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Archive for the ‘IT’ Category

Handling settings.php in Drupal

When working with Drupal there is a moment where you have to think about the way you want to manage settings.php. This file contains important configuration settings like the database credentials. It is most often also used to add custom configuration settings. Drupal comes with a default version of this file and during installation Drupal will write the database settings to this file.

The problem
Many projects run in a DTAP (Development, Testing, Acceptance and Production) development process, using a SCM tool like git or svn in a multi developer and multi location environment. The following problems/requirement should have your attention:
1. Each DTAP environment have their own specific settings as does every developer. For instance the database settings. Changes to settings.php will probably lead to SCM conflicts.
2. From a security point of view you don’t want database passwords in version control. Especially when you are using an online service like github.com.
3. You want to be able to make environment specific settings (develop, test, acceptance, production). For instance when you have a Varnish instance which only runs on acceptance and production.
4. General configuration settings for all environments should be possible
5. You want to prevent working with local changes or unversioned files on any environments

The solution
To handle the requirement above, we have worked out way to achieve this:
- Database settings are taken out of settings.php and moved to a separate file env.settings.inc. This file is included from settings.php
- The file env.settings.inc is not added to version control. In git you can use .gitignore to keep it out of version control.
- In env.settings.inc a variable is included to define the environment:
$environment = “develop”; // Possible values: develop, acceptance, production

- Per environment a settings file is created: develop.settings.inc, etc. These files are included in settings.php and added to version control.
- General configuration settings which are needed for all environments are added to settings.php. Settings.php is also added to version control.

In settings.php we add the following:

if (file_exists (‘./’ .conf_path(). ‘/env.settings.inc’)) {
include_once(‘./’. conf_path(). ‘/env.settings.inc’);

if (file_exists (‘./’. conf_path(). ‘/’. $environment . ‘.settings.inc’)) {
include_once(‘./’. conf_path(). ‘/’. $environment . ‘.settings.inc’);

This solution meets all the requirements. It’s clean and and well-ordered. And most importantly it prevents a lot of irritations, because you don’t have conflicts on settings.php anymore. If you found any flaws in this configuration or if you have another strategy on settings.php, please share them.

This article was originaly posted on the Colours blog.

Building webapplications on top of Drupal

Drupal is best known as one of the most popular CMS products used on the web. But the Drupal community likes to call Drupal a Content Management Framework; a tool which gives you the ability to quickly and efficiently tailor a webapplication to your needs. Drupal is not just a content publishing tool but can be used on a broad range of applications.

Web applications often contain functionalities which CMS tools also have. Users need to register and login. Autorisation is needed to distribute permissions. A template engine separates data from layout. You want to have tools for consistent interfacing. These are a few important functions you will probably need  in every web application. But there are many more which might be useful in the more specific requirements of your project.

An important part of the Drupal framework is the module system. It gives you the ability to separate custom code from the Drupal core and  modules. This makes updating Drupal to newer versions much easier and packages functionality in a orderly fashion. Drupal furthermore gives modules the ability to hook into core functionality. For instance to create new url’s or to change forms.

A good example of a webapplication we have build at Colours is the web application for the anual World Press Photo contest. This application contains 3 parts:

  1. A frontend in which photographers can register, upload and manage their photos
  2. A backend for administration of photographers and uploaded photos
  3. A tool for judging photos

A custom tailored web application was needed to accomodate for a high performance website and complex functionality. Good performance is need to smoothly upload 100.000 large photo files in a short timeframe. Most of the images are uploaded in just a few days before the deadline. During the upload proces some cpu and memory consuming operations are needed to convert images to a custom size. A separate imageserver was responsible for image conversions. The webservers communicated with the imageserver through SOAP webservices. We used the YUI Uploader to facilitate a user friendly(multi file select, progress tracking) and high performance (faster upload, asynchronous events) method of uploading files.

The backend functionality for administration and judging implement the Contest rules. These screens make good use of the Drupal Form api to efficiently create forms and permissions to implement autorisation.

A more specific functionality is the link to Salesforce CRM. A contributed module was used to make the connection to Salesforce. Custom code was writen to map the custom user profile to the specific user account fields in the CRM database.

Drupal offers an excellent environment if you want to mix a CMS with specific application functionality. You can easily use what the Drupal core has to offer. Use contributed modules to incorporate more specific functions. All this gives you great power and flexibility.

Dutch version posted on drupal.nl:

This article was originaly posted on the Colours blog which has recently been taken offline.

Git deployment over ftp

Most shared hosting services don’t offer git deployment options. Normally you just use ftp to upload your changes to your website. It’s easy to make errors on such deployments, especially when you do updates where you only want to change a number of files. Because I didn’t want this anymore for my blog, I looked for a better solution.

