in the
       environment of a Perl program. Unfortunately, they're also two of the
       most misunderstood and most often overlooked functions that Perl
       provides. This tutorial will demystify them for you.

The Basic Principle

       Most programming languages don't shelter the memory where variables are
       stored. In C, for instance, you can take the address of some variable,
       and the "sizeof" operator tells you how many bytes are allocated to the
       variable. Using the address and the size, you may access the storage to
       your heart's content.

       In Perl, you just can't access memory at random, but the structural and
       representational conversion provided by "pack" and "unpack" is an
       excellent alternative. The "pack" function converts values to a byte
       sequence containing representations according to a given specification,
       the so-called "template" argument. "unpack" is the reverse process,
       deriving some values from the contents of a string of bytes. (Be
       cautioned, however, that not all that has been packed together can be
       neatly unpacked - a very common experience as seasoned travellers are
       likely to confirm.)

       Why, you may ask, would you need a chunk of memory containing some
       values in binary representation? One good reason is input and output
       accessing some file, a device, or a network connection, whereby this
       binary representation is either forced on you or will give you some
       benefit in processing. Another cause is passing data to some system
       call that is not available as a Perl function: "syscall" requires you
       to provide parameters stored in the way it happens in a C program. Even
       text processing (as shown in the next section) may be simplified with
       judicious usage of these two functions.

       To see how (un)packing works, we'll start with a simple template code
       where the conversion is in low gear: between the contents of a byte
       sequence and a string of hexadecimal digits. Let's use "unpack", since
       this is likely to remind you of a dump program, or some desperate last
       message unfortunate programs are wont to throw at you before they
       expire into the wild blue yonder. Assuming that the variable $mem holds
       a sequence of bytes that we'd like to inspect without assuming anything
       about its meaning, we can write

          my( $hex ) = unpack( 'H*', $mem );
          print "$hex\n";

       whereupon we might see something like this, with each pair of hex
       digits corresponding to a byte:


       What was in this chunk of memory? Numbers, characters, or a mixture of
       both? Assuming that we're on a computer where ASCII (or some similar)
       encoding is used: hexadecimal values in the range 0x40 - 0x5A indicate
       an uppercase letter, and 0x20 encodes a space. So we might assume it is
       a piece of text, which some are able to read like a tabloid; but others
       will have to get hold of an ASCII table and relive that firstgrader
       feeling. Not caring too much about which way to read this, we note that
       "unpack" with the template code "H" converts the contents of a sequence
       of bytes into the customary hexadecimal notation. Since "a sequence of"
       is a pretty vague indication of quantity, "H" has been defined to
       convert just a single hexadecimal digit unless it is followed by a
       repeat count. An asterisk for the repeat count means to use whatever

       The inverse operation - packing byte contents from a string of
       hexadecimal digits - is just as easily written. For instance:

          my $s = pack( 'H2' x 10, 30..39 );
          print "$s\n";

       Since we feed a list of ten 2-digit hexadecimal strings to "pack", the
       pack template should contain ten pack codes. If this is run on a
       computer with ASCII character coding, it will print 0123456789.

Packing Text

       Let's suppose you've got to read in a data file like this:

           Date      |Description                | Income|Expenditure
           01/24/2001 Zed's Camel Emporium                    1147.99
           01/28/2001 Flea spray                                24.99
           01/29/2001 Camel rides to tourists      235.00

       How do we do it? You might think first to use "split"; however, since
       "split" collapses blank fields, you'll never know whether a record was
       income or expenditure. Oops. Well, you could always use "substr":

           while (<>) {
               my $date   = substr($_,  0, 11);
               my $desc   = substr($_, 12, 27);
               my $income = substr($_, 40,  7);
               my $expend = substr($_, 52,  7);

       It's not really a barrel of laughs, is it? In fact, it's worse than it
       may seem; the eagle-eyed may notice that the first field should only be
       10 characters wide, and the error has propagated right through the
       other numbers - which we've had to count by hand. So it's error-prone
       as well as horribly unfriendly.

       Or maybe we could use regular expressions:

           while (<>) {
               my($date, $desc, $income, $expend) =
                   m|(\d\d/\d\d/\d{4}) (.{27}) (.{7})(.*)|;

       Urgh. Well, it's a bit better, but - well, would you want to maintain

       Hey, isn't Perl supposed to make this sort of thing easy? Well, it
       does, if you use the right tools. "pack" and "unpack" are designed to
       help you out when dealing with fixed-width data like the above. Let's
       have a look at a solution with "unpack":

           while (<>) {
               my($date, $desc, $income, $expend) = unpack("A10xA27xA7A*", $_);

       That looks a bit nicer; but we've got to take apart that weird
       template.  Where did I pull that out of?

       OK, let's have a look at some of our data again; in fact, we'll include
       the headers, and a handy ruler so we can keep track of where we are.

                    1         2         3         4         5
           Date      |Description                | Income|Expenditure
           01/28/2001 Flea spray                                24.99
           01/29/2001 Camel rides to tourists      235.00

       From this, we can see that the date column stretches from column 1 to
       column 10 - ten characters wide. The "pack"-ese for "character" is "A",
       and ten of them are "A10". So if we just wanted to extract the dates,
       we could say this:

           my($date) = unpack("A10", $_);

       OK, what's next? Between the date and the description is a blank
       column; we want to skip over that. The "x" template means "skip
       forward", so we want one of those. Next, we have another batch of
       characters, from 12 to 38. That's 27 more characters, hence "A27".
       (Don't make the fencepost error - there are 27 characters between 12
       and 38, not 26. Count 'em!)

       Now we skip another character and pick up the next 7 characters:

           my($date,$description,$income) = unpack("A10xA27xA7", $_);

       Now comes the clever bit. Lines in our ledger which are just income and
       not expenditure might end at column 46. Hence, we don't want to tell
       our "unpack" pattern that we need to find another 12 characters; we'll
       just say "if there's anything left, take it". As you might guess from
       regular expressions, that's what the "*" means: "use everything

       o  Be warned, though, that unlike regular expressions, if the "unpack"
          template doesn't match the incoming data, Perl will scream and die.

