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The tie()s That Bind

by KM (Priest)
on Jun 01, 2000 at 19:19 UTC ( #15838=perltutorial: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??

I do use improper file locking in here, I will fix that code later, keep in mind I am illustrating tie(), not proper locking (That is for another article).

The Ties That Bind

Programmers are used to ``modules'' as a way of reusing code. Some modules provide subroutines, others provide an object-oriented interface. New in Perl 5 are ties, a way of intercepting accesses to a Perl variable (array, hash, scalar, or filehandle). This article will show you how to provide reusable code using ties.

What is a tie

You have probably already met tie-like behavior in the form of dbmopen(). This built-in Perl subroutine associates a Perl hash with a dbm(3)-style file on disk. If you fetch a value from the hash, Perl looks up the corresponding value in the dbm file. If you store a value, Perl stores the value in the dbm file.

The biggest problem with dbmopen() is that the type of dbm file that it uses was decided when your Perl interpreter was compiled. There are many different dbm-like libraries, but dbmopen() only allows you to use one. To solve this inflexibility, Perl 5 introduced tie(), a more general mechanism for hiding complex behavior behind a variable, be it a hash, array, scalar, or filehandle.

Perl basically keeps an object for each variable you tie(). Each access to the tied variable results in method calls on the object. You can tie() a variable to just about anything; a database, a text file, a directory, even the Windows registry. You can even use tie() to trace accesses to a variable.

The methods automatically called by Perl have predefined names, in CAPS. There are only a few implicitly called methods your tying class should, and can, provide, which will be discussed later. The tying class is the invisible glue that holds your variable and resource together.

The example I'll work through will be a tie to a hash, since that is the most involved, the longest and best-supported, and (consequently) the most common. By the end of this article, you should have a good understanding of the tie() function, tying classes, and the knowlege to begin writting your own tie() class.

Invoking a Tie

Invoking a tie() is similar to other Perl functions. tie() uses this syntax:


The VARIABLE will be the variable being tied, which could be a hash, array, scalar, or filehandle. CLASSNAME is the class we are using to handle the tied object. And LIST can be any optional flags or arguments that the class may use to construct the tied variable.

If you're always tying a variable to the same resource, and this resource is pre-defined in the class, you won't need to include the name of the resource in LIST. If the specific resource could change (different filename, different database, different machine, etc.) then one of the elements of the LIST will be the name of the resource. After calling tie(), the class will return an object, which can be either stored or ignored. Either way, when you access the VARIABLE, methods are called on the object.

A common misconception after looking at the syntax for the tie function is that tie() itself 'uses' the class which is handling the tie. This is not correct, and the programmer must remember to 'use' the appropriate module.

Don't confuse the type of the variable and the type inside the object. You can bless() any type of Perl variable to make your object, and this has nothing to do with the type of variable being tied to. You can tie a hash to a blessed hash, or tie a hash to a blessed scalar, or tie a handle to a blessed scalar, or anything else that makes sense for your application.

To see what this looks like in practice, below is an example of tying a hash to the current directory using the Tie::Dir class. The result will be a tied interface between %hash and an object in the Tie::Dir class. The Tie::Dir class' methods will handle the manipulation of the directory via %hash:

use Tie::Dir; tie %hash, Tie::Dir, "./";

Method Names

As stated earlier, Perl will implicitly call a class' methods when the variable is accessed. When tie() is invoked it calls the appropriate TIESCALAR, TIEARRAY, TIEHASH, or TIEHANDLE method depending on the type of variable being tied.

Because I will talk about various uses of tying, and giving examples, below is an outline of the methods available for each type of tie to keep in mind while you read this article:

Hash methods:

TIEHASH classname, LIST DESTROY this FETCH this, key STORE this, key, value DELETE this, key EXISTS this, key FIRSTKEY this NEXTKEY this, lastkey
Array methods:

TIEARRAY classname, LIST DESTROY this FETCH this, key STORE this, key, value
Scalar methods:

    TIESCALAR classname, LIST
    DESTROY this
    FETCH this,
    STORE this, value
Filehandle methods:



When a variable is tied to a class, the TIE* constructor is called.

The constructor can do almost whatever the programmer wants it to. It may simply check to see if the resource to be tied to exists. It could create it if it doesn't, or load the resource into memory; or add an internal pointer to the resource in the class as object data. For example, if it is a directory to be tied to, the constructor may check to see if that directory exists, and if it does, it will save the location of that directory to the class object.