I found git-deploy. It’s a binary executable which you run from your Linux development environment. It’s able to deploy only the changes since your last deployment. It requires ruby and can be installed using gem. I followed the installation instructions on the project homepage on github: https://github.com/aizatto/git-deploy.

The only thing I was missing in this installation description was the installation of ruby. I used this command:

sudo apt-get install ruby libruby rdoc libgtk2-ruby libglade2-ruby libyaml-ruby libzlib-ruby libopenssl-ruby libdl-ruby libreadline-ruby libiconv-ruby sqlite3 libsqlite3-ruby irb libssl-dev

Copy the git-deploy binary to your binaries path. Create a deploy.yml and REVISION file. The REVISION file is used to save the commit-id of the last deployment.

When you committed changes to git, just run git-deploy. The REVISION file on your ftp site is updated by git-deploy.

Google gadget app for Simplenote

I am that kind of person who likes to keep lists. Mostly because if I don’t, I forget. I the old days I used paper notes, but when iGoogle was launched I quickly started using gadgets to collect my notes. Because I have a PC or laptop arround most of the day, keeping notes with iGoogle was quite efficient. When I bought an iPhone I wanted to have my notes with me everywhere. Because iGoogle did not have a good user experience on the iPhone I started looking for a better solution. I found Simplenote. This service supports serveral devices, browsers and more. It also hase a public Restfull API which you can use to connect.

Unfortunately Simplenote did not have a Google gadget app. Because I got quite attached to my iGoogle page, I decided to create a Simplenote gadget. The gadget I created has basic Simplenote support. It can create, edit, sync and delete notes. I had a lot of fun building the gadget with javascript and JQuery.

You can find the app in the Google Gadget Directory and install it from there. Any comments on this app are greatly appreciated.

IPhone Hello world – Getting started

Today I made my first IPhone app. It was only a Hello World app, but it always feels nice when you try something different. In this case Objective-C for the ios platform. I got my app to open a new view from a button click and change a label to display the current date and time also after a button click.

Some getting started tips.

To get going you need to download the IDE apple provides for ios and osx development: Xcode. Go to the iOS Dev Center, create an apple account. Download and install Xcode and iOS SDK. This website has tons of documentation and also a good Getting started section.

The Hello World app I made was completely programmatic. I used the following guidance:

You can also use the Interface Builder (which comes with Xcode) to create buttons, label and other interface components. To handle the IDE, you need to read to following user guide to understand how this works.

If you want to create your own Hello World, you will want to play arround with buttons and labels. It is wise to understand how views work. Check out the View Programming Guide.

Remove photo’s from camera with iPhoto

Ever since Image capture is not available anymore for Mac OSX, I don’t have an easy way of cleaning up photo’s on my Canon Ixus camera. It’s simply not possible in iPhoto to delete selected photo by pressing backspace or draging them to the dustbin.

You do have the option to delete photo’s after you’ve imported them, but I usually don’t use it because I like to keep recent photo’s on my camera for a little while. But once in while you need to clean up your memory card.

The only way to delete a selection of photo’s I discovered so far is to import already imported photo’s again. At the end of the import, iPhoto will ask you to delete the photo’s on the camera.I wonder if there is a better way.

Upgrade to WordPress 3.0 and iPhone access

For some time now I wanted be able to make posts on my blog through my iPhone. No particular reason, I just seemed cool to me. I decided to make my blog accessible for mobile devices and found some plugins which make this possible. I noticed that WordPress 3.0 was out so I decided to upgrade WordPress as well. I made some backups and downloaded the zip file. Diasabled my plugins and copied the extracted zip to my hosting server. Keep the wp-content folder in tact, only overwrite the files and subfolders which came with the zip file. Next login to the backend and let wordpress patch your database. Activate you plugins again and you’re done.

Looking into iPhone accessibility I found out that there is a Worpress app in the app store. I quickly installed and started writing this post from my iPhone. Although type is a lot slower, it is just fun.

I also wanted to make the frontend more accessible for mobile browsers. I installed the plugin WordPress PDA & iPhone. I gives a simple but effective interface to your blog. I am all happy now :)

Understanding Zend Framework form decorators

I just watched a very good screen cast on zendcast.com about form decorators. It points out the essences of the zend form decorators which you might not grab right away when reading the reference guide or copying away from examples on the net.

There are 3 important aspects which you need to keep in mind when working with decorators. First of all form decorators change a piece of content, for instance a form element, which is of course what you might expect from the decorator design pattern. Try to picture this piece of content in its simplest form. For instance a <input> element. Your goal is to place this element somewhere in your html content, say a table.