       Hence, putting it all together:

           my ($date, $description, $income, $expend) =
               unpack("A10xA27xA7xA*", $_);

       Now, that's our data parsed. I suppose what we might want to do now is
       total up our income and expenditure, and add another line to the end of
       our ledger - in the same format - saying how much we've brought in and
       how much we've spent:

           while (<>) {
               my ($date, $desc, $income, $expend) =
                   unpack("A10xA27xA7xA*", $_);
               $tot_income += $income;
               $tot_expend += $expend;

           $tot_income = sprintf("%.2f", $tot_income); # Get them into
           $tot_expend = sprintf("%.2f", $tot_expend); # "financial" format

           $date = POSIX::strftime("%m/%d/%Y", localtime);

           # OK, let's go:

           print pack("A10xA27xA7xA*", $date, "Totals",
               $tot_income, $tot_expend);

       Oh, hmm. That didn't quite work. Let's see what happened:

           01/24/2001 Zed's Camel Emporium                     1147.99
           01/28/2001 Flea spray                                 24.99
           01/29/2001 Camel rides to tourists     1235.00
           03/23/2001Totals                     1235.001172.98

       OK, it's a start, but what happened to the spaces? We put "x", didn't
       we? Shouldn't it skip forward? Let's look at what "pack" in perlfunc

           x   A null byte.

       Urgh. No wonder. There's a big difference between "a null byte",
       character zero, and "a space", character 32. Perl's put something
       between the date and the description - but unfortunately, we can't see

       What we actually need to do is expand the width of the fields. The "A"
       format pads any non-existent characters with spaces, so we can use the
       additional spaces to line up our fields, like this:

           print pack("A11 A28 A8 A*", $date, "Totals",
               $tot_income, $tot_expend);

       (Note that you can put spaces in the template to make it more readable,
       but they don't translate to spaces in the output.) Here's what we got
       this time:

           01/24/2001 Zed's Camel Emporium                     1147.99
           01/28/2001 Flea spray                                 24.99
           01/29/2001 Camel rides to tourists     1235.00
           03/23/2001 Totals                      1235.00 1172.98

       That's a bit better, but we still have that last column which needs to
       be moved further over. There's an easy way to fix this up:
       unfortunately, we can't get "pack" to right-justify our fields, but we
       can get "sprintf" to do it:

           $tot_income = sprintf("%.2f", $tot_income);
           $tot_expend = sprintf("%12.2f", $tot_expend);
           $date = POSIX::strftime("%m/%d/%Y", localtime);
           print pack("A11 A28 A8 A*", $date, "Totals",
               $tot_income, $tot_expend);

       This time we get the right answer:

           01/28/2001 Flea spray                                 24.99
           01/29/2001 Camel rides to tourists     1235.00
           03/23/2001 Totals                      1235.00      1172.98

       So that's how we consume and produce fixed-width data. Let's recap what
       we've seen of "pack" and "unpack" so far:

       o  Use "pack" to go from several pieces of data to one fixed-width
          version; use "unpack" to turn a fixed-width-format string into
          several pieces of data.

       o  The pack format "A" means "any character"; if you're "pack"ing and
          you've run out of things to pack, "pack" will fill the rest up with

       o  "x" means "skip a byte" when "unpack"ing; when "pack"ing, it means
          "introduce a null byte" - that's probably not what you mean if
          you're dealing with plain text.

       o  You can follow the formats with numbers to say how many characters
          should be affected by that format: "A12" means "take 12 characters";
          "x6" means "skip 6 bytes" or "character 0, 6 times".

       o  Instead of a number, you can use "*" to mean "consume everything
          else left".

          Warning: when packing multiple pieces of data, "*" only means
          "consume all of the current piece of data". That's to say

              pack("A*A*", $one, $two)

          packs all of $one into the first "A*" and then all of $two into the
          second. This is a general principle: each format character
          corresponds to one piece of data to be "pack"ed.

Packing Numbers

       So much for textual data. Let's get onto the meaty stuff that "pack"
       and "unpack" are best at: handling binary formats for numbers. There
       is, of course, not just one binary format  - life would be too simple -
       but Perl will do all the finicky labor for you.

       Packing and unpacking numbers implies conversion to and from some
       specific binary representation. Leaving floating point numbers aside
       for the moment, the salient properties of any such representation are:

       o   the number of bytes used for storing the integer,

       o   whether the contents are interpreted as a signed or unsigned

       o   the byte ordering: whether the first byte is the least or most
           significant byte (or: little-endian or big-endian, respectively).

       So, for instance, to pack 20302 to a signed 16 bit integer in your
       computer's representation you write

          my $ps = pack( 's', 20302 );

       Again, the result is a string, now containing 2 bytes. If you print
       this string (which is, generally, not recommended) you might see "ON"
       or "NO" (depending on your system's byte ordering) - or something
       entirely different if your computer doesn't use ASCII character
       encoding.  Unpacking $ps with the same template returns the original
       integer value:

          my( $s ) = unpack( 's', $ps );

       This is true for all numeric template codes. But don't expect miracles:
       if the packed value exceeds the allotted byte capacity, high order bits
       are silently discarded, and unpack certainly won't be able to pull them
       back out of some magic hat. And, when you pack using a signed template
       code such as "s", an excess value may result in the sign bit getting
       set, and unpacking this will smartly return a negative value.

       16 bits won't get you too far with integers, but there is "l" and "L"
       for signed and unsigned 32-bit integers. And if this is not enough and
       your system supports 64 bit integers you can push the limits much
       closer to infinity with pack codes "q" and "Q". A notable exception is
       provided by pack codes "i" and "I" for signed and unsigned integers of
       the "local custom" variety: Such an integer will take up as many bytes
       as a local C compiler returns for "sizeof(int)", but it'll use at least
       32 bits.

