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Revisiting ActivePerl… Part Two!

In our previous article, we took an in-depth look at ActivePerl.

ActivePerl is a way of installing a Perl environment under Windows, and Perl is the underlaying programming language that our MIDAS software is written in.

In essence, we felt we could no longer recommend ActivePerl to our self-hosted customers looking to install our room booking software on their Windows servers.

Well, ActiveState (the developers of ActivePerl) took notice of our article and have quickly reached out to us…

ActivePerl Icon

ActiveState’s Response

Pete Garcin, Director of Product at ActiveState reached out to us:

I saw your blog post about revisiting ActivePerl — it was great to see the engagement you had with the platform and the process you went through trying to get your build to work. It’s unfortunate that you ran into issues during that process though!

One of the goals of the platform is to provide a simple, reproducible process for generating builds from an expansive catalog. While it’s not always possible to keep 100% of the catalog building 100% of the time, we do our best to keep critical packages running.

Since the time you attempted your build, DBD::MySql and the maria-db-connector have been fixed (they were transiently broken) and one of our build engineers bumped the timestamp on your project so that now all of your projects for later versions should work. If you use 5.32 or newer, it ships with the mysql client DLL by default! In the future, making any change to a project will move the timestamp forward so that you pick up new changes to the catalog.

Also, you are free to use 5.32.1 or 5.34.0 — as both are now classified as out of beta (website might lag behind slightly). In fact, we highly recommend using one of the newer versions as the build experience is much faster and they also include the mysql DLL.

Also, if you’re distributing to your end users, our CLI provides a super simple way for anyone to set up the environment without needing to distribute a full installer — and they can also receive updates and stay sync’d. For modern versions of Perl (5.32+) you’ll see the instructions on how to install the CLI and the build on the platform dashboard in the Downloads tab.

Again — sorry to hear you had a rough experience creating your build, we’d love for you to try again with the updated projects and always happy to help work through any issues with you! Feel free to reach out any time.

– Pete Garcin, Director of Product, ActiveState

ActiveState’s CTO, Scott Robertson, also reached out:

Thanks for the amazing write up, really sorry you had a bad first impression. Even though ultimately we didn’t win you on the first shot I took heart that you’re starting to see the vision to our ambition when you say “We admit, we were actually a little excited – we appeared to have a custom Windows distribution of..”.. That’s the goal!

You’ve noted the number of packages we now support is over 100k! We’re coming pretty close to our goal now of being able to build 100% of CPAN in a secure reproducible way including all native dependencies. Something Strawberry perl can not claim. Unfortunately we’re still experiencing some growing pains going from 500 packages to over 100k and supporting every version the night it’s dropped. Looks like when you tried this project MariaDB updates entered our catalog and were broken. We have since fixed them. The post you found in our community forum was way out of date. We’re working on producing better support materials, but in the meantime know we’re here to help.

– Scott Robertson, CTO, ActiveState

Analysis

First of all, we have to give credit to ActiveState for reaching out to us so quickly. We certainly weren’t expecting that, but it’s encouraging to see their engagement.

Secondly, it would appear – at first glance at least – that ActivePerl 5.32 and 5.34 do now successfully build on the ActiveState platform.

So let’s take a look…

Missing stand-alone installers

Here’s what the “Download Builds” tab on the ActiveState platform looks like for our ActivePerl 5.28.3 build:

.exe and .msi Windows installers are available for ActivePerl 5.28.3
.exe and .msi Windows installers are available for ActivePerl 5.28.3

Notice that there are two install methods offered; “Download Installer” and “Install via Command Line”.

The “Download Installer” section contains download links for standalone Windows installers for our ActivePerl 5.28.3 build.

The “Install via Command Line” section allows the build to be installed from the command line using Windows PowerShell and ActiveState’s “State Tool“.

Now, let’s be realistic; the average non-tech savvy user will always opt for a familiar Windows Installer over having to use Windows PowerShell to execute arbitrary commands.

So it’s strange and very disappointing that no stand-alone installers appear to be provided for our 5.32/5.34 builds:

No stand-alone installers for Windows are provided for ActivePerl 5.34
No stand-alone installers for Windows are provided for ActivePerl 5.34

Thinking this may be a glitch, we triggered a re-build of our ActivePerl 5.34 package on the ActiveState platform. This appeared to successfully build, but again no standalone Windows installers were generated.

