Ten Tips for Getting the Most from the Zend Framework

Tuesday Sep 14th 2010 by Jason Gilmore

The Zend Framework can ease your PHP development, but mastering its nuances can take a while. These 10 productivity tips will save you some time.

To truly make your framework-driven websites hum you need to master your chosen framework's nuances, tricks and techniques. Unfortunately, uncovering these finer points often comes only after having suffered through a few poorly implemented projects. In this article I'll try to save relative newcomers to the Zend Framework some pain by identifying 10 key features that have become an indispensable part of my daily development activities.

1. Configure Your Projects with ZF_Tool

The Zend Framework removes many design decisions you'll need to make in terms of how your project is structured. It takes care of defining specific locations and file-naming conventions for the project's models, views, controllers, images and other ancillary files such as CSS and JavaScript. While you can manually create this structure and various MVC files, the Zend Framework offers a command-line utility known as Zend_Tool for not only generating a new project's directory structure, including the Bootstrap file and front controller, but also creating new controllers, actions, models and modules throughout the project. For instance, you can use the following four commands to create a new Zend Framework project, complete with a controller named Account containing the actions login, register and logout:

%>zf create project dev.example.com %>zf create controller Account %>zf create action register Account %>zf create action login Account %>zf create action logout Account

Zend_Tool isn't yet feature complete, but its progress is ongoing and it's already certainly a very capable feature. To learn more about how to use Zend_Tool, see the article Introducing the Zend Framework's Application Configuration Component.

2. DRY Your Logic with Action Helpers

Following the convention of not repeating yourself (commonly referred to as staying DRY) is a hallmark of programming no matter the type of project. The Zend Framework reduces the need to replicate code in many ways, but one feature in particular stands out as an indispensable tool in the quest for efficiency. Known as an action helper, it allows you to consolidate snippets of logic within a special class method and then call that method as needed throughout your application. For instance, suppose you needed to generate a series of random strings at various times within your website. You would use these strings as passwords, password recovery keys, and registration confirmation one-time URLs. Although the code for doing so isn't particularly complex, you wouldn't want to repetitively embed it within each controller action each time you needed it.

Instead, you can consolidate within a single location, bundling it as an action helper, and then call that action helper whenever needed. Although the steps involved in creating an action helper are out of the scope of this article, keep in mind that an action helper is just a standard PHP class that is endowed with special capabilities by extending the Zend_Controller_Action_Helper_Abstract class. When created and configured, you could call the action helper within your actions like this:

$confirmationKey = $this->_helper->generateID();

3. DRY Your Presentations with View Helpers

While the theoretical goal of the Model-View-Controller architecture is to prevent logic from intermingling with an application's presentation, in practice a complete separation of the two is just not possible. However, you can use the Zend Framework's view helper feature to significantly minimize the inconveniences of comingling logic and presentation. For instance, when retrieving result sets from a database you'll often need to refer to the number of records found in either singular or plural format, such as:

11 games added in the past 24 hours!

Because these records are dynamically retrieved, how do you know whether one game or multiple games have been added? The answer is important because it will affect the grammatical structure of the notification. You can make this determination dynamically using a view helper without sacrificing the clean separation of logic and presentation. Like an action helper, a view helper is just a standard PHP class which extends the Zend_View_Helper_Abstract class. We might call the aforementioned view helper Pluralizer, and it would contain code that looks like this:

public function Pluralizer($value, $singleText, $pluralText) { if ($value > 1) { return "{$value} {$pluralText}"; } else { return "{$value} {$singleText}"; } }

With the view helper created and configured, you can call it within your views like this:

&ltp> $count = count($gamesAdded) <?= $this->Pluralizer($count, "game", "games"); ?> added in the past 24 hours! </p>

See the view helper documentation for more information about creating custom view helpers.

4. Test with Zend_Test

One of the most frustrating -- not to mention boring -- Web development tasks is forms testing. Ensuring that a form is properly rendered and that it correctly validates user input, provides appropriate user feedback, and processes the user data can require tremendous amounts of time. Also, you'll often need to return to each task time and again as your application evolves.

Embracing a test-driven development process can almost completely remove this tedium and frustration! The Zend Framework's Zend_Test component, which integrates with the popular PHPUnit testing framework, allows you to write tests that can automate the verification of all of the aforementioned form characteristics! However, Zend_Test's capabilities go far beyond merely testing forms; you can write tests that verify the proper operation of models, controller and action existence, Web services integration, and much more.