       Each of the integer pack codes "sSlLqQ" results in a fixed number of
       bytes, no matter where you execute your program. This may be useful for
       some applications, but it does not provide for a portable way to pass
       data structures between Perl and C programs (bound to happen when you
       call XS extensions or the Perl function "syscall"), or when you read or
       write binary files. What you'll need in this case are template codes
       that depend on what your local C compiler compiles when you code
       "short" or "unsigned long", for instance. These codes and their
       corresponding byte lengths are shown in the table below.  Since the C
       standard leaves much leeway with respect to the relative sizes of these
       data types, actual values may vary, and that's why the values are given
       as expressions in C and Perl. (If you'd like to use values from %Config
       in your program you have to import it with "use Config".)

          signed unsigned  byte length in C   byte length in Perl
            s!     S!      sizeof(short)      $Config{shortsize}
            i!     I!      sizeof(int)        $Config{intsize}
            l!     L!      sizeof(long)       $Config{longsize}
            q!     Q!      sizeof(long long)  $Config{longlongsize}

       The "i!" and "I!" codes aren't different from "i" and "I"; they are
       tolerated for completeness' sake.

   Unpacking a Stack Frame
       Requesting a particular byte ordering may be necessary when you work
       with binary data coming from some specific architecture whereas your
       program could run on a totally different system. As an example, assume
       you have 24 bytes containing a stack frame as it happens on an Intel

             +---------+        +----+----+               +---------+
        TOS: |   IP    |  TOS+4:| FL | FH | FLAGS  TOS+14:|   SI    |
             +---------+        +----+----+               +---------+
             |   CS    |        | AL | AH | AX            |   DI    |
             +---------+        +----+----+               +---------+
                                | BL | BH | BX            |   BP    |
                                +----+----+               +---------+
                                | CL | CH | CX            |   DS    |
                                +----+----+               +---------+
                                | DL | DH | DX            |   ES    |
                                +----+----+               +---------+

       First, we note that this time-honored 16-bit CPU uses little-endian
       order, and that's why the low order byte is stored at the lower
       address. To unpack such a (unsigned) short we'll have to use code "v".
       A repeat count unpacks all 12 shorts:

          my( $ip, $cs, $flags, $ax, $bx, $cx, $dx, $si, $di, $bp, $ds, $es ) =
            unpack( 'v12', $frame );

       Alternatively, we could have used "C" to unpack the individually
       accessible byte registers FL, FH, AL, AH, etc.:

          my( $fl, $fh, $al, $ah, $bl, $bh, $cl, $ch, $dl, $dh ) =
            unpack( 'C10', substr( $frame, 4, 10 ) );

       It would be nice if we could do this in one fell swoop: unpack a short,
       back up a little, and then unpack 2 bytes. Since Perl is nice, it
       proffers the template code "X" to back up one byte. Putting this all
       together, we may now write:

          my( $ip, $cs,
              $ax,$al,$ah, $bx,$bl,$bh, $cx,$cl,$ch, $dx,$dl,$dh,
              $si, $di, $bp, $ds, $es ) =
          unpack( 'v2' . ('vXXCC' x 5) . 'v5', $frame );

       (The clumsy construction of the template can be avoided - just read

       We've taken some pains to construct the template so that it matches the
       contents of our frame buffer. Otherwise we'd either get undefined
       values, or "unpack" could not unpack all. If "pack" runs out of items,
       it will supply null strings (which are coerced into zeroes whenever the
       pack code says so).

   How to Eat an Egg on a Net
       The pack code for big-endian (high order byte at the lowest address) is
       "n" for 16 bit and "N" for 32 bit integers. You use these codes if you
       know that your data comes from a compliant architecture, but,
       surprisingly enough, you should also use these pack codes if you
       exchange binary data, across the network, with some system that you
       know next to nothing about. The simple reason is that this order has
       been chosen as the network order, and all standard-fearing programs
       ought to follow this convention. (This is, of course, a stern backing
       for one of the Lilliputian parties and may well influence the political
       development there.) So, if the protocol expects you to send a message
       by sending the length first, followed by just so many bytes, you could

          my $buf = pack( 'N', length( $msg ) ) . $msg;

       or even:

          my $buf = pack( 'NA*', length( $msg ), $msg );

       and pass $buf to your send routine. Some protocols demand that the
       count should include the length of the count itself: then just add 4 to
       the data length. (But make sure to read "Lengths and Widths" before you
       really code this!)

   Byte-order modifiers
       In the previous sections we've learned how to use "n", "N", "v" and "V"
       to pack and unpack integers with big- or little-endian byte-order.
       While this is nice, it's still rather limited because it leaves out all
       kinds of signed integers as well as 64-bit integers. For example, if
       you wanted to unpack a sequence of signed big-endian 16-bit integers in
       a platform-independent way, you would have to write:

          my @data = unpack 's*', pack 'S*', unpack 'n*', $buf;

       This is ugly. As of Perl 5.9.2, there's a much nicer way to express
       your desire for a certain byte-order: the ">" and "<" modifiers.  ">"
       is the big-endian modifier, while "<" is the little-endian modifier.
       Using them, we could rewrite the above code as:

          my @data = unpack 's>*', $buf;

       As you can see, the "big end" of the arrow touches the "s", which is a
       nice way to remember that ">" is the big-endian modifier. The same
       obviously works for "<", where the "little end" touches the code.

       You will probably find these modifiers even more useful if you have to
       deal with big- or little-endian C structures. Be sure to read "Packing
       and Unpacking C Structures" for more on that.

