Web development #8: Where to go from here

So if you’ve read all of my previous posts and you’ve made it this far congratulations! You’ve now learned the basics of web development and you have the knowledge to create awesome websites. To actually create awesome websites you need skills and skills come from practice and experience. I’ve only touched the surface in this blog series. So it’s now up to you to get your hands dirty and write more HTML, more CSS, more PHP and more JavaScript. And while doing that Google is your friend! I’ve far from discussed all the possibilities (people write entire books about that), but at least you know all the moving parts. So these previous blogs weren’t so much about making you a pro, they were about getting you up to speed in a simple manner. The rest, unfortunately, is up to you. In case you’ve missed some posts, here they all are again.

  1. Web development #1: Internet and the World Wide Web
  2. Web development #2: Our first website using HTML
  3. Web development #3: Styling our page with CSS 3
  4. Web development #4: PHP in the back
  5. Web development #5: User input with HTML Forms
  6. Web development #6: Getting interactive with JavaScript
  7. Web development #7: Dynamic page updates with AJAX
  8. Web development #8: Where to go from here

So what’s left for us? Well, in this post I’ll write about some stuff I haven’t written about in the previous posts, but which every web developer should know about. After that I’ll lay out some alternative technologies for you that may help you get started with the technologies you want.

Debugging

So you’ve written your page, you test it in your browser, and for some reason it doesn’t do what you want it to do. How can we find our error? The examples I’ve given were pretty small and in those cases it may be feasible to just have a good look at your code again. However, when you’re going to write large applications with much more code on both front- and back end just looking at your code isn’t going to help you. I haven’t discussed debugging your code because a lot of it depends on your environment. In this series I’ve used Notepad++ which doesn’t have any debugging capabilities (although I read there’s some plugin that let’s you debug code, I haven’t tried it though). If you’re going for an IDE (Integrated Development Environment) such as Visual Studio, Eclipse, NetBeans or XCode you’ll get a lot more possibilities. You can set breakpoints, for example, which allows you to pause your software on a certain line of code and inspect variables and their values and then even step through your code line by line to follow the flow of your code. Personally I work with Visual Studio and it allows you to see the entire stack and even edit code at run time.

But that’s all back end debugging. What if something is wrong with your CSS, HTML or JavaScript? Luckily all major browsers (and probably the non-major too) have debugging support. If you’re in IE, Firefox or Chrome press F12 and you’ll get the developer tools (alternatively you can look them up in the browser’s menu). So here you should see a tab or button that gets you to the console. In the console you’ll see any errors or warnings that are generated by your page (invalid HTML, a bug in your JavaScript, etc.). You can also log to the console yourself using console.log() in your JavaScript (never ever use that in production code though). There’s also a tab called Network where you can see all server requests from your page. This comes in handy when pages load slow, perhaps you’re making a lot of requests or you’re loading some large file that takes a while to load. There’s also a tab where you can see your page’s HTML and CSS and edit them real-time (in your browser, not on the server). You can either select an element in the DOM and have it light up on your page or select something on your page and have it highlighted in the DOM. Then you can make changes to your HTML and CSS and see the results real-time. It’s also possible to debug your JavaScript. You can set breakpoints and step through the code following the execution flow and inspecting your variables. Pretty neat and indispensible when working on your pages! Try working with the developer tools in your browser of choice and look for some tutorials.

Picking a back end language

In this series I’ve used PHP. PHP is free (although most languages are nowadays), easy to start with and supported everywhere. You can simply open up Notepad(++), start typing PHP, put it on your server and it’ll run. Compare that to other (compiled) languages like Java and C# and PHP is an absolute winner. A lot of popular Content Management Systems (CMS), applications that help in creating, editing, publishing and maintaining content on your websites, such as WordPress, Joomla!, Drupal and Magento, have support for PHP too. So PHP is a good choice for many applications.