We questioned this with ActiveState’s CTO who told us:

Installers vs State tool: It will be State tool only going forward for free versions. The service and command client is meant for developers. Installers are a paid option.

Scott Robertson, CTO, ActiveState

This is clearly a very recent decision which isn’t made clear on their website. In fact, the automated email notification the platform sent us when the re-building of 5.34 was complete, still asserts that you can “download the installer”:

Email notification from ActiveState indicating that a stand-alone installer is available
Email notification from ActiveState indicating that a stand-alone installer is available

Sadly, the lack of any standalone .exe/.msi installers for ActivePerl being made freely available going forward is a major block for us to recommence recommending ActivePerl again to our self-hosted MIDAS customers.

However, we were still curious ourselves as to whether the previous issues with lack of MySQL/MariaDB support had indeed been fixed in this 5.34 build, so we decided to try a test installing using Windows PowerShell to install ActivePerl’s “State Tool” and configure our 5.34 build.

Here’s how we got on:

Installing via Windows PowerShell

We opened a Windows command prompt and then pasted in the command ActiveState provided to “Install via Command Line”.

The result was a spiel of console output that would baffle most:

Console output from installing ActivePerl via the command line
Console output from installing ActivePerl via the command line

…to be honest, we’re not even sure if we understand all of that… and we’re seasoned Perl developers!

Anyway, the console output ended by informing us that we were “Activated”.

So Perl 5.34 was now installed… right?(!)

We weren’t sure, so to test, we created a very simple .pl script that would print the words “Hello World!” in the browser, and saved this to our test Apache web server’s htdocs.

This very simple .pl script contained just two lines:

#!/usr/bin/perl

print "content-type:text/html\n\nHello World!";

Trying to locate Perl

Now, let’s talk shebangs (no, not the 2000 hit by Ricky Martin!).

In Perl, the “shebang” refers to the very first line of any Perl script. It informs the web server as to the whereabouts of the perl installation to use.

On Linux servers, Perl may typically be located at /usr/bin/perl, therefore, the first line of any Perl script (known as the “shebang” line) should read:

#!/usr/bin/perl

On Windows servers, Perl was traditionally located at C:\Perl\bin, C:\Perl64\bin, or C:\Strawberry\perl\bin, and so the shebang could read something like:

#!C:\Strawberry\perl\bin\perl.exe

However, Apache servers support a really cool configuration option called “ScriptInterpreterSource Registry“. What this does is instruct Apache to simply ignore the “shebang” line, and instead determine the location of Perl based upon a Windows registry value (which should be set when Perl is installed).

That has the advantage that user’s don’t then need to set/change, or indeed care about the “shebang” line in Perl scripts, they should just work regardless!

That’s why we recommend enabling this config option when installing and configuring Apache on a Windows server.

So we tried accessing our simple “hello world” Perl script in our browser. This resulted in an Internal Server Error:

Internal Server Error when executing a .pl script
Internal Server Error when executing a .pl script

Upon investigation, it would appear that during install of ActivePerl, no registry value was set to allow Apache’s “ScriptInterpreterSource” directive to determine where Perl was located.

So we then had to find the location of the perl.exe executable on our test server and manually update the shebang line of our “hello world” script.

There was no obvious C:\Perl, or C:\Perl64 or even C:\ActivePerl directories present, so we had to search the entire C:\ drive on our test server for “perl.exe”. We eventually found perl located under:

C:\users\wdagutilityaccount\appdata\local\activestate\052e8766\bin\perl.exe

So the “shebang” line we needed to add to our “hello world” perl script was the instantly forgettable(!): #!C:\users\wdagutilityaccount\appdata\local\activestate\052e8766\bin\perl.exe

Anyway, this at least allowed our hello world script to execute and correctly print “Hello World” to the browser.

The next stage was to try running our Server Readiness Tool.

Running our Server Readiness Tool

Our Server Readiness Tool is a perl script that our customers can freely download and access (via their browser), and which checks that their server is correctly configured in order to install MIDAS.

As part of these checks, the tool identifies any missing Perl modules which MIDAS requires.