   Floating point Numbers
       For packing floating point numbers you have the choice between the pack
       codes "f", "d", "F" and "D". "f" and "d" pack into (or unpack from)
       single-precision or double-precision representation as it is provided
       by your system. If your systems supports it, "D" can be used to pack
       and unpack ("long double") values, which can offer even more resolution
       than "f" or "d".  Note that there are different long double formats.

       "F" packs an "NV", which is the floating point type used by Perl

       There is no such thing as a network representation for reals, so if you
       want to send your real numbers across computer boundaries, you'd better
       stick to text representation, possibly using the hexadecimal float
       format (avoiding the decimal conversion loss), unless you're absolutely
       sure what's on the other end of the line. For the even more
       adventuresome, you can use the byte-order modifiers from the previous
       section also on floating point codes.

Exotic Templates

   Bit Strings
       Bits are the atoms in the memory world. Access to individual bits may
       have to be used either as a last resort or because it is the most
       convenient way to handle your data. Bit string (un)packing converts
       between strings containing a series of 0 and 1 characters and a
       sequence of bytes each containing a group of 8 bits. This is almost as
       simple as it sounds, except that there are two ways the contents of a
       byte may be written as a bit string. Let's have a look at an annotated

            7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0
          | 1 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 |
           MSB           LSB

       It's egg-eating all over again: Some think that as a bit string this
       should be written "10001100" i.e. beginning with the most significant
       bit, others insist on "00110001". Well, Perl isn't biased, so that's
       why we have two bit string codes:

          $byte = pack( 'B8', '10001100' ); # start with MSB
          $byte = pack( 'b8', '00110001' ); # start with LSB

       It is not possible to pack or unpack bit fields - just integral bytes.
       "pack" always starts at the next byte boundary and "rounds up" to the
       next multiple of 8 by adding zero bits as required. (If you do want bit
       fields, there is "vec" in perlfunc. Or you could implement bit field
       handling at the character string level, using split, substr, and
       concatenation on unpacked bit strings.)

       To illustrate unpacking for bit strings, we'll decompose a simple
       status register (a "-" stands for a "reserved" bit):

          | S Z - A - P - C | - - - - O D I T |
           MSB           LSB MSB           LSB

       Converting these two bytes to a string can be done with the unpack
       template 'b16'. To obtain the individual bit values from the bit string
       we use "split" with the "empty" separator pattern which dissects into
       individual characters. Bit values from the "reserved" positions are
       simply assigned to "undef", a convenient notation for "I don't care
       where this goes".

          ($carry, undef, $parity, undef, $auxcarry, undef, $zero, $sign,
           $trace, $interrupt, $direction, $overflow) =
             split( //, unpack( 'b16', $status ) );

       We could have used an unpack template 'b12' just as well, since the
       last 4 bits can be ignored anyway.

       Another odd-man-out in the template alphabet is "u", which packs a
       "uuencoded string". ("uu" is short for Unix-to-Unix.) Chances are that
       you won't ever need this encoding technique which was invented to
       overcome the shortcomings of old-fashioned transmission mediums that do
       not support other than simple ASCII data. The essential recipe is
       simple: Take three bytes, or 24 bits. Split them into 4 six-packs,
       adding a space (0x20) to each. Repeat until all of the data is blended.
       Fold groups of 4 bytes into lines no longer than 60 and garnish them in
       front with the original byte count (incremented by 0x20) and a "\n" at
       the end. - The "pack" chef will prepare this for you, a la minute, when
       you select pack code "u" on the menu:

          my $uubuf = pack( 'u', $bindat );

       A repeat count after "u" sets the number of bytes to put into an
       uuencoded line, which is the maximum of 45 by default, but could be set
       to some (smaller) integer multiple of three. "unpack" simply ignores
       the repeat count.

   Doing Sums
       An even stranger template code is "%"<number>. First, because it's used
       as a prefix to some other template code. Second, because it cannot be
       used in "pack" at all, and third, in "unpack", doesn't return the data
       as defined by the template code it precedes. Instead it'll give you an
       integer of number bits that is computed from the data value by doing
       sums. For numeric unpack codes, no big feat is achieved:

           my $buf = pack( 'iii', 100, 20, 3 );
           print unpack( '%32i3', $buf ), "\n";  # prints 123

       For string values, "%" returns the sum of the byte values saving you
       the trouble of a sum loop with "substr" and "ord":

           print unpack( '%32A*', "\x01\x10" ), "\n";  # prints 17

       Although the "%" code is documented as returning a "checksum": don't
       put your trust in such values! Even when applied to a small number of
       bytes, they won't guarantee a noticeable Hamming distance.

       In connection with "b" or "B", "%" simply adds bits, and this can be
       put to good use to count set bits efficiently:

           my $bitcount = unpack( '%32b*', $mask );

       And an even parity bit can be determined like this:

           my $evenparity = unpack( '%1b*', $mask );

       Unicode is a character set that can represent most characters in most
       of the world's languages, providing room for over one million different
       characters. Unicode 3.1 specifies 94,140 characters: The Basic Latin
       characters are assigned to the numbers 0 - 127. The Latin-1 Supplement
       with characters that are used in several European languages is in the
       next range, up to 255. After some more Latin extensions we find the
       character sets from languages using non-Roman alphabets, interspersed
       with a variety of symbol sets such as currency symbols, Zapf Dingbats
       or Braille.  (You might want to visit <> for a
       look at some of them - my personal favourites are Telugu and Kannada.)

       The Unicode character sets associates characters with integers.
       Encoding these numbers in an equal number of bytes would more than
       double the requirements for storing texts written in Latin alphabets.
       The UTF-8 encoding avoids this by storing the most common (from a
       western point of view) characters in a single byte while encoding the
       rarer ones in three or more bytes.

       Perl uses UTF-8, internally, for most Unicode strings.

