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FatFree, RedBean and FloraForm – A light and flexible web framework

In December Web Team spent some time playing with web frameworks. My previous framework experience is with Django which I highly recommend but that was not appropriate here because Python is not one of iSolutions supported web languages. As a result we spent some time researching PHP frameworks. PHP is a bit of a hodge podge and PHP frameworks are no exception, there are a lot of  different options.

  • Zend – Zend framework seems to be a everyone’s go to framework. I found it quite large and actually difficult to get set up and running meaning it was non starter. We do agile here if it takes more than 5 minutes to get started then you’ve missed the boat. It is very full featured and has big user base but seems to be aimed at “enterprise” which is a word I usually replace with “over complicated”.
  • Cake – A bit easier to get started with than Zend and still fairly comprehensive. The Object Relational Mapper felt a bit backwards but it is popular and good community support.
  • FuelPHP – I Invested a fair bit of time into this. Very cool, lots of nice features, good ORM. A bit complicated and the documentation and user community was a little new. I complained about the documentation being a bit lacking in places and they fixed it but I still wasn’t confident enough to choose it as solution.
  • FatFree – Really pleased with this and chose it. The reasons are discussed below.

So why FatFree? Zero to writing code in less than 5 minutes. There are very few files and you can throw away the bits you don’t want to use. The documentation is good and Googling for problems gets solutions. Now the for real reasons. The other frameworks I looked at all require you to work inside them. We have a huge web presence which has been grown over 15 years rather than designed. FatFree let me use my old PHP and pepper it with FatFree. Over time more of the code we write will be converted to FatFree but we didn’t have to do a huge big bang move. Being able to gradually improve our existing stuff was important. Also FatFree is not trying to do EVERYTHING and as a result it is built to work with code which was not really design to integrate with FatFree . The best example is the ORM. FatFree provides a very basic Object Relational Mapper (takes php objects and stores in database). This would be a weakness if it was harder to integrate other libraries into FatFree. Enter RedBean PHP.

RedBean is the best object relational mapper I have ever used, absolutely no question about it. When prototyping an app in FuelPHP I had to know exactly what I wanted the database to look like at the start. RedBean lets you completely change that around exactly as you see fit while you program and just works out how to store it all in the database. There are a few nuances, aliasing had me completely stumped for about 20 minutes, but it’s easy when you’ve cracked it. The one thing missing was a slick way to take user input but FatFree’s flexible design enabled us to use the FloraForms library Chris had written.

FloraForm lets you easily construct a form, parse input and customize validation. There is still a bit of work required to make this a really reusable but it has become part of our core tool set so expect work in this area. The thing which made FloraForm the ideal addition to this little toolkit is it returns all of your form inputs in a big PHP hash. From this hash a 10 line function serializes the data into RedBean objects and similar 10 line function de-serializes it back into the form. The result is constructing a FloraForm interface builds your database tables and stores your data. This is a very fast and powerful combo. For simple systems you will need to do no further work and you can prototype complicated systems very fast and allowing you do make your radical design overhauls with very little effort. This is ideal for the ever changing goal posts of real world development with limited staff time.

One final note about FatFree worth mentioning is that it allowed members of the team which have not done framework development before to gently transition into frameworks. This may not sound significant but in a busy working environment having to completely overhaul your working practices in one go is very painful and time consuming. Day one of FatFree you can just use the router and do everything else as normal. After that maybe you will experiment with templates. Next time you build a database have a play with RedBean. Before you know where you are you are a full-blown framework developer without the upheaval of having to learn to do your job from scratch.

Posted in Best Practice, Open Source, PHP, Templates, Uncategorized, web management.

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