Book Review -- Easy PHP Websites with the Zend Framework

Full disclosure: Jason Gilmore publishes my book Refactoring Legacy Applications Using CakePHP and also provided me with a free copy of his book (in both PDF and MOBI formats) for me to review. While I consider Jason a friend, I do not let my personal friendships interfere with an objective review of a book.)

When you are going through the progress from beginner to mastery of any web application framework, it is almost impossible to do unless (a) you wrote the framework yourself or (b) there is excellent 3rd party documentation available on how to use it. Even if the project itself has really good extensive documentation (which Zend Framework does) it is still essential that other people have documented their usage of it in situations beyond the very limited ones presented in the documentation provided by the project itself. When you add to this the fact that Zend Framework is very large, is component based, and often provides multiple solutions for the same problem, it means that it is even more critical to find out how other people are solving problems similar to the ones you are facing.

Jason did provide me a copy of the previous version of this book as well (it never hurts to ask people for favours...) and when he told me at CodeMash that he was putting the finishing touches on an updated version of the book I said (a) let me know what tools you used to build it and (b) I'd be happy to review it when it comes out. So when I saw the announcement that Easy PHP Websites with the Zend Framework had been released I reminded Jason about my promise to review it. Shortly thereafter an electronic copy of the book showed up in my email.

At 240 pages I wouldn't say this is the type of book that you can really read cover-to-cover at a rapid pace. I think it is more suited as a very long and expanded HOWTO for building an application from scratch. I was also pleased to see that Jason had made the commitment to pushing Test Driven Development by having the reader write tests for the site they were building as they went along. The more people who come to understand the benefits of writing and automating testing of the applications, the better the applications people in the PHP community will produce.

In this book Jason guides you from start to finish on the creation of GameNomad, a social networking application for console and PC gaming enthusiasts. You start with nothing but a skeleton of a project built using ZendTool and end up with an automated deployment system for pushing your changes up into production. Oh, you also end up learning how to integrate jQuery into the project as well and learning how to use Git, albeit at a very basic level) to keep things organized.

I know what you're thinking: how could Jason have covered anything of substance in 240 pages. I'm going to let you in on one of the dirty secrets of the programming profession: a social networking site is not as complicated to build as people think it is. Facebook itself is not complicated, what is complicated is how it has changed over time to handle the ridonkulous traffic levels it handles. Trust me when I tell you that Jason shows you how to build the features that are at the core of any decent social networking site where members post items and send messages to each other.

In my opinion, this book works well as a resource for beginning and intermediate users of Zend Framework. For beginners, it guides them from creating the application from scratch and promotes some good practices. For the intermediate level user, it shows you how to accomplish common tasks needed by any website that relies on user-generated content and adding unit testing, code coverage reports, and automated deployment skills to your toolkit.

I've found this book to be a good resource, even for a grumpy veteran PHP programmer like myself. Flipping through the chapters quickly I can find some slightly different ways of doing things on my projects, and I really like that Jason is also showing how to take tools outside of the PHP ecosystem and embrace them. Tools like Git and Capistrano are there to help you, why wouldn't you want to use them?

Also pay close attention to how Jason shows you the proper places to using the various helper and plugin architectures that Zend Framework provides you. It has been my belief that any well-designed framework should consist of as small a core as possible, and then allow you to extend it through plugins. Zend Framework allows you to do exactly that, and I've very quickly embraced plugins as an easy way to keep customized code inside a component that can be used anywhere in the application, instead of dealing with the problem of cutting-and-pasting code all over the place.

If you want to get serious about building a real application using Zend Framework, I would recommend you pick up a copy of Jason's book and take your time to go through it as your building your project. When you've got an application full of tests providing 100% code coverage and can be automatically deployed, you'll be able to sleep at night without worrying about the dreaded late-night phone call "the site is broken and you have to fix it RIGHT NOW!!!"

Also check out some of Jason's other books if you're fairly new to PHP and are looking to get up to speed faster with things like using MySQL with PHP and integrating PayPal into your web applications.