To our surprise, running this tool indicated a number of missing modules, which we thought had been included in our custom ActivePerl build:

Perl modules apparently "missing"
Perl modules apparently “missing”

We double-checked back on the ActiveState platform, and sure enough these modules appear to have been successfully included in our build:

DBD::MariaDb and DBD::mysql appear to have been included in the build
DBD::MariaDb and DBD::mysql appear to have been included in the build

So what was going on?

Digging a little deeper in Apache’s error logs revealed the following errors:

Can't load 'C:/Users/wdagutilityaccount/AppData/Local/activestate/052e8766/site/lib/auto/DBD/mysql/mysql.dll' for module DBD::mysql: load_file:The specified module could not be found at C:/Users/wdagutilityaccount/AppData/Local/activestate/052e8766/lib/DynaLoader.pm line 193.\r: C:/Apache24/htdocs/servercheck.pl

Can't load 'C:/Users/wdagutilityaccount/AppData/Local/activestate/052e8766/site/lib/auto/DBD/MariaDB/MariaDB.dll' for module DBD::MariaDB: load_file:The specified module could not be found at C:/Users/wdagutilityaccount/AppData/Local/activestate/052e8766/lib/DynaLoader.pm line 193.\r: C:/Apache24/htdocs/servercheck.pl

Can't load 'C:/Users/wdagutilityaccount/AppData/Local/activestate/052e8766/site/lib/auto/Net/SSLeay/SSLeay.dll' for module Net::SSLeay: load_file:The specified module could not be found at C:/Users/wdagutilityaccount/AppData/Local/activestate/052e8766/lib/DynaLoader.pm line 193.\r: C:/Apache24/htdocs/servercheck.pl

We checked, and verified that “mysql.dll”, “MariaDB.dll” and “SSLeay.dll” files were all present at the locations indicated.

Digging into line 193 of “DynaLoader.pm”, this section of code included the comment “Many dynamic extension loading problems will appear to come from this section of the code … often these errors are actually occurring in the initialisation C code of the extension XS file. Perl reports the error as being in this perl code simply because this was the last perl code it executed“.

So whilst ActivePerl appears to have technically installed the modules as part of the installation process, right now they’re broken and don’t work on Windows under ActivePerl 5.34!

…and the previous “workaround” of grabbing the “libmysql__.dll” file from a Strawberry perl installation and placing that within the ActivePerl installation also didn’t resolve the issue.

Once again, we have a broken and unusable ActivePerl installation.

In conclusion…

ActiveState’s prompt engagement with us is very welcome and demonstrates that there is still at least some interest there with regards to Perl.

However, we’re sad that they still don’t have an up-to-date version of perl for Windows users that works with MySQL/MariaDB.

It was extremely disappointing when ActiveState abandoned their popular free “Community Edition”.

That disappointment has been further compounded now by the knowledge that going forward ActiveState have made the commercial decision to discontinue being able to build Windows .exe/.msi standalone installers, unless you pay.

This makes ActivePerl a far less attractive option to us.

Why would we want to spend thousands of dollars a year in order to “build” a user-friendly ActivePerl Windows installer for our self-hosted customers to use, when our customers can simply grab and use Strawberry Perl’s free Windows installer.. (and in doing so end up with a Perl installation that actually works on Windows!)

Even if a tech-savvy customer was willing to go down the route of installing ActivePerl on their Windows server via the command line script – as things stand right now, they would have a broken installation that wasn’t capable of interacting with a MySQL/MariaDB database. Therefore, they wouldn’t be able to install and run a self-hosted MIDAS booking system.

Now, if ActiveState are committed to resolving these issues, then we’d be happy to take another look…. however, for us to be won over, ActiveState would also have to reconsider the decision to put standalone Windows installers behind a paywall!

Right now, we can’t see how we can recommend ActivePerl to our Windows-based customers going forward… which is sad, as for years we’d been big advocates of ActivePerl.

For any prospective customers who are interested in MIDAS and considering a self-hosted installation in a Windows environment, we recommend installing Strawberry Perl. Alternatively, you could consider our no-hassle cloud-hosted offering instead.

Revisiting ActivePerl

Perl is the underlaying coding language that our MIDAS booking software is written in.