However, a lot of people prefer their languages more strongly typed and object oriented. In that case you might go for Java or C# (or Visual Basic). So suppose you want to go for C# because perhaps you already have experience in WinForms or WPF or a client wants a .NET application. So when using C# you’re basically using the .NET Framework and when going for web development you’ll be using the ASP.NET stack. But then in ASP.NET you’ll have some options like WebForms and MVC. Let’s go with ASP.NET MVC, because that’s a good choice for modern web development. ASP.NET MVC makes use of the MVC Design Pattern. MVC stands for Model View Controller. When requesting a page ASP.NET MVC basically calls a method on a class. This class is called the Controller. Perhaps your Controller makes some database calls and does some computations and then comes up with the data that you want to show on your page. This data is just another class and represents the Model. The Model is then passed to your View, which is basically your HTML, which is then returned to the client. And, like PHP, with C# (or Visual Basic) you can generate HTML/View using the Razor Engine.
So you want to get started with ASP.NET MVC? I don’t blame you, it’s a great product. I recommend you get the Visual Studio Community Edition for free and just start! There’s plenty of tutorials on the web, but if you’re looking for a more structured course on MVC I can recommend the book Professional ASP.NET MVC 5.
And here’s a little downside to .NET compared to PHP. Once you have your software ready for production you’ll need a server with .NET installed that’s also running some special server software called IIS (Internet Information Services).

Another alternative to PHP and C# is Node.js. Node.js is relatively new and is a fast and lightweight platform that allows you to run JavaScript in your back end and create real-time web applications. So you can use JavaScript in your back end, which is pretty neat because that means you can re-use code from your back end in your front end! Try doing that using any other back end language. Other than that Node.js uses sockets, which enables it to send data to your client without that client asking for it. Usually a client sends a request and the server serves. But now we can serve without the client having to request! That allows us to easily create, for example, a chat application. Our client simply subscribes to the chat and our server sends every new message to the client as soon as it’s received. So when going with Node.js you probably want to use Express as well. Express is a JavaScript framework for Node.js which makes working with Node.js just a bit easier. And when you want to start using sockets extensively you might want to check out Socket.IO, which is a library for working with sockets from JavaScript. And of course you’ll need to generate your HTML in Node.js. There’s a few options for you, but Jade is a pretty popular one.
So you may have figured out some of the downsides of Node.js. First of all, it’s JavaScript, which may or may not be a problem for you, depending on your tastes. Second, unlike C#, Node.js doesn’t “just work”. To get any serious business done you need quite some external JavaScript libraries (and there’s A LOT as we’ll see in a bit). The pro, of course, is fast, relatively easy, real-time web apps using the same language as your front end.
If you’re interested in Node.js you may take a look at what’s called the MEAN stack, MongoDB, Express, AngularJS and Node.js. It’s free, open-source and very JavaScript.

I should probably mention that .NET has their own sockets framework that allows you to build real-time web apps easily, called SignalR.

So we’ve looked at some alternatives to PHP. There are more, like Ruby (On Rails), Python and Java. You can check them out, read a bit about them, and decide what works well for you.

Some front end alternatives

So we’ve looked at some back end alternatives, but what can you do on the front end? On the front end it really all comes down to HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Your HTML is generated on your back end and there’s plenty of options to do it, like Razor, Jade or any other HTML generator. It all depends on what back end you pick.

So what about CSS? Well, browsers really require CSS to lay out your page. There are some alternatives though, most notably LESS.
LESS looks a lot like CSS, but adds some features. You could almost call it object oriented CSS.
Another alternative is Stylus, which, like LESS, adds features to CSS. Stylus is focusing more on expressive CSS, which is easy and clean to read while also supporting some form of object orientism.
There’s more, like Sass and Turbine.
Now here’s the deal. None of them replace CSS, rather they are compiled to CSS. So you write your LESS (or any other), compile it, then use the generated CSS on your page. This adds some hassle, since you need to compile your code (your not-quite-CSS) before you can actually see it on your page (as opposed to just refreshing your page). But they also make for clean, maintainble CSS. I recommend checking out at least one of them, especially when you’re going to build larger websites. Alternatively you can just use an already existing library, such as Twitter, which I’ll talk about in a bit.

