6Crafting an Efficient Expression

With the regex-directed nature of an NFA engine, as is found in Perl, Java packages, the .NET languages, Python, and PHP (just to name a few; see the table on page 145 for more), subtle changes in an expression can have major effects on what or how it matches. Issues that don’t matter with a DFA engine become paramount. The fine control an NFA engine affords allows you to really craft an expression, although it can sometimes be a source of confusion to the unaware. This chapter helps you learn this art.

At stake are both correctness and efficiency: matching just what you want and no more, and doing it quickly. Chapters 4 and 5 examined correctness; here we’ll look at the efficiency-related issues of NFA engines, and how to make them work to our advantage. (DFA-related issues are mentioned when appropriate, but this chapter is primarily concerned with NFA-based engines.) In a nutshell, the key is to understand the full implications of backtracking, and to learn techniques to avoid it where possible. Armed with the detailed understanding of the processing mechanics, not only will you maximize the speed of matches, you will also be able to write more complex expressions with confidence.

In This Chapter    To arm you well, this chapter first illustrates just how important these issues can be, then prepares you for some of the more advanced techniques presented later by reviewing the basic backtracking described in the previous chapters with a strong ...

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