5. Streamline Notifications with the Flash Messenger

Providing your users with a streamlined interface will play a crucial role in their overall satisfaction. Part of this streamlining has to do with reducing the number of pages a user must navigate. One easy way to reduce this number is by using the Zend Framework's FlashMessenger action helper to provide notification messages to the user on the next request. For instance, you could automatically redirect a user to his profile page after successfully logging into his account and on that profile page display a special one-time message acknowledging the successful login. For instance, the following message will add a message to the flash messenger message array and then redirect the user to the Account controller's profile action:

$this->_helper->flashMessenger->addMessage('You have successfully logged in'); $this->_helper->redirector('profile', 'account');

You can retrieve these messages within the next request's action using the following snippet:

if ($this->_helper->FlashMessenger->hasMessages()) { $this->view->messages = $this->_helper->FlashMessenger->getMessages(); }

6. Maintain Configuration Data Centrally with Zend_Config

Even the simplest of websites contains a great deal of configuration-related data, including database connection parameters, Web service API keys and email addresses. Adding to the complexity of managing this data is the need to often use different sets of configuration data depending upon the current stage of an application's lifecycle. For instance, you hopefully use one database when developing the site and another for the production stage. Using the Zend Framework's Zend_Config component, you can manage this data in a central location and call upon it as needed throughout the application.

The default storage location is within a file named application.ini, which resides in the application/configs directory. This file is organized into various sections, with each representing a stage of the application lifecycle. Here's an abbreviated snippet of what this file might look like:

[production] email.support = "support@example.com"; [development : production] email.support = "bugzilla@example.com";

Notice how the email is defined according to the application lifecycle stage. If the application lifecycle is set to production, the support@example.com email will be retrieved when needed. When set to development, bugzilla@example.com will be retrieved. You can set the application lifecycle within the .htaccess file by setting the APPLICATION_ENV variable like this:

SetEnv APPLICATION_ENV development

Within your controller actions you can then retrieve the email.support variable like this:

$options = new Zend_Config($this->getInvokeArg('bootstrap')->getOptions()); $this->view->supportEmail = $options->support->email;

Read the article Introducing the Zend Framework's Application Configuration Component to learn more about this indispensable feature.

7. Master the Zend_Db Component's Relationships Feature

The Zend_Db component provides a convenient programming interface for the underlying database, which relieves developers from the need to write much of the SQL queries used to mine and manipulate data. For instance, retrieving a user account using the accounts table's underlying integer-based primary key is as simple as passing the key to the associated model's find() method:

$accountModel = new Application_Model_Account(); $account = $accountModel->find(45)->current();

But such conveniences really only scratch the surface in terms of this powerful component's capabilities. Among many other features, you can formally define the parent/child relationship between two models and then programmatically manage those relationships using the Zend_Db component. For instance, suppose you wanted to associate each user account with his state of residence, meaning the Account model would be dependent upon the State model. With the relationship defined, you can retrieve the name of the account's associated state like this:

$accountModel = new Application_Model_Account(); $account = $accountModel->find(45)->current(); $state = $account->findParentRow('Application_Model_State')->name;

It's also possible to find dependent records, for instance all accounts associated with a particular state, using the findDependentRowset() method!

8. Don't Reinvent the Web Services Wheel

It seems that each of the popular frameworks offers a unique characteristic that sets it apart from other solutions. In the Zend Framework's case, that unique feature is the vast Web services support it offers. You can find components capable of interfacing with popular services including Twitter, Google, Amazon, Microsoft Azure and others. So, be sure to take advantage of these components rather than worry about integrating third-party solutions.

9. Leverage the Native Validators

Validating user input, particularly complex strings such as email addresses, ranks among the most tedious and time-consuming tasks of any project. Yet the urgency of properly validating this input means you can't avoid it. The Zend Framework removes much of the complexity by offering a large number of validators through the Zend_Validate component. Among others, you'll find validators for verifying email addresses, IP addresses, URLs, credit card numbers, and much more. Be sure to make ample use of these validators throughout your application!

10. Modify Default Routes

The Zend Framework optimizes URLs for both search engines and users right out of the box, constructing URLs that generally follow the pattern http://www.example.com/controller/action/key1/value1/keyN/valueN/. However, you may wish to provide users with a number of convenience URLs such as http://www.example.com/login. You can override the Zend Framework's default routing features by defining your own custom routes within the Bootstrap.php file. For instance, you can add the aforementioned custom route by adding the following method to your Bootstrap:

public function _initRoutes() { $frontController = Zend_Controller_Front::getInstance(); $router = $frontController->getRouter(); $route = new Zend_Controller_Router_Route_Static( 'login', array('controller' => 'Account', 'action' => 'login') ); $router->addRoute('login', $route); }

See the article Creating Custom Routes with the Zend Framework to learn more about this powerful feature.


Do you have any useful Zend Framework-related tips or tricks in mind? Tell us all about them in the comments!

About the Author

Jason Gilmore is is the founder of the publishing and consulting firm WJGilmore.com. He is the author of several popular books, including "Easy PHP Websites with the Zend Framework", "Easy PayPal with PHP", and "Beginning PHP and MySQL, Third Edition". Follow him on Twitter at @wjgilmore.

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