What about alternatives for JavaScript? There are quite some languages that compile to JavaScript. The two most notable are probably TypeScript and CoffeeScript though.
When you read the first lines on the CoffeeScript page you’ll pretty much have an idea what CoffeeScript is all about, “JavaScript has always had a gorgeous heart. CoffeeScript is an attempt to expose the good parts of JavaScript in a simple way”. So there isn’t much to say about that. It’s just a new syntax for JavaScript, hiding the dirty bits. I haven’t used it myself, but if you don’t quite like the JavaScript syntax and want to try something that’s like JavaScript, but prettier you might want to check out CoffeeScript.
Now TypeScript, that’s quite something different. It adds type safety to JavaScript and actually reads more like C# than JavaScript. Not completely by coincidence as TypeScript was actually created by Anders Hejlsberg, lead architect of C#. Of course it still just compiles to JavaScript. If you’re already in the Microsoft stack and using Visual Studio you may as well give TypeScript a try!
I also want to mention Dart very briefly. It was created by Google and it’s a fully object oriented way of writing JavaScript. In their words “new, yet familiar”.

Libraries and Frameworks

When working with JavaScript you know everything is possible, but nothing is easy. Luckily a whole lot of people have created libraries for you that you can use when using JavaScript. In this section I just want to point out some popular libraries and frameworks. We’ve already seen jQuery and jQuery UI.
Another very popular framework is Twitter Bootstrap. It’s mostly CSS, but has some JavaScript too. It allows you to create pages that look good and scale well across devices with relative ease. It mostly depends on tagging your HTML elements correctly. I’m not going to discuss it any further here. Just know that it’s available and that it’s widely used.
Another popular library is Knockout. With Knockout you can bind your JavaScript classes to your HTML elements. So values are automatically synchronized between your HTML and JavaScript. If a user changes the value of a text field the underlying value is changed and is reflected on your page and vice versa. Again, I’m not discussing it further, just know that it exists.
Another library that you simply cannot ignore is AngularJS. AngularJS is an MVVM (Model View ViewModel) framework for building Single Page Applications (SPA). That means you get a single web page and all data is fetched using AJAX. It makes for a fluent user experience as the website doesn’t need to refresh with each request (only parts of it). AngularJS is BIG. It basically does most that jQuery does and everything that Knockout does as well and the learning curve can be steep. Luckily there are some nice tutorials and books around.
Now one of the most awesome JavaScript libraries you’ll come across is D3.js. If you need any kind of graph or table, or any visual to represent your data, D3.js is the library you need. Just look at it. The website features many examples and it’s fun to just look at it. The only thing I don’t like about this library is that I haven’t needed it yet 🙂
You might come across Ember.js as well. It’s an MVC framework for creating Single Page Applications.
Without going into detail, here are some other popular JavaScript libraries: Underscore.js, Backbone.js, MooTools, jQuery Mobile, Modernizr

There’s literally thousands of JavaScript libraries and frameworks. Some are pretty big, like Angular, and some are really small and do just one thing only, but do it really well. You might want to check out Microjs, a website with literally hundreds of very small JavaScript files. Just look around and see what’s available, it might surprise you.

