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Java Journal: Regular Expressions

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So why devote an entire "Java Journal" to regular expressions? One word: Power. In all of the Java extensions and APIs from Sun to date never have you been able to wield so much power with just a few clicks of your keyboard. But as Spiderman's Uncle Ben so prophetically warned Peter Parker, "With great power comes great responsibility." Lest this power gifted to you by Sun become your curse, use it wisely. OK, so maybe the Spiderman reference is a bit much, and maybe regular expressions won't turn you into a superhero--well, at least not overnight.

In last month's Java Journal, I discussed optimizing Java I/O using NIO, the new Java I/O API. However, you might totally overlook one part of the NIO API unless you know about it, and that's its regular expression engine. So what exactly is a regular expression? Well, it's nothing more than a pattern. In our context, it is specifically a pattern--or sequence, if you prefer--of characters. In fact, calling it a character sequence is exactly what Sun did. Within JDK 1.4, Sun added an interface called CharSequence, which both the String and StringBuffer classes now implement. Thus, with the regular expression classes (and others for that matter), we can now deal with the abstraction of a CharSequence and not have to worry about the underlying implementation. This is truly polymorphism at its best. The NIO regular expression engine itself is made up of a paltry two classes, Pattern and Matcher.

Pattern

The Pattern class is the container for a regular expression. It has no constructors, but rather a pair of static factory methods called compile(), both of which return an instance of Pattern. Both flavors of compile() take a string argument that represents the regular expression. In, addition one takes a sequence of Boolean flags that can be passed as a single argument by applying the integer bitwise operator, which is represented as a vertical bar (|), as in Flag1 | Flag2. (I know it is splitting semantic hairs, but I hate it when people refer to the vertical bar as the Boolean OR operator; it does function as such but not when acting on primitive integral types. This is probably leftover C jargon from the days when all Booleans in C were integers.) The flags that can be passed to the compile() factory method allow for such rules as enabling UNIX line terminators or making the entire pattern case-insensitive, including comments in the pattern. There are several other flags, but they are mostly esoteric and are included to make regular expressions of types compatible with previous engines.

Matcher

The Matcher class, as the name implies, allows us to match instances of Pattern against instances of CharSequence. Like Pattern, Matcher has no public constructors. In fact, we actually use instances of Pattern to create instances of Matcher by invoking the appropriately named Pattern method matcher(). Once you have created your Matcher, you can do all kinds of tricks with it. You can do a find(), which returns a Boolean telling you whether or not there is a match of your regular expression contained in your CharSequence. If it is found, you can then make a call to group() to extract the matching sequence.

Example 1

Here is an example of matching a pattern to a string. In the first couple of examples, I'll stick to lowercase strings to keep thing readable:

import java.util.regex.Matcher;
import java.util.regex.Pattern;

public class RegularExpressionMain 
{
  public static void main(String[] args) 
  { 
    String inputString = "michael floyd";
    
    Pattern myPattern = Pattern.compile("fl");
    
    Matcher myMatcher = myPattern.matcher(inputString);
    
    if (myMatcher.find());
    { 
      System.out.println(myMatcher.group());
    }
  }
}

In the above example, we first import the two classes that we will be using from java.util.regex. Then, to keep things simple, we do our work inside main(). We create a string containing my name and a two-letter pattern. We then create an instance of Matcher by calling matcher() and passing it our input string. Remember that the String class now implements CharSequence. We could have just as easily used a StringBuffer, which also implements CharSequence. We then call find() on the matcher, and if we find what we are looking for, we call group() to extract the match and push the results to System.out.

This is pretty straightforward and could have been accomplished in a number of ways by using existing APIs. In order to experience the true power of regular expressions, we must dig deeper. It is also worth noting that we used an if statement based on the return value of find() to guard our call to group(). Otherwise, the call to group() would throw an IllegalStateException if there was no match for the regular expression. You could just put in a try catch block, but I think the example given reads better without it. The output for this program would be "fl", since the pattern would be found.

