I’m Easy! (mangia come parli)

I’m excited, happy and proud to start my new job, based in Paris, as an employee of eZ Systems France.
Besides making a great product, the company truly believes in the open source model, and it is even making some money (enough at least to pay my rent!). What else could a php coder ask for?

I am eager to meet my colleagues über hacker Derick Rethans and Tobias Schlitt, whom I first met at the Italian php day last year, and of course the complete staff of the Lyon office, a bunch of young and talented geeks that will surely put my skills to shame.

eZ logo

Btw, for those lazy people that don’t speak italian, the title loosely means “put your money where your mouth is”

Running multiple php versions on a single Apache install

This is a very strange topic: even though a cursory google search using the words “multiple php versions apache” spits out a considerable amount of informative howtos and blog entries, when I recently mentioned in a mailing list that it is in fact quite easy to have multiple php installs running in parallel using Apache virtual hosts, I immediately received a private request for my configuration.
Well, here it is, along with a few details on how to set up the complete environment.

The desired goal is having “alot” of php installations running in parallel, so that php scripts can be quickly tested against as many versions of php as possible. It is very useful f.e. when

  • you are migrating an existing app from php 4 to version 5
  • you are deploying your applications on a large base of servers where different versions of php are installed, but develop all the different apps on the same workstation
  • you develop a popular open source php library or shrink wrapped application, and want to make sure that it runs smoothly in every possible user setup
  • you want to test an application against different sets of php.ini configurations, to check for possible problems in areas such as output buffering, opcode caches etc…
  • you are into integration testing

There are many different setups that can be used to achieve this result (a big list is available on Gentoo docs, courtesy of Andreas Korthaus).
My preferred setup is: use a single apache instance, with a single php version installed as module, and many versions installed as cgi applications. Advantages:

  • no need to rename any php file to run it with different php versions
  • no need to restart the webserver or run any kind of script to switch php version
  • uses less memory than multiple apache installs

The main disadvantages are:

  • only 1 php version can run as an apache module, the others must limit themselves to cgi
  • a very misbehaved php application can in rare cases hog or crash the webserver, and it will have to be reset before testing with other php versions

The instructions below are geared to a windows environment with Apache 2, but converting them to linux is left as trivial exercise for the sysadmin.

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Setting up a DocBook Toolchain for documenting PHP code The Right Way (TM)

A simple question: why is the word “docbook” always followed by “toolchain” instead of “editor”? Why can’t I just write my documentation in xml as easily as I do with Ms Word and be happy with the results?

The answer is unfortunately not so simple. The core of the problem lies in the flexibility provided by the docbook format. After all, it is an xml dialect, which can be used to write (almost) any kind of technical documentation and produce (almost) any kind of output. Existing graphical editing and conversion tools either cater only to a specific category of documents or suffer from a generic interface that does not introduce significant productivity gains.

What I needed to document my php project was:

  • A free (at least as in beer) docbook editor with a decent wysiwyg interface that would not force me to learn the intricacies of every single docbook tag
  • some way to automatically convert the docbook file to a nicely formatted XHTML version
  • some way to automatically convert the docbook file to a similarly formatted PDFversion
  • nice-to-have but not required: php syntax highlighting in the final output, generation of (parts of) the docbook manual from javadoc embedded in the php source code, conversion of docbook to OpenOffice format, etc…

After struggling with a couple of buggy/incomplete editing and conversion tools, being somewhat of a coder myself, I decided to roll my own solution.

Here’s how I set up my toolchain:

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Migrating to PHP5: a sensible solution at last?

As everybody in the php world is bound to know, PHP4 is still the dominant platform on the net, despite its age and many shortcomings. Notwhistanding many improvements in speed, security and functionality, PHP 5 has seen so far a less-than-stellar adoption rate.

