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Access the lines of a disk file via a Perl array

Tie::File - Access the lines of a disk file via a Perl array


Tie::File - Access the lines of a disk file via a Perl array


        # This file documents Tie::File version 0.93

        tie @array, 'Tie::File', filename or die ...;

        $array[13] = 'blah';     # line 13 of the file is now 'blah'

        print $array[42];        # display line 42 of the file

        $n_recs = @array;        # how many records are in the file?

        $#array -= 2;            # chop two records off the end

        for (@array) {

          s/PERL/Perl/g;         # Replace PERL with Perl everywhere in the file


        # These are just like regular push, pop, unshift, shift, and splice

        # Except that they modify the file in the way you would expect

        push @array, new recs...;

        my $r1 = pop @array;

        unshift @array, new recs...;

        my $r1 = shift @array;

        @old_recs = splice @array, 3, 7, new recs...;

        untie @array;            # all finished


Tie::File represents a regular text file as a Perl array. Each element in the array corresponds to a record in the file. The first line of the file is element 0 of the array; the second line is element 1, and so on.

The file is not loaded into memory, so this will work even for gigantic files.

Changes to the array are reflected in the file immediately.

Lazy people and beginners may now stop reading the manual.


What is a 'record'? By default, the meaning is the same as for the <...> operator: It's a string terminated by $/, which is probably "\n". (Minor exception: on dos and Win32 systems, a 'record' is a string terminated by "\r\n".) You may change the definition of ``record'' by supplying the recsep option in the tie call:

        tie @array, 'Tie::File', $file, recsep => 'es';

This says that records are delimited by the string es. If the file contained the following data:

        Curse these pesky flies!\n

then the @array would appear to have four elements:

        "Curse th"

        "e p"

        "ky fli"


An undefined value is not permitted as a record separator. Perl's special ``paragraph mode'' semantics (à la $/ = "") are not emulated.

Records read from the tied array do not have the record separator string on the end; this is to allow

        $array[17] .= "extra";

to work as expected.

(See autochomp, below.) Records stored into the array will have the record separator string appended before they are written to the file, if they don't have one already. For example, if the record separator string is "\n", then the following two lines do exactly the same thing:

        $array[17] = "Cherry pie";

        $array[17] = "Cherry pie\n";

The result is that the contents of line 17 of the file will be replaced with ``Cherry pie''; a newline character will separate line 17 from line 18. This means that this code will do nothing:

        chomp $array[17];

Because the chomped value will have the separator reattached when it is written back to the file. There is no way to create a file whose trailing record separator string is missing.

Inserting records that contain the record separator string is not supported by this module. It will probably produce a reasonable result, but what this result will be may change in a future version. Use 'splice' to insert records or to replace one record with several.


Normally, array elements have the record separator removed, so that if the file contains the text




the tied array will appear to contain ("Gold", "Frankincense", "Myrrh"). If you set autochomp to a false value, the record separator will not be removed. If the file above was tied with

        tie @gifts, "Tie::File", $gifts, autochomp => 0;

then the array @gifts would appear to contain ("Gold\n", "Frankincense\n", "Myrrh\n"), or (on Win32 systems) ("Gold\r\n", "Frankincense\r\n", "Myrrh\r\n").


Normally, the specified file will be opened for read and write access, and will be created if it does not exist. (That is, the flags O_RDWR | O_CREAT are supplied in the open call.) If you want to change this, you may supply alternative flags in the mode option. See Fcntl for a listing of available flags. For example:

        # open the file if it exists, but fail if it does not exist

        use Fcntl 'O_RDWR';

        tie @array, 'Tie::File', $file, mode => O_RDWR;

        # create the file if it does not exist

        use Fcntl 'O_RDWR', 'O_CREAT';

        tie @array, 'Tie::File', $file, mode => O_RDWR | O_CREAT;

        # open an existing file in read-only mode

        use Fcntl 'O_RDONLY';

        tie @array, 'Tie::File', $file, mode => O_RDONLY;

Opening the data file in write-only or append mode is not supported.


