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Object-oriented programming systems all support some notion of inheritance. Inheritance means allowing one class to piggy-back on top of another one so you don't have to write the same code again and again. It's about software reuse, and therefore related to Laziness, the principal virtue of a programmer. (The import/export mechanisms in traditional modules are also a form of code reuse, but a simpler one than the true inheritance that you find in object modules.)

Sometimes the syntax of inheritance is built into the core of the language, and sometimes it's not. Perl has no special syntax for specifying the class (or classes) to inherit from. Instead, it's all strictly in the semantics. Each package can have a variable called @ISA, which governs (method) inheritance. If you try to call a method on an object or class, and that method is not found in that object's package, Perl then looks to @ISA for other packages to go looking through in search of the missing method.

Like the special per-package variables recognized by Exporter (such as @EXPORT, @EXPORT_OK, @EXPORT_FAIL, %EXPORT_TAGS, and $VERSION), the @ISA array must be a package-scoped global and not a file-scoped lexical created via my(). Most classes have just one item in their @ISA array. In this case, we have what's called "single inheritance", or SI for short.

Consider this class:

    package Employee;
    use Person;
    @ISA = ("Person");

Not a lot to it, eh? All it's doing so far is loading in another class and stating that this one will inherit methods from that other class if need be. We have given it none of its own methods. We rely upon an Employee to behave just like a Person.

Setting up an empty class like this is called the "empty subclass test"; that is, making a derived class that does nothing but inherit from a base class. If the original base class has been designed properly, then the new derived class can be used as a drop-in replacement for the old one. This means you should be able to write a program like this:

    use Employee;
    my $empl = Employee->new();
    printf "%s is age %d.\n", $empl->name, $empl->age;  

By proper design, we mean always using the two-argument form of bless(), avoiding direct access of global data, and not exporting anything. If you look back at the Person::new() function we defined above, we were careful to do that. There's a bit of package data used in the constructor, but the reference to this is stored on the object itself and all other methods access package data via that reference, so we should be ok.

What do we mean by the Person::new() function -- isn't that actually a method? Well, in principle, yes. A method is just a function that expects as its first argument a class name (package) or object (blessed reference). Person::new() is the function that both the Person->new() method and the Employee->new() method end up calling. Understand that while a method call looks a lot like a function call, they aren't really quite the same, and if you treat them as the same, you'll very soon be left with nothing but broken programs. First, the actual underlying calling conventions are different: method calls get an extra argument. Second, function calls don't do inheritance, but methods do.

        Method Call             Resulting Function Call
        -----------             ------------------------
        Person->new()           Person::new("Person")
        Employee->new()         Person::new("Employee")  

So don't use function calls when you mean to call a method.

If an employee is just a Person, that's not all too very interesting. So let's add some other methods. We'll give our employee data fields to access their salary, their employee ID, and their start date.

If you're getting a little tired of creating all these nearly identical methods just to get at the object's data, do not despair. Later, we'll describe several different convenience mechanisms for shortening this up. Meanwhile, here's the straight-forward way:

    sub salary {
        my $self = shift;
        if (@_) { $self->{SALARY} = shift }
        return $self->{SALARY};

    sub id_number {
        my $self = shift;
        if (@_) { $self->{ID} = shift }
        return $self->{ID};

    sub start_date {
        my $self = shift;
        if (@_) { $self->{START_DATE} = shift }
        return $self->{START_DATE};

Overridden Methods

What happens when both a derived class and its base class have the same method defined? Well, then you get the derived class's version of that method. For example, let's say that we want the peers() method called on an employee to act a bit differently. Instead of just returning the list of peer names, let's return slightly different strings. So doing this:

    $empl->peers("Peter", "Paul", "Mary");
    printf "His peers are: %s\n", join(", ", $empl->peers);  

will produce:

    His peers are: PEON=PETER, PEON=PAUL, PEON=MARY  

To do this, merely add this definition into the file:

    sub peers {
        my $self = shift;
        if (@_) { @{ $self->{PEERS} } = @_ }
        return map { "PEON=\U$_" } @{ $self->{PEERS} };

There, we've just demonstrated the high-falutin' concept known in certain circles as polymorphism. We've taken on the form and behaviour of an existing object, and then we've altered it to suit our own purposes. This is a form of Laziness. (Getting polymorphed is also what happens when the wizard decides you'd look better as a frog.)

