perl has built-in temp files

I use temporary files pretty often. There are a bunch of ways to do this, and File::Temp is probably the most popular. It’s pretty good, but also pretty complicated. A big part of this complication is that it’s meant to keep your filename around until you’re done with it, and to let you pick its name and location. Often, though, I don’t need these features. I just need a place to stream a whole bunch of data that I’ll seek around in later, or maybe just stream back out. In other words, instead of holding a whole lot of data in memory, put it in a file.

See, if you’re going to put data in a file, then close it, then ask some other program to operate on it, it almost certainly needs a name. You might open that program and pipe data into it, but it’s often much easier to just give it a filename of a file on disk. If you don’t need that, though, the filename is totally extraneous. In fact, it just gets in the way by making it possible to leak disk usage. A filename is a reference to storage in use, just like an open filehandle is. Just like you can leak a RAM by leaving a reference to a variable in global scope, you can leak storage by leaving a name on the filesystem. That RAM will come back when your program dies, but the storage will wait until you erase the filesystem!

On most platforms, you can’t create a truly anonymous filehandle, but you can do the next best thing: you can create a named file on disk, hang on to the filehandle, and immediately unlink the name. When your program terminates, there will no longer be any reference to the data on disk, and it can be freed.

Perl even makes this easy to do:

open my $fh, '+>', undef
  or die "can't create anonymous storage: $!";

This creates a file in your temporary directory (either $TMPDIR or /tmp or your current directory) with a name like “PerlIO_TQ50Oh” and then immediately unlinks it. The magic comes from the use of an undefined value as the filename. That mode, +>, is nothing special. It just means “create the file, clobbering anything that’s in the way, and open it read-write.” Now you can write to it, seek backward, and then read from it. This feature has been there since 5.8.0! If you can’t use it because of your perl version, you have my sympathy!

Of course, maybe I’m weird in being able, ever, to make do with temporary files like these. I don’t think so, though. When I asked on IRC recently, whether I was missing some reason that it wasn’t more common, almost every single response was, “Woah, I never heard of that feature.”

Now you have!

Written on May 22, 2015
🐪 perl
🧑🏽‍💻 programming