Skip to content
GitHub Repository Forum RSS-Newsfeed

Heads up: Crystal is upgrading its Regex engine

Beta Ziliani

Crystal uses since its inception the PCRE library for dealing with regular expressions. This library has two major versions, and Crystal so far resorted to the first one (PCRE). However, this version reached its end of life. Therefore, for the next release (1.8) we are planning to move to its successor, PCRE2.


The two library versions, PCRE and PCRE2 are mostly compatible with each other. There are some small differences which can cause breaking changes. But we don’t expect many bumps on the ride. Most notably, PCRE2 is stricter than PCRE in some edge cases. This means that PCRE might have accepted some invalid regexes, but PCRE2 will not allow them.

Unfortunately there’s no guide to help with the porting. The most documented list of changes is this thread on Stackoverflow.

On the plus side, PCRE2 has extended support for interesting features. You can read more about its features in this Wikipedia article or in the project documentation.

Validation of regex literals

In order to comprehend the roadmap below, it is important to establish an existing difference between the compiler and the stdlib regarding regexes. When you write something like /(a|b)*/.match "abba", the compiler checks the validity of the regex literal (/(a|b)/). An invalid expression would result in a syntax error. Then, when executing the program, the stdlib bindings to the regex library will perform the actual execution of the matching.

This difference has a consequence: it is possible to check regex literals with one library and then execute them with another.

In the last release (1.7) we already added the possibility to opt-in to PCRE2 in the stdlib with a compiler flag. That means that if you have 1.7 and PCRE2 installed in your system, you can compile your program or shard with -Duse_pcre2 and then execute it to see if any of the regexes fail at runtime. If a regex fails, then it must be rewritten to be compliant with PCRE2.

In the coming release, PCRE2 will be used by the compiler and the stdlib by default. It will be possible to use PCRE in stdlib still with the compiler flag -Duse_pcre in case something breaks. But the compiler will always use PCRE2 to validate regex literals. This is important for consistency because it directly affects the syntax of Crystal.

If you need to keep using the old PCRE and the compiler considers a literal as invalid due to restrictions in PCRE2, you can convert the literal into a call which receive the expression as a string literal. For performance reasons it’s recommended to cache the Regex instance (for example in a constant).

Migrating your project to PCRE2

We’re still more than a month away from 1.8, giving us time to introduce the changes into the nightly builds and to let the community test their shards and projects for incompatibilities.

So, to be prepared, we suggest you to:

  1. If you are using 1.7, use the compiler flag -Duse_pcre2 to check how your project fares.

  2. If you are using nightlies, they already use PCRE2. To get the old behavior, you need to add -Duse_pcre (remember this only affects runtime behavior, not the syntax or regex literals).

  3. Fix every regex that is causing trouble, if any.

  4. Remove -Duse_pcre if you added it in 2: support for PCRE will not be guaranteed after 1.9.

Keep us posted if your project fails because of this change. We’ll gather the information and share fixes for common issues.

⚠️ Package maintainers ⚠️

Please switch to PCRE2 no later than in 1.8.