The imput element can be created by instantiating a Zend_Form_Element_Text class. By adding decorators to this object you can influence how the input element is shown. Decorators can change content in 3 ways: prepending the content, replacing the content or appending the content. If you want to render the input element in table cell, you should use a decorator which replaces the content punting <td> tags around it:

<? $content = “<td>” . $content . ” </td>”; ?>

The second important thing to understand is that decorators are rendered in the order they are added to the Zend_Form_Element. This way you are able to render the content in a hierarchical way. Which is also the case in building up html content. You start which a leaf element and wrap around, prepend or append content until the last decorator is reached.Let’s look at the an example:

array(array(‘data’ => ‘HtmlTag’),  array(‘tag’ =>’td’, ‘class’=> ‘element’)),
array(‘Label’, array(‘tag’ => ‘td’)),
array(array(‘row’ => ‘HtmlTag’), array(‘tag’ => ‘tr’))

The example above creates a 2 column table structure. The first decorator (ViewHelper) renders the <input> element, the second puts it in a table cell, the third prepends a label which is also put in a separate table cell, the fourth wraps around a <tr> tag and the last decorator puts the rendered content within <table> tags.

The third important thing to keep in mind is that you can do most of the html rendering with the decorators Zend Framework already offers in its library. You don’t need to make many of your own decorators. The decorator you are going to use frequently is the HtmlTag decorator. Use this decorator to change the html tags you want to use. For instance if you want your content to be inside <div>’s. The example uses the HtmlTag decorator 2 times. For this reason you need to use an alias to identify the decorator. In the example the aliases are ‘ row’ and ‘ data’.

Understanding decorators will save you a lot of trial and error programming. So put some time in learning what decorators do. The webcast on zendcast is a good starting point: Zend_Form Decorators explained.

Choosing a PHP IDE (part 2)

In my previous post I highlight some important features of IDE’s. I will try to explain how the well-known IDE’s perform on these features. I will give some comments on the following apps Eclipse PDT, Zend Studio, Netbeans, Aptana and Komodo.

Eclipse PDT
This eclipse version is a special tailored version for PHP development. Eclipse is very well know and popular open source framework. It counts numerous of plugins and the settings in its configuration section are countless. You might see this as a strenght, but I can also work against you. I for one have never managed to run a project the way I want it to. Creating a new project takes a long time. Recently a feature has been added to create a project from source. Which is handy but probably also the reason why creation of a project takes a long time.

A second problem is code completion. You need to enable Automatic assist in the Code assist section of the PHP configuration. But unfortunately code completion seems to be incomplete.  It might have something to do with extreme long building process after you created a project. This easily takes more than an hour. Additionally PDT freezes sometimes and I even witnessed some hangups. After running into these problems I don’t need to explain that I gave up on Eclipse PDT quite soon.

Zend Studio
As I stated in part 1 of this article the latest version of Zend Studio is based on Eclipse. This is currently version 7.1. Zend is supporting the Eclipse PHP development (PDT). They bring out Zend Studio with some enhancement like support for Unit testing, remote servers,  svn integration, zend framework, code generation and refactoring. In general my experience with 7.1 is that it is slow. Some improvements were made lately but don’t try to run a project from samba shares or ftp servers because you will get disappointed. Other reasons of irritations are the ‘file out of sync’ messages and the long project building time. But when you get your project up and running you’re fine from there. Studio 7.1 offers a good editor and all viewing capabilities you would want to have. A nice feature is the ability to mark and rename a variable, without have to search and replace.

Another Zend Studio option is version 5.5.1. This is ‘the old’ version which is not based on Eclipse but is still downloadable from zend.com. It is fast, has most features you need and is quite reliable. I especially like the remote server options. Just add a ftp folder to your project and you can start working right away. I am not seeing this in any other IDE. Code completion is ready after a few minutes even when working van samba of local folder.  And code completion works pleasantly.

A big advantage of using Zend Studio is the integration with the Zend Debugger. When you are using Zend Server or Zend Platform you can connect to the integrated debugger to step through your application. It is also possible to install the Zend Debugger separately on your server. Studio 7.1 even has local debugger integrated although I did not succeed to get it running with complex application like a CMS or Zend Framework app. Especially handy are the browser toolbars Zend offers to start a debug session from firefox or IE.

A free alternative is Netbeans. A project is started very quickly. It builds the project in the background to load code completion in memory, but you can start editing right away. Code completion has a problem when you try to work with samba shares or ftp folders. It is just way to slow which even makes Netbeans freeze for about 20 seconds or more. The problem has been noted and the Netbeans community is working on a solution which should be available in the next version 6.9. Netbeans has ftp projects. Setting up such a project downloads the sources locally. It is not possible to edit direct from server without having the download the complete content, which usually takes a long time before you can start working on the project.

