Rexx: Power Through Simplicity
Pages: 1, 2
You've read one Rexx script, so given that the language is easy to learn, you're ready for something interesting. The next script illustrates a Rexx feature common to some of today's more powerful languages: the ability to index arrays or tables by non-numeric subscripts.
This example program includes an array that defines three Chicago-area telephone area codes. It prompts the user to enter the name of a town in the Chicago metro area. Then it retrieves and displays the telephone area code associated with that town. The interesting feature of this script is that the town name is the index into the array the script uses to retrieve the telephone area code. Here's the script:
/*******************************************************************/ /* Code Lookup: */ /* Looks up the areacode for the town the user enters. */ /*******************************************************************/ 1 area. = '' /* Initialize array entries to null */ 2 area.CHICAGO = 312 /* Define a table of area codes */ 3 area.HOMEWOOD = 708 4 area.EVANSTON = 847 5 do while town <> '' /* Loop until user enters null line */ 6 say 'For which town do you want the area code?' 7 pull town 8 if town <> '' then do 9 if area.town = '' 10 then say 'Town' town 'is not in my database' 11 else say 'The area code for' town 'is' area.town 12 end 13 end
The first line in the program defines an array or table named
area. You can tell it's an array because it ends with a period.
You don't have to declare or define an array prior to using it, but I found it
useful because I wanted to initialize all array elements to the null string.
The script does this without specifying how many elements the array might
contain or the "data types" of those elements. (Rexx arrays can typically grow
to the size of available memory.)
Lines 2 through 4 initialize by associating three towns in the array with their respective telephone area code values. Variables that contain internal periods are array variables or compound elements. The interesting thing here is that the array elements have string subscripts (the names of towns) rather than numeric ones. This means that the array is content-addressable. It is a form of associative memory, in that it associates or relates values represented by arbitrary strings.
Line 5 continues the script while the value of variable town is anything
other than the null string. The
town variable has had no previous
use or declaration, so its "uninitialized value" is its own name in upper case
TOWN). After prompting the user in line 6, the script reads a town from the
user in line 7. The
pull instruction reads one or more variables
and automatically translates them into upper case.
If the user declines to enter a town by not entering anything and pressing
Enter key, line 8 identifies the situation, skips the
if statement in lines 9 through 11, and exits the
while loop and the program. If the user does enter a town, line 9 looks
it up in the area table. Either line 10 displays a message that it is not in
the script's "database" (the
area array) or line 11 displays the
proper area code for the town. In line 11, the compound variable reference
area.town is what displays the relevant area code to the user.
There's one other feature to mention in this script. The table lookup works
properly because the
pull instruction automatically translates the
user's input to upper case. Because Rexx considers variable names internally
as upper case, the comparison would also have worked if I had coded the array
AREA.CHICAGO, or ... you get the idea. Rexx routinely provides
this kind of convenient automation, but always offers easy ways to avoid it.
For example, to avoid automatic upper-case translation in strings, quote them.
To avoid it in reading variable values, use the
instruction instead of
As variable-sized, content-addressable entities, Rexx arrays have a wide range of uses. Here's another example. This script implements the weighted-retrieval algorithm that forms the basis for bibliographic search services in libraries. The idea is that resources like books, magazine articles, and videos have assigned lists of descriptors. The user inputs his own search descriptors along with a weight: the number of his descriptors that must match the resource's descriptors in order for that resource to match his query. The search system retrieves the most relevant resources, as determined by the weight of their matches, and typically displays them in ranked (weighted) order.
For clarity of illustration, I've simplified the algorithm. I hardcoded the search descriptors (or keywords) and only allow the user to input the weight or threshold for retrieval. I also coded the resources (book titles) and their descriptors right into the program, rather than reading them from a database.