Below is how Tie::Dir's TIEHASH constructor will result in a tie() of a variable, in this case %hash, to the current directory (.), and whether or not deleting is allowed:

# tie %hash, Tie::Dir, ".", DIR_UNLINK; sub TIEHASH { my($class,$dir,$unlink) = @_; $unlink ||= 0; bless [$dir,undef,$unlink], $class; }

One use of tying may be for keeping a certain variable persistent through web-based sessions. For example, people log into your website, via basic authentication, and a file is saved that contains the city they live in, based from input from a web-based form. That information is used to create dynamic pages when they return to the site. Almost like a server-side cookie. So if I am the user and my username is kmeltz, and I am from Fooville, you may have a file named with the contents being a string, ``Fooville''. You could tie() to this scalar (the string Fooville) with a constructor like:

sub TIESCALAR { my $class = shift; my $name = shift; my $city = system("/bin/cat", "$name\.city"); return bless \$city, $class; }

In the calling script, you would get this information like:

use Tie::getCity; # If the module name was Tie/ tie($foo, 'Tie::getCity', $ENV{REMOTE_USER});

Now, $foo's value is the string ``Fooville'' and this information can be used to create dynamic content across your website.

When the variable is untied (see later), goes out of scope, or the program ends, the object associated with the variable will be destroyed. The regular object destructor method DESTROY will be called. It is a very good habit to untie() tied variables when they are no longer needed. $foo would be untie()'d from the above example like so:

    untie $foo;

Now, on with our module! For the example, we will create a module that ties to a password file for Apache, which means there will be a file with entries like '<name>:<encrypted password>'. There will also be a simple command-line script using the Example class. The script will let you enter names and passwords which will be stored in the password file through the magic of tie().

The start of the module is fairly uninteresting:

package Example; use strict; use vars qw($VERSION); # pull $VERSION from RCS version identifier ($VERSION = substr(q$Revision: 0.7 $, 10)) =~ s/\s+$//; sub Version {return $VERSION;} use Carp;

As explained earlier, the TIEHASH method is implicitly called when you invoke tie(). The first three lines tell our method a) what the class object is, as well as the LIST elements passed during our invocation; b) the file we are tying to; c) the permissions we are opening the file with. If the permission ($mode) argument isn't given, it defaults to 'r', read only. Or it can be given 'rw' which will allow for read and write operations. It is good practice to add some sort of permission argument to a tie() class, this is to make sure noone accidentally stores/removes information from the resource. It is also good practice to have the default permission be the most restrictive.

Next, check to make sure no extra arguments are passed to the module. If there are, it croaks with a usage/syntax message.

You will notice the scalar variable $clobber. Clobber is a term that tells the class if the caller can or can't make changes to the tied resource. It is directly affected by the permissions it was tied with. If the mode is 'r', clobber will be 0, and if it is 'rw' it will be 1. The $clobber variable will be used later to make sure the file is being opening with correct permissions, and not allow changes to the file if it wasn't tie()'d with read-write permissions.

An anonymous hash, %node, is then built. This anonymous hash will house some instance data that will be refered to throughout the module. This hash will contain the current settings of the path to the file, if it can clobber or not, and the current hash values. The value of the current hash is held in memory because otherwise some later methods would have to open and read the file to build the hash again.

NOTE: This may not be what you would want for your application. If an application would be used concurrently by multiple users, each method should get the current values from your tied resource so no data is lost. It is being done this way to save space and resources for this example.

This allows for the current hash values to be in memory at all times. Speaking of which, the next few lines build that hash, and store it in the CURRENT field ($self->{CURRENT}).

You may choose to store the information from your resource in memory if it is a resource that may be changed frequently only by your current process. If the application is used frequently by many users, each method should get the current data from the resource in some fashion. An alternative is to have a private method, which reads in the resources data. This method can then be called from within your class' methods to get the latest values. I suggest adding that functionality later when playing around with the Example class.

Finally, the bless() function is called, which tells %node that it is now an object in the class. We are tied and ready to go!

# Create tied hash sub TIEHASH { my $self = shift; my $path = shift; my $mode = shift || 'r'; if (@_) { croak ("usage: tie(\%hash, \$file, [mode])"); } my $clobber = ($mode eq 'rw' ? 1 : 0); my $node = { PATH => $path, CLOBBER => $clobber, CURRENT => {} }; open(FH, "$path"); my @lines = <FH>; close FH; my ($line, $id, $pass); foreach $line (@lines) { ($id, $pass) = split(/\:/,$line); $node->{CURRENT}{$id} = $pass; } return bless $node => $self; }

The next method to create is STORE. The STORE method is what will handle the actual writting of data to the resource, when a value in the tied hash changes. This method will also perform any complex behavior needed to be done before the data should be written, such as encrypting a password.