       So what has this got to do with "pack"? Well, if you want to compose a
       Unicode string (that is internally encoded as UTF-8), you can do so by
       using template code "U". As an example, let's produce the Euro currency
       symbol (code number 0x20AC):

          $UTF8{Euro} = pack( 'U', 0x20AC );
          # Equivalent to: $UTF8{Euro} = "\x{20ac}";

       Inspecting $UTF8{Euro} shows that it contains 3 bytes: "\xe2\x82\xac".
       However, it contains only 1 character, number 0x20AC.  The round trip
       can be completed with "unpack":

          $Unicode{Euro} = unpack( 'U', $UTF8{Euro} );

       Unpacking using the "U" template code also works on UTF-8 encoded byte

       Usually you'll want to pack or unpack UTF-8 strings:

          # pack and unpack the Hebrew alphabet
          my $alefbet = pack( 'U*', 0x05d0..0x05ea );
          my @hebrew = unpack( 'U*', $utf );

       Please note: in the general case, you're better off using
       "Encode::decode('UTF-8', $utf)" to decode a UTF-8 encoded byte string
       to a Perl Unicode string, and "Encode::encode('UTF-8', $str)" to encode
       a Perl Unicode string to UTF-8 bytes. These functions provide means of
       handling invalid byte sequences and generally have a friendlier

   Another Portable Binary Encoding
       The pack code "w" has been added to support a portable binary data
       encoding scheme that goes way beyond simple integers. (Details can be
       found at
       the Scarab project.)  A BER (Binary Encoded Representation) compressed
       unsigned integer stores base 128 digits, most significant digit first,
       with as few digits as possible.  Bit eight (the high bit) is set on
       each byte except the last. There is no size limit to BER encoding, but
       Perl won't go to extremes.

          my $berbuf = pack( 'w*', 1, 128, 128+1, 128*128+127 );

       A hex dump of $berbuf, with spaces inserted at the right places, shows
       01 8100 8101 81807F. Since the last byte is always less than 128,
       "unpack" knows where to stop.

Template Grouping

       Prior to Perl 5.8, repetitions of templates had to be made by
       "x"-multiplication of template strings. Now there is a better way as we
       may use the pack codes "(" and ")" combined with a repeat count.  The
       "unpack" template from the Stack Frame example can simply be written
       like this:

          unpack( 'v2 (vXXCC)5 v5', $frame )

       Let's explore this feature a little more. We'll begin with the
       equivalent of

          join( '', map( substr( $_, 0, 1 ), @str ) )

       which returns a string consisting of the first character from each
       string.  Using pack, we can write

          pack( '(A)'.@str, @str )

       or, because a repeat count "*" means "repeat as often as required",

          pack( '(A)*', @str )

       (Note that the template "A*" would only have packed $str[0] in full

       To pack dates stored as triplets ( day, month, year ) in an array
       @dates into a sequence of byte, byte, short integer we can write

          $pd = pack( '(CCS)*', map( @$_, @dates ) );

       To swap pairs of characters in a string (with even length) one could
       use several techniques. First, let's use "x" and "X" to skip forward
       and back:

          $s = pack( '(A)*', unpack( '(xAXXAx)*', $s ) );

       We can also use "@" to jump to an offset, with 0 being the position
       where we were when the last "(" was encountered:

          $s = pack( '(A)*', unpack( '(@1A @0A @2)*', $s ) );

       Finally, there is also an entirely different approach by unpacking big
       endian shorts and packing them in the reverse byte order:

          $s = pack( '(v)*', unpack( '(n)*', $s );

Lengths and Widths

   String Lengths
       In the previous section we've seen a network message that was
       constructed by prefixing the binary message length to the actual
       message. You'll find that packing a length followed by so many bytes of
       data is a frequently used recipe since appending a null byte won't work
       if a null byte may be part of the data. Here is an example where both
       techniques are used: after two null terminated strings with source and
       destination address, a Short Message (to a mobile phone) is sent after
       a length byte:

          my $msg = pack( 'Z*Z*CA*', $src, $dst, length( $sm ), $sm );

       Unpacking this message can be done with the same template:

          ( $src, $dst, $len, $sm ) = unpack( 'Z*Z*CA*', $msg );

       There's a subtle trap lurking in the offing: Adding another field after
       the Short Message (in variable $sm) is all right when packing, but this
       cannot be unpacked naively:

          # pack a message
          my $msg = pack( 'Z*Z*CA*C', $src, $dst, length( $sm ), $sm, $prio );

          # unpack fails - $prio remains undefined!
          ( $src, $dst, $len, $sm, $prio ) = unpack( 'Z*Z*CA*C', $msg );

       The pack code "A*" gobbles up all remaining bytes, and $prio remains
       undefined! Before we let disappointment dampen the morale: Perl's got
       the trump card to make this trick too, just a little further up the
       sleeve.  Watch this:

          # pack a message: ASCIIZ, ASCIIZ, length/string, byte
          my $msg = pack( 'Z* Z* C/A* C', $src, $dst, $sm, $prio );

          # unpack
          ( $src, $dst, $sm, $prio ) = unpack( 'Z* Z* C/A* C', $msg );

       Combining two pack codes with a slash ("/") associates them with a
       single value from the argument list. In "pack", the length of the
       argument is taken and packed according to the first code while the
       argument itself is added after being converted with the template code
       after the slash.  This saves us the trouble of inserting the "length"
       call, but it is in "unpack" where we really score: The value of the
       length byte marks the end of the string to be taken from the buffer.
       Since this combination doesn't make sense except when the second pack
       code isn't "a*", "A*" or "Z*", Perl won't let you.

