14 Jan 2009 rcaden   » (Journeyer)

Creating PHP Web Sites with Smarty

I recently relaunched SportsFilter using the site's original web design on top of new programming, replacing a ColdFusion site with one written in PHP. The project turned out to be the most difficult web application I've ever worked on. For months, I kept writing PHP code only to throw it all out and start over as it became a ginormous pile of spaghetti.

Back in July, SportsFilter began crashing frequently and neither I nor the hosting service were able to find the cause. I've never been an expert in ColdFusion, Microsoft IIS or Microsoft SQL Server, the platform we chose in 2002 when SportsFilter's founders paid Matt Haughey to develop a sports community weblog inspired by MetaFilter. Haughey puts a phenomenal amount of effort into the user interface of his sites, and web designer Kirk Franklin made a lot of improvements over the years to SportsFilter. Users liked the way the site worked and didn't want to lose that interface. After I cobbled together a site using the same code as the Drudge Retort, SportsFilter's longtime users kept grasping for a delicate way to tell me that my design sucked big rocks.

PHP's a handy language for simple web programming, but when you get into more complex projects or work in a team, it can be difficult to create something that's easy to maintain. The ability to embed PHP code in web pages also makes it hard to hand off pages to web designers who are not programmers.

I thought about switching to Ruby on Rails and bought some books towards that end, but I didn't want to watch SportsFilter regulars drift away while I spent a couple months learning a new programming language and web framework.

During the Festivus holidays, after the family gathered around a pole and aired our grievances, I found a way to recode SportsFilter while retaining the existing design. The Smarty template engine makes it much easier to create a PHP web site that enables programmers and web designers to work together without messing up each other's work.

Smarty works by letting web designers create templates for web pages that contain three things: HTML markup, functions that control how information is displayed, and simple foreach and if-else commands written in Smarty's template language instead of PHP. Here's the template that display SportsFilter's RSS feed:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1"?>
<rss xmlns:dc="http://purl.org/dc/elements/1.1/" xmlns:atom="http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom" version="2.0">
    <description>Sports community weblog with {$member_count} members.</description>
    <atom:link rel="self" href="http://feeds.sportsfilter.com/sportsfilter" type="application/rss+xml" />
{foreach from=$entries item=entry}
      <pubDate>{$entry.timestamp|date_format:"%a, %d %b %Y %H:%M:%S %z"}</pubDate>
      <guid isPermaLink="false">tag:sportsfilter.com,2002:weblog.{$entry.dex}</guid>

The Smarty code in this template is placed within "{" and "}" brackets. The foreach loop pulls rows of weblog entries from the $entries array, storing each one in an $entry array. Elements of the array are displayed when you reference them in the template -- for example, $entry.author displays the username of the entry's author.

The display of variables can be modified by functions that use the "|" pipe operator. The escape function, used in {$entry.title|escape:'html'}, formats characters to properly encode them for use in an XML format such as RSS. (It's actually formatting them as HTML, but that works for this purpose.)

Because Smarty was developed with web applications in mind, there are a lot of built-in functions that make the task easier. SportsFilter displays dates in a lot of different forms. In my old code, I stored each form of a date in a different variable. Here, I just store a date once as a Unix timestamp value and call Smarty's date_format function to determine how it is displayed.

Smarty makes all session variables, cookies, and the request variables from form submissions available to templates. In SportsFilter, usernames are in $smarty.session.username and submitted comments are in $smarty.request.comment. There also are a few standard variables such as $smarty.now, the current time.

To use Smarty templates, you write a PHP script that stores the variables used by the template and then display the template. Here's the script that displays the RSS feed:

// load libraries
$spofi = new SportsFilter();

// load data
$entries = $spofi->get_recent_entries("", 15, "sports,");
$member_count = floor($spofi->get_member_count() / 1000) * 1000;

// make data available to templates
$smarty->assign('spofi', $spofi);
$smarty->assign('entries', $entries);
$smarty->assign('page_title', "SportsFilter");
$smarty->assign('member_count', $member_count);

// display output
header("Content-Type: text/xml; charset=ISO-8859-1");

Smarty compiles web page templates into PHP code, so if something doesn't work like you expected, you can look under the hood. There's a lot more I could say about Smarty, but I'm starting to confuse myself.

There are two major chores involved in creating a web application in PHP: displaying content on web pages and reading or writing that content from a database. Smarty makes one of them considerably easier and more fun to program. I'm fighting the urge to rewrite every site I've ever created in PHP to use it. That would probably be overkill.

Syndicated 2009-01-14 19:39:18 from Workbench

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