One thing that seemed to be a hot topic at the conference was frameworks. CakeDC, the money behind CakePHP was the platinum sponsor. I chatted with Larry Masters the owner of CakeDC for a bit while walking one night. Great guy. Joël Perras gave a tutorial about Lithum. I attended most of this one. He did very well. Joël was frank and honest about the benefits and problems with using frameworks, including having to deal with more than one at a time. There was also a tutorial about Zend Framework patterns by Matthew Weier O'Phinney. I missed this one. On the second day, things were different. Rasmus Lerdorf warned about the bloat in most of the PHP frameworks and expressed hope that they would do better in the newer versions. I received several questions about frameworks in my session. I also spoke out about them a bit. Terry Chay wrapped up the day with his closing keynote and touched on them again. More on that later. I want to kind of summarize what I said (or meant to say).
PHP is a framework
In my session, I talked about the history of Phorum. One of the things I covered was the early days of PHP. Back in the 90s, before PHP, most dynamic web work was done in C or Perl. At that time, in those worlds, you had to do all the HTTP work yourself. If you wanted a content type of text/html, you had to set it, in code, on every single response. Errors in CGI scripts would often result in Apache internal error pages and made debugging very hard. All HTML work had to be done by writing to output. There was no embedding code with HTML even as a templating language. PHP changed all that. You had a default content type of text/html. You had automatic handling of request variables. Cookies were easily ingested and output. You could template your HTML with script instead of having to write everything out via print or stdout. It was amazing. Who could ask for more?
Frameworks as a tool
Well, apparently a world that I honestly don't work in could ask for more. There are three major segments of web developers these days. There are developers that work for a company that has a web site, but its business is not the web site. Maybe it is a network hardware company or some other industry where their business merits having a staff to run their site, but it is not their core business. Then there are developers like myself that work for a company where the web site is the business. Everything about the business goes through the web. We have the public web site and the internal web site our team uses. It is everything. The last type are those developers that are constantly building new sites or updating existing sites for clients. I will be honest, this is not a segment I have considered much in the past when writing code or blog posts. But, I met more of those people at this conference than any of the other two types. They seem to be the ones that are motivated and interested. Or at least, because PHP and the web are their business, they sent their people to the conference.
You see, I have spoken out about frameworks. Not very publicly, but those that know me have heard me comment about them. I have never really seen the point. Why start with something generic that will most likely not fit your ultimate need when you need to scale or expand beyond its abilities? Well, for thousands of web sites, that are likely being built by agencies, that time never occurs. Most likely, before that happens, the site will be redesigned and completely replaced. So, if you spend every day building a new site, why do all that groundwork every time?
In addition, why have to deal with every different client's needs? I often say that Apache is my controller. I don't like to use PHP as my controller. But, if I was deploying a site every week to a different stack, I can't rely on Apache with mod_rewrite or whatever things I rely on in my job today. So, you need to have full control in the application. What database will the client this week use? I don't care, the framework abstracts that for me. These are all very good reasons to use a framework.
There are some trade-offs though. The biggest one I see is the myriad of choices. Several of the pro-framework people even mentioned that there are a lot out there. And it seems that someone is making a new one everyday. With all these choices, it is likely that some of the benefit you get from a framework could be lost. If a client already has a site based on CakePHP and your agency uses Lithium what do you do? Say no to the work or have to deal with the differences? Some of them are big enough to be a real issue. Some are so small, you may not notice them until it's too late. That is a tough place to be.
The other issue is performance. Frameworks are notoriously inefficient. It has just been their nature. The more you abstract away from the core, the less efficient you are. This is even true with PHP. Terry Chay pointed out that PHP is less efficient than Java or C in his keynote. But, you gain power with PHP in way of quicker development cycles. Frameworks have that same benefit. But, have not solved this issue any better than PHP has over C. They abstract away the low level (for PHP at least) stuff that is going on. And that means loss of efficiency. This can be solved or at least worked on, however, and I hope it is.