       The pack code preceding "/" may be anything that's fit to represent a
       number: All the numeric binary pack codes, and even text codes such as
       "A4" or "Z*":

          # pack/unpack a string preceded by its length in ASCII
          my $buf = pack( 'A4/A*', "Humpty-Dumpty" );
          # unpack $buf: '13  Humpty-Dumpty'
          my $txt = unpack( 'A4/A*', $buf );

       "/" is not implemented in Perls before 5.6, so if your code is required
       to work on ancient Perls you'll need to "unpack( 'Z* Z* C')" to get the
       length, then use it to make a new unpack string. For example

          # pack a message: ASCIIZ, ASCIIZ, length, string, byte
          # (5.005 compatible)
          my $msg = pack( 'Z* Z* C A* C', $src, $dst, length $sm, $sm, $prio );

          # unpack
          ( undef, undef, $len) = unpack( 'Z* Z* C', $msg );
          ($src, $dst, $sm, $prio) = unpack ( "Z* Z* x A$len C", $msg );

       But that second "unpack" is rushing ahead. It isn't using a simple
       literal string for the template. So maybe we should introduce...

   Dynamic Templates
       So far, we've seen literals used as templates. If the list of pack
       items doesn't have fixed length, an expression constructing the
       template is required (whenever, for some reason, "()*" cannot be used).
       Here's an example: To store named string values in a way that can be
       conveniently parsed by a C program, we create a sequence of names and
       null terminated ASCII strings, with "=" between the name and the value,
       followed by an additional delimiting null byte. Here's how:

          my $env = pack( '(A*A*Z*)' . keys( %Env ) . 'C',
                          map( { ( $_, '=', $Env{$_} ) } keys( %Env ) ), 0 );

       Let's examine the cogs of this byte mill, one by one. There's the "map"
       call, creating the items we intend to stuff into the $env buffer: to
       each key (in $_) it adds the "=" separator and the hash entry value.
       Each triplet is packed with the template code sequence "A*A*Z*" that is
       repeated according to the number of keys. (Yes, that's what the "keys"
       function returns in scalar context.) To get the very last null byte, we
       add a 0 at the end of the "pack" list, to be packed with "C".
       (Attentive readers may have noticed that we could have omitted the 0.)

       For the reverse operation, we'll have to determine the number of items
       in the buffer before we can let "unpack" rip it apart:

          my $n = $env =~ tr/\0// - 1;
          my %env = map( split( /=/, $_ ), unpack( "(Z*)$n", $env ) );

       The "tr" counts the null bytes. The "unpack" call returns a list of
       name-value pairs each of which is taken apart in the "map" block.

   Counting Repetitions
       Rather than storing a sentinel at the end of a data item (or a list of
       items), we could precede the data with a count. Again, we pack keys and
       values of a hash, preceding each with an unsigned short length count,
       and up front we store the number of pairs:

          my $env = pack( 'S(S/A* S/A*)*', scalar keys( %Env ), %Env );

       This simplifies the reverse operation as the number of repetitions can
       be unpacked with the "/" code:

          my %env = unpack( 'S/(S/A* S/A*)', $env );

       Note that this is one of the rare cases where you cannot use the same
       template for "pack" and "unpack" because "pack" can't determine a
       repeat count for a "()"-group.

   Intel HEX
       Intel HEX is a file format for representing binary data, mostly for
       programming various chips, as a text file. (See
       <> for a detailed description, and
       <> for the Motorola
       S-record format, which can be unravelled using the same technique.)
       Each line begins with a colon (':') and is followed by a sequence of
       hexadecimal characters, specifying a byte count n (8 bit), an address
       (16 bit, big endian), a record type (8 bit), n data bytes and a
       checksum (8 bit) computed as the least significant byte of the two's
       complement sum of the preceding bytes. Example: ":0300300002337A1E".

       The first step of processing such a line is the conversion, to binary,
       of the hexadecimal data, to obtain the four fields, while checking the
       checksum. No surprise here: we'll start with a simple "pack" call to
       convert everything to binary:

          my $binrec = pack( 'H*', substr( $hexrec, 1 ) );

       The resulting byte sequence is most convenient for checking the
       checksum.  Don't slow your program down with a for loop adding the
       "ord" values of this string's bytes - the "unpack" code "%" is the
       thing to use for computing the 8-bit sum of all bytes, which must be
       equal to zero:

          die unless unpack( "%8C*", $binrec ) == 0;

       Finally, let's get those four fields. By now, you shouldn't have any
       problems with the first three fields - but how can we use the byte
       count of the data in the first field as a length for the data field?
       Here the codes "x" and "X" come to the rescue, as they permit jumping
       back and forth in the string to unpack.

          my( $addr, $type, $data ) = unpack( "x n C X4 C x3 /a", $bin );

       Code "x" skips a byte, since we don't need the count yet. Code "n"
       takes care of the 16-bit big-endian integer address, and "C" unpacks
       the record type. Being at offset 4, where the data begins, we need the
       count.  "X4" brings us back to square one, which is the byte at offset
       0.  Now we pick up the count, and zoom forth to offset 4, where we are
       now fully furnished to extract the exact number of data bytes, leaving
       the trailing checksum byte alone.

Packing and Unpacking C Structures

       In previous sections we have seen how to pack numbers and character
       strings. If it were not for a couple of snags we could conclude this
       section right away with the terse remark that C structures don't
       contain anything else, and therefore you already know all there is to
       it.  Sorry, no: read on, please.

       If you have to deal with a lot of C structures, and don't want to hack
       all your template strings manually, you'll probably want to have a look
       at the CPAN module "Convert::Binary::C". Not only can it parse your C
       source directly, but it also has built-in support for all the odds and
       ends described further on in this section.

   The Alignment Pit
       In the consideration of speed against memory requirements the balance
       has been tilted in favor of faster execution. This has influenced the
       way C compilers allocate memory for structures: On architectures where
       a 16-bit or 32-bit operand can be moved faster between places in
       memory, or to or from a CPU register, if it is aligned at an even or
       multiple-of-four or even at a multiple-of eight address, a C compiler
       will give you this speed benefit by stuffing extra bytes into
       structures.  If you don't cross the C shoreline this is not likely to
       cause you any grief (although you should care when you design large
       data structures, or you want your code to be portable between
       architectures (you do want that, don't you?)).