Example 2

For this example, we want to find all the consonants followed by a vowel. Since the Java API for regular expressions follows the standard format for regular expressions, you just need to learn how to express a couple of basic patterns.

First, the syntax for a single character or any range of characters is expressed by enclosing the character(s) in brackets. You can use dashes to specify all the characters that come between any two specific characters. So [ac], would match either a or c, but [a-z], would match any lowercase letter between a and z. You can also use the vertical bar (|) to designate the OR condition or double ampersands (&&) for AND. So cat|dog, would match "cat" or "dog". The caret (^) is used for negation of a statement. So the regular expression we need for our example is [a-z&&[^aeiou]][aeiou].

import java.util.regex.Matcher;
import java.util.regex.Pattern;

public class RegularExpressionMain 
{
  public static void main(String[] args) 
  { 
    String inputString = "michael floyd";
    String myExpression =
      "[a-z&&[^aeiou]][aeiou]";
    
    Pattern myPattern = Pattern.compile(myExpression);
    
    Matcher myMatcher = myPattern.matcher(inputString);
    
    while (myMatcher.find())
    { 
      System.out.println(myMatcher.group());
    }
  }
}

We have made a few key modifications to our previous example here. First, we have changed the expression to literally read "match any letter that is not a vowel followed by any letter that is a vowel." Second, we have changed the if statement to a while statement so that all of the occurrences of the pattern, not just the first one, are found and printed. The output of this program would be as follows:

mi
ha
lo

Example 3

For this example, let's assume that we want to extract from a string all instances in which we have either two consonants or two vowels in a row.

import java.util.regex.Matcher;
import java.util.regex.Pattern;

public class RegularExpressionMain 
{
  public static void main(String[] args) 
  { 
    String inputString = "michael floyd";
    String myExpression =
  "[a-z&&[^aeiou]][a-z&&[^aeiou]]|[aeiou][aeiou]";
    
    Pattern myPattern = Pattern.compile(myExpression);
    
    Matcher myMatcher = myPattern.matcher(inputString);
    
while (myMatcher.find())

  System.out.println(myMatcher.group());
}
  }
}

For this example, we have built on the previous example, and although our expression is getting longer, it isn't actually very complicated. In fact, to make it more readable, all we have to do is replace the reusable parts of the expression with symbolic constants, like in the following example:

import java.util.regex.Matcher;
import java.util.regex.Pattern;

public class RegularExpressionMain 
{
  public static void main(String[] args) 
  { 
    String consonants = "[a-z&&[^aeiou]]";
    String vowel = "[aeiou]";
    String inputString = "michael floyd";
    String myExpression =
      consonants + consonants + "|" + vowel + vowel;
    
    Pattern myPattern = Pattern.compile(myExpression);
    
    Matcher myMatcher = myPattern.matcher(inputString);
    
    while (myMatcher.find())
    { 
      System.out.println(myMatcher.group());
    }
  }
}

The output for both versions of this example are the same:

ch
ae
fl
yd

These two examples aren't very different structurally. But what would happen if we decided to include uppercase letter in our pattern and input? Our regular expression would turn into this:

String myExpression =
  [a-zA-Z&&[^aeiouAEIOU]][a-zA-Z&&[^aeiouAEIOU]]|[aeiouAEIOU][aeiouAEIOU]

But if we went with our newer version, the same snippet would look like this:

String consonants = "[a-zA-Z&&[^aeiouAEIOU]]";
String vowel = "[aeiouAEIOU]";
    
String myExpression =
  consonants + consonants + "|" + vowel + vowel;


I don't know about you, but I far prefer the latter. There are also ways of expressing repeated patterns like this within the standard regular expression syntax.

Other Regular Expression Engines

Predating the JDK 1.4 release were two regular expression engines put out by Jakarta/Apache: Jakarta ORO, which provides Perl5-compatible regular expressions, and Jakarta regexp, which predates ORO. In addition to sed, awk, grep, and egrep on UNIX, we have to pay homage to Perl which, whether you love it or hate it, has pushed the boundaries of what can be done with regular expressions.

