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vladh
Vlad-Ștefan Harbuz

Implementing Regular Expressions in Hare

(This is a post I wrote for the Hare blog.)

Regular expressions are one of those tools that we kind of take for granted. They’re really powerful and useful in so many situations, but most people don’t quite understand how they work under the hood. I’m Vlad, the developer who implemented Hare’s regular expression engine, and I thought I’d show you why regular expressions aren’t as scary as they might seem at first sight. In this post, I’d like to take a look at how Hare’s implementation works, as well as how an end-user would go about using it. Let’s get started.

Which flavour of regex?

The first thing I had to decide when implementing regular expressions was which features are appropriate for Hare and which are not. As you may know, there is a basic “core” of regular expression features which are generally defined by the POSIX standard, such as the *+? operators. Each implementation (Perl, Python etc.) adds various different features of its own on top, such as backreferences and so on.

Because Hare is a language focused on simplicity, and because I wanted to implement something easy to understand and extend, I decided that sticking to POSIX’s Extended Regular Expressions would be the best option. The name is a bit misleading, as there isn’t anything really “extended” about them in practical terms. Rather, this is the “core” set of regex features I was referring to.

In simple terms, this means we support the following:

  • . for any character
  • character classes with [abc], [^a-c], [[:digit:]] etc.
  • the *, +, ? operators
  • the ^ and $ anchors
  • subexpressions with ()
  • alternation with (a|b)
  • repetitions with a{3,5}

Supporting all combinations of these features gives us a fully functional regular expression engine! We don’t support any other vendor extensions, such as backreferences or the like, even though enhancements are definitely welcome in the extended standard library as well as third party packages. If you need a more detailed explanation, check the POSIX specification, which is also summarized in this wikibooks page.

Representing regular expressions

Since we’re writing a regex engine, we need to represent the expressions in some kind of form. Because these expressions are made up of a sequence of operations, it makes a lot of sense to represent them as finite state automata. “Automata” are something we can execute, and “finite state” means that this execution is made up of a finite set of steps.

Let’s look at a simple example that should definitely clear things up for you. Here’s the finite state automaton for the expression /(ab)+c/. I’ve put slashes around regexes in this post for clarity.

/(ab)+c/

   a     b     c
s1 ─► s2 ─► s3 ─► end
      ▲     │
      └─────┘
         a

s1, s2 and s3 are different states the automaton can be in. We start in s1. Our only option is to move to s2 by reading an "a", which we signify with a labelled arrow. From s2, we can only read a "b". Afterwards, we can either continue to read an "ab" sequence, or eventually just read a "c" and terminate the match. If you work through this yourself, you can see that this automaton will easily match a string such as "abababc".

I won’t go into the details of how one converts a regular expression to an automaton. If you’d like to read up about this topic in more detail, Russ Cox’s articles are the place to do so, as the approach I’m describing here is heavily based on his work. However, I’ve tried to simplify the strategies he describes in order to make them as simple as possible to work with, which is one of the reasons the entire regex.ha implementation is only around 800 lines for a fully-functional POSIX-compatible engine.

Checking regular expressions

Now that we have represented our regex in some way, we need to decide how we’re going to test whether a certain string matches it, for example whether "abbb" matches /(abab|abbb)/. First of all, let’s look at the representation of this latter expression.

/(abab|abbb)/

              a     b     a     b
       ┌─► s1 ─► s2 ─► s3 ─► s4 ──┐
start ─┤                          ├─► end
       └─► s5 ─► s6 ─► s7 ─► s8 ──┘
              a     b     b     b

You’ll notice that there are two possible branches at the start. This makes our automaton an NFA, or a nondeterministic finite automaton. All this basically means is that there are certain points in this automaton where you don’t really know which path you should take, such as our start branch, hence the “nondeterministic” part.

A simple way of checking would be to try each branch, one at a time. We could test the top branch, by going start -> s1 -> s2 -> s3 -> s4. Once we see that that branch doesn’t match, we could backtrack and try the bottom match, by going start -> s5 -> s6 -> s7 -> s8 and seeing that we get a match.

This backtracking-based approach works, but it comes with a problem. The number of branches we need to test can exponentially increase with the size of the regex in certain situations, which means that testing all the branches would potentially take forever. This is unfortunately what happens in many regular expression engines that have this problem, such as those in Perl, Python and most other languages.