This is an upper limit on the amount of memory that Tie::File will consume at any time while managing the file. This is used for two things: managing the read cache and managing the deferred write buffer.

Records read in from the file are cached, to avoid having to re-read them repeatedly. If you read the same record twice, the first time it will be stored in memory, and the second time it will be fetched from the read cache. The amount of data in the read cache will not exceed the value you specified for memory. If Tie::File wants to cache a new record, but the read cache is full, it will make room by expiring the least-recently visited records from the read cache.

The default memory limit is 2Mib. You can adjust the maximum read cache size by supplying the memory option. The argument is the desired cache size, in bytes.

        # I have a lot of memory, so use a large cache to speed up access

        tie @array, 'Tie::File', $file, memory => 20_000_000;

Setting the memory limit to 0 will inhibit caching; records will be fetched from disk every time you examine them.

The memory value is not an absolute or exact limit on the memory used. Tie::File objects contains some structures besides the read cache and the deferred write buffer, whose sizes are not charged against memory.


(This is an advanced feature. Skip this section on first reading.)

If you use deferred writing (See Deferred Writing, below) then data you write into the array will not be written directly to the file; instead, it will be saved in the deferred write buffer to be written out later. Data in the deferred write buffer is also charged against the memory limit you set with the memory option.

You may set the dw_size option to limit the amount of data that can be saved in the deferred write buffer. This limit may not exceed the total memory limit. For example, if you set dw_size to 1000 and memory to 2500, that means that no more than 1000 bytes of deferred writes will be saved up. The space available for the read cache will vary, but it will always be at least 1500 bytes (if the deferred write buffer is full) and it could grow as large as 2500 bytes (if the deferred write buffer is empty.)

If you don't specify a dw_size, it defaults to the entire memory limit.

Option Format

-mode is a synonym for mode. -recsep is a synonym for recsep. -memory is a synonym for memory. You get the idea.

Public Methods

The tie call returns an object, say $o. You may call

        $rec = $o->FETCH($n);

        $o->STORE($n, $rec);

to fetch or store the record at line $n, respectively; similarly the other tied array methods. (See perltie for details.) You may also call the following methods on this object:



will lock the tied file. MODE has the same meaning as the second argument to the Perl built-in flock function; for example LOCK_SH or LOCK_EX | LOCK_NB. (These constants are provided by the use Fcntl ':flock' declaration.)

MODE is optional; the default is LOCK_EX.

Tie::File promises that the following sequence of operations will be safe:

        my $o = tie @array, "Tie::File", $filename;


In particular, Tie::File will not read or write the file during the tie call. (Exception: Using mode => O_TRUNC will, of course, erase the file during the tie call. If you want to do this safely, then open the file without O_TRUNC, lock the file, and use @array = ().)

The best way to unlock a file is to discard the object and untie the array. It is probably unsafe to unlock the file without also untying it, because if you do, changes may remain unwritten inside the object. That is why there is no shortcut for unlocking. If you really want to unlock the file prematurely, you know what to do; if you don't know what to do, then don't do it.

All the usual warnings about file locking apply here. In particular, note that file locking in Perl is advisory, which means that holding a lock will not prevent anyone else from reading, writing, or erasing the file; it only prevents them from getting another lock at the same time. Locks are analogous to green traffic lights: If you have a green light, that does not prevent the idiot coming the other way from plowing into you sideways; it merely guarantees to you that the idiot does not also have a green light at the same time.


        my $old_value = $o->autochomp(0);    # disable autochomp option

        my $old_value = $o->autochomp(1);    #  enable autochomp option

        my $ac = $o->autochomp();   # recover current value

See autochomp, above.

defer, flush, discard, and autodefer

See Deferred Writing, below.