       To see how this affects "pack" and "unpack", we'll compare these two C

          typedef struct {
            char     c1;
            short    s;
            char     c2;
            long     l;
          } gappy_t;

          typedef struct {
            long     l;
            short    s;
            char     c1;
            char     c2;
          } dense_t;

       Typically, a C compiler allocates 12 bytes to a "gappy_t" variable, but
       requires only 8 bytes for a "dense_t". After investigating this
       further, we can draw memory maps, showing where the extra 4 bytes are

          0           +4          +8          +12
          |c1|xx|  s  |c2|xx|xx|xx|     l     |    xx = fill byte

          0           +4          +8
          |     l     |  h  |c1|c2|

       And that's where the first quirk strikes: "pack" and "unpack" templates
       have to be stuffed with "x" codes to get those extra fill bytes.

       The natural question: "Why can't Perl compensate for the gaps?"
       warrants an answer. One good reason is that C compilers might provide
       (non-ANSI) extensions permitting all sorts of fancy control over the
       way structures are aligned, even at the level of an individual
       structure field. And, if this were not enough, there is an insidious
       thing called "union" where the amount of fill bytes cannot be derived
       from the alignment of the next item alone.

       OK, so let's bite the bullet. Here's one way to get the alignment right
       by inserting template codes "x", which don't take a corresponding item
       from the list:

         my $gappy = pack( 'cxs cxxx l!', $c1, $s, $c2, $l );

       Note the "!" after "l": We want to make sure that we pack a long
       integer as it is compiled by our C compiler. And even now, it will only
       work for the platforms where the compiler aligns things as above.  And
       somebody somewhere has a platform where it doesn't.  [Probably a Cray,
       where "short"s, "int"s and "long"s are all 8 bytes. :-)]

       Counting bytes and watching alignments in lengthy structures is bound
       to be a drag. Isn't there a way we can create the template with a
       simple program? Here's a C program that does the trick:

          #include <stdio.h>
          #include <stddef.h>

          typedef struct {
            char     fc1;
            short    fs;
            char     fc2;
            long     fl;
          } gappy_t;

          #define Pt(struct,field,tchar) \
            printf( "@%d%s ", offsetof(struct,field), # tchar );

          int main() {
            Pt( gappy_t, fc1, c  );
            Pt( gappy_t, fs,  s! );
            Pt( gappy_t, fc2, c  );
            Pt( gappy_t, fl,  l! );
            printf( "\n" );

       The output line can be used as a template in a "pack" or "unpack" call:

         my $gappy = pack( '@0c @2s! @4c @8l!', $c1, $s, $c2, $l );

       Gee, yet another template code - as if we hadn't plenty. But "@" saves
       our day by enabling us to specify the offset from the beginning of the
       pack buffer to the next item: This is just the value the "offsetof"
       macro (defined in "<stddef.h>") returns when given a "struct" type and
       one of its field names ("member-designator" in C standardese).

       Neither using offsets nor adding "x"'s to bridge the gaps is
       satisfactory.  (Just imagine what happens if the structure changes.)
       What we really need is a way of saying "skip as many bytes as required
       to the next multiple of N".  In fluent templates, you say this with
       "x!N" where N is replaced by the appropriate value. Here's the next
       version of our struct packaging:

         my $gappy = pack( 'c x!2 s c x!4 l!', $c1, $s, $c2, $l );

       That's certainly better, but we still have to know how long all the
       integers are, and portability is far away. Rather than 2, for instance,
       we want to say "however long a short is". But this can be done by
       enclosing the appropriate pack code in brackets: "[s]". So, here's the
       very best we can do:

         my $gappy = pack( 'c x![s] s c x![l!] l!', $c1, $s, $c2, $l );

   Dealing with Endian-ness
       Now, imagine that we want to pack the data for a machine with a
       different byte-order. First, we'll have to figure out how big the data
       types on the target machine really are. Let's assume that the longs are
       32 bits wide and the shorts are 16 bits wide. You can then rewrite the
       template as:

         my $gappy = pack( 'c x![s] s c x![l] l', $c1, $s, $c2, $l );

       If the target machine is little-endian, we could write:

         my $gappy = pack( 'c x![s] s< c x![l] l<', $c1, $s, $c2, $l );

       This forces the short and the long members to be little-endian, and is
       just fine if you don't have too many struct members. But we could also
       use the byte-order modifier on a group and write the following:

         my $gappy = pack( '( c x![s] s c x![l] l )<', $c1, $s, $c2, $l );

       This is not as short as before, but it makes it more obvious that we
       intend to have little-endian byte-order for a whole group, not only for
       individual template codes. It can also be more readable and easier to

   Alignment, Take 2
       I'm afraid that we're not quite through with the alignment catch yet.
       The hydra raises another ugly head when you pack arrays of structures:

          typedef struct {
            short    count;
            char     glyph;
          } cell_t;

          typedef cell_t buffer_t[BUFLEN];

       Where's the catch? Padding is neither required before the first field
       "count", nor between this and the next field "glyph", so why can't we
       simply pack like this:

          # something goes wrong here:
          pack( 's!a' x @buffer,
                map{ ( $_->{count}, $_->{glyph} ) } @buffer );

       This packs "3*@buffer" bytes, but it turns out that the size of
       "buffer_t" is four times "BUFLEN"! The moral of the story is that the
       required alignment of a structure or array is propagated to the next
       higher level where we have to consider padding at the end of each
       component as well. Thus the correct template is:

          pack( 's!ax' x @buffer,
                map{ ( $_->{count}, $_->{glyph} ) } @buffer );

   Alignment, Take 3
       And even if you take all the above into account, ANSI still lets this:

          typedef struct {
            char     foo[2];
          } foo_t;

       vary in size. The alignment constraint of the structure can be greater
       than any of its elements. [And if you think that this doesn't affect
       anything common, dismember the next cellphone that you see. Many have
       ARM cores, and the ARM structure rules make "sizeof (foo_t)" == 4]