There’s no need to despair, though, as there’s a better way. We can simply test all branches at the same time. This means we simply need to take each character of the string we’re testing, and step forward through our branches by the appropriate amount. Here’s what it would look like for the expression /(abab|abbb)/ and the test string "abbb". Try to follow along with the above diagram.

  • We begin in states s1 and s5 simultaneously
  • We read "a" from the test string and are able to advance to s2 on the top branch and s6 on the bottom branch
  • We read "b" from the test string and are able to advance to s3 on the top branch and s7 on the bottom branch
  • We read "b" from the test string and are unable to advance further on the top branch, but advance to s8 on the bottom branch
  • We only have the bottom branch left, we read "b" and advance to the end

This approach means we only need to do an amount of tests that’s directly proportional to the size of the string we’re testing against. There’s no possibility for exponential growth, and so our algorithm is said to guarantee to match in linear time. It’s also not that different to implement. Big win! Incidentally, this is the approach used in grep and awk.

The virtual machine approach

You might be wondering how this simultaneous testing approach is actually implemented in the code. There’s another small trick that helps us out a lot here, and that’s implementing each part of the regex as an “instruction”, treating the whole regex as a virtual machine.

To avoid going into too many details, here’s a quick example to show you what I mean. Let’s look at how we would compile the expression /ab+/.

0: literal(a)
1: branch(4)
2: literal(b)
3: jump(1)
4: match

You can see we’ve compiled the regex into a set of instructions. Here’s the meaning of each instruction:

  • literal(x): Eat character "x" and move on
  • branch(n): Create a new branch starting from instruction n, which executes in parallel with the original branch
  • jump(n): Go to instruction n
  • match: Declare we’ve successfully matched the string

The branch part is important. After running 1: branch(4) above, we will have two execution threads instead of one, running simultaneously.1 This means that the next step will see us running one thread at the next instruction (2:), and another parallel thread at the instruction we branched to (4:).

Therefore, if you were to run the string "a" through this “program”, the successful thread would execute in this order: 0 → 1 → 4. On the other hand, the successful thread matching string “abb” would execute as 0 → 1 → 2 → 3 → 1 → 2 → 3 → 1 → 4.

There are other details and optimisations, such as merging two threads into one when they reach the same instruction, but that’s the general idea. So what does this approach help us with? Well, two things.

Firstly, it allows us to keep track of as many branches as we want, by allowing us to launch multiple execution threads that run in parallel. Each thread only needs to keep track of what would normally be called its “program counter”, which basically just means “which instruction is going to be executed next”.

Secondly, the instruction-based approach means that, whenever we want to add a new feature to our regex engine, we just add a new instruction! For example, there’s a repeat instruction in regex.ha that implements the a{n,m} repetition operator.

And honestly, that’s basically it. You should be well-equipped to read and understand regex.ha now, if you were so inclined. Next, let’s fast-forward to the completed implementation and look at how to actually use the finished product in Hare.

How to use regex:: in Hare

The most important functions in regex:: are:

  • compile(str) (regex | error) compiles a string into a regex::regex
  • find(*regex, str) (void | []capture) returns the first match for the regex in the given string
  • findall(*regex, str) (void | [][]capture) returns all matches for the regex in the given string
  • test(*regex, str) bool returns whether or not the given string matches the regex

The only thing that might not be fully clear is: what’s a capture? It’s extremely straightforward to understand with an example.

Tip: It’s helpful to use `raw strings` for specifying regular expressions, so that you can freely type backslashes without them being interpreted as escape sequences.

This will give you two captures:

capture 0:
    content = "hellothere"
    start = 0
    end = 10
capture 1:
    content = "there"
    start = 5
    end = 10

This makes things obvious: the first capture is always the full match, while subsequent captures are the submatches created by (capture groups).

Here’s a more complete example, which shows how to use the findall() function to find all matches, as well as how to manage memory and handle errors.

The thing to keep in mind here is that captures need to be freed, and regex:: provides convenience functions such as free_matches() to help you do so.

Closing remarks

With that, we’ve looked at the most important aspects of regular expressions in Hare. Building this regex engine was a really rewarding project for me, and I hope you got something interesting out of this post.

If you’d like to have a chat or have any questions, you can find me on IRC or send me an email at vlad@vladh.net. Take care and have fun programming!  


  1. These “threads” are switched cooperatively — they aren’t implemented with threads at the operating system level.