Tying to an already-opened filehandle

If $fh is a filehandle, such as is returned by IO::File or one of the other IO modules, you may use:

        tie @array, 'Tie::File', $fh, ...;

Similarly if you opened that handle FH with regular open or sysopen, you may use:

        tie @array, 'Tie::File', \*FH, ...;

Handles that were opened write-only won't work. Handles that were opened read-only will work as long as you don't try to modify the array. Handles must be attached to seekable sources of data---that means no pipes or sockets. If Tie::File can detect that you supplied a non-seekable handle, the tie call will throw an exception. (On Unix systems, it can detect this.)

Deferred Writing

(This is an advanced feature. Skip this section on first reading.)

Normally, modifying a Tie::File array writes to the underlying file immediately. Every assignment like $a[3] = ... rewrites as much of the file as is necessary; typically, everything from line 3 through the end will need to be rewritten. This is the simplest and most transparent behavior. Performance even for large files is reasonably good.

However, under some circumstances, this behavior may be excessively slow. For example, suppose you have a million-record file, and you want to do:

        for (@FILE) {

          $_ = "> $_";


The first time through the loop, you will rewrite the entire file, from line 0 through the end. The second time through the loop, you will rewrite the entire file from line 1 through the end. The third time through the loop, you will rewrite the entire file from line 2 to the end. And so on.

If the performance in such cases is unacceptable, you may defer the actual writing, and then have it done all at once. The following loop will perform much better for large files:

        (tied @a)->defer;

        for (@a) {

          $_ = "> $_";


        (tied @a)->flush;

If Tie::File's memory limit is large enough, all the writing will done in memory. Then, when you call ->flush, the entire file will be rewritten in a single pass.

(Actually, the preceding discussion is something of a fib. You don't need to enable deferred writing to get good performance for this common case, because Tie::File will do it for you automatically unless you specifically tell it not to. See autodeferring, below.)

Calling ->flush returns the array to immediate-write mode. If you wish to discard the deferred writes, you may call ->discard instead of ->flush. Note that in some cases, some of the data will have been written already, and it will be too late for ->discard to discard all the changes. Support for ->discard may be withdrawn in a future version of Tie::File.

Deferred writes are cached in memory up to the limit specified by the dw_size option (see above). If the deferred-write buffer is full and you try to write still more deferred data, the buffer will be flushed. All buffered data will be written immediately, the buffer will be emptied, and the now-empty space will be used for future deferred writes.

If the deferred-write buffer isn't yet full, but the total size of the buffer and the read cache would exceed the memory limit, the oldest records will be expired from the read cache until the total size is under the limit.

push, pop, shift, unshift, and splice cannot be deferred. When you perform one of these operations, any deferred data is written to the file and the operation is performed immediately. This may change in a future version.

If you resize the array with deferred writing enabled, the file will be resized immediately, but deferred records will not be written. This has a surprising consequence: @a = (...) erases the file immediately, but the writing of the actual data is deferred. This might be a bug. If it is a bug, it will be fixed in a future version.


Tie::File tries to guess when deferred writing might be helpful, and to turn it on and off automatically.

        for (@a) {

          $_ = "> $_";


In this example, only the first two assignments will be done immediately; after this, all the changes to the file will be deferred up to the user-specified memory limit.

You should usually be able to ignore this and just use the module without thinking about deferring. However, special applications may require fine control over which writes are deferred, or may require that all writes be immediate. To disable the autodeferment feature, use

        (tied @o)->autodefer(0);


        tie @array, 'Tie::File', $file, autodefer => 0;

Similarly, ->autodefer(1) re-enables autodeferment, and ->autodefer() recovers the current value of the autodefer setting.


(That's Latin for 'warnings'.)

  • This is BETA RELEASE SOFTWARE. It may have bugs. See the discussion below about the (lack of any) warranty.

    In particular, this means that the interface may change in incompatible ways from one version to the next, without warning. That has happened at least once already. The interface will freeze before Perl 5.8 is released, probably sometime in April 2002.

  • Reasonable effort was made to make this module efficient. Nevertheless, changing the size of a record in the middle of a large file will always be fairly slow, because everything after the new record must be moved.

