Wednesday, 10 February 2010

NIH v. An Embarrassment of Riches

One thing most good developers learn early on is not to "reinvent" basic technology for each new project they work on, The common, often corporate, antithesis to this is NIH, or "Not Invented Here." But sometimes, it's hard to decide which "giants" one wants to "stand on the shoulders of."

I've recently done a couple of mid-sized Web projects using PHP and the Kohana framework. A framework, as most readers know, is useful a) by helping you work faster b) by including a lot of usually-good code you don't have to write and maintain (but you should understand!). Good frameworks encourage you to write your own code in a style that encourages reuse by other projects that use the same framework.

One task supported by many frameworks is logging. There have also been many "standalone" (i.e., not integrated into larger systems) logging packages. The most well-known of these, and the source of many derivatives, is the Apache log4j package for Java. This has been ported, also as an Apache project, is log4php.

Log4php has saved me countless hours of exploratory debugging. I stand firmly with the growing group of serious developers who assert that if you use a reasonably agile process (with iterative, red, green, refactor unit testing) and make good use of logging, you'll very rarely, if ever, need a traditional debugger.

What does this have to do with Kohana? Well, Kohana includes its own relatively minimalist, straightforward logging facility (implemented as static methods in the core class, grumble, grumble). There's a standard place for such logs to be written to disk, and a nice little 'debug toolbar' add-on module that lets you see logging output while you're viewing the page that generated it.

So I ought to just ditch log4php in favor of the inbuilt logging system when I'm developing Kohana apps, right? Not so fast...

Log4php, as does log4j, has far more flexibility. I can log output from different sources to different places (file, system log, console, database, etc.), have messages written to more than one place (e.g., console and file), and so on. Kohana's logging API is too simple for that.

With log4php, I have total control over the logging output based on configuration information stored in an external file, not in the code itself. That means I can fiddle with the configuration during development, even deploy the application, without having to make any code changes to control logging output. The fewer times I have to touch my code, the less likely I am to inadvertently break something. Kohana? I only have one logging stream that has to be controlled within my code, by making Kohana method calls.

Many experienced developers of object-oriented software are uncomfortable with putting more than one logical feature into a class (or closely-related set of classes). Why carry around overhead you don't use, especially when your framework offers a nice extension capability via "modules" and "helpers"?. While there may sometimes be arguments for doing so (the PHP interpreter is notoriously slow, especially using dynamic features like reflection), I have always failed to understand how aggregating large chunks of your omniverse into a Grand Unified God Object™ pays dividends over the life of the project.

So, for now, I'll continue using log4php as a standalone tool in my various PHP development projects (including those based on Kohana). One thing that just went onto my "nice to do when I get around to it" list is to implement a module or similar add-on that would more cleanly integrate log4php into the surrounding Kohana framework.

This whole episode has raised my metaphorical eyebrow a bit. There are "best practices" for developing in OO (object-oriented) languages; PHP borrows many of these from Java (along with tools like log4php and PHPUnit, the de facto standard unit-test framework). I did a fairly exhaustive survey of the available PHP frameworks before starting to use Kohana. I chose it because it wasn't a "everything including several kitchen sinks" tool like Zend, it wasn't bending over backwards to support obsolete language misfeatures left over from PHP 4, and it has what looks to be a pretty healthy "community" ecosystem (unlike some once-heavily-flogged "small" frameworks like Ulysses). I'm not likely to stop using Kohana very soon. I may well have to make time to participate in that community I mentioned earlier, if for no other reason that to better understand why things are the way they are.

But that's the beauty of open source, community-driven development, surely?

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