When it comes to developing with Perl on Windows-based systems, there are broadly two options, as Windows doesn’t natively come with Perl installed (unlike Linux/Mac systems)

These two options are:

Installing either of these products on Windows provides a Perl environment.

Here at MIDAS HQ, as we primarily develop using Windows-based machines, we need a Perl environment to develop under.

For many years, we opted for ActivePerl, but at the start of 2020 we made the switch to Strawberry Perl. You can read more about this in our earlier Strawberry Perl vs ActivePerl post.

A year and a half on, and we’re still very happy with our decision to move to Strawberry Perl.

But in some spare time recently, we thought we’d take a look at what ActiveState have been doing with their ActivePerl product since we moved away from it….

ActivePerl Icon

It’s all about the packages…

There are over 100,000 additional Perl “modules” (or “packages”) available to enhance the “core” functionality of Perl.

Our MIDAS software requires a handful of these additional modules in order to function.

We originally loved ActivePerl as it made it really easy for our customers (and us!) to install these modules via the “Perl Package Manager” tool (or PPM) for short.

This unique feature of ActivePerl was sadly retired by the vendor (ActiveState) by ActivePerl 5.28.

From ActivePerl 5.28 onwards, if users wanted to install additional Perl modules they were encouraged to instead sign up for an ActiveState account. They could then “build” their own custom-build of ActivePerl containing the additional packages/modules they require.

This was a far less user-friendly to install Perl modules than it was to use PPM, where modules could be installed at any time with just a couple of clicks.

Anyway, we thought we’d try using ActiveState’s platform to generate a custom-build of Perl containing all the additional modules/packages which MIDAS requires.

Here’s how we got on…

Signing up for an ActiveState account

Signing up for an ActiveState account is required if you wish to “custom build” ActivePerl with the specific modules/packages you require. That is unless you have a GitHub account (which let’s face it, most of our customers likely won’t have) in which case you can just sign-in.

In order to download ActivePerl, you now need to sign up/in to ActiveState
In order to download ActivePerl, you now need to sign up/in to ActiveState

Having to sign-up and create an account to build/download Perl is a bit unnecessary in our view. You can, for instance, download Strawberry Perl without any of the hassle of having to create an account first.

Anyway, we created an account and logged in…

Configuring a new ActiveState build

Creating a new ActivePerl build was relatively straight forward – there was a big “Create a New Project” button.

Creating a new project on the ActiveState platform
Creating a new project on the ActiveState platform

This then allowed us to select a language – in our case, this was Perl and a Perl version.

Creating a new Perl project on the ActiveState platform
Creating a new Perl project on the ActiveState platform

The two most recent options (5.34.0 and 5.32.1) were flagged as “Beta”.

Perl 5.34 and 5.32.1 are currently classed as "Beta" by ActiveState
Perl 5.34 and 5.32.1 are currently classed as “Beta” by ActiveState

We therefore chose the highest version that wasn’t flagged as “in Beta”. This was 5.32.0.

Next, we could “Add package bundles”. We didn’t want this, as we wanted to add individual packages, so we unselected all package bundles at this stage.

We then selected the operating system we wanted our custom Perl build to be for (in our case, Windows).

Selecting a target OS for ActivePerl
Selecting a target OS for ActivePerl

Next up was “Project visibility” settings:

All projects on ActiveState are "Public" unless you have a "paid" plan
All projects on ActiveState are “Public” unless you have a “paid” plan

The “Project visibility” could only be set as “Public” (unless you opt for one of ActiveState’s paid plans). Finally, we gave our project a name and hit “Create Runtime”.

Adding packages

Once the project was created, we then needed to add the 24 additional Perl modules (packages) that MIDAS requires. These could either be added one at a time via the “Add Packages” button, or imported as a list via the “Import” button.

Adding "Packages" to Perl on the ActiveState Platform
Adding “Packages” to Perl on the ActiveState Platform

The platform then automatically resolved additional dependencies of the 24 packages we’d added, which was useful.

One other useful feature was that the platform indicated any CVE’s (Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures) for each package we were including.

Building the new build

Once all the packages MIDAS required had been added, it was then time to “build” our custom ActivePerl environment. Building indicated that it would take up to 20 minutes to complete, and the platform displayed build progress in real-time throughout.