Some final words

So in this final post of my web development series we’ve looked at some alternatives and libraries you can use to help you create awesome websites. There’s still lots of stuff that we haven’t covered, like putting your website in production (because that really depends on the languages you used and where you’re hosting), security (very important!) and SEO, or Search Engine Optimization. We’ve also skipped databases entirely.
We did have a look at all the parts that are vital in web development though. You should now have a pretty good idea of what you need to create your own websites.
In this series I have pointed out some books from the SyncFusion Succinctly Series, and I’m going to do so again. You can subscribe freely and gain access to free books on JavaScript, Twitter, Knockout, AngularJS, Node.js and much more. All I can say is that it’s really worth it!
For more (less succinct) books on various topics, including a lot of web development, I can recommend Manning Publications. They have some good stuff on Node.js, D3.js, SPA Design, CORS, and more.
Two other really cool articles/projects I came across are Learn JavaScript by Dave Kerr, where he creates a Space Invaders game using JavaScript and a Mario game by Florian Rappl. Both are worth checking out (and if you don’t like their articles you can still play the games 😉 ).

So that’s it for this series. That isn’t to say I’ll stop blogging or I’ll stop writing about web development, it just won’t be for this series. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Any comments and questions are more than welcome!

Thanks for reading.

Happy coding!

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Web development #7: Dynamic page updates with AJAX

So in theory you should now have all the tools to create the most awesome websites. However, I don’t think any tutorial on web development is complete without doing some AJAX. No idea what I’m talking about? Read my previous posts.

  1. Web development #1: Internet and the World Wide Web
  2. Web development #2: Our first website using HTML
  3. Web development #3: Styling our page with CSS 3
  4. Web development #4: PHP in the back
  5. Web development #5: User input with HTML Forms
  6. Web development #6: Getting interactive with JavaScript
  7. Web development #7: Dynamic page updates with AJAX
  8. Web development #8: Where to go from here

So what is AJAX all about? It’s an abbreviation for Asynchronous JavaScript And XML. It enables us to send a request to the server and receive a result without having to refresh our entire page. Now that’s pretty awesome! What’s also pretty awesome is that we don’t need to use XML. As Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux, already said “XML is crap. Really. There are no excuses. XML is nasty to parse for humans, and it’s a disaster to parse even for computers. There’s just no reason for that horrible crap to exist.” So what we’ll be using is a form of AJAX called AJAJ, where the last J stands for JSON (JavaScript Object Notation). To make it a bit more confusing, we’ll just call it AJAX anyway. Oh yeah, and it doesn’t have to be asynchronous either…

JavaScript objects and JSON

First of all we need to know what JavaScript Objects are and what they look like. After that JSON will come naturally. So JavaScript has objects and much like objects in other languages JavaScript objects are just wrappers around certain functionality. The difficulty in JavaScript, of course, lies in that anything can be anything and then can become anything else… Let’s just look at an example.

// Creates an empty object.
var obj = {};
// Gives the object a firstName property.
obj.firstName = 'Sander';
// Gives the object a lastName property.
obj.lastName = 'Rossel';
// Gives the object a getFullName function.
obj.getFullName = function () {
    return this.firstName + ' ' + this.lastName;
};

// Alternative for the above.
var person = {
    firstName: 'Sander',
    lastName: 'Rossel',
    getFullName: function () {
        return this.firstName + ' ' + this.lastName;
    }
};

Now this wouldn’t be JavaScript if we didn’t have even more methods to create objects (JavaScript also knows constructors). We’re not interested in those though. What we’re interested in is the second method I’m using. Notice that, to create an object, we use curly braces. We can then basically add anything to that object by simply defining keys (property or function names) and values (default values for properties or implementations for functions) seperated by colons. Each key and value is seperated by a comma. And of course objects can contain other objects too.

var outerObj = {
    innerObj: {
        someValue: null
    },
    anotherInnerObj: {
        innerInnerObj: {}
    },
    message: 'Phew, what syntax!'
};

You can work with objects as ways of namespaces so you can keep the ‘global namespace’ clean and minimize the chance for name conflicts with other libraries. Objects are also often used to create some sort of options that are given to a function. A function then simply checks if some property or method on the option object exists, what its value is, and acts accordingly. We’ll see this usage a little later when working with AJAX.

