SimpleCDB - Perl-only Constant Database


 use SimpleCDB;

 # writer
 # - tie blocks until DB is available (exclusive), or timeout
 tie %h, 'SimpleCDB', 'db', O_WRONLY 
         or die "tie failed: $SimpleCDB::ERROR\n";
 $h{$k} = $v;
 die "store: $SimpleCDB::ERROR" if $SimpleCDB::ERROR;
 untie %h;      # release DB (exclusive) lock

 # reader
 # - tie blocks until DB is available (shared), or timeout
 tie %h, 'SimpleCDB', 'db', O_RDONLY
         or die "tie failed: $SimpleCDB::ERROR\n";
 $v = $h{$i};
 die "fetch: $SimpleCDB::ERROR" if $SimpleCDB::ERROR;
 untie %h;      # release DB (shared) lock


This is a simple perl-only DB intended for constant DB applications. A constant DB is one which, once created, is only ever read from (though this implementation allows appending of new data). That is, this is an "append-only DB" - records may only be added and/or extracted.

Course-grained locking provided to allow multiple users, as per flock semantics (i.e. write access requires an exclusive lock, read access needs a shared lock (see notes below re. perl < 5.004)). As (exclusive) updates may be take some time to complete, shared lock attempts will timeout after a defined waiting period (returning $! == EWOULDBLOCK). Concurrent update attempts will behave similarly, but with a longer timeout.

The DB files are simple flat files, with one record per line. Records (both keys and values) may be arbitrary (binary) data. Records are extracted from these files via a plain linear search. Unsurprisingly, this search is a relatively inefficient operation. To improve extraction speed, records are randomly distributed across N files, with the average search space is reduced by 1/N compared to a single file. (See below for some example performance times.) One advantage of this flat file based solution is that the DB is human readable (assuming the data is), and with some care can be edited with a plain ol' text editor.

Finally, note that this DB does not support duplicate entries. In practice, the first record found matching a given key is returned, any duplicates will be ignored.


I needed to extract single records from a 20k-40k record data set, within at most 5 seconds on an old Sun 4/40, to feed to an interactive voice response system. Fine, I thought, an easy job for any old DBM.

Unfortunately, all of the standard "system" DBMs (NBDM, SDBM, ODBM) are broken when it comes to "large" data sets (though I don't generally call 20,000 records "large") - at least on Solaris 2.5.1 and Solaris 2.6 machines. I found after inserting some 15k records: NDBM dies; SDBM and ODBM silently "lose" data (you can't extract records which you know you inserted). On an HPUX machine, it took nearer to 100,000 records to break [NSO]DBM. All worked flawlessly on a Linux 2.2.16 machine. The program examples/ can be used to exercise the various DBMs.

BerkeleyDB (DB_File) and GDBM work well, but they don't come standard with many boxes. Further, this package was originally written for an old Solaris 2.5 box which lacked development tools (and the space and management will to install such tools) to build a "real" DB.

And besides, I hadn't played with perl's tie mechanism before...


This modules uses the tie interface, as for DB_File.

The default Fcntl exports are re-exported by default, primarily for the LOCK_ constants.


There are two public class variables:

 $SimpleCDB::DEBUG  turn on some debugging messages
 $SimpleCDB::ERROR  error message for last operation, empty if no error 
                    has ocurred




It seems not all environments have POSIX::EWOULDBLOCK defined, in which case this module defines it as a subroutine constant.

This DB may use a significant number of file descriptors, you may want to increase the user/system resource limits for better performance (e.g. ulimit -S -n 300 on a Solaris box). My test programs on Solaris don't seem to want to open more than 256 files at a time, that is even with the ulimit set to 300, I got EMFILE results as soon as I reached 256 open file descriptors. This means there is still some file closing/opening going on... Interestingly, on the non-exhaustive, not-terribly-thorough testing I did, I noticed that using a smaller number of files gave slightly better performance wrt. creating the DB. e.g. with ulimit set as above, over two runs of each on an old Sparc: nfiles = 256 : real,user,sys time = 3:20, 2:43, 0:01 nfiles = 16 : real,user,sys time = 3:00, 2:40, 0:00 Perhaps this is due to file caching?

Speaking of performance, I used Devel::DProf to find that using crypt to generate the digest is a real bottleneck (75% CPU time was in generating the digest :-) Using MD5 reduces this to around 6% (only half of which is in MD5)! My homebrew digest is not nearly as good as MD5 (both in CPU and quality), but it more or less does the job when MD5 isn't available.

Here's how it runs: Records are between 0 and 100 bytes each. Times are user/sys/real, as either minutes:seconds or just seconds. wr = create the db with the stated number of records. rd = read one record (next to last inserted, i.e. should be about the worst case).

  Sun 4/40 (sun4c), Solaris 2.5
   40,000 records, nfiles =   1: wr =14:48/29/14:03  rd = 26/2.2/28
   40,000 records, nfiles =  16: wr =14:04/30/15:15  rd =  4/1.0/ 6
   40,000 records, nfiles = 256: wr =14:33/34/15:32  rd =  3/0.8/ 4
    i.e. sloooowwwww to build, good enough on extraction.

  Sun Ultra/1 (sun4u), Solaris 2.6 (SCSI disks)
   40,000 records, nfiles =   1: wr = 53/2.8/57  rd = 3.0/0.1/3.4
   40,000 records, nfiles =  16: wr = 53/2.4/57  rd = 0.5/0.0/0.6
   40,000 records, nfiles = 256: wr =196/19/240  rd = 0.3/0.0/0.4

  x86 C433/64MB, IDE ATA/66 disk, Linux 2.2.16
   40,000 records, nfiles =   1: wr = 18/0.7/19  rd = 1.3/0.0/1.4
   40,000 records, nfiles =  16: wr = 18/0.8/19  rd = 0.3/0.0/0.3
   40,000 records, nfiles = 256: wr = 18/0.8/20  rd = 0.2/0.0/0.2
  100,000 records, nfiles =   1: wr = 47/2.0/49  rd = 3.1/0.1/3.2
  100,000 records, nfiles =  16: wr = 47/2.0/49  rd = 0.4/0.0/0.4
  100,000 records, nfiles = 256: wr = 47/2.2/49  rd = 0.2/0.0/0.2
    i.e. I think the o/s is caching the whole bloody lot :-)

Clearly, other overheads limit the benefit of the distributed file hashing, however the result is useful for my purposes...

The important thing is, it works (as opposed to NDBM and friends). while (each %h) always shows as much data as you put in :-)


Possibly, though it works for me :-)

I've noted that on a HP-UX B.10.20 box that ALRMs don't seem to trigger when I expect they should. For example, in _lock, I set alarm for say 5s and then call flock, which I expect to block until either the lock is granted *or* the alarm goes off (as happens for Solaris and Linux). However, it is as if the HP-UX box's ALRM signal is delayed until the flock returns. HP-UX doesn't have a flock call, but does support lockf (which can lock regions of a file), so perhaps this behaviour is an artefact of perl's flock emulation...


Copyright (c) 2000 Benjamin Low <>. All rights reserved.

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

This program 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 Artistic License for more details.


Written as a last resort, and as an excuse to write my first tied module, by Benjamin Low <>, July 2000.


Dan Berstein has a nice constant DB implementation, written in C, at

If you've a C compiler handy I recommend this library over SimpleCDB.

If you want a read+write DB, go for GDBM - it doesn't support fine-grained locking but does actually work.