PHP adoptions stats by nexen.net

There have been a lot of discussions in the blogosphere about this “problem”, with the most basic explanation being:

  • web hosters do not upgrade because some very successful web apps (blogs, cms, bulletins, etc…) still need php 4 to run
  • php coders have to code for php 4 because otherwise they loose the opportunity of getting deployed on shared hosting
  • since the apps run on php 4 anyway, why upgrade? (a classic case of dog-eats-tail)

Other people refer to PHP as victim-of-its-own-success: PHP 4 was good enough for everybody, so a lot of people do not feel compelled to upgrade.

While I am generally in favour of extreme ABInex and API stability (I have servers running php 4.0.4, pl1 mind you…), I have to admit that the current situation imposes a heavy burden on the developers of php libraries and applications: the coder has to cater to the quirks and bugs of every possible php version, and either avoid any enhancement that has seen the light roughly in the last 5 years (since the release of php 4.2) or resort to provide alternative code paths for the less-fortunate (the php-compat package on Pear is a great help if you’re into defensive coding).

The best proposal I have seen so far to this situation comes from the Drupal mailing list:

PICK A DATE FOR PHP 4 DESUPPORT AND ANNOUNCE IT TO THE WORLD WITH ENOUGH ADVANCE.

The chosen date has to be agreed upon by most major php application teams (this is the hard part), but most of them, have been planning the upgrade to php5 anyway.

  • The hosters and sysadmins at private companies will be given enough time to test the deployment of the new php version
  • The developers will feel the need to make sure that their app runs fine on php 5 before the cutover date
  • Everybody will be happy (except Stefan Esser, he never is…)

One last question remains open: WHAT SHALL WE CALL THE DAY THAT PHP4 IS PUT TO REST?

Suggestions are welcome…

Il mio babbo su Google video

Più incredibile che vero, il mio luddita, tecnofobico e fissato-con-il-passato genitore (nonchè artista mica da poco) mi ha scavalcato a piè pari nell’utilizzo del media web, ed è atterrato direttamente in google video.

Qui ̬ visualizzabile un breve Рma bellissimo Рcortometraggio realizzato in occasione di una sua esposizione a Bruxelles, in cui racconta (in francese) la poetica e la visione alla base dei suoi lavori recenti.

R̩alisation: Benǫt Dumont РAtelier du Coquelicot asbl

The daily Firewall WTF part III

Tales from the trenches.

Two companies develop a communication protocol to exchange information between their respective systems. SOAP is picked up, presumably because of all its enterprise-trendiness.
One company builds a J2EE application, the other one a single C++ builder win32 exe. Both sides can receive and send messages.
The applications get tested by the developers while at their respective office, and declared ready to go….

…but fail to exchange a single message when deployed in the production environment, which includes quite a few extra devices:

  • https encryption over the internet part
  • your run-of-the-mill layer 3 firewall
  • an application-layer firewall terminating the https connections and applying layer 7 http filtering
  • another application-layer firewall applying antivirus scanning

The developers have no clue as to what might be causing the problem, and are prone to point fingers against the “bad firewalls”.

In fact:

  • the java guys are helpless in locating errors, because they never look at the http layer which should supposedly be carrying the xml messages. All they know are the java objects that the framework builds for them. If any error occurs in handling the http connection, xml (de)serialization or https handshake they do not know – all they get is an empty pointer (note: presumably the informative, verbose exception that would help in debugging is being catched too early inside the framework itself, and the coders do not dare split it open)
  • the c++ guys are helpless in locating errors, because their app in fact knows nothing about xml and much less about http. It reads strings from sockets and writes strings to sockets. The received strings are parsed, presumably by regexps, while the outgoing messages are built from .txt template files with very basic token substitution

There is really something interesting in comparing the two approaches to development: on one side the communication protocol is completely abstracted away, so much in fact that it cannot be examined at all; on the other side the protocol is not handled at all, and old-school quick-n-dirty pragmatic coding has produced the bare minimum necessary to fake understanding the language, while in reality not being able to speak it at all.

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