Sadly though, our build failed!

Building ActivePerl 5.32.0 failed
Building ActivePerl 5.32.0 failed

The packages that failed related to Perl support for MariaDB databases. MIDAS supports both MySQL and MariaDB databases, so it was kinda crucial that our Perl distribution fully supported MariaDB. Anyway, the provided build logs shed no useful light on the root cause of the build failure, nor did ActiveState’s community forums.

Trying again…

We decided to try again. We created a new project, but this time selected an earlier version of Perl (5.28.3), and added in all our required packages.

This time the build completed in 23 minutes and 35 seconds, and provided us with .exe and .msi installer links.

Successfully building ActivePerl 5.28.3 on the ActiveState platform
Successfully building ActivePerl 5.28.3 on the ActiveState platform

Testing the build

We admit, we were actually a little excited – we appeared to have a custom Windows distribution of Perl that our self-hosted customers could install on their servers, and all the modules MIDAS requires would be there right “out of the box”. Our customers wouldn’t need to separately manually install any Perl modules.

So we proceeded to install this custom distribution on a test Windows server, and all seemed to initially go ok.

Once Perl was installed, we ran our handy Server Readiness Tool. This is a free tool we provide to those interested in running MIDAS on their own server. Amongst other things, the tool checks that all necessary Perl modules are available.

To our surprise, this indicated that two modules; DBD::mysql and DBD::MariaDB appeared not to be installed. These modules allow MIDAS to communicate with its back-end database.

Running our Server Readiness Tool under our custom ActivePerl 5.28.3 distribution
Running our Server Readiness Tool under our custom ActivePerl 5.28.3 distribution indicates problems with DBD::mysql and DBD::MariaDB

Trying other versions

Wondering if it may have been an issue with the .msi installer, we completely uninstalled Perl and tried again with the .exe installer link instead. This produced the same results.

We also then spent time and built identical packages on the ActiveState platform under both Perl 5.26.3 and also Perl 5.34.0.

The 5.26.3 build produced the same results as the 5.28.3 build. The 5.34.0 build just failed to build (just like the original 5.32.0 build).

We looked a little deeper into our test server’s error logs and discovered that a key component needed by the MySQL and MaraDB drivers was actually missing and hadn’t been included within the distribution.

The “workaround”

It seems like we’re not the only ones having issues using recent builds of ActivePerl built on the ActiveState platform with MySQL / MariaDB packages included. A number of people have posted with similar issues in ActiveState’s forums (like in this thread, and this thread).

The issue appears to be related to a missing MySQL “client library” .dll file that doesn’t get included with builds of ActivePerl.

Their best solution… install Strawberry Perl, grab the required “libmysql__.dll” file that gets installed with that, and copy the file over to your ActivePerl install!

So we tried this, and it did indeed resolve the issue. But just to be clear – right now…

In order for ActivePerl to work with MySQL / MariaDB databases you need to install Strawberry Perl!

Yes – seriously!!

Why would anyone want to do this? – it would just be easier to install and use Strawberry Perl and not even bother with ActivePerl!

Conclusions

We’re really saddened by the recent direction that ActiveState have moved in with ActivePerl, and their apparent lack of enthusiasm for and commitment to ensuring that it actually works with popular databases!

For over a decade, we used to exclusively recommend ActivePerl to our Windows-based customers. Last year we changed to recommending either ActivePerl or Strawberry Perl.

However, in August 2021, as things stand at the moment, we can no longer recommend ActivePerl (we’ve even now removed this recommendation from our website).

In summary…

  • ActivePerl 5.32 and ActivePerl 5.34 fail to correctly build at this time, so can’t be used for MIDAS.
  • ActivePerl 5.28 and 5.26 do build, but are missing a required MySQL client library. In order to use either of these builds, you’d also need to grab a .dll file from an install of Strawberry Perl.
  • The last known “working” version of ActivePerl is 5.24. ActivePerl 5.24 is now 5 years old, and is no longer available for download from ActiveState’s website.

So for any self-hosted customer wishing to use install our MIDAS scheduling software on their Windows server, we suggest you avoid ActivePerl and use Strawberry Perl instead.

Alternatively, you may wish to consider our cloud-hosted solution.

