Getting out of the way – requirement #1 of the ideal framework

The framework that manages best, manages least”  or something like that.
Even in the original it didn’t necessarily mean the least amount of government, but that because of the structure, less intervention was required.

This doesn’t directly boil down to simplicity,  but simplicity is the easiest way to reduce management overhead.  That’s why things like wikis, agile programming, and lightweight project management tools like Basecamp are so popular.  But what do you do when complexity is needed?  Fine grained authorization, detailed workflow, complex views, localization, etc. (More on this later.)

A good framework should not have complex configuration, obscure conventions, or rigid patterns.

On the one hand, Rails is very good at this.  You can build sites with Rails without really understand Ruby or Rails.  On the other, it’s very difficult to go outside the Rails box.  Rails has improved, or rather techniques have been learned that make this doable.  For the most common 80% of tasks, though, I’d say Rails sets the standard for getting out of the way.

Rails’ philosophy of “convention over configuration” works in Rails because for the most part, it gets the intuitive part of convention right.  It also benefits from being an early comer (in at least the current round) among frameworks.  Many imitators who diverge do so at their own peril, first because Rails did an exceptionally good job, and second, because “The Rails Way” (good book by the way, by Obie Fernandez.  Don’t think I’m plugging for him though, I don’t know him, but my uninformed personal opinion of him isn’t positive.) has become a de facto standard of comparison with most other frameworks that came after it.

ActiveRecord, however, does a great job at first –it was arguably the defining feature that made Rails popular, but then falls down when you want to go outside the class-is-a-table pattern.  Not saying it blocks you, but it gets in the way.  ActiveRecord is so valuable for prototyping new applications, however, it’s almost a must for a good framework to support it.

I’d argue a good framework should allow things like ActiveRecord, not necessarily support them.  I haven’t yet seen the tool, method, pattern that makes transitioning from ActiveRecord smoothe.

When convention falls down and configuration is needed, then things can get in the way, and perhaps one of Rails’ stumbling blocks is the advanced beginner has had it so easy so far with sensible defaults, that transitioning to manual configuration is as like hitting a wall as hitting the water at high speed can be.  If you weren’t going so fast to start with, you’d slip right into the configuration.  And after something like Struts or Spring IOC, Rails configuration is like slipping into a jacuzzi after a long traffic jam.

Similar story with URLs.  Rails’ page-controller default routing is a thing of beauty, and a true aid to site design all around.  But when the page-is-a-controller metaphor breaks down, it’s a pain.  Probably more because you tend to think that way and choose that as the wrong pattern when you shouldn’t have.  Also, without an easily customizable front controller, pages classes tend to have too much “baked” in, and the complexity is in the wrong place.

The thing I like most about Rails is how well it does “get out of the way”, and the thing I like about CodeIgniter is that it accomplishes it almost as well,  but transparently, and could benefit from some of Rails’ magic.  Which leads to my next requirement for the ideal framework:

Being obvious about what it’s doing.

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Framework fetish and rants on SolarPHP, Django, and Python

I’ve been looking at more frameworks — I know, it’s a problem. Including an in depth look at Joomla and a peek at SolarPHP, including a look at YAWP, Savant, PDO.I’m not going to use Solar, but a day spent looking at it is a day wasted. A quick criticism: It’s too “magical”, requires too much memorization, has tons of errors in it’s documentation.

I wish there was an easy way to submit errata or make changes. The SolarPHP manual is a wiki (which supposedly gives them an excuse to prevent page navigation), but normal users can’t edit it (which is fine), but there should be a workflow to propose changes — that’s a problem with wikis in general, no workflow, but it goes counter to the wiki “philosophy” which is silly.

Solar has a very obtuse system. While someone familiar with Rails-like applications can figure it out (with the help of the documentation and some guesswork — because the documentation includes things like mis-named files that cause opaque error messages. Every error you make will produce an exception with the exact same text:

“Exception encountered in the fetch() method. in Solar.php line 363”

and the stack trace doesn’t even mention your application code at all.

While Rails had an unusual configuration system, it had reasonable defaults, that were fairly easy to learn. Every framework that imitates Rails and adopts convention over configuration has the problem that it’s not Rails. The further you stray from Rails the more users will be frustrated when it diverges. Corollarily(?), the closer you hew to Rails, the more frustrated you’ll be when it (often unexpectedly — read: undocumentedly) diverges. I don’t want to learn a new “convention over configuration” for every framework.

SolarPHP’s ORM sucks, too. While I didn’t look into enough to say how much it sucks, it’s a rule that anything that copies hibernate sucks, and suffers the same problem as Rails imitators. The more it diverges from Hibernate’s syntax (even if it’s an improvement), the worse it is. And I’ve a hunch that Solar’s ORM isn’t nearly powerful or flexible enough to justify it. I categorically refuse to learn another ORM syntax.

SolarPHP’s templating is unimpressive, it’s MVC file layout is uninspired (and non-standard), it’s authentication is inadequate, it’s localization is simplistic (but works — on the otherhand, how hard is a string substitution?) In short, it didn’t really bring anything that appealed to me, while giving enough frustrations (mainly with the documentation) and annoyances (mainly because of differences with my knowledge of existing frameworks) to put me off.

I can’t believe it, but it seems to not even have a scaffolding script to help you learn (or not need to learn) it’s file layout structure.