So then, what is JSON? It’s simply some text using almost the exact notation we just saw. So let’s look at some examples.

{
    "firstName": "Sander",
    "lastName": "Rossel"
}

{
    "innerObj": {
        "someValue": null
    },
    "anotherInnerObj": {
        "innerInnerObj": {}
    },
    "message": "Phew, what syntax!"
}

That’s looking pretty familiar now, doesn’t it? And, if you compare it to XML, it’s a lot more compact, saving you precious bits and bytes when you’re sending your data over the internet!

Making an AJAX request

So let’s look at an AJAX example. I’ll start very simple making a synchronous request that returns just plain text (so no XML or JSON) when the page loads. You’ll know that the request doesn’t refresh the page because if it would the page would keep refreshing (as it makes the request upon loading). Alternatively, you can track all requests your browser makes using your browsers developer tools (press F12 in IE, FireFox or Chrome and navigate to the Network tab). I’m using jQuery to get the page load event and to show the result of our AJAX request. So here’s the HTML (in a file called Ajax.html):

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html>
    <head>
        <script src="https://ajax.googleapis.com/ajax/libs/jquery/2.1.3/jquery.min.js"></script>
        <script type="text/javascript" src="Ajax.js"></script>
    </head>
    <body>
        <p id="result"></p>
    </body>
</html>

Here’s our JavaScript (Ajax.js):

$(function () {
    var ajax = new XMLHttpRequest();
    ajax.open('GET', 'Ajax.php', false);
    ajax.send();
 
    $('#result').text(ajax.responseText);
});

And finally our PHP (Ajax.php):

<?php
    echo 'Result of AJAX request!';
?>

So all of these files go into the htdocs folder of your XAMPP installation and you’ll have to access your page by browsing to localhost/Ajax.html (notice I named all files ‘Ajax’). So what’s really interesting here is that in my JavaScript I’m using an XMLHttpRequest object. So we call the open method and pass in a string specifying the HTTP method, GET or POST. Next we’re telling it what URL to navigate to and last we’re specifying whether the request should be asynchronous (we’re calling it synchronous). Then we send the request to the server. So, because we’re calling it synchronous the browser blocks until we get response from the server. That means that on our next line of code we simply have our result, ajax.responseText. Now you’ll never do this, in fact, our browser even gives off a warning saying that this method is deprecated because it negatively affects the user experience. In our case we won’t notice the blocking, but if we’re downloading larger chunks of data our page will freeze up completely!

So let’s make that call asynchronous so the user can go about doing his business while our page gets our data for us. This isn’t actually to hard. We simply change our JavaScript to the following:

$(function () {
    var ajax = new XMLHttpRequest();
    ajax.onreadystatechange = function () {
        if (ajax.readyState == 4) {
            $('#result').text(ajax.responseText);
        };
    };
    ajax.open('GET', 'Ajax.php', true);
    ajax.send();
});

So I’m specifying an onreadystatechange function which gets called when the state of our ajax object changes. State 4 means it’s done and we can get the result.

Now there are quite some options we can set and check, but I’ll not get into that. You can check them on the XMLHttpRequest documentation page and play around with them yourself. Instead, we’re going to use jQuery to make AJAX requests.

Using jQuery for AJAX requests

You might be thinking if there’s anything jQuery cannot do? There’s actually plenty of stuff you don’t want to do using jQuery, but AJAX isn’t one of them. jQuery makes AJAX pretty easy actually. We were already using jQuery, so we can simply edit our JavaScript.

$(function () {
    $.ajax({
        type: 'GET',
        url: 'Ajax.php',
        complete: function (jqXHR) {
            $('#result').text(jqXHR.responseText);
        }
    });
});

So remember I was telling you about using an object to specify options? This is one such an example. We’re passing in an object and specify the type, the url and a function that will be called when the requests completes (jqXHR stand for jQuery XMLHttpRequest, but you can name it anything). We could’ve passed in much more, but we didn’t. So this does the same as the code we had earlier.

