Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Don't Waste My Time.

What follows is a critique and a complaint, not a rant. What's the difference, you ask? A rant, in my view, is a primal scream of frustration and near-impotent rage that often doesn't let a few (allegedly) non-essential facts get in the way of a good thrashing. It also takes far more energy than I'm able to summon at present, for reasons that may become clear below.

As I've mentioned previously, I've been kicking the tires on the (relatively new) Kohana 3.0 application framework for PHP Web development. I'd previously used (and enthused about) the 2.3.x ("KO2") release; I was itching to get my hands dirty with 3.0.1 After a couple of dozen hours spent plinking away at it, however, I'm reevaluating my choices.

Two of the things that endeared the earlier system to me were the good-to-excellent, copious documentation and the active, always-willing-to-help user community (which, quite frankly, are the backbones of any open-source project).

KO3 is a different proposition entirely than KO2. As I write this, the eighth bug-fix update to 3.0 is available on the Web site. Since this is a new "the same, but different" project, all the users are starting fresh, so there can't be the same level of everyone-helps-everyone-else camaraderie as with KO2. This puts a foreseeable, far greater burden on the documentation to help people get productive as quickly and effectively as possible. However, the documentation, quite charitably, remains in a beta-quality state. This is true in comparison to both the earlier release and to other PHP Web frameworks such as Symfony2, CakePHP, FLOW3 and (notoriously) Zend. With most of these other frameworks, as with KO2, it was a quick, straightforward process figuring out how to get from the "hello-world" style demos, to being able to create a useful-but-simple site, to branching out from there. It's taken four times longer to get half as far with KO3 as with KO2.

Judging by comments in the Kohana support forums, I'm not alone in this; the documentation has been roundly panned by virtually all users who've bothered to comment. There's been far too much defensive "no, it isn't bad, you just need to read a bit more, and use the source, Luke" attitude from the project folks. During the KO2 lifecycle, the attitude I understood from their responses was more along the lines of "we know there are a few problems; we're working on them," quickly followed by "take a look at this." I don't know if 3.0 is so much more complex than 2.x that they simply don't have the bandwidth to document things to their previous standards. Frankly, I don't care any more.

I've decided that my existing projects that have been started in Kohana 2.3 will remain there; possibly moving to 2.4 when it becomes the officially-supported release. But I do not plan to invest any more time and effort into Kohana 3.0, at least until the new project has had some time to mature. I fully recognise the potentially self-defeating attitude inherent in that viewpoint. Virtually any open-source project depends on its community to "plug the holes" that the "official" project maintainers don't have time for or deliberately leave as open questions for the community. Well-run community projects are extremely collaborative, communication-rich environments.

Other projects take a "vendor/product" approach, essentially saying "Here's everything you'll need, soup-to-nuts; we'd really appreciate it if you built around the edges and took things deeper in your direction of interest, but the core that we're responsible for is solid." Those "vendors", the Zends and Sensio Labs of the world, have rich open-source offerings that they use as a platform to build (or offer) what actually pays the bills.

While I have a strong philosophical and experiential preference for community-driven (or at least -oriented) projects, there have to be times when I just want to Get Things Done rather than embark on an endless voyage of discovery.3 It is at those times that I'll reach for something that "just works" well enough for me to accomplish whatever it is I'm trying to do at the moment, whether it's to write a book or to bring up a client's Web site. I know and accept that any new tool, or new version of a tool I've used previously, will require a certain amount of time to "get up to speed" on. I don't know everything (or necessarily anything) before I learn it; the most I can hope for (and what I really do insist on) is that things make sense within the logical and semantic frameworks4 that they're expressed in, and that that expression is accessible, complete and correct enough that I can feel like I'm making progress. This invariably involves some sort of documentation; whether a "conventional" or online manual, a Wiki, or a user forum; the format is less important to me than the attributes I mentioned earlier.

Kohana 3.0, as it currently stands, does not meet that standard for me. And so I'm back in a feverish learn-and-evaluate mode with at least two other frameworks. I have projects to finish, and I have several chapters of a book I'm working on that had initially been written around Kohana 2, and will now need to be substantially redone.5

I intend to give each of those new candidate frameworks the same amount of time that it took me to get productive in Kohana 2.x (which was significantly less than the "industry leader," as I've previously mentioned). This is going to be an interesting week and a half or so, in the Chinese-curse sense of the word.


1. Technical reasons for moving to KO3 included the switch from a model-view-controller (MVC) architecture to hierarchical MVC (or HMVC); if you know what these mean, you should know this is a Very Big Deal™. Additionally, I've found it a Very Bad Thing to tie myself to a legacy (obsolescent) project, and the end of KO2 is being made very plain on the Kohana Web site.(Return)

2. If the new, pre-release Symfony 2 code is as good as the documentation, we're in for a real treat.

3. I am typing this on a Mac rather than a Linux box, after all (though I have three Linux VMs running at the moment).(Return)

4. This implies, of course, that there are "logical and semantic frameworks" sufficiently visible, understandable and relevant to the task at hand. (Return)

5. I certainly don't want to fall into the same trap as a previous series of PHP books, which relied on the obsolete and inadequate Ulysses framework. Ulysses has been justly and productively panned, which has to reflect poorly on the aforementioned book (which I happen to own) and its authors. (Return)


David Tavárez said...

What about CodeIgniter 2? It will can take full advantages of PHP 5. CI have a big comunity, many more plugins and extra libraries.

I think that Kohana needs more time to compite with CodeIgniter.

Jeff said...


Code Igniter 2 is definitely on my list of packages to look at. Given that Kohana started as a fork of CI, and that the 2.0 work-in-progress is available in a more usable forum (Mercurial via BitBucket, both personal faves of mine), I'd be seriously remiss not to take a look at it.

The main issue is, and I think most would agree, that I see 2.0 as being farther away from production-ready even than Symfony 2 (which is shooting for March 2011). I'm reasonably comfortable working with a project that knows it's not quite finished but isn't completely useless; I'm much less so when I don't understand the roadmap. That may well change as I pay closer attention to CI and should not be interpreted as a ding against them. I just don't know better, yet.

Thanks for the catch.