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Perl Language Reference Manual
by Larry Wall and others
Paperback (6"x9"), 724 pages
ISBN 9781906966027
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28.1.2 Numbers endianness and Width

Different CPUs store integers and floating point numbers in different orders (called endianness) and widths (32-bit and 64-bit being the most common today). This affects your programs when they attempt to transfer numbers in binary format from one CPU architecture to another, usually either "live" via network connection, or by storing the numbers to secondary storage such as a disk file or tape.

Conflicting storage orders make utter mess out of the numbers. If a little-endian host (Intel, VAX) stores 0x12345678 (305419896 in decimal), a big-endian host (Motorola, Sparc, PA) reads it as 0x78563412 (2018915346 in decimal). Alpha and MIPS can be either: Digital/Compaq used/uses them in little-endian mode; SGI/Cray uses them in big-endian mode. To avoid this problem in network (socket) connections use the pack and unpack formats n and N, the "network" orders. These are guaranteed to be portable.

As of perl 5.9.2, you can also use the > and < modifiers to force big- or little-endian byte-order. This is useful if you want to store signed integers or 64-bit integers, for example.

You can explore the endianness of your platform by unpacking a data structure packed in native format such as:

print unpack("h*", pack("s2", 1, 2)), "\n";
# '10002000' on e.g. Intel x86 or Alpha 21064 in little-endian mode
# '00100020' on e.g. Motorola 68040

If you need to distinguish between endian architectures you could use either of the variables set like so:

$is_big_endian   = unpack("h*", pack("s", 1)) =~ /01/;
$is_little_endian = unpack("h*", pack("s", 1)) =~ /^1/;

Differing widths can cause truncation even between platforms of equal endianness. The platform of shorter width loses the upper parts of the number. There is no good solution for this problem except to avoid transferring or storing raw binary numbers.

One can circumnavigate both these problems in two ways. Either transfer and store numbers always in text format, instead of raw binary, or else consider using modules like Data::Dumper (included in the standard distribution as of Perl 5.005) and Storable (included as of perl 5.8). Keeping all data as text significantly simplifies matters.

The v-strings are portable only up to v2147483647 (0x7FFFFFFF), that's how far EBCDIC, or more precisely UTF-EBCDIC will go.

ISBN 9781906966027Perl Language Reference ManualSee the print edition