NOTE: ``Complex behavior'' can be any preprocessing tasks needed to ready data, or possibly logging the tied variables accesses. This method is called when doing something such as:

    $hash{FOO} = "bar";

The call above tells the class to store the value ``bar'' under key-name FOO in %hash. This is what will set the name/value pairs in CURRENT and, eventually, in the password file. This STORE method, since we are writing to a htpasswd-like password file, will also do the encryption (which can be considered hidden complex behavior). The method begins by defining variables. If the call noted above were used, $id would be FOO, and $passwd would be ``bar''. It grabs our path, as well as checks for clobbering, from the class data that was saved in the constructor. If clobbering isn't allowed, it returns with an error message. For good programming measure, we are taking into account the fact that STORE is called after the upcoming method CLEAR finishes.

NOTE: This is part of the internal workings of the tie() function, and not something done programatically

When STORE is called via CLEAR there will be no arguments (besides $self, of course). So, STORE will return before writting an entry with no username or password.

# Store an entry sub STORE { my $self = shift; my ($id) = shift; my ($passwd) = shift; my ($passwdFile) = $self->{PATH}; my ($return)=0; my (@cache); my ($cryptedPass); unless ($self->{CLOBBER}) { carp ("No write access for $self->{PATH}"); return; } if (!$id && !$passwd) {return 1;} }

The next step is to create the new encrypted password. The 'salt' for encryption is obtained by getting the first two letters of the systems hostname by the hostname() method of the Sys::Hostname module (distributed with Perl). Before crypt() is called, we want to make sure that there is a password to crypt. The case where there wouldn?t be a password is when the function is called intending to delete the password like:

NOTE: Win32 ports of Perl may not implement crypt(). To make sure your Perl is compiled to support crypt() a test can be done from the command line with 'perl -e ``print crypt(''ab``,''test``)'';'. You may want to look into if crypt() is unavailable to you.

$hash{name} = ""; # or $hash{name} = undef;

The method takes the situation of a blank password into account so a username isn't written with no password. If there is a password, we then encrypt it.

if ($passwd eq "") { $cryptedPass = ""; } else { $cryptedPass = crypt($passwd, $salt); }

The new name/password pair is ready to be written to the password file. The file is opened and locked with flock()

NOTE: Win32 may not support the Perl flock() function. If it is not implemented on your machine, you can look into the Fcntl module (distributed with Perl) to make sure that the file isn't modified before the method finishes writting the new data. A check is made against the existing name/password pairs stored in memory to see if there's already a password for this userame. If the entry exists, the method runs through the file and replaces the old entry with the new one. If it doesn't exist, it will append the new entry to the file. Finally, it closes our file and adds the new entry into the hash in memory so the saved hash is in synch with the password file.

# Warning, possible race condition ahead # I need to update this opening a locking! if (!open(FH,"<$passwdFile")) { carp("Cannot open $passwdFile: $!"); return; } flock(FH, 2); if (!exists $self->{CURRENT}{Id}) { while (<FH>) { if ( /^$Id\:/ ) { push (@cache, "$Id\:$cryptedPass\n") unless $cryptedPass eq ""; $return = 1; } else { push (@cache, $_); } } } close FH; if ($return) { if (!open(FH, ">$passwdFile")) { carp("Cannot open $passwdFile: $!"); return; } flock(FH, 2); while (@cache) { print FH shift (@cache); } } else { if (!open(FH, ">>$passwdFile")) { carp("Cannot open $passwdFile: $!"); return; } flock(FH, 2); print FH "$Id\:$cryptedPass\n" unless $cryptedPass eq ""; $foo = $hash{FOO}; }

The FETCH method has a very specific function, to get a value. To do this it first checks to see if the username ($Id) being looking for exists in the current hash. If so, it returns that value, if not, it returns a message saying it doesn't exist. The FETCH method is very simple and straight forward because it isn't performing any magic in the background.

sub FETCH { my $self = shift; my $Id = shift; if (exists $self->{CURRENT}{$Id}) { return $self->{CURRENT}{$Id}; } else { return "$Id doesn't exist"; } }

Here is a fast quiz. Judging by the names of the methods so far, what would you guess the method name for deleting an entry in the file is (faint sounds of the Jeopardy theme). If you said DELETE, you are correct!