  • The behavior of tied arrays is not precisely the same as for regular arrays. For example:
            # This DOES print "How unusual!"
            undef $a[10];  print "How unusual!\n" if defined $a[10];

    undef-ing a Tie::File array element just blanks out the corresponding record in the file. When you read it back again, you'll get the empty string, so the supposedly-undef'ed value will be defined. Similarly, if you have autochomp disabled, then

            # This DOES print "How unusual!" if 'autochomp' is disabled
            undef $a[10];
            print "How unusual!\n" if $a[10];

    Because when autochomp is disabled, $a[10] will read back as "\n" (or whatever the record separator string is.)

    There are other minor differences, particularly regarding exists and delete, but in general, the correspondence is extremely close.

  • Not quite every effort was made to make this module as efficient as possible. FETCHSIZE should use binary search instead of linear search.

    The performance of the flush method could be improved. At present, it still rewrites the tail of the file once for each block of contiguous lines to be changed. In the typical case, this will result in only one rewrite, but in peculiar cases it might be bad. It should be possible to perform all deferred writing with a single rewrite.

    Profiling suggests that these defects are probably minor; in any event, they will be fixed in a future version of the module.

  • I have supposed that since this module is concerned with file I/O, almost all normal use of it will be heavily I/O bound. This means that the time to maintain complicated data structures inside the module will be dominated by the time to actually perform the I/O. When there was an opportunity to spend CPU time to avoid doing I/O, I tried to take it.

  • You might be tempted to think that deferred writing is like transactions, with flush as commit and discard as rollback, but it isn't, so don't.


This version promises absolutely nothing about the internals, which may change without notice. A future version of the module will have a well-defined and stable subclassing API.


People sometimes point out that DB_File will do something similar, and ask why Tie::File module is necessary.

There are a number of reasons that you might prefer Tie::File. A list is available at


Mark Jason Dominus

To contact the author, send email to:

To receive an announcement whenever a new version of this module is released, send a blank email message to

The most recent version of this module, including documentation and any news of importance, will be available at


Tie::File version 0.93 is copyright (C) 2002 Mark Jason Dominus.

This library is free software; you may redistribute it and/or modify it under the same terms as Perl itself.

These terms are your choice of any of (1) the Perl Artistic Licence, or (2) version 2 of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation, or (3) any later version of the GNU General Public License.

This library is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. See the GNU General Public License for more details.

You should have received a copy of the GNU General Public License along with this library program; it should be in the file COPYING. If not, write to the Free Software Foundation, Inc., 59 Temple Place, Suite 330, Boston, MA 02111 USA

For licensing inquiries, contact the author at:

        Mark Jason Dominus

        255 S. Warnock St.

        Philadelphia, PA 19107


Tie::File version 0.93 comes with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY. For details, see the license.


Gigantic thanks to Jarkko Hietaniemi, for agreeing to put this in the core when I hadn't written it yet, and for generally being helpful, supportive, and competent. (Usually the rule is ``choose any one.'') Also big thanks to Abhijit Menon-Sen for all of the same things.

Special thanks to Craig Berry and Peter Prymmer (for VMS portability help), Randy Kobes (for Win32 portability help), Clinton Pierce and Autrijus Tang (for heroic eleventh-hour Win32 testing above and beyond the call of duty), Michael G Schwern (for testing advice), and the rest of the CPAN testers (for testing generally).

Additional thanks to: Edward Avis / Gerrit Haase / Nikola Knezevic / Nick Ing-Simmons / Tassilo von Parseval / H. Dieter Pearcey / Slaven Rezic / Peter Scott / Peter Somu / Autrijus Tang (again) / Tels / Juerd Wallboer


More tests. (The cache and heap modules need more unit tests.)

Improve SPLICE algorithm to use deferred writing machinery.

Cleverer strategy for flushing deferred writes.

More tests. (Stuff I didn't think of yet.)

Paragraph mode?

Fixed-length mode. Leave-blanks mode.

Maybe an autolocking mode?

Record locking with fcntl()? Then the module might support an undo log and get real transactions. What a tour de force that would be.

More tests.