Every now and then you'll want to have a method call trigger both its derived class (also known as "subclass") version as well as its base class (also known as "superclass") version. In practice, constructors and destructors are likely to want to do this, and it probably also makes sense in the debug() method we showed previously.

To do this, add this to

    use Carp;
    my $Debugging = 0;

    sub debug {
        my $self = shift;
        confess "usage: thing->debug(level)"    unless @_ == 1;
        my $level = shift;
        if (ref($self))  {
            $self->{"_DEBUG"} = $level;
        } else {
            $Debugging = $level;            # whole class
        Person::debug($self, $Debugging);   # don't really do this

As you see, we turn around and call the Person package's debug() function. But this is far too fragile for good design. What if Person doesn't have a debug() function, but is inheriting its debug() method from elsewhere? It would have been slightly better to say


But even that's got too much hard-coded. It's somewhat better to say


Which is a funny way to say to start looking for a debug() method up in Person. This strategy is more often seen on overridden object methods than on overridden class methods.

There is still something a bit off here. We've hard-coded our superclass's name. This in particular is bad if you change which classes you inherit from, or add others. Fortunately, the pseudoclass SUPER comes to the rescue here.


This way it starts looking in my class's @ISA. This only makes sense from within a method call, though. Don't try to access anything in SUPER:: from anywhere else, because it doesn't exist outside an overridden method call.

Things are getting a bit complicated here. Have we done anything we shouldn't? As before, one way to test whether we're designing a decent class is via the empty subclass test. Since we already have an Employee class that we're trying to check, we'd better get a new empty subclass that can derive from Employee. Here's one:

    package Boss;
    use Employee;        # :-)
    @ISA = qw(Employee);  

And here's the test program:

    #!/usr/bin/perl -w
    use strict;
    use Boss;

    my $boss = Boss->new();

    $boss->fullname->surname("Pichon Alvarez");
    $boss->fullname->christian("Federico Jesus");

    $boss->peers("Frank", "Felipe", "Faust");

    printf "%s is age %d.\n", $boss->fullname, $boss->age;
    printf "His peers are: %s\n", join(", ", $boss->peers);  

Running it, we see that we're still ok. If you'd like to dump out your object in a nice format, somewhat like the way the 'x' command works in the debugger, you could use the Data::Dumper module from CPAN this way:

    use Data::Dumper;
    print "Here's the boss:\n";
    print Dumper($boss);  

Which shows us something like this:

    Here's the boss:
    $VAR1 = bless( {
	 _CENSUS => \1,
	 FULLNAME => bless( {
			      TITLE => 'Don',
			      SURNAME => 'Pichon Alvarez',
			      NICK => 'Fred',
			      CHRISTIAN => 'Federico Jesus'
			    }, 'Fullname' ),
	 AGE => 47,
	 PEERS => [
       }, 'Boss' );  

Hm.... something's missing there. What about the salary, start date, and ID fields? Well, we never set them to anything, even undef, so they don't show up in the hash's keys. The Employee class has no new() method of its own, and the new() method in Person doesn't know about Employees. (Nor should it: proper OO design dictates that a subclass be allowed to know about its immediate superclass, but never vice-versa.) So let's fix up Employee::new() this way:

    sub new {
        my $proto = shift;
        my $class = ref($proto) || $proto;
        my $self  = $class->SUPER::new();
        $self->{SALARY}        = undef;
        $self->{ID}            = undef;
        $self->{START_DATE}    = undef;
        bless ($self, $class);          # reconsecrate
        return $self;

Now if you dump out an Employee or Boss object, you'll find that new fields show up there now.

Multiple Inheritance

Ok, at the risk of confusing beginners and annoying OO gurus, it's time to confess that Perl's object system includes that controversial notion known as multiple inheritance, or MI for short. All this means is that rather than having just one parent class who in turn might itself have a parent class, etc., that you can directly inherit from two or more parents. It's true that some uses of MI can get you into trouble, although hopefully not quite so much trouble with Perl as with dubiously-OO languages like C++.