The DELETE method does just that, it deletes an entry in the hash, and in turn the tied resource. It doesn't delete just the value, but the key/value pair. The DELETE method is only called when the delete() fuction is called. Assigning undef or ``'' to an entry in the hash doesn't delete that entry, so DELETE is not called.

    delete $hash{FOO};

The above DELETE call will delete all instances of entry FOO. What you see in the example DELETE method should look familiar now. First a check for clobbering is done. If it is ok to clobber a check is made in the local hash to make sure the entry wanted to be deleted exists. If it does, the file is opened and its entries are read, removing the entry marked for deletion. Finally, the new file is written. I added in a return of 1 when the entry doesn't exist, since the user may have thought it did, I didn't think it warranted the script exiting. It also returns a 1 when an entry is successfully deleted. The only error, aside from not being able to open a password file, that can make the subroutine die() is if the file was opened with read-only permissions.

sub DELETE { my $self = shift; my ($Id) = shift; my ($passwdFile) = $self->{PATH}; my (@cache); unless ($self->{CLOBBER}) { carp ("No write access for $self->{PATH}"); return; } if (!exists $self->{CURRENT}{$Id}) {return 1;} delete $self->{CURRENT}{$Id}; if (!open(FH,"<$passwdFile")) { carp("Cannot open $passwdFile: $!"); return; } flock(FH, 2); while (<FH>) { if ( /^$Id\:/ ) { next; } else { push (@cache, $_); } } close FH; if (!open(FH,">$passwdFile")) { carp("Cannot open $passwdFile: $!"); return; } flock(FH, 2); while (@cache) { print FH shift (@cache); } close FH; return 1; }

The module is almost complete. Our next method, CLEAR, will clear the entire hash, as well as clearing all the data out of the tied resource. CLEAR is generally called when you assign an empty list as the value of your tied hash. This occurs when assigning a null string, to another hash, or undef. This, of course, can be very dangerous in a situation where a programmer isn't paying attention and makes a calls to invoke CLEAR by accident. Below illustrates ways in which CLEAR will be invoked.

%hash = ""; %hash = %newHash; %hash = {}; undef %hash;

To help prevent against this sort of mishap, the module can be made more foolproof by adding another level of 'mode' to tie() with that will set the $clobber variable to something higher than 1 (like 2). Then the TIE* method can be written to understand not only 'r' and 'rw', but something like 'rwe' as well. This way, an extra level of security is added, and the user knows that they can erase the resource because they used the proper permissions when they invoked the tie(). I didn't add that into this example, but left it as an exercise for the reader. The example's CLEAR method will CLEAR the local hash, as well as the password-file.

sub CLEAR { my $self = shift; my ($passwdFile) = $self->{PATH}; unless ($self->{CLOBBER}) { carp ("No write access for $self->{PATH}"); return; } if (!open(FH,">$passwdFile")) { carp("Cannot open $passwdFile: $!"); return; } close FH; $self->{CURRENT} = {}; }

Now we get into the last few methods. These are very simple methods, and very short! The next is FIRSTKEY. This method is invoked when a call is made to iterate through the hash, generally with the keys() or each() functions.

sub FIRSTKEY { my $self = shift; my $a = keys %{$self->{CURRENT}}; each %{$self->{CURRENT}}; }

One of the last methods is NEXTKEY. This method is also invoked during an each() or keys() iteration. Behind the scenes it is given 2 arguments 'this' and 'lastkey', which are the object and the last key iterated through, respectively. It is very similar to FIRSTKEY, but it returns all the keys, as opposed to the first key in the hash. Here arguments are ignored because this method using the each() function behind the scenes to iterate over the hash in $self->{CURRENT}.

sub NEXTKEY { my $self = shift; return each %{$self->{CURRENT}}; }

The last method is the class destructor, DESTROY. This method is invoked when the tied variable is to be destroyed. Unless the return value of tie() has been saved, this can be done with the untie() function. If the tied variable hasn't been untie()'d, DESTROY will be called when the script exits. In general, you don't need to have anything in a DESTROY method, unless you are doing some special debugging, or you possibly have some cleanup that you want to do. In fact, you do not need to have a DESTROY method at all, and our will not have this method.

For example's sake, if you created a temp file, for whatever reason, and wanted to delete it only when you know the tie() is finished being used, the below would do this:

    sub DESTROY { unlink "/tmp/tie.txt";}

And there you have it! A module that will bind a variable from a script to a password (or whatever) file. Now that it is written, let's use it. This is a quick command line program to test this module out. Try adding, deleting, and getting passwords.