Frameworks as a Commodity
So, this gets me back to something Terry Chay said. He talked about the motivation of companies to open source their technology. He used Facebook's Open Compute Project as an example. He pointed out that a major reason Facebook would open up this information would be in hopes that others would do the same in their data centers. If that happened, it would be easier for Facebook to move to a new data center because it was already mostly setup the way they like it.
Transitioning this same thought frameworks, the commoditization here, that I see, is in the interest of developers. If the framework you support becomes the de facto standard, then all those developers working in agencies using it are now ready to come to work for you. Plus, if you are the company behind it, there are opportunities for books, conferences, training, support, and all the other peripherals that come from the commercial/open source interaction. Need proof of that? Look no further than the "PHP Company", Zend. They could have committed developers to PEAR, but instead created Zend Framework. I see job listings very often for Zend Framework experience. Originally Zend tried to monetize the server with their optimizers and Zend Server. They had moderate success. The community came up with APC and XCache that sort of stole their thunder. I feel they have had much better success with Zend Framework in terms of market penetration. The money is with the people that write the code, not run the servers.
Frameworks are EVERYWHERE
I will close with something else that Terry Chay said. This was kind of an aha! moment for me. Terry pointed out that frameworks are everywhere. Wordpress, Drupal and even my project, Phorum, are frameworks. You can build a successful site using just those applications. It is not just the new breed code libraries that can be viewed as frameworks. In fact, Phorum's very own Maurice Makaay is building his new web site using only Phorum 5.3 (current development branch). Phorum offers easier database interaction, output handling, templating, a pluggable module system and even authentication and group based permissions. Wow, I have always kind of shunned this idea. In fact, when Maurice first showed me his site, I kind of grimaced. Why would you want to do that? You know why? Because the main thing that drives his site is Phorum. His users come to the site for Phorum. So, why would he want to install Phorum, invest in making it all it can be and then have to start from scratch for all the other parts of the site that are not part of the message board. Duh, I kind of feel stupid for never looking at things from this perspective before. Feeling dumb is ok. I get smarter when I feel dumb. New ideas make me a better developer. And I hope that is what comes out of this experience for me. You never know, I may throw my name in this hat and see how Phorum's groundwork could be useful outside of the application itself.
I think even if you are working at a company where you will stick with your product for a long time it makes sense to use a framework. Or lets say when you start off you should use an established framework that fits what you need for the most part. So if you need full stack, get a full stack framework. If you need something highly specialized, then maybe a microframework. If you need a forum, use an existing forum, if you need a CMS use an existing CMS.
1) free documentation, tests, security audits
2) ability to higher much easier as your team grows
3) hack it to bits if 1) and 2) start to matter less and success/failure dictates you turn in another direction
I always like to use Twitter as an example here. Would Twitter exist if they would have had to do everything from scratch? The company actually was working on another product and scrambled to reinvent itself when their investors started loosing faith in their original idea.
Time to market counted big for them and it counts for most projects.
If you would have done everything on their own they might have exploded because of security issues etc.
Now obviously their framework of choice didn't keep up with them when they needed to scale. But isn't that a great problem to have? You need to scale when you are successful and using a framework to get started got them there.
Now lets imagine they would have build everything from scratch. Would they have build something that scales sufficiently? Probably not. It might have scaled better because they would have less features from the get go. Then again as they were scrambling to implement features they might have had even less time to bother with caching which to some extend they got out of the box with the framework of their choice.
Anyways, super scaling light speed performance is rarely required form a team at day one. And any team that is required to do this has done something slightly smaller before and can take that code (aka framework) for this project with some additional tweaks.
Now obviously you can choose the wrong framework as the basis and likely for a few awesome ideas there isnt even a good framework to base your work on. But this is the exception to the norm and when you are doing something like this, I hope you are experienced to not require my or your advice. :)