UPDATE: Since originally publishing this article, ActiveState have reached out. Read more in Revisiting Active Perl… Part Two!

The MIDAS API allows developers to interface with a MIDAS booking system from their own code, applications, or websites.

This powerful addon is available as an option for both cloud-hosted and self-hosted MIDAS systems for an additional cost.

To help ensure maximum quality of service for all our cloud hosted customers, we will shortly be implementing a “Fair Usage” policy for API calls.

To clarify; this will only affect cloud-hosted customers using the optional MIDAS API. This does not affect self-hosted customers using the MIDAS API, and it does not affect non-API users.

Why the need for a “Fair Usage” API policy?

We recently became aware of a customer who was retrieving over 1GB of data each day from their cloud-hosted MIDAS system via automated API calls. On some days this would exceed over 1.5GB/day.

Now, we should stress that this customer was not acting maliciously in any way. They were not making an excessively high volume or frequency of API calls, but the calls that were being made were returning extremely large data sets every 10 minutes.

As a business, we obviously have to pay for our bandwidth (the amount of data transferred between our servers and customers), and so a customer pulling over 1GB of data from our servers everyday via the API becomes costly.

Therefore, going forward, we’ve decided to implement a “Fair Usage” policy on API calls made to cloud-hosted MIDAS systems.

What is the “Fair Usage” API policy?

The Fair Usage policy sets limits on the number of API calls that can be made in any given hour, and the amount of data that may be retrieved in any given 24 hour period.

Initially, these limits will be as follows *:

  • A maximum of 720 API calls per hour
  • A maximum of 480 MB of data per day

We believe API limits for cloud-hosted customers are generous, and from our analysis will not impact the vast majority of cloud-hosted API users.

* We reserve the right to review and amend these limits in the future. The current limits may always be found here.

What happens if I exceed these API limits?

Most API users will not be impacted by this change. However, should you exceed these limits, API access to your MIDAS system will be temporarily suspended, with subsequent API calls returning an error. API access will be automatically re-instated once API usage falls below these limits again.

We’ve also provided useful advice on how you can reduce API usage by optimizing your API calls.

Can I monitor my API usage?

It would be unfair of us to introduce a “Fair Usage” policy without providing a way for customers to monitor their API usage.

As such, we’ve just released an updated API (v2.48) in which you can view your current API usage via MIDAS Admin Options → Manage Addons → API Access.

NEW: API usage monitoring in API v4.28
NEW: API usage monitoring in API v4.28

API usage may also be monitored directly through the API itself via a new “util_api_usage” call.

When will this policy come into effect?

Cloud-hosted API users can now monitor their current API usage as outlined above.

We’re allowing a grace period before we implement our new API “fair usage” policy.

The “Fair Usage” policy will start being enforced from Monday 13th September 2021.

Can I opt-out of the “Fair Usage” policy?

Our API “Fair Usage” policy (which only applies to cloud-hosted customers) cannot be opted out of.

However, if you find that you regularly exceed the new API limits and are unable to refactor your code to reduce the frequency of API requests and/or the amount of data returned by your API calls, then please contact us to discuss increasing your API limits.

Alternatively, you could consider migrating to a self-hosted MIDAS system. API calls to self-hosted MIDAS systems do not have any usage limits imposed.


We thank you for your understanding and co-operation in helping us to ensure quality of service for all our cloud-hosted customers.

Should you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us, and we’ll be happy to help!

Introducing our new Refer-a-Friend program

We’re pleased to announce the launch of our brand new “Refer-a-Friend” program.

Many of our customers discover MIDAS as a result of a recommendation from another organization who already use our room booking software for their scheduling needs.

We believe in the importance of these “word of mouth” referrals, so much so that we now offer a generous “Refer-a-Friend” program to our existing customers.

For every new customer you refer to MIDAS, we’ll give both them and you one month free! *

So if you’re an existing customer, get started and grab your free and unique referral link right here.

..plus, there’s no limit on the number of new customers you can refer – refer 12 new organizations, and you’ll get 12 months of MIDAS free!

Refer-a-Friend to MIDAS and both get 1 month free

* Full T&C’s for our Refer-a-Friend program may be found here.

The new “Refer-a-Friend” program replaces our previous affiliate scheme, which is now being retired after almost a decade.