First Look at How a Regex Engine Works Internally
Knowing how the regex engine works enables you to craft better regexes more easily. It helps you understand quickly why a particular regex does not do what you initially expected. This saves you lots of guesswork and head scratching when you need to write more complex regexes.
After introducing a new regex token, this tutorial explains step by step how the regex engine actually processes that token. This inside look may seem a bit long-winded at certain times. But understanding how the regex engine works enables you to use its full power and help you avoid common mistakes.
While there are many implementations of regular expressions that differ sometimes slightly and sometimes significantly in syntax and behavior, there are basically only two kinds of regular expression engines: text-directed engines, and regex-directed engines. Nearly all modern regex flavors are based on regex-directed engines. This is because certain very useful features, such as lazy quantifiers and backreferences, can only be implemented in regex-directed engines.
A regex-directed engine walks through the regex, attempting to match the next token in the regex to the next character. If a match is found, the engine advances through the regex and the subject string. If a token fails to match, the engine backtracks to a previous position in the regex and the subject string where it can try a different path through the regex. This tutorial will talk a lot more about backtracking later on. Moderns regex flavors using regex-directed engines have lots of features such as atomic grouping and possessive quantifiers that allow you to control this backtracking.
A text-directed engine walks through the subject string, attempting all permutations of the regex before advancing to the next character in the string. A text-directed engine never backtracks. Thus, there isn't much to discuss about the matching process of a text-directed engine. In most cases, a text-directed engine finds the same matches as a regex-directed engine.
When this tutorial talks about regex engine internals, the discussion assumes a regex-directed engine. It only mentions text-directed engines in situations where they find different matches. And that only really happens when your regex uses alternation with two alternatives that can match at the same position.