Patching Perl: loading modules that return false

If you’ve been programming Perl for a while, you’ve probably run into this exception: Foo.pm did not return a true value. This is a peculiar quirk of the require function: modules must return a true value else Perl interprets it as a failure:

The file must return true as the last statement to indicate successful execution of any initialization code, so it’s customary to end such a file with “1;” unless you’re sure it’ll return true otherwise. But it’s better just to put the “1;”, in case you add more statements.
perlfunc

I don’t find this feature useful: if a module fails to initialize, it could call die with a meaningful error message, instead of returning false and Perl croaking with a generic message. I would wager that the majority of the time this exception is encountered, it’s because the programmer forgot to append a true value to their module code. If one ethos of Perl is optimizing for the common case, croaking on require returning false doesn’t seem to fit.

Many other features of Perl have been adopted by other languages, from its regular expression syntax, to use strict (hello JavaScript!). But I don’t know of any language that has copied this feature - perhaps because it’s not very useful?

Allowing require to return false

So what could I do about this? In order to allow modules to be loaded that don’t return a true value, the Perl source code would need to be changed. I’ve dumpster-dived into the source occasionally to help better understand the Perl interpreter API, but I’ve never changed the source code before … until now!

The first thing I did was fork the Perl source code. I started grepping the code for the exception message “did not return a true value” and sure enough, I found the function S_pop_eval_context_maybe_croak in pp_ctl.c. This function is called when an eval completes (require evals the code it’s trying to load) in order to clean up the stack and optionally, croak if an exception was encountered. It accepts a number between 0 and 2: 0 means “don’t croak”, 1 means “croak: require did not return a true value”, and 2 means “croak: require triggered a compilation error”.

Next I searched for callers to S_pop_eval_context_maybe_croak and found just one caller that passed a 1 to the function, this was the “leave eval” op code declaration, that included this logic:

failed =    CxOLD_OP_TYPE(cx) == OP_REQUIRE
             && !(gimme == G_SCALAR
                    ? SvTRUE_NN(*PL_stack_sp)
                    : PL_stack_sp > oldsp);

...

/* pop the CXt_EVAL, and if a require failed, croak */
S_pop_eval_context_maybe_croak(aTHX_ cx, NULL, failed);

Does this C code hurt your eyes? Welcome to the world of Perl internals! What it does is check if the current Perl context is a require op, and then if the return context is scalar, check if the top value on the stack is true or not, else (for list context) it checks that the stack count has increased.

So I deleted the failed code block, and changed the call to S_pop_eval_context_maybe_croak to always pass 0 instead.

Then I compiled the source:

$ ./Configure -des -Dusedevel -Dprefix=$HOME/blead-perl
$ make -j4

Finally I created a module called “Foo.pm” that only contained: 0;. Then I tried to load it with the newly compiled Perl:

$ ./perl -I. -e 'require "Foo.pm"'

And I didn’t see a “Foo.pm did not return a true value” error, yay!

Making it a “feature”

I don’t think P5P (the group that maintains the Perl source code) would accept my change as-is. For one thing, any code that does rely on the require returning false feature would be broken by the next Perl release. The preferred way to introduce new behavior these days is to use the feature pragma. So I removed my previous changes and tried to implement allowing require to return false as a feature.

The Perl source code has a handy utility called regen/feature.pl which takes care of generating the necessary C and Perl code to implement the feature flag. All you have to do is add the new feature’s name to regen/feature.pl, and then run the script to add it to the Perl source.

I added the “require_false” feature to regen/feature.pl and ran the script, resulting in these changes. This added the macro FEATURE_REQUIRE_FALSE_IS_ENABLED to header.h, which I’ll use later to check if the feature is enabled or not. Also note because require_false was the longest feature name in the set, the script also updated the MAX_FEATURE_LEN macro value so that the Perl’s interpreter would compare the right number of bytes when checking feature names.

Adding tests

At this stage I’ve created a new feature, but don’t use it anywhere. This felt like a good time to update the source code tests to check if the feature works: at first it won’t, but whilst I’m working on the feature I can quickly recompile and run the tests to check.

Searching through the battery of tests that ship with Perl, I found t/comp/require.t which tests that require does the right thing when loading modules. One interesting thing about the Perl source test suite is they can’t use common tools we use for testing like Test::More, instead they just print TAP output and let the test harness figure it out.

