REX -- A Command Programming Language 18 Feb 1981
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Languages which allow you to combine useful sequences
of commands to create new commands are increasing in impor-
tance in modern Operating Systems. In CMS, for example,
most commands are issued with the aid of EXECs, and editor
macros increase the power and flexibility of our Editors.
REX is an experimental command programming language
which has the syntax and structure of higher level lan-
guages, yet which maintains the advantages and power of EXEC
2. EXECs are much more readable when written in REX, and
are more easily maintained. The powerful expression evalu-
ation and string parsing facilities can greatly reduce the
length of EXECs, and the enhanced (and interactive) tracing
facilities make debugging easier.
What is REX?
REX is a command programming language. It can be used as a
direct replacement for or alternative to the CMS EXEC and
EXEC 2 languages, and as a "Macro processor" for editors
REX is a language with useful control structures, string
parsing, and general expression evaluation. It also has
good tracing facilities (including a powerful interactive
debug mode), and is easy to learn and use. It seems that
both "end users" and programmers find REX a simple and ef-
Like EXEC 2, REX has several advantages over the original
CMS EXEC language: it has considerably enhanced function,
it does not tokenise data, and if the Exec involves loops of
any kind, then it is significantly faster.
The language itself is PL/I-like, and essentially system in-
dependent. In its CMS implementation it is usually in-
stalled as an alternative to the standard processors. In
this mode one can write Execs or Editor Macros in one of
three languages: EXEC (standard CMS), EXEC 2 (its replace-
ment), or REX.
The REX interface will examine the file and pass it on to
the appropriate interpreter. (If the file begins with a REX
comment it will be interpreted by REX, etc.). This means
that REX coexists with both EXEC and EXEC 2 and users may
gradually convert to REX without having to change any of
their existing Execs or Macros. REX can also be invoked
from a program with the data to be interpreted held in stor-
age, so avoiding File System overheads.
Why REX was designed
The CMS EXEC language (which has since been extended and im-
proved upon by EXEC 2) is based on the common macro language
principle that variables and controls should be distin-
guished (by "&") and literals should exist in "plain text".
When Execs consisted mainly of strings of commands, with
very little logic in between, this was a fair and sensible
choice: however a quick scan through the Execs of almost any
modern user quickly shows that the majority of words in use
are symbolic (that is, they begin with "&"). This observa-
tion must cast some doubt on the validity of using this syn-
A further argument is the increasing use of "complicated"
strings in Execs: for example embedded blanks are heavily
used in Editor Macros; full screen displays; and so on.
EXEC 2 handles these quite well, but EXEC cannot manipulate
them at all: the user is reduced to unreadable manipulations
of the Underscore character or other machinations to achieve
the desired result. In REX, blanks can be handled as easily
as any other character.
Thirdly, the necessity of using upper case characters
throughout the EXEC languages makes them awkward to type and
difficult to read: it is clear that programs typed in mixed
case are, like this paper, easier to follow.
Finally, the underlying syntax of the Exec languages makes
the efficient interpretation (and, perhaps, compilation) of
modern control structures extremely difficult, if not impos-
sible. However, such facilities are necessary in order to
easily enhance and maintain Execs and macros once they have
Therefore there is, perhaps, some justification in investi-
gating an alternative macro command language which uses the
"more conventional" notation used by the higher level pro-
gramming languages such as PL/I, Pascal, ADA, and so on.
Experience suggests that a language with this type of syntax
will be easier to learn and use than one which is derived
from a programmers' "Macro language". Although REX is espe-
cially attractive to those who are used to programming, many
people in IBM who before would not learn a command or pro-
gramming language now use REX.
The use of the more conventional syntax will naturally cause
users to draw comparisons with their usual programming lan-
guages. This inevitably will lead them to expect a corre-
sponding improvement in the facilities available in the
command language: this in turn would seem to imply that the
interpreter might be larger and probably slower than either
EXEC or EXEC 2. Size (within reason) is not often a problem
on modern virtual machines, however a severe performance
penalty would be unacceptable in most environments. Some
effort has therefore been made to ensure good performance.
During implementation it has been found that REX is of simi-
lar size to the existing interpreters (currently it is about
18000 bytes, 10% of which are the error messages).
The REX interpreter is somewhat slower than EXEC 2 for triv-
ial operations, but for many tasks it is faster. It is usu-
ally very much faster than EXEC.
What then are the major desirable features for a command
macro language? My choices included:
1. Structured flow control statements, some equivalent of
If-then-else, Do (Iteration/Until/While)-end, Select-
when-end being the most important.
2. Free format, yet not requiring a terminator for every
3. Literal shorthand: unknown "tokens" assumed to be en-
closed in quotes, with a natural concatenation mech-
4. Some automatic case translation as required by the host,
and no requirement that keywords and variable names be
typed in upper case, etc.
5. "Complex" expressions (i.e. parentheses, multiple opera-
6. Built-in parsing facilities for character strings.
7. In line "function" calls to other Execs or Modules.
8. No requirement for self-modifying Execs.
9. "Peer" communication between Execs and programs.
These and other features are outlined in the foils that fol-
low this paper. <1993: not available now in softcopy--sorry>
IBM U.K. Laboratories,
Currently on Sabbatical at IBM T.J.Watson Research Center.