The next eclipse variant is Aptana Studio.  It’s free. After downloading and installing Aptana you need to install the PHP Development Tool (PDT) plugin. Just like its soul mates, Aptana suffers from slow project creation. It is not possible to create a project from sources immediately. You have to add a folder manually to the project using the advanced button in de folder add dialog. It is strange to see that when I opened files from the project browser, the default php editor on my Macbook was run. To prevent this you need to make Aptana your default editor. Code completion didn’t work. A strong point of Aptana is said to be support for javascript libraries and javascript debugging.

Code completion in Komodo IDE is pretty fast but tends to make some mistakes here and there. I could not find out why these errors occur, they seem to be random. Starting a project is quite easy. Just create your project file in the source root and off you go. Komodo analyses the sources quickly so you will have code completion in a few minutes. I think that Komodo is fastest off all IDE’s on this point. Minor point is that I am missing a good class viewer. Only the current class is shown. Extended classes are missing. I also like to keep the project viewer and class viewer visible all the time. This does not seem to be possible in Komodo.

At the moment my prefered IDE is Zend Studio 5.5.1. It’s fast and reliable. Main reason for choosing 5.5.1 is the very good preformance of code completion. Furthermore it supports ftp projects en debugging.

If you want start off with an free IDE, I would advise Netbeans. You need to develop from local sources otherwise Netbeans is unworkable. But from there you will enjoy this editor very much. The performance problem should be solved in version 6.9 which is planned for march 2010.

Although I didn’t test all IDE’s in the same degree, this article gives you some insight into a number of important features of IDE’s. When you’re in the process of making a choice for an editor, just try them for a week.  But more importantly, ask yourself the question: “What is important for me when writing code”.

Choosing a PHP IDE

Working with PHP  the past 10 years I have been tweaking my code with quite some different editors. From simple text editors to fully featured Integrated Development Environments (IDE). In this article I will outline what I think is important in choosing your editor of preference. Furthermore I will discuss some of my experiences with different editors.

IDE’s offer a lot of advantages in comparison to text editors. Still I think it is useful to learn a command-line text editor. Most of us are deploying on a linux/unix environment. Sooner or later you will have to edit a file directly on the server. Knowing how to use ‘joe’ of ‘vi’ may come in handy. My preference goes to joe (probably because I managed to remember the keyboard commands for saving, searching and copying). One disadvantage is that joe is not always installed. That’s the big advantage of vi. It will probably work on every server. The vi editor is a little more complicated, but can be very powerful If you are able to manage its functions.

Now let’s focus on PHP IDE’s. Before looking at the products out there, what is important when you’re dealing with PHP code. First of all there are the default functions you will find in all IDE’s: code highlighting for PHP, html and javascript, project management and file browsing. Differences can be found on other functionality:

1. Code completion. Being able to see methods in a class and parameters in functions makes a programmer much more efficient. If you are a serious programmer, you actually can’t do without code completion.

2. Ftp projects. When you work on many projects because of short lead time or long support agreements, you want to have quick access to staging or production environments. It would be best practice to use version control tools such as CVS or SVN to manage your code on remote servers, but not all servers are equipped this way.

3. Class information. Easy overview of methods and properties and access to extended classes makes your life easier.

4. Text search. Every programmer searches trough code to find code snippets. How did I do this before? Does the framework already have what I need?

5. Variable highlighting. Because PHP is weakly typed, you will not easily notice typo’s in variables when running your app. If your editor can manage these variables, you are likely to make less mistakes.

6. Debugging. Stepping through code can help you to find complicated bugs quickly or learn to understand a new application. The best know debuggers are XDebug and Zend Debugger

IDE’s most used by PHP programmers are Eclipse PDT, Zend Studio, Netbeans, Aptana and Komodo.  Open source and free are Eclipse PDT and Netbeans. Komodo has a free community edition (Komodo edit), but this version is stripped. To make a valid comparison you need to buy the commercial version (Komodo IDE). Zend Studio 7, Eclipse PDT and Aptana are based on the Eclipse framework.  A few years ago Zend made the decision to base Zend Studio on Eclipse. The old Zend Studio is still available. The last old Zend Studio version is 5.5.1.

You’re probably tired reading by now. Well… a least I’am tired writing. I will continue this article in my next post in which I will discuss the pro’s and cons on these IDE’s. And to give away a little secret…. I am still using the old Zend Studio.