Defaults may be wrong…

Just a word of warning when using PHP and Mysql – if you’re trying to make efficient code and not utilizing all sort of frameworks and abstractions, you might be in for a small surprise in a default setting.

Usually is slightly lazy and often use the mysql_fetch_assoc function. It provides each row as an associative array, and is quite convenient to work with. Recently however while optimizing some code, I figured I’d switch to using mysql_fetch_array assuming it should be more efficient. The logic being that mapping hash keys to array values wouldn’t be needed and it should use less memory.

It wasn’t the case out of the box. Switching from mysql_fetch_assoc to mysql_fetch_array without doing anything else actually increases you memory use, and is probably slightly slower. By default mysql_fetch_array does not just provide the field values as array indexes, but still maintains the hash keys too.

If you only want the indexes in the returned rows, you need to add an extra parameter to the function stating this explicitly.

  $row = mysql_fetch_array($result, MYSQL_NUM);

I wonder why it was made so. It seems like an odd choice when mysql_fetch_assoc kan provide the row indexed with hash keys – The correct behavior for mysql_fetch_array (by default) ought to be to just return the array without the hashkeys – and have that option available if needed.

Function names as signaling

In most web applications there’s a host of functions (or methods if speaking in the object-oriented world). It’s widely recognized, that it’s probably a good idea to name them something, which may suggest the purpose or functionality of what the function is doing, but often developers seem to fail at making a stringent naming convention. Before starting on your next big development adventure, here are a three suggested rules for naming functions.

1. It’s more important to have a suggestive name, than a short one.

Never call a function something short but meaningless. Instead use CamelCase and make a sentence suggesting what the function does.

  • Bad examples found in live code: “process”, “fixit”, “cleanup”.
  • Good examples: “saveToDatabase”, “convertIpnumberToDomainName”, “calculateTotalPricing”.

2. Use prefixes on functions

Reserve common names (more if you like) for specific type of functions. Here are a few suggested rules:

  • “get”-functions should always retrieve and return data – never print data.
  • “print”-functions shoudl always print data to “standard out”.
  • “set”-functions should ways set data to an object (and choose if “set” also saves data or not).
  • “save”-functions (if set-functions doesn’t save properties) saves all current properties to the persistent storage (usually database).

3. Reuse data model objects in function names

If you’re data model (or object model) already contains names of entities, reuse these in function names. If a table is named “Travel”, call the function “saveTravelRecord”, Not just “saveDataRecord”.
Make consistent use of the same names, field names, properties and other entities found in the application. Using the same name for the same object all across the application, may seem obvious, but somehow developers seem to find slightly different names for the same object again and again.

While the three above tips may seem simple, do check your code and see how many places they are broken. I’ve seen countless times, and getting it right from the beginning would have cost a small effort, refactoring the code years later is a much bigger effort.

Bread crumbs in version control

I’m sorry but sometimes I really don’t get why even seasoned developers doesn’t learn the art of the commit message in version control system. All too often I’ve come across check-ins where the entire commit message just reads “bugfix”, “change”, “oops” or something just as mindless.

The effort of writing a useful message compared to the potential benefit seems to be one the best ratios – but of course the pay-back is usually some time away – too bad. Once you work on the same code for years – or even better inherit code from others, you’ll quickly learn to appreciate anyone who used more than 10 seconds on composing a thoughtful message for the future.

Here are 3 rules you should always, always obey when committing to a version control system.

Always leave a reference to the issue/bug tracking system.

All professional development uses some sort of issue tracking system, to keep track of bugs, new features and other changes to the system. The issue tracking system should always be able to tell who asked for a change, why it was asked for and what considerations was made before the code change. By leaving a reference to the issue tracker, it’s often much easier to get “the big picture” if the change need to be changed years later. To make sure you get it in, just write “Bug #number#: “ as the initial part of the commit message.

Don’t write what, write why

Don’t write it’s a bug fix – most people will know it from look either at the code or in the issue tracking system (see point 1 above), rather write why it fixes the issue (“New check to check for missing parameters”, “Now handles no search result from db correct” – not just “bugfix”).

Keep it brief.

Log messages are not a place to store documentation, user guides or any other important information. You can assume it’s the future you (or another future fellow developer) who will look at the code and try to make sense of it. Think of this, when writing the message – it’s not for the project manager, it’s not for the end-users – it’s for a developer doing maintenance work on the code in the future.

PHP best practice: Function Parameters

I’ve been developing web applications for some years now, and while I make no claims to being the world greatest developer, I do figure, that I do have some solid experience which may help others – or at least encourage thoughts and discussion. This is the first in a series of posts, and while it may be from a PHP developers point of view, it may applicable to other programming languages, and maybe even beyond web applications. Here are my four tips on function parameters.