I updated t/comp/require.t to enable the new feature, and test loading a module returning a false value. I also test that compilation errors are not ignored when the feature is enabled. Because pragmas are scoped, I had to write the tests within a block, but also I couldn’t use the test helper function do_require to handle everything for me, as it would be executed in a different scope:

{
    print "use feature 'require_false;'\n";
    use feature 'require_false';
    write_file('bleah.pm', '0;');
    %INC = ();
    eval { require "bleah.pm" };
    $i++;
    print "not " if $@ =~ /did not return a true value/;
    print "ok $i - require loads module returning 0\n";
    write_file('bleah.pm', 'die "foobar";');
    %INC = ();
    eval { require "bleah.pm" };
    $i++;
    print "not " unless $@ =~ /foobar/;
    print "ok $i - require throws compile error\n";
}

Notice how %INC is cleared before each test as Perl won’t reload a module that it finds in %INC already. I then recompiled Perl via make and ran the test with:

$ ./perl -I. -MTestInit t/comp/require.t
1..60
ok 1 - require 5.005 try 1
...
# use feature 'require_false';
not ok 59 - require loads module returning 0
ok 60 - require throws compile error

And as expected, the module wasn’t loaded. By the way, TestInit is a useful module to load to avoid running the entire Perl source test suite which can take a long time when you only want to test certain behavior (I ran make -j4 && ./perl -I. -MTestInit t/comp/require.t countless times).

Using the feature

In my previous change I updated the leave eval op declaration in pp_ctl.c and that would seem like a logical place to add a check that the feature was enabled or not, and tell S_pop_eval_context_maybe_croak to croak or not. However, I found that this didn’t work, and even when the feature was enabled, FEATURE_REQUIRE_FALSE_IS_ENABLED was always false.

I think this is because the line beginning PP(pp_leaveval) is declaring a new op via the PP macro - it’s not a C function declaration. Instead of that, I tried adding the logic to S_pop_eval_context_maybe_croak itself and it worked. The change turned out to be very simple. I imported feature.h and then added a logical condition to the do_croak assignment which checks if FEATURE_REQUIRE_FALSE_IS_ENABLED is enabled or not. I explained the action variable earlier: if it has a value of 2 that means there was compilation error, which we still want to allow to croak.

S_pop_eval_context_maybe_croak(pTHX_ PERL_CONTEXT *cx, SV *errsv, int action)
    ...
    do_croak = action && (CxOLD_OP_TYPE(cx) == OP_REQUIRE) &&
        (!FEATURE_REQUIRE_FALSE_IS_ENABLED || action == 2);
    ...

All that was left was to re-compile and run the tests again:

$ ./perl -I. -MTestInit t/comp/require.t
1..60
ok 1 - require 5.005 try 1
...
# use feature 'require_false';
ok 59 - require loads module returning 0
ok 60 - require throws compile error

All the require tests pass, woohoo!

Wrap-up

I’m planning on getting feedback from P5P on this change: implementation-wise, I’m not sure if I’ve violated an unwritten rule by importing feature.h into pp_ctl.c. If I have, another way to achieve the same thing would be to declare a new a private flag for the require op, and set it in perly.y in the sections of the grammar which create a new require op (whenever it encounters require in Perl code). The flag could then be checked in pp_ctl.c instead of the feature is enabled macro.

Whilst this change is relatively safe - modules are free to continue to return a true value if they want to, I worry that it’s not useful enough to warrant being a feature. I struggle to imagine users of 5.30 next year eagerly adding this feature to their code. Maybe it’s not worth changing?

Yet another way it could be implemented is to deprecate the exception: “Foo.pm did not return a true value. WARNING This behavior is deprecated and will be removed in a future version of Perl”. This would have the advantage of not adding a new feature (more code, version complexity), and giving users of the feature advanced warning of its removal. And when the behavior is removed it would result in less code in the Perl source, which seems like a win to me.

Working with the Perl source can be intimidating: it’s a large collection of advanced C code, which leans heavily on macros. The source’s conventions can be opaque too: function, macro and variable names often follow a logical, but unintuitive naming format. Previously I’ve found myself unpacking a macro declaration to find it contains … another macro, and another macro inside that one and so on. It’s easy to forget the context and get lost in the code.

Sometimes I’ve had to literally write out call chains on paper to keep track. But it is incredibly satisfying to change Perl’s behavior to suit your tastes. Imagine with that power, what would you change? It might not be an easy road, but things of value rarely come easily, and if nothing else you might learn more about how Perl works internally, and pick up some new C programming tricks along the way.

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David Farrell

David is the editor of Perl.com. An organizer of the New York Perl Meetup, he works for ZipRecruiter as a software developer, and sometimes tweets about Perl and Open Source.

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