To Framework or Not To Framework

Drupal Views snippet
Drupal Views snippet

So this post is really just a mess of thoughts and questions that have been erupting out of my cranium the last few months or so, as I’ve dealt with decisions on using different platforms and technologies for different projects. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve come up with any answers yet, but getting this out in print is relieving some of the built up pressure.

I’ve been involved in several website projects recently where the question keeps arising as to whether to use a framework, and if so, which one? The “which one” question can be complicated enough, but I’ve been taking a step back and really trying to decide if I want to use a framework at all!

Now, I’ve been involved in this battle for some time now, and it has intensified with my recent experiences with Drupal projects. I’ve built several sites now in Drupal with varying degrees of success. It’s been a roller coaster. It usually starts with the siren call that sounds like “Hey! You could do just about everything you want in Drupal. Why not plunge all the way in and make this your framework for life!” But in the valleys, I’ve wanted to throw everything away and just write pure PHP or make a living somehow in the deep wilderness. It’s making me second guess myself on choosing the correct tools for the job.

Take for instance one of my recent projects. It’s an ecommerce site of sorts, and as you would expect, the design calls for a listing of products, with filters on the left and sorting on the top — like and most other sites of that nature. It’s being built in Drupal. Easy enough, I say. The versatile Views module can handle that. But guess what? Far into the process I realize that you can’t separate the filter controls from the sort controls. There’s a contrib module out there that is addressing this, but it’s still in development and it’s not working on my site. So I start digging through the Views code, trying to figure out what’s gone wrong and in my mind I’m thinking, “If I was building this site in straight PHP or .NET I could write this in five minutes!”

And there’s the problem rearing its ugly head again. What makes more sense? Building a site from scratch, where you have a handle on all of the mechanics, or using a framework where a lot of the standard site code is already written and feature-rich? The lure of the framework, where a lot of things are already taken care of (user administration, roles and security, page editing, etc.) is very enticing. But what I’ve found is that there are always several features the client wants that the framework doesn’t readily handle. And some of them are shockers (like the filter/sort mentioned above).

Now, I’m a coder, so you say, “Randy, if you can code, then just get in that open source goodness and change the code to do what you want.” I can do that, but if you are working with a large framework (e.g. Drupal) it usually isn’t a matter of just hopping into a file and changing a couple lines of code. The framework is massive, it’s extended with a thousand modules written by a thousand different developers and a lot of it, by necessity and good practice is abstracted quite a bit to handle an unknown number of use cases. So it takes time, sometimes a lot of time, and I’m always facing a deadline.

So it sounds like I’m really trashing Drupal. That is not my intent. I’ve worked on several projects where it was the right tool for the job and for the most part, did most of what the client wanted. If it doesn’t, however, that custom coding can get out of hand. The Drupal API is monstrous and I’ve coded quite a few custom modules with it, as the need arises. Sometimes it’s straightforward, many times it’s not.

Lately, I’ve been leaning more towards using PHP supplemented with code libraries. That way I can write PHP without worrying how to integrate it into some massive code base. Using something like Cake or OpenAvanti gives you MVC and ORM out of the box and you can just start coding and feel the cool breeze on your face. Starting a project this way, you can still hear those sirens beckoning, “We’ve already got user admin and page editing ready to go over here.” But I have to resist. Once over there I get sucked in, and before I know it I wish I was back where I had my hands on the wheel.

Integrating a Blog with an Existing CMS

I recently finished a project for a client whose site was built on the DotNetNuke CMS. He wanted to integrate a blog into his site, so I was faced with three choices:

  1. Find a suitable blog module for DotNetNuke
  2. Write a DNN blog module from scratch
  3. Find another blog platform and use it alongside the CMS

After failing to locate a blog module that I thought would satisfy the client, and not having the budget to write one from scratch, I was left with one choice. However, the next challenge presented itself. Since the visitor already has a login to the CMS site, it would be nice if they didn’t also have to login to the blog. This was going to require some custom coding, so the chosen blog platform had to expose a robust API. WordPress looked like it had all the answers. Now that I had the two platforms, the challenge was to get them to talk to each other.

The WordPress API includes functions for creating new users and logging them in. So the plan was to develop a WordPress plugin that would automatically check who the current CMS user was, register them with the blog if necessary, then log them in. WordPress would know who was logged in by checking a cookie stored by the CMS.

The following diagram illustrates the main components of the solution:

Blog and CMS
Blog and CMS

I would like to point out a couple items of interest with this solution:

  1. Cookies are only able to be read by code within the same domain. Therefore, you would not be able to use this method if your CMS was at and the blog was hosted at, say,
  2. Once the user clicks the blog link at the CMS, the cookie is stored for the blog’s use. If the user was visiting the site on a shared computer, you would not want another user to visit the blog and be automatically logged in as the previous user. Therefore, the cookie expires at the end of each user’s session.

If anyone else has had to tackle something similar to this, or have other ideas on how this could have been accomplished, I would love to hear from you.