Declarative Languages

Like many people, I learned my computer skills in the UNIX-filled world of higher education. In those days, I knew sed, awk, grep, and vi better than the cheat codes to my favorite video games. These tools all had one thing in common: regular expressions. Later in my academic career, I took my first database class. Since my school's Computer Science program was an offshoot of the Mathematics Department, the database class was all based on set theory and tuple relational calculus. In the end, we studied SQL, and I was surprised by how much it reminded me of regular expressions. SQL by itself is a declarative language; by this, I mean that in SQL we make a single declarative statement and then pipe it off to a database to return the desired result. Sound familiar? With regular expressions, we create an expression and then run it through an engine to return the desired result. Early in my career, I found myself using this analogy to teach coworkers who were familiar with regular expressions how to write SQL. Ironically, I recently found myself explaining regular expressions to someone quite familiar with SQL, using the inverse analogy. Regular expressions are tightly coupled with automata theory and formal language theory. Regular expressions themselves actually describe languages.

Final Thoughts

Regular expression engines have been around for a long time and, after having been part of some Java APIs for quite some time, have finally found a home in the JDK. Here, I have provided the smallest of tastes of the full syntax for regular expressions. For a full treatment, see the API specifications. Regular expressions are powerful, but they can be unwieldy and error prone. So be sure to write lots of unit tests to make sure your code is behaving as it should. In fact, sometimes regular expressions can be helpful in writing your unit tests.

In the examples provided here, we have just scratched the surface of what can be done with regular expressions. Think about writing a validator for URLs or email addresses. This can be done with a single, although rather ugly, regular expression. In fact, you can probably find one already written for you. Using a regular expression to validate URLs and email addresses instead of writing your own using string manipulation and tokens may just make you feel like a superhero.

For more information on NIO check out Java NIO by Ron Hitchens. If you would like more information on formal languages and automata theory, there is no better book than The Theory of Finite Automata by John Carroll and Darrell Long.

Michael J. Floyd is the Software Engineering Manager for DivXNetworks. He is also a consultant for San Diego State University and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Michael Floyd

Michael J. Floyd is the Vice President of Engineering for DivX, Inc.

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    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

    Don't miss this chance to take your knowledge of IBM i security beyond the basics.

     

     

  • 5 IBM i Security Quick Wins

    SB PowerTech WC GenericIn today’s threat landscape, upper management is laser-focused on cybersecurity. You need to make progress in securing your systems—and make it fast.
    There’s no shortage of actions you could take, but what tactics will actually deliver the results you need? And how can you find a security strategy that fits your budget and time constraints?
    Join top IBM i security expert Robin Tatam as he outlines the five fastest and most impactful changes you can make to strengthen IBM i security this year.
    Your system didn’t become unsecure overnight and you won’t be able to turn it around overnight either. But quick wins are possible with IBM i security, and Robin Tatam will show you how to achieve them.

  • How to Meet the Newest Encryption Requirements on IBM i

    SB PowerTech WC GenericA growing number of compliance mandates require sensitive data to be encrypted. But what kind of encryption solution will satisfy an auditor and how can you implement encryption on IBM i? Watch this on-demand webinar to find out how to meet today’s most common encryption requirements on IBM i. You’ll also learn:

    • Why disk encryption isn’t enough
    • What sets strong encryption apart from other solutions
    • Important considerations before implementing encryption

     

     

  • Security Bulletin: Malware Infection Discovered on IBM i Server!

    SB PowerTech WC GenericMalicious programs can bring entire businesses to their knees—and IBM i shops are not immune. It’s critical to grasp the true impact malware can have on IBM i and the network that connects to it. Attend this webinar to gain a thorough understanding of the relationships between:

    • Viruses, native objects, and the integrated file system (IFS)
    • Power Systems and Windows-based viruses and malware
    • PC-based anti-virus scanning versus native IBM i scanning

    There are a number of ways you can minimize your exposure to viruses. IBM i security expert Sandi Moore explains the facts, including how to ensure you're fully protected and compliant with regulations such as PCI.