The way it works is actually pretty simple: just put more than one package name in your @ISA array. When it comes time for Perl to go finding methods for your object, it looks at each of these packages in order. Well, kinda. It's actually a fully recursive, depth-first order. Consider a bunch of @ISA arrays like this:

    @First::ISA    = qw( Alpha );
    @Second::ISA   = qw( Beta );
    @Third::ISA    = qw( First Second );  

If you have an object of class Third:

    my $ob = Third->new();

How do we find a spin() method (or a new() method for that matter)? Because the search is depth-first, classes will be looked up in the following order: Third, First, Alpha, Second, and Beta.

In practice, few class modules have been seen that actually make use of MI. One nearly always chooses simple containership of one class within another over MI. That's why our Person object contained a Fullname object. That doesn't mean it was one.

However, there is one particular area where MI in Perl is rampant: borrowing another class's class methods. This is rather common, especially with some bundled "objectless" classes, like Exporter, DynaLoader, AutoLoader, and SelfLoader. These classes do not provide constructors; they exist only so you may inherit their class methods. (It's not entirely clear why inheritance was done here rather than traditional module importation.)

For example, here is the POSIX module's @ISA:

    package POSIX;
    @ISA = qw(Exporter DynaLoader);  

The POSIX module isn't really an object module, but then, neither are Exporter or DynaLoader. They're just lending their classes' behaviours to POSIX.

Why don't people use MI for object methods much? One reason is that it can have complicated side-effects. For one thing, your inheritance graph (no longer a tree) might converge back to the same base class. Although Perl guards against recursive inheritance, merely having parents who are related to each other via a common ancestor, incestuous though it sounds, is not forbidden. What if in our Third class shown above we wanted its new() method to also call both overridden constructors in its two parent classes? The SUPER notation would only find the first one. Also, what about if the Alpha and Beta classes both had a common ancestor, like Nought? If you kept climbing up the inheritance tree calling overridden methods, you'd end up calling Nought::new() twice, which might well be a bad idea.

UNIVERSAL: The Root of All Objects

Wouldn't it be convenient if all objects were rooted at some ultimate base class? That way you could give every object common methods without having to go and add it to each and every @ISA. Well, it turns out that you can. You don't see it, but Perl tacitly and irrevocably assumes that there's an extra element at the end of @ISA: the class UNIVERSAL. In version 5.003, there were no predefined methods there, but you could put whatever you felt like into it.

However, as of version 5.004 (or some subversive releases, like 5.003_08), UNIVERSAL has some methods in it already. These are builtin to your Perl binary, so they don't take any extra time to load. Predefined methods include isa(), can(), and VERSION(). isa() tells you whether an object or class "is" another one without having to traverse the hierarchy yourself:

   $has_io = $fd->isa("IO::Handle");
   $itza_handle = IO::Socket->isa("IO::Handle");  

The can() method, called against that object or class, reports back whether its string argument is a callable method name in that class. In fact, it gives you back a function reference to that method:

   $his_print_method = $obj->can('as_string');  

Finally, the VERSION method checks whether the class (or the object's class) has a package global called $VERSION that's high enough, as in:

    $his_vers = $ob->VERSION();  

However, we don't usually call VERSION ourselves. (Remember that an all uppercase function name is a Perl convention that indicates that the function will be automatically used by Perl in some way.) In this case, it happens when you say

    use Some_Module 3.0;  

If you wanted to add version checking to your Person class explained above, just add this to

    our $VERSION = '1.1';  

and then in could you can say

    use Employee 1.1;  

And it would make sure that you have at least that version number or higher available. This is not the same as loading in that exact version number. No mechanism currently exists for concurrent installation of multiple versions of a module. Lamentably.




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[ It reminds me of the claim that Americans built the first computer... It depends on what properties are necessary for a device to be classed as a computer: That it's electronic? That it has Randomly Accessible Memory? That it operates on a stored program? I am tempted to suggest that one of the requirements implicit in some people's lists is that it was built in America.   ]



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