#silex

A couple of months ago I ran across the lob.com API on ProgrammableWeb and was intrigued. One of the features of the Lob API is that it allows you to programmatically send postcards by just providing address details and images. I’d been itching to find a use case for the API since who doesn’t love physical mail? Following a few beers on a snow day an idea struck – why not send Valentines day postcards with lob!

Overall, the idea was straightforward, allow users to compose a message on one of a few available templates, enter some address details, and then send their postcard. Given the short timeline and relatively few features, the main factors behind picking an implementation stack were something “lightweight” that I was already comfortable with. After drawing up some options I decided to use Silex since it’s based on Symfony components, it’s lightweight, and we’ve used it in the past.

The main UI for the cards ended up looking like:

One of the “fun” features I did implement was that instead of using a big header background image, I used a HTML5 Canvas to render frames from Beauty and the Beast as the page’s background.

Anyway, we might bring this back next year so be on the lookout around Valentines day.

Posted In: General, Launch

Tags: ,

At the beginning of the summer we decided to redo our website. The design on the old site was looking a bit dated and more importantly the content didn’t really reflect the types of projects we’re looking to work on. From a technology perspective, our old site was built on WordPress with the explicit goal of being able to share the same WordPress theme as our blog. The two sites did in fact share the same theme but looking back, we never updated the main site to really make it “worth it”. With that experience in mind, we started looking around for what we could use to build setfive.com.

Stepping back and looking at our requirements, we really don’t need a CMS. I’d argue this holds true for most website projects when there’s less than 20 pages, everyone who might edit it is technical, and the content isn’t updated frequently. Specifically looking at some major WordPress features, we don’t need the WYSIWYG editor, plugin ecosystem, media handling, or theming capabilities. So what capabilities do we need?

  • Routing / Pretty URLs:
    Serving “raw” URLs like “about.php” hasn’t been OK since IE6 so this is obviously a “must have”. Basically, we need some way to map human readable URLs to specific pieces of content. Sure, you could do all of this with mod_rewrite or nginx’s location directive but that just sounds awkward. Whatever we pick should be able to handle these translations internally.
  • A modern templating engine:
    PHP “grew up” as a web templating system but today it’s missing some key features in comparison to purpose built templating engines. Being handicapped by only having “require” or “include” and being forced to set global variables in 2014 is terrible so “real” templating should be a requirement.
  • Access to a CGI/scripting language:
    I’m sure there’s “razor” of some sort describing a phenomenon where eventually a “static” website will need access to dynamic capabilities. For us, from the outset we knew we’d need to do things like pull in RSS feeds and send contact emails so we knew we needed access to some sort of CGI.

There’s certainly more capabilities static websites could need but I think this is a decent list for the “general” case and it captures our requirements. After doing some research, it looks like there’s currently a few options that would satisfy these requirements:

  • Static site generators: Generally, products like Jekyll or Phrozn will “compile” a set of your templates into static HTML pages which would then just be served by Apache or nginx. These solutions are fine except that they’d make things like integrating a RSS feed awkward.
  • “Lightweight” CMS: There’s a slew of “lighter” WordPress alternatives like Apostrophe or Ghost that check all the boxes but come with their own issues. With any “platform” you’d be back to learning the quirks of another platform and of course keeping the software up to date.
  • Use a micro-framework: Frameworks like Sinatra or Silex would offer the templating and routing features found in a “full framework” without the associated code footprint. In my opinion, this option offers the best combination of familiarity, extensibility, and a small enough footprint that updates shouldn’t be a huge issue.

I ultimately chose Silex because our team has deep PHP experience, especially with Symfony2. Because of that we’d be right at home with the Routing component and of course Twig for templating.

OK so how do you actually get this to work? I ran across Jonathan Petitcolas’s Building a static website with Silex post and used it as a guide. Here are the actual commands you’d need to get this all setup though:

Now, you just need to create a file named “index.php” which contains:

And finally, in the “views” directory add a file called “index.html.twig” which contains some content. If you have a web server setup, just point a vhost at the “web” directory, load it, and you should see the content of your index file.

If you don’t have a web server setup, a nifty trick via Gonzalo Ayuso, create a in the “web” directory named “router.php” containing:

And now, you can start the built in PHP 5.4+ server by running:

You can load your Silex app by loading http://localhost:8888 in your browser.

Anyway, as always questions and comments are welcome!

Posted In: PHP

Tags: , ,