     

     

  • Fight Cyber Threats with IBM i Encryption

    SB PowerTech WC GenericCyber attacks often target mission-critical servers, and those attack strategies are constantly changing. To stay on top of these threats, your cybersecurity strategies must evolve, too. In this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

     

     

     

  • 10 Practical IBM i Security Tips for Surviving Covid-19 and Working From Home

    SB PowerTech WC GenericNow that many organizations have moved to a work from home model, security concerns have risen.

    During this session Carol Woodbury will discuss the issues that the world is currently seeing such as increased malware attacks and then provide practical actions you can take to both monitor and protect your IBM i during this challenging time.

     

  • How to Transfer IBM i Data to Microsoft Excel

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_Generic3 easy ways to get IBM i data into Excel every time
    There’s an easy, more reliable way to import your IBM i data to Excel? It’s called Sequel. During this webinar, our data access experts demonstrate how you can simplify the process of getting data from multiple sources—including Db2 for i—into Excel. Watch to learn how to:

    • Download your IBM i data to Excel in a single step
    • Deliver data to business users in Excel via email or a scheduled job
    • Access IBM i data directly using the Excel add-in in Sequel

    Make 2020 the year you finally see your data clearly, quickly, and securely. Start by giving business users the ability to access crucial business data from IBM i the way they want it—in Microsoft Excel.

     

     

  • HA Alternatives: MIMIX Is Not Your Only Option on IBM i

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericIn this recorded webinar, our experts introduce you to the new HA transition technology available with our Robot HA software. You’ll learn how to:

    • Transition your rules from MIMIX (if you’re happy with them)
    • Simplify your day-to-day activities around high availability
    • Gain back time in your work week
    • Make your CEO happy about reducing IT costs

    Don’t stick with a legacy high availability solution that makes you uncomfortable when transitioning to something better can be simple, safe, and cost-effective.

     

     

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  • Backup and Recovery on IBM i: Your Strategy for the Unexpected

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates the routine tasks of iSeries backup and recovery, saving you time and money and making the process safer and more reliable. Automate your backups with the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution. Key features include:
    - Simplified backup procedures
    - Easy data encryption
    - Save media management
    - Guided restoration
    - Seamless product integration
    Make sure your data survives when catastrophe hits. Try the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Manage IBM i Messages by Exception with Robot

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Managing messages on your IBM i can be more than a full-time job if you have to do it manually. How can you be sure you won’t miss important system events?
    Automate your message center with the Robot Message Management Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated message management
    - Tailored notifications and automatic escalation
    - System-wide control of your IBM i partitions
    - Two-way system notifications from your mobile device
    - Seamless product integration
    Try the Robot Message Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Easiest Way to Save Money? Stop Printing IBM i Reports

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates report bursting, distribution, bundling, and archiving, and offers secure, selective online report viewing.
    Manage your reports with the Robot Report Management Solution. Key features include:

    - Automated report distribution
    - View online without delay
    - Browser interface to make notes
    - Custom retention capabilities
    - Seamless product integration
    Rerun another report? Never again. Try the Robot Report Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Hassle-Free IBM i Operations around the Clock

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413For over 30 years, Robot has been a leader in systems management for IBM i.
    Manage your job schedule with the Robot Job Scheduling Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated batch, interactive, and cross-platform scheduling
    - Event-driven dependency processing
    - Centralized monitoring and reporting
    - Audit log and ready-to-use reports
    - Seamless product integration
    Scale your software, not your staff. Try the Robot Job Scheduling Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • ACO MONITOR Manages your IBM i 24/7 and Notifies You When Your IBM i Needs Assistance!

    SB DDL Systems 5429More than a paging system - ACO MONITOR is a complete systems management solution for your Power Systems running IBM i. ACO MONITOR manages your Power System 24/7, uses advanced technology (like two-way messaging) to notify on-duty support personnel, and responds to complex problems before they reach critical status.

    ACO MONITOR is proven technology and is capable of processing thousands of mission-critical events daily. The software is pre-configured, easy to install, scalable, and greatly improves data center efficiency.