Always have a default value on all parameters

Functions parameters are often used as input to SQL queries, calling webservices or computations. Null or non-existing values often tend to break these things and throws horrible messages to the end-user.

While the parts of the program using your function always should provide proper values, laziness, oversights or unexpected scenarios, may prove it not to be the case. If at all possible, always try to provide default values on all parameters to a function – and if you really can’t make sure it’s handled gracefully.

Choose reasonable defaults

When providing default values, don’t choose extremes. If you’re browsing in a list of usernames, don’t use a (pure) wildcard as default value – use an “A” to list all users starting with the letter A. If you’re function allows a limit on the number of rows returned form a database query (say for paging purposes), set the default to 10, 20 or some other low number, don’t go for worst case scenarios like 9999, or 999999.

If the developer using the function needs plenty of rows, it’s easy to pass a specific value, and if the developer forgets to specify the number of rows, expected, they get a reasonable result, which may help them to ask for more (if actually needed).

Always sanitize input

Even though a given function naturally only will be used with valid input and so on, every function should take steps to secure them selves.
One of the most basic steps is to make sure all input is sanitized. Protecting your function from making SQL injection threats or other security issues, is not the responsibility of the places utilizing the function, but the responsibility of the function it self, and thus it should take steps to make sure it doesn’t introduce security issues.

As basic validation of simple input parameters, look at the ctype functions in PHP. If you can always try to validate against a whitelist (which characters are allowed) instead of blacklists (these characters are not allowed) as missing things which may introduce issues in a black list is harder, than allowing what you expect, to pass through.

Accept an array of key value pairs

If a simple function accepts a single or two parameters, they may be passed as regular parameters, but once the list of possible parameters starts to grow, changing it a single parameter – which is an array with key/value-pairs, seems to be a much more solid long-term solution on keeping the interface developer friendly. Sure you can have endless lists of 10-15 parameters, but if you have default values on the first 14 values and just need to change the last, the code ought to be much more clean by being able to pass an array with the single key/value-pair needed to be changed from the default value.

That was the first four tips on function parameters. More on PHP and Security.

Roaming todo-lists

I’ve been exploring todo lists for a while, but so far not found the ideal solution. I did however get a mighty step closer after Schack told me about a firefox plugin called Quickfox Notes.

Before introducing Quickfox notes, let me spend a second on my daily workflow in broad terms. I usually have Firefox running 8+ hours a day. Either browsing the web, doing web development or just by habit. I work on several machines – A few Linux laptops and an iMac at home. As I use several machines, I’ve been a huge fan of bookmark synchronization. I tried Mozilla Weave for a while, but their lack of PowerPC support (on an other Mac), eventually made me switch to FoxMarks – which is now called Xmarks. Xmarks has worked flawless since day one, and it’s one of the very first plugins I always install along with firefox on any machine I use.

Quickfox Notes is a way to store notes in the Bookmark-engine in firefox. It sounds odd, but it works really well. There aren’t any fancy formatting options – think notepad – but to keep a basic todo-list, code samples and other short texts, it works quite well. The killer feature of Quickfox is the combination with roaming (or syncing) bookmarks – If Quickfox Notes is installed along with Xmarks (, Weave or any other bookmark syncing dervice), it provides you with note-syncing too.

Build-in time bombs

I’ve been refactoring and refactoring some old code, and it’s kind of odd what short-cuts (or even time bombs), you’ll find in code, which apparently wasn’t supposed to live on for years.
In a now retired CMS system, we had an issue every new year, when some kind of bug would reset all “schedules” for upcoming stories and content. No-one ever got around to fix it, as the system was soon to be decommissioned – but sadly the bug did survive a few years anyway.

These days, I’m was working in the system, which came to replace the broken system from before. Here’s another odd thing – It was apparently hard coded into the editor in the backend, that stories need to have a “published date” between 1996 and 2011. As there really isn’t any documentation and the original developer has left the company, it’s hard to know why it was made so. While there probably was a reason, it’s lost by now.

 <select name="year" size="1" style="width:55px;" title="Year">
 <?php
   for ($i = 1996; $i < 2011; $i++) {
       printf("<option value=\"%1\$d\"%2\$s>%1\$d</option>",$i,($year == $i) ? " selected" : "");
   }
   ?>
</select>

We fixed it by making the latest “published date” go between 1996 and current year plus one.

While it was an odd thing, I’m surely glad that we from time to time do some sort of maintenance of old code – even while it seems to work perfectly. It’s far from the only bad thing we found, and while most people worry mainly about new code, sometimes you should also remember the old stuff.