It’s been almost a month now since the release of Zend Framework 1.8, and although I was very excited about some of the new features, it’s taken me awhile to digest that excitement into something bloggable. As a result, I apologize if I’m a bit late to the party…but I’d like to take a moment nonetheless to discuss the implications of my favorite 1.8 feature: Zend_Application_Resource_Modules.

Zend Framework has provided what it calls a “conventional modular directory structure” for quite some time now: specifically, Zend Framework modules are supposed to “[allow] you to separate different MVC applications into self-contained units, and re-use them with different front controllers”. Unfortunately, up until 1.8, I have never found this to be entirely accurate. Based on module architectures I’d seen in full-stack content management systems, I’d always kind of hoped that installing a module would be as easy as this:

  1. Download the source code and copy it into your application’s modules directory.
  2. Hooray, it works now!

Now, this was true enough for modules that only provided a couple controllers and view scripts, but the second you introduced, say, controller plugins or models in the include_path, you’d have to modify your application-level bootstrap file, providing it with detailed knowledge of what the module provides. Because of this, the framework hasn’t really inspired a lot of distributable, reusable third-party modules; after all, the process for installing them would actually have looked something like this:

  1. Download the source code and copy it into your application’s modules directory.
  2. Adjust your application entry point (index.php) to include the module’s models folder in the include_path.
  3. Adjust your application-level bootstrap file to register the new modules directory with the front controller, if you haven’t configured it that way already.
  4. Adjust your application-level bootstrap file to register any plugins or plugin paths it might provide.
  5. Install any database schemas that might have come with the module.
  6. Hooray, it works now!

The problem here is that the parent application (and the person installing it) has to know all sorts of nitty-gritty details about how the module does its business. In my opinion, a truly “self-contained” module would be able to handle a lot of the above process all by itself, without any modifications to the parent application; otherwise, it’s not really self-contained, and not particularly easy to distribute to other developers.

Enter 1.8

However, as I mentioned earlier, this situation has changed dramatically in Zend Framework 1.8, due to a wonderful little component called Zend_Application_Resource_Modules. Among other things, it provides the following:

  • Modules can now provide their own bootstrapping logic; no more need to register module-provided plugins, paths, etc. in the application-wide bootstrap file.
  • Autoloading of common types of module-provided classes is now automatically set up for you; no more need to add modules to your include_path, or even to require_once your module class files before you use them.

See the benefit? All of the application-level configuration we used to have to do can now be encapsulated in a bootstrap process provided as a part of the module itself. This cuts the above workflow down to something like this:

  1. Download the source code and copy it into your application’s modules directory.
  2. Install any database schemas that might have come with the module.
  3. Hooray, it works now!

Suddenly, the prospect of downloading somebody else’s reusable module is a lot more appealing.

Some further issues

You’ll notice, however, that this still doesn’t quite match my first ideal workflow. Although Zend_Application_Resource_Modules provides a lot of assistance in getting your modules bootstrapped once they’re installed, it cannot yet provide much assistance with the installation process itself. As a result, if you’re trying to install a distributed module that involves database schemas, you’ll still have to install those by hand.

It’s also worth noting that Zend_Application_Resource_Modules does not yet provide a way to track and enforce module dependencies. For the most part this isn’t necessary; by the time everything is bootstrapped, all module-provided code is available through autoloading. However, there are a couple of situations in which it would be necessary:

  • If Module A needs to use a class provided by Module B during Module A’s own bootstrap, Module B must have been bootstrapped first…otherwise the autoloader for Module B’s classes won’t be ready yet.
  • If Module A provides a plugin that, for whatever reason, assumes that a plugin from Module B always fires before it, then Module B’s plugins need to be registered before Module A’s.

I’m working (in my copious spare time) on a distributable module of my own right now that could really benefit from both dependency tracking and database installation…but with how much better module architecture has already gotten in 1.8, I can only assume that future releases will be even more elegant. In the meantime, keep an eye out for my new module; I’d love the benefit of community review once it’s ready.

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