   Pointers for How to Use Them
       The title of this section indicates the second problem you may run into
       sooner or later when you pack C structures. If the function you intend
       to call expects a, say, "void *" value, you cannot simply take a
       reference to a Perl variable. (Although that value certainly is a
       memory address, it's not the address where the variable's contents are

       Template code "P" promises to pack a "pointer to a fixed length
       string".  Isn't this what we want? Let's try:

           # allocate some storage and pack a pointer to it
           my $memory = "\x00" x $size;
           my $memptr = pack( 'P', $memory );

       But wait: doesn't "pack" just return a sequence of bytes? How can we
       pass this string of bytes to some C code expecting a pointer which is,
       after all, nothing but a number? The answer is simple: We have to
       obtain the numeric address from the bytes returned by "pack".

           my $ptr = unpack( 'L!', $memptr );

       Obviously this assumes that it is possible to typecast a pointer to an
       unsigned long and vice versa, which frequently works but should not be
       taken as a universal law. - Now that we have this pointer the next
       question is: How can we put it to good use? We need a call to some C
       function where a pointer is expected. The read(2) system call comes to

           ssize_t read(int fd, void *buf, size_t count);

       After reading perlfunc explaining how to use "syscall" we can write
       this Perl function copying a file to standard output:

           require ''; # run h2ph to generate this file
           sub cat($){
               my $path = shift();
               my $size = -s $path;
               my $memory = "\x00" x $size;  # allocate some memory
               my $ptr = unpack( 'L', pack( 'P', $memory ) );
               open( F, $path ) || die( "$path: cannot open ($!)\n" );
               my $fd = fileno(F);
               my $res = syscall( &SYS_read, fileno(F), $ptr, $size );
               print $memory;
               close( F );

       This is neither a specimen of simplicity nor a paragon of portability
       but it illustrates the point: We are able to sneak behind the scenes
       and access Perl's otherwise well-guarded memory! (Important note:
       Perl's "syscall" does not require you to construct pointers in this
       roundabout way. You simply pass a string variable, and Perl forwards
       the address.)

       How does "unpack" with "P" work? Imagine some pointer in the buffer
       about to be unpacked: If it isn't the null pointer (which will smartly
       produce the "undef" value) we have a start address - but then what?
       Perl has no way of knowing how long this "fixed length string" is, so
       it's up to you to specify the actual size as an explicit length after

          my $mem = "abcdefghijklmn";
          print unpack( 'P5', pack( 'P', $mem ) ); # prints "abcde"

       As a consequence, "pack" ignores any number or "*" after "P".

       Now that we have seen "P" at work, we might as well give "p" a whirl.
       Why do we need a second template code for packing pointers at all? The
       answer lies behind the simple fact that an "unpack" with "p" promises a
       null-terminated string starting at the address taken from the buffer,
       and that implies a length for the data item to be returned:

          my $buf = pack( 'p', "abc\x00efhijklmn" );
          print unpack( 'p', $buf );    # prints "abc"

       Albeit this is apt to be confusing: As a consequence of the length
       being implied by the string's length, a number after pack code "p" is a
       repeat count, not a length as after "P".

       Using "pack(..., $x)" with "P" or "p" to get the address where $x is
       actually stored must be used with circumspection. Perl's internal
       machinery considers the relation between a variable and that address as
       its very own private matter and doesn't really care that we have
       obtained a copy. Therefore:

       o   Do not use "pack" with "p" or "P" to obtain the address of variable
           that's bound to go out of scope (and thereby freeing its memory)
           before you are done with using the memory at that address.

       o   Be very careful with Perl operations that change the value of the
           variable. Appending something to the variable, for instance, might
           require reallocation of its storage, leaving you with a pointer
           into no-man's land.

       o   Don't think that you can get the address of a Perl variable when it
           is stored as an integer or double number! "pack('P', $x)" will
           force the variable's internal representation to string, just as if
           you had written something like "$x .= ''".

       It's safe, however, to P- or p-pack a string literal, because Perl
       simply allocates an anonymous variable.

Pack Recipes

       Here are a collection of (possibly) useful canned recipes for "pack"
       and "unpack":

           # Convert IP address for socket functions
           pack( "C4", split /\./, "" );

           # Count the bits in a chunk of memory (e.g. a select vector)
           unpack( '%32b*', $mask );

           # Determine the endianness of your system
           $is_little_endian = unpack( 'c', pack( 's', 1 ) );
           $is_big_endian = unpack( 'xc', pack( 's', 1 ) );

           # Determine the number of bits in a native integer
           $bits = unpack( '%32I!', ~0 );

           # Prepare argument for the nanosleep system call
           my $timespec = pack( 'L!L!', $secs, $nanosecs );

       For a simple memory dump we unpack some bytes into just as many pairs
       of hex digits, and use "map" to handle the traditional spacing - 16
       bytes to a line:

           my $i;
           print map( ++$i % 16 ? "$_ " : "$_\n",
                      unpack( 'H2' x length( $mem ), $mem ) ),
                 length( $mem ) % 16 ? "\n" : '';

Funnies Section

           # Pulling digits out of nowhere...
           print unpack( 'C', pack( 'x' ) ),
                 unpack( '%B*', pack( 'A' ) ),
                 unpack( 'H', pack( 'A' ) ),
                 unpack( 'A', unpack( 'C', pack( 'A' ) ) ), "\n";

           # One for the road ;-)
           my $advice = pack( 'all u can in a van' );


       Simon Cozens and Wolfgang Laun.

perl v5.34.0                      2020-10-24                  PERLPACKTUT(1pm)

perl 5.34.0 - Generated Sat Feb 26 19:31:52 CST 2022
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