Here's the script. It uses two arrays. The first is a list of keywords that describe the retrieval topics. The second is a list of three books, categorized by three descriptors apiece:
/*********************************************************************/ /* Find Books: */ /* This program illustrates how arrays may be of any dimension */ /* in retrieving book titles based on their keyword weightings. */ /*********************************************************************/ 1 keyword. = '' /* Initialize both arrays to all null strings */ 2 title. = '' /* The array of keywords to search for among the book descriptors */ 3 keyword.1 = 'earth' ; keyword.2 = 'computers' 4 keyword.3 = 'life' ; keyword.4 = 'environment' /* The array of book titles, each having several descriptors */ 5 title.1 = 'Saving Planet Earth' 6 title.1.1 = 'earth' 7 title.1.2 = 'environment' 8 title.1.3 = 'life' 9 title.2 = 'Computer Lifeforms' 10 title.2.1 = 'life' 11 title.2.2 = 'computers' 12 title.2.3 = 'intelligence' 13 title.3 = 'Algorithmic Insanity' 14 title.3.1 = 'computers' 15 title.3.2 = 'algorithms' 16 title.3.3 = 'programming' 17 arg weight /* Get number keyword matches required for retrieval */ 18 say 'For weight of' weight 'retrieved titles are:' /* Output header */ 19 do j = 1 while title.j <> '' /* Look at each book */ 20 count = 0 21 do k = 1 while keyword.k <> '' /* Inspect its keywords */ 22 do l = 1 while title.j.l <> '' /* Compute its weight */ 23 if keyword.k = title.j.l then count = count + 1 24 end 25 end 26 if count >= weight then /* Display titles matching the criteria */ 27 say title.j 28 end
The first two lines of the program initialize all positions in both arrays
to the null string. Lines 3 and 4 define the elements in the
keyword array, while lines 5 through 16 define the three titles
and the list of descriptors for each. I've defined all array elements as
quotation-delimited character strings. This preserves their case sensitivity.
I've placed more than Rexx statement per line in defining the keywords array by
using the semicolon to separate the statements. I created a hierarchical or
tree structure in the
title array merely by using multiple
subscripts to describe array elements. Rexx enables subscripting to an
arbitrary depth, with any number of subscripts or dimensions, limited only by
Line 17 reads the weight the user enters from command-line argument provided to the script. Line 18 writes a header for the program's output list of retrieved titles.
do while loop of lines 19 through 28 process a single book
or title. Line 20 initializes the weight or count of descriptor matches for
the book title to 0. The loop of lines 21 through 25 processes all of the
retrieval keywords against a single book title, while the innermost loop of
lines 22 to 24 accumulates the matching weight for an individual book title.
Lines 26 and 27 display the books with a number of matches at least equal to
the hit count or weight dictated by the user.
Unlike most programming languages, Rexx does not have many built-in data structures. This script shows why. Associative arrays are easy to use to implement data structures of arbitrary complexity. The processing logic in lines 19 through 28 would work without alteration even if I changed the number of keywords or book descriptors, assigned different numbers of descriptors per book, or read the contents of either array from the user or from a file or a database.
The second scripting example demonstrated a lookup table, a data structure embodying the key-value pairs popular in Perl and in the open source Berkeley DB database. This example script demonstrates a list in its keywords table and a tree in its array of titles. This tree happens to be balanced tree, but skewed or unbalanced trees are also possible.
Arrays can also group heterogeneous data items to implement the equivalent of C/C++ structures or Pascal or COBOL record definitions. They can even implement structures requiring symbolic pointers, such as linked lists and doubly linked lists. Rexx arrays may be dense or sparse, contain homogenous or heterogeneous elements, and expand and contract as necessary.
Here is Rexx, a language that "lacks data structures"--and yet permits you to create them without any special syntax. Power comes from ease of use, not from adding features or complexity.
This article offers just a taste of what Rexx is about. It excludes object-oriented Rexx, which runs standard procedural Rexx programs without alteration, yet fully supports object-oriented scripting.
Open Object Rexx includes classes, methods, messaging, encapsulation, abstraction, multiple inheritance, polymorphism, and a huge hammer of a class library. It retains Rexx's ease of use while providing the full power of object-oriented programming.
I also omitted NetRexx, a "Rexx-like" language that extends Rexx's ease of use into the Java environment. NetRexx runs on both clients and servers. Use it to develop classes, applets, applications, servlets, and beans. NetRexx functions as an interpreter or compiler, so you can run it with or without a Java Virtual Machine and even use it to generate formatted Java code.
No single programming language is best for every task--which is one reason why there are so many of them--but Rexx is certainly a useful one to have around. It makes a nice complement to syntax-based power languages like Perl, Bash, and Korn. You can become fluent in Rexx in a matter of days, yet you won't run out of power as your knowledge grows.
Here is a list of free software and other resources.
Interpreters with Tools
- Regina (Most platforms)
- Rexx/imc (Linux, Unix, BSD)
- BRexx (Linux, Unix, Windows, Windows CE, Mac OS, DOS, others)
- Reginald (Windows)
- Rexx for Palm OS (Palm OS)
For Java Integration
The Rexx Language Forums
International Users Group
Howard Fosdick is an independent consultant who has worked with most major scripting languages.
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