The jQuery.ajax function can actually do a whole lot of stuff! Next we’re going to pass in some parameters and echo them on our page.

$(function () {
    $.ajax({
        type: 'GET',
        url: 'Ajax.php',
        data: {
            artist: 'Led Zeppelin',
            song: 'Immigrant Song'
        },
        complete: function (jqXHR) {
            $('#result').text(jqXHR.responseText);
        }
    });
});

And now we need to alter our PHP too.

<?php
    if (isset($_REQUEST['artist']) &&
        isset($_REQUEST['song']))
    {
        $artist = $_REQUEST['artist'];
        $song = $_REQUEST['song'];
        echo "The song '$song' by $artist rocks!";
    }
?>

So that was pretty easy, right? We just passed in a JavaScript object with some properties and they were converted to parameters in our PHP automatically! So how does this work the other way around? This is where JSON comes into play! JSON stands for JavaScript Object Notation, so it should be pretty easy for JavaScript to create actual objects that we can use. So let’s start by modifying our PHP so that it returns JSON.

<?php
    class song
    {
        public $artist = NULL;
        public $name = NULL;
    }
 
    if (isset($_REQUEST['artist']) &&
        isset($_REQUEST['song']))
    {
        $song = new song();
        $song->artist = $_REQUEST['artist'];
        $song->name = $_REQUEST['song'];
 
        header('Content-Type: application/json');
        echo json_encode($song);
    }
?>

First of all, I’m using an object to store our data. We’ve seen this before. I’m setting our response header so that it tells our browser it’s json. Then I’m using the json_encode function to convert our object into JSON. If you now check out the result in your browser you’ll notice that we’ve received some actual JSON!

But what we really want is to use this JSON in our JavaScript as if it were just an object. Actually this is pretty easy! We can get the object from the XMLHttpRequest.

complete: function (jqXHR) {
    var song = jqXHR.responseJSON;
    $('#result').text("The song '" + song.name + "' by " + song.artist + " rocks!");
}

And that’s it. Alternatively, we can use the ‘success’ option, a function that passes us the returned data, the status of the request and the XMLHttpRequest.

$(function () {
    $.ajax({
        type: 'GET',
        url: 'Ajax.php',
        data: {
            artist: 'Led Zeppelin',
            song: 'Immigrant Song'
        },
        success: function (song, status, jqXHR) {
            $('#result').text("The song '" + song.name + "' by " + song.artist + " rocks!");
        }
    });
});

And likewise there is an ‘error’ option.

$(function () {
    $.ajax({
        type: 'GET',
        url: 'Ajaj.php',
        data: {
            artist: 'Led Zeppelin',
            song: 'Immigrant Song'
        },
        success: function (song, status, jqXHR) {
            $('#result').text("The song '" + song.name + "' by " + song.artist + " rocks!");
        },
        error: function (jqXHR, status, errorThrown) {
            $('#result').text('An error occurred: ' + jqXHR.status + ' ' + errorThrown);
        }
    });
});

Notice that I’m calling ‘Ajaj.php’, a page that doesn’t exist. Naturally we’ll get 404, Not found. When using the ‘complete’ option we used earlier you’d have to check for success yourself, our current implementation would actually break our page if we called ‘ajaj.php’.

So there’s actually quite a bit to think about when using AJAX. Did the server return a result, what kind of result did it return, was the request successful, etc. We can use the XMLHttpRequest object for this. Check ‘status’ to see if our request was successful (status 200 means success) and then ‘responseType’ and any of ‘response’, ‘responseText’, ‘responseJSON’ or ‘responseXML’ for the result.

Posting data

So in the previous examples we’ve taken a look at the GET method. In the next example I’m going to take our movies page we created in my previous blog posts, Web development #4: PHP in the back and Web development #5: User input