#!/usr/bin/perl use Example; tie(%hash, "Example", "example", "rw") || die "Can't tie : $!"; &ask; sub ask { print "(A)dd, (D)elete, or (G)et user:"; $ans = <STDIN>; if ($ans =~ /a/i) { &add; } elsif ($ans =~ /d/i) { &delete;} elsif ($ans =~ /g/i) {&get;} else { print "Try again\n"; &ask;} } sub add { print "User Name:"; $name = <STDIN>; print "\nPassword:"; $pass = <STDIN>; chop $name; chop $pass; $hash{$name} = $pass; print "\nAdded\nAgain (Y/N)?"; $again = <STDIN>; if ($again !~ /y/i) { untie %hash; exit;}else{&ask;} } sub delete { print "User Name:"; $name = <STDIN>; chop $name; delete $hash{$name}; print "\nDeleted\nAgain (Y/N)?"; $again = <STDIN>; if ($again !~ /y/i) { untie %hash; exit;}else{&ask;} } sub get { print "User Name:"; $name = <STDIN>; chop $name; if (!exists $hash{$name}) { print "$name isn't valid"; } else { print "$name\'s encrypted password is " . $hash{$name}; } print "\nAgain (Y/N)?"; $again = <STDIN>; if ($again !~ /y/i) { untie %hash; exit;}else{&ask;} }

All tied() up

A sister function of tie() is Perl's tied() function. By using this function, you can access a reference to the underlying object. If you were to expand this example class, you may want to add the flexibility to use a second password file midway in your program. Instead of creating a new tied object, you can change your existing one like so:


Which yields the same result as:

$obj = tie(%hash, 'Tie::Class', 'rw'); $obj->newPwdFile('/usr/local/apache/.passwds');

This will call (explicitly) the method newPwdFile() on the underlying tied object and allow you to use your objects methods on the new file. This is what the newPwdFile() method could look like:

sub newPwdFile { my $self = shift; $self->{PATH} = @_ ? shift : die "No new file given"; unless (-e $self->{PATH}) { if ($self->{CLOBBER}) { unless (open(FH,">$self->{PATH}")) { croak("Can't create $self->{PATH}: $!"); } } else { croak("$self->{PATH} does not exist"); } } close FH; my ($line, $id, $pass, @lines); foreach $line (@lines) { ($id, $pass) = split(/\:/,$line); $self->{CURRENT}{$id} = $pass; } }

Scalar Quickie

This is a fast example of a class that will tie() a scalar variable to a text file. This is different from the other example (given in the Constructors/Destructors section) of a string value living in a text file being assigned to the tying scalar. In this case, the text file is going to keep a log of all the times the scalar variable is changed, or it's value is FETCHED. Take what you have learned about tying with hash's and apply it to the module below.

# Usage: tie($VARIABLE,'TrackScalar', FILE, "\$VARIABLE name/descr +iption"); # use TrackScalar; # my $var; # tie($var, 'TrackScalar', 'track.txt', "\$var (keeps count)"); package TrackScalar; use strict; use vars qw($VERSION @ISA); # Get Revision number from RCS ($VERSION = substr(q$Revision: 0.2 $, 10)) =~ s/\s+$//; sub Version {return $VERSION;} use IO::File; # Create tied scalar sub TIESCALAR { my $class = shift; my $log = shift; my $var = shift || "(undefined)"; my $fh = new IO::File ">> $log" or die "Cannot open $log: $!\n"; # Notice that the variable being blessed in the object is # an anonymous hash, and this is tied to the scalar return bless {FH => $fh, VAL => 0, VAR => $var}, $class; } sub FETCH { my $self = shift; my ($package, $filename, $line) = caller(); my $fh = $self->{FH}; print $fh "package $package, ", "$filename line $line FETCHED $self->{VAR}\n"; return $self->{VAL}; } sub STORE { my $self = shift; my $var = shift; my $fh = $self->{FH}; my ($package, $filename, $line) = caller(); print $fh "package $package, ", "$filename line $line changed $self->{VAR} to $var\n"; $self->{VAL} = $var; } sub DESTROY { undef %{$_[0]}; } 1;


Through this article, we created a tie() class, and a program that used it. You could customize this tie() class as much as you wish: adding multiple 'mode' levels, adding manually invoked methods to change the password file or level of clobbering, making reading/writing from the resource more efficent, file syncing, real-time read/write operations, or almost anything else you can think up.

I encourage you to write your own class that ties to a directory, the Windows registry, config files, remote machines, or system commands. All are straightforward applications of the techniques in this article.

I hope you now have a better understanding of how tie() works, how to use it, have enough information to write your own tie module, and now have another tool of Perl to use in your programming.


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