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A Case Against Text Templating

I recently had to deal with a mature PHP-based application. While quite well maintained, the code was suffering heavily from the effects of greedy serialization. Most templating languages, PHP included, work by going along and imperatively creating a long string of text. Echo this, buffer that, and concatenate the whole shebang into an outgoing HTML file. This is a powerful approach, beautiful in the simplicity of its method, and infinitely embeddable.

It is also a a trap.

Say you are creating a function to make a "breadcrumb trail" style nav bar. It's used on every page of your app, and it's pretty standard. You have a few ordered fields such as company, contact, and job; and a few custom ones which will be passed in as an argument. The function signature looks like getBreadcrumb(context[, extraListItems]).

Some time later, you find you need to give a custom ID to one of the standard breadcrumb links. So, you go back to the getBreadcrumb() function and add in another parameter, a list of IDs corresponding to the produced list of elements. Now the function looks like getBreadcrumb(context[, extraListItems[, listItemIDs]]).

After the ID mechanism is firmly entrenched in your codebase, you are asked to add a class to the second breadcrumb item. Because you're a good programmer, and can see where this is headed, you make the mechanism generic. You can now pass in a list of maps such as {id: 'foo', class: 'bar baz'}. Now, the signature looks like getBreadcrumb(context[, extraListItems[, listItemIDs[, listItemAttributes]]]).

A few months later, a bug report comes in. On one page in, say, the Financials module, the breadcrumb is showing up as being in the Reports module and people can't navigate back to their financials. When you look at it, you find it's a simple problem - it's a financial report. The fix adds in another parameter to the getBreadcrumbList function called 'hideAutomaticBreadcrumbs'.

Now we have a beast of a function with five arguments, one of which is redundant. (Many calls look like getBreadcrumb(this->context, null, null, [[], [], ['id'=>'currentJobName']]).) It's not even so much a big function as it is an awkward one. It's hard to test as well. What's more, the pattern has repeated itself across most of the code. Some of the functions even have more than a dozen arguments! How do we avoid this? At every step, adding one more arg seemed like the right thing to do.

The problem with the input of the function was actually caused by the output of the function. getBreadcrumb() returns strings of HTML, which are written to the document we're generating. However, this means that getBreadcrumb() is the final place we can manipulate and change the breadcrumbs. To fix this, let's try re-running our scenario. However this time, instead of returning HTML to be echo'd to the document, we will generate a tree structure to represent our HTML. Unlike the text representation, the tree will have all the relevant attributes open to manipulation later in the program. So, we might access the breadcrumb trail via html.body.topNav.breadcrumb. The second breadcrumb item might be accessed via something like[1], where breadcrumb is an ordered list.

Now that the structure is available to us, the custom breadcrumb id argument is thrown away – never existed – because we can simply go breadcrumb[1] = "customID". We don't have to generate the list with customID, because we can change it after we've generated it. Same thing with the attributes list we added when we needed classes.

The bug report about one of the list items being incorrect is similarly solved by modifying the offending item in place, as a one-off change.

Now the getBreadcrumb(context[, extraListItems]) call is manageable. Special cases are handled locally, and the arguments list is not polluted with redundant behaviour. By discarding the structural information of our HTML document only after we're done creating all of it, we are free to manipulate it as we need to. Because we don't have to write a function to generate the perfect breadcrumb trail every time, we are able to write a simple one that just generates a good default breadcrumb trail.

tags: rant, html, templating, php, web dev