Elgg’s Path Forward

Like many older PHP projects, Elgg has lots of problems with tight coupling, procedural patterns, and untestability; and has a very web 1.9 model: spit out full page, add a little Ajax. The good news is that Elgg has a ton of great functionality and ideas embedded in that mess, we have a core team which often can find agreement about dev principles and goals, and we have a new schedule-based release process that ensures that hard work going into the product makes it to release more quickly.

Lately I feel like the Elgg core team is excitedly gearing up for a long hike, during which we’ll make tons of hard decisions and churn¬†lots of code remolding Elgg to look more like a modern JavaScript + PHP API framework.

I’m not sure I want to make that hike.

My suspicion is there’s a shorter route around the mountain; some modern framework may be out there whose team has already put in the hard effort of building something close to what we’re looking forward to. I think the time it would take us to get there would be long and filled with tons of wheel-rebuilding—work that won’t be going into improving UX and which¬†provides no cross-project knowledge gain for Elgg devs.

I’m also wondering if we would be wise to ignore our itching about back end code quality for a bit and focus all attention on the front end and on UI/UX problems. As a plugin developer, I¬†certainly see back end design choices that cause¬†problems, but they’re rarely blockers. I spend a lot more time improving the UX and dealing with our incomplete Ajax implementation. The jewel of the 1.9 release isn’t going to be the dependency container and PSR-0 compatible autoloading; it’ll be the responsive Aalborg theme.

For me, back end refactoring work is fun because it’s relatively easy. You’re changing the way the pieces snap together, not necessarily making them work better or solving new problems. It also keeps me in the comfort zone of working mostly with code and people I’m already familiar with. This is OK for a little while but doesn’t push me to grow.

This isn’t to imply that the core team is infected with Not-invented-here. We definitely want to replace as much home-grown code as possible with well-tested alternatives maintained elsewhere. It’s just a hunch I have that this will be a long process involving tons of decisions that have already been made somewhere else.

I’m still having a lot of fun developing for and in Elgg, but I’m itching to pick up something new, and to work in a system that’s already making good use of and establishing newer practices. Hitching Elgg to another project’s wagon seems adventurous.

I also have to vent¬†that¬†the decision to maintain support for PHP 5.2—a branch that ended long-term support 3.5 years ago—during 1.9.x seems¬†disastrously wrong. 1.9 had a long development process¬†during which¬†a¬†significant amount of high-quality, highly-tested, and actively maintained community code was off-the-table because it wasn’t 5.2 compatible. We had to port some things to 5.2 and fix the resulting bugs, and some unit tests are a mess without Closures; just a huge waste of time. Nor could we benefit from the work being done on Drupal or WordPress because both are¬†GPL, as are a lot of¬†other older PHP projects with 5.2-compatible code. PHP 5.2 is still expressive enough to solve most problems without namespaces, Closures, et al., but in 2014 devs don’t want to code with hands tied behind their backs to produce less readable code that will soon have to be refactored. /rant

Get rid of variable variable syntax

Uniform Variable Syntax was voted in (almost unanimously) for PHP6 PHP7 and introduces a rare back compatibility break, changing the semantics of expressions like these:

                           // old meaning            // new meaning
1. $$foo['bar']['baz']     ${$foo['bar']['baz']}     ($$foo)['bar']['baz']
2. $foo->$bar['baz']       $foo->{$bar['baz']}       ($foo->$bar)['baz']
3. $foo->$bar['baz']()     $foo->{$bar['baz']}()     ($foo->$bar)['baz']()
4. Foo::$bar['baz']()      Foo::{$bar['baz']}()      (Foo::$bar)['baz']()

IMO the “variable variable” syntax¬†$$name¬†is a readability disaster that we should get rid of.¬†${$name} is much clearer about what this is (dynamic name lookup) and what it’s doing: $¬†is the symbol table, and {$name} tells us that we’re finding an entry in it under a key with the value of $name. PHP should deprecate¬†$$name¬†syntax and emit a notice¬†in the next minor version.

It should also deprecate the syntax ->$name and ::$$name. Both are bad news.

Doing so would completely eliminate the first 3 ambiguous expressions above, and the new warning emitted would call out code that would otherwise silently change meaning in PHP6 (one big negative about this RFC).

As for the fourth, Consider these expressions:

A. $foo->prop
B. $foo->prop()
C. $foo->prop['key']()
D. Foo::$prop
E. Foo::$prop()
F. Foo::$prop['key']()

To the chagrin of JavaScript devs, PHP will not let you reference a dynamic property in an execution context, so expression B¬†will try to call a method “prop”, (and fatal¬†if it can’t). For consistency,¬†PHP should fatal on expression E. Currently PHP just does something completely unexpected and insane, looking up a local variable $prop.

Expression C does what you’d expect, accessing the property named “prop”, so expression F should do the same, which is why¬†I think¬†the RFC is a clear step forward at least.