Manual Reference Pages - GANTRY::DOCS::WHY (3)
Gantry::Docs::Why - Whats a framework and why should I want one?
This document attempts to explain why a programmer should want a web
app framework. It is not specific to the Gantry framework. There are
reasons why we prefer Gantry to other frameworks, but they are not
Do It Yourself
Once upon a time, I had a computer savvy friend with an unorthodox opinion.
He hated the idea of using an SQL database, unless the amount of data or
the frequency of accessing it justified its use solely on the basis of
run time performance. Why not roll your own? was his continual question.
After all, he reasoned, a small application probably has only a small
amount of data which can be easily described. Therefore, a flat file
scheme is sufficient for almost all apps.
For the moment, set aside the problems of scalability. That is,
ignore for the moment the valid point that the complexity of apps
tends to grow as they age and that more and more users come from the
woodwork to use successful apps.
The argument against databases falls on its own, just based on developer
efficiency. If you have your data in a hand written scheme I have a hurdle
to clear before I can work on your app. With an SQL database, I can
use standard tools to explain your data layout. This leads quickly
to an understanding of the app itself (as the famous quote about
sharing and concealing flowcharts so well states).
So, there is an important lesson to be learned from SQL databases.
Even when they make no sense in terms of throughput during app execution,
they still make a great deal of sense in a typical shop. They create
a lingua franca for describing data. That common language, by itself, is
a great help to developers.
No matter what a web application does, it shares an obvious trait with
all other web apps: the web. Users will interact with our web apps
through their browsers. The details of the interaction may differ
depending on whether we use mod_perl, CGI, or something else, but
the fact remains that all the data coming into and out of our apps
travels in http requests.
This leads naturally to a common set of problems and benefits for
all web apps. When we notice that programs have things in common, we
should immediately begin thinking of code they can share. Factoring
out the common code will save us development time. If we factor out
enough behavior, we can call it a framework. If other people use our
framework it can become a lingua franca at least among our friends
The following section describes one of the most common web app features.
Typical Web Apps
Though there is some variation in what web applications do (we have some
that provision cable modems) they are primarily occupied with the
same basic task. They manage data in an SQL database. This leads
to a small number of common tasks that each app must perform. In fact,
most apps have multiple database tables to manage, so they perform
these common tasks repeatedly.
Consider a typical work flow. A user comes to a customer facing web
site to update their address. From a generic front page, they
choose a link to the app which updates the relevant data. On that app,
they log in (providing account name or number and a password or two).
Once authenticated, they choose a navigation tab or link which displays
an address form with their current information. The user then updates
the relevant bits and presses submit. The site validates data (shunting
the user back to the page with error messages on failure) and updates
it in the underlying SQL table. Finally, the site takes them back
to some reasonable page, like their account home.
Our company does not allow users to update their address as described
above, since we are a wire line data provider (cable TV, telephone,
internet). Yet, the outline above is exactly correct for a large number
of the pieces in almost all of our apps. Here are the steps in summary:
Now, there may be substantial additional work to be done in concert
with step 4 (like configuring those cable modems or sending
spam to the marketing department). And there may be other activities,
like report generation (but that may really be a special case of the
above). Yet, for all the special things that a particular application
needs to do, the five steps above are repeated by multiple pieces of
almost all apps.
Display a page of information with links to update some of it.
Upon a user click, display a form for entering or editing data.
Upon user submission of the form, validate the data. If it is not
valid, point out errors and repeat from step 2.
Update database table(s) to reflect the change.
Display a reasonable page to the user.
Programmers are (or should be) lazy. We dont want to continually recode
the above. Not only is that tedious, but it suffers from the same problems
that rolling our own data scheme for each app would. It makes for lots
of apps which are almost the same, to the point that the details which
differ are hard to deduce. Further, newly hired programmers face a number
of hurdles to understanding a bunch of separately coded apps.
So, we want a lingua franca for web applications in the same way that
we wanted SQL for database access. The problems of a web app are more
numerous and more disparate, so the solution is more complex. But, a
web framework is a lingua franca for web apps.
There are many web app frameworks in the wild these days. Ill not even
bother to start a list of them. Suffice it to say, if you find one that
will work for you and your shop, it will save you development time.
And, it will provide an easier path for those new to your shop.
If it happens to be wildly popular, you might even be able to hire
people already familiar with it.
In our shop we go one step further. Since database backed web apps
are so similar, we developed a language for describing them called Bigtop.
By describing an app in Bigtop syntax, we can generate and regenerate
its repetitive bits. This leaves us free to work on the more interesting
Phil Crow <email@example.com>
Copyright and License
Copyright (c) 2006, Phil Crow.
This library is free software; you can redistribute it and/or modify
it under the same terms as Perl itself, either Perl version 5.8.6 or,
at your option, any later version of Perl 5 you may have available.
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