2013 twenty-four merry days of Perl Feed

Bisecting Perl to find when something broke (or was fixed!)

bisect.pl - 2013-12-13

So, it's Christmas Eve and you've decided now's the time to update production to the latest and greatest version of Perl. But since you don't want to spend your holidays fixing production, you decide to build Perl on your dev machine and run your ample test suite against it first.

One of your tests looks like this: (Why it has your production code in it I have no idea):

# t/a_test.t
use strict;
use warnings;

use Test::More;
plan tests => 4;

sub terrible {
  my $gift = shift;

  return 1 if $gift =~ /(charcoal|sweater)/;

for my $gift qw(charcoal sweater) {
  ok(terrible($gift), "Gift $gift is terrible!");

for my $gift qw(car motorcycle) {
  ok(!terrible($gift), "Gift $gift is awesome!");

After upgrading Perl from 5.8.8 to 5.18.1, you find this test breaks:

  $ perl-5.18.1 ~/t/a_test.t
  "my" variable $gift masks earlier declaration in same statement at ~/t/a_test.t line 18.
  "my" variable $gift masks earlier declaration in same statement at ~/t/a_test.t line 19.
  syntax error at ~/t/a_test.t line 14, near "$gift qw(charcoal sweater)"
  Global symbol "$gift" requires explicit package name at ~/t/a_test.t line 15.
  Execution of ~/t/a_test.t aborted due to compilation errors.

But why?! That's perfectly valid Perl!

Bisecting to the rescue!

Thankfully, with a clone of the Perl git repository, we can answer this question. So first we grab a copy:

  $ git clone git://perl5.git.perl.org/perl.git perl

In Porting/ you'll find a tool called bisect.pl. This is a nice wrapper around git-bisect(1) that will build Perl for each revision being tested and run your tests, telling you when your test first broke.

However, this script cannot be run from the Perl repository it is testing, so first we must make a copy of a clean checkout of blead:

  $ git clone perl perl-2

And now we can bisect Perl from 5.8.8 (when everything worked) to 5.18.1 (when our world collapsed) and wait a very long time to get our results:

  $ cd perl-2
  $ ../perl/Porting/bisect.pl --start=perl-5.8.8 --end=v5.18.1 \
    -- ./perl -Ilib ~/t/a_test.t

Grab an eggnog, wrap some presents, write your memoirs, this will take awhile.

Optionally, we can make this go a little faster, because we have an awesome computer that we got last Christmas, and it can do many things in parallel. We just add a -j option which gets passed to make(1):

  $ ../perl/Porting/bisect.pl --start=perl-5.8.8 --end=v5.18.1 \
    -j 8 -- ./perl -Ilib ~/t/a_test.t

Note that while above --start and --end are git tags, instead they could even be commit IDs.

Anyways, after waiting a long while the bisect finally finishes and tells us this:

  Use of qw(...) as parentheses is deprecated at ~/t/a_test.t line 14.
  Use of qw(...) as parentheses is deprecated at ~/t/a_test.t line 18.
  ok 1 - Gift charcoal is terrible!
  ok 2 - Gift sweater is terrible!
  ok 3 - Git car is awesome!
  ok 4 - Git motorcycle is awesome!
  HEAD is now at eb3d0a5 Block signals during fork (fixes RT#82580)
  good - zero exit from ./perl -Ilib ~/t/a_test.t

  417a992d4dc78be79e44d19e029d9742d0334128 is the first bad commit
  commit 417a992d4dc78be79e44d19e029d9742d0334128
  Author: Zefram <zefram@fysh.org>
  Date:   Fri May 25 22:25:21 2012 +0100

      remove deprecated qw-as-parens behaviour
  bisect run success
  That took 2019 seconds

Voila! And knowing that, we can fix our test by changing:

for my $gift qw(charcoal sweater) {


for my $gift (qw(charcoal sweater)) {


for my $gift qw(car motorcycle) {


for my $gift (qw(car motorcycle)) {

And upgrade our servers and go home and enjoy the holidays!

A few more tricks…

There are a few more neat things that bisect.pl can also do for us, and its documentation includes examples of many of them.

For instance, you don't need to provide a start and end, that just speeds things up:

  # When did this become an error?
  ../perl/Porting/bisect.pl -e 'my $a := 2;'

Or you can search for the reverse:

  # When did this start working?
  ../perl/Porting/bisect.pl --expect-fail -e '1 // 2'

Check out perldoc Porting/pod/bisect-runner.pl for more information.

In closing

bisect.pl is an incredibly useful tool. Here, we used it to find why some external Perl program failed, but it's most often used to figure out when something broke in Perl itself.

If you hack on the Perl language, keep this in your toolbelt. It will save you time and frustration.

Gravatar Image This article contributed by: Matthew Horsfall (alh) <WolfSage@gmail.com>