Anyway, I’ve distilled some requirements out of the experience. I think a good framework should:

  1. Get out of the way
  2. Be obvious about what it’s doing
  3. Leverage existing knowledge and techniques
  4. Help write better code by:
    1. Making code simpler, less verbose
    2. Help me stay organized
    3. Help me avoid shooting myself in the foot
  5. Allow hacks when needed

I’ll post more on that later.

I’m not trying to hate on SolarPHP. It’s bearing the brunt of my accumulated dissatisfaction with frameworks. I mentioned before that the only ones that have really excited me (since Rails) are Wicket and CodeIgniter. The former runs on Java, which in my book makes it only suitable for intranets or large (read: managed by a full time sysadmin) sites. The latter is too simplistic by just a little bit. It could actually benefit from a bit more magic, and things like authentication and ajax left as an exercise for the user. Which is fine, especially if you were going to build everything from scratch (or from Zend / eZ) yourself anyway.

One framework I haven’t looked at, but (to spread the hate around) I’m sure I wouldn’t like is Django. That’s just from the general impression I’ve gotten by crowdsurfing the intermemeoshere. I’m sure Lawrence, Kansas is a nice town and all, but building a CMS for a small community newspaper isn’t exactly brain surgery. Chicago crime is way cool, but that’s just showing off Google web services with a neat idea. It could’ve been done in VBscript and it would have been just as cool.

My impression is that Django consists of the core team marketing it plus a bunch of people who thing Python is cooler than Ruby. The one thing python has over ruby is a halfway decent Apache module. And I do mean halfway. At that end of the spectrum (near the very bottom) speed, is not a deciding factor. I think python’s syntax is silly, though like almost everyone else, I thought tuples as a type were cool. You can get the practical benefits of that in PHP nowadays with list() — which I think is prettier syntax.

To all the PHP haters out there whose only arguments are “it’s possible to write code that has a SQL injection vulnerabily” and “I don’t like (or understand) some of the function names”, I don’t want to hear it. PHP isn’t the best language in the world, get over it. But it’s got a better syntax (and object model) than Python.

Do you know what “def” means? It means “define function”. Defining a function with part of the word “define” is empirically uglier than with the word “function” and less fun than abbreviating it “fun.” Mandatory underscores, bad keywords and yes that horrible white space delimiter are enough to make me not want to use python.

If you don’t like PHP function names, it’s probably because you never learned C. Hint: the 3 or so example functions that hurt people’s tender sensibilities in every “I hate PHP” rant are direct transcriptions of functions used to write your favorite scripting language, which was written in C and I almost guarantee it has the dreaded strpos(), strlen(), et al, buried in it’s source code.

The fact that every rant on PHP contains complaints about the same functions as a usenet post from 1997 shows that they don’t really have their own opinion on it.

And don’t get me started on “self”. Python’s bolted on objects may be better than Perl’s but that’s not saying anything at all. One thing that appealed to me about Python was that you could take more control of your request lifecyle — what I really liked about mod_perl, but it turns out that building it all into index.php is both faster and more stable.

But I’ll probably check out Django, and learn from it too. I’m sure I’ll find things I like and things I hate, and things I hadn’t thought of. Do I think it’ll have that “killer feature” that will make me want to switch? No, but I’ll still enjoy it. I enjoy Python, I just don’t like it’s syntax. And all other things being equal (which they practically are), I’d rather use PHP’s syntax, and put up with it’s shortcomings.

I did like my time studying SolarPHP, even if I don’t want to use it. I learned some interesting things with dependency injection in PHP that I could never pull off myself. And as much as I maligned it’s ORM, I could never build something like it — and even if I could, I’m sure someone would hate my API.

Whew! This turned out to be quite a rant, and with any luck, I’ll draw vultures, both for and against. Which is something I definitely don’t want. I’m well aware that your average script kiddie can kick techno-sand in my puny face, and the only reason I feel comfortable ranting is because I’m sure no one more nerd-savvy than my mom will read this post. But with the way search engines work these days, my little flicker of ill-informed self-commentary will probably draw moths and rangers with buckets of techno-water to douse my fragile ego.

Maybe I should get some adwords up before the bonfire starts.

I’ll post what I really wanted to, next.

PHP remedial basics

Every few months it seems I’m doing some remedial research. I often take pages of notes and do hours of evaluation only to forget it. Luckily my webserver is up and running, php is installed (the last time I went through this was with magickwand — which I still haven’t used yet to create a gallery upload app for kelsey and for don lee. Time again.)

This time, I’m rebuilding the basics of my php dev framework, what logger to use, db api, orm, form validation, etc.

It was relatively painless (1/2 hour) to get pear installed, so I installed PEAR::Log. I thought I’d give DB_Dataobjects a try, but that’s complaining about a dependency for Validate that I can’t resolve.

So anyway, one of the reasons for this blog was to note things like this.

steps to install PEAR:
1. go to http://go-pear.org
2. save the page as go-pear.php (what a dumb way to do it)
3. type php go-pear.php
The following line is added to php.ini
include_path=”.;C:\PHP\pear”
4. when that’s done, type pear install Log
Log.php and Log folder are created under C:\PHP\pear
I don’t see how Log.php references the Log folder.

5. In your file, add lines similar to:

require(“Log.php”);
$file = &Log::factory(‘file’, ‘file.log’, ‘TEST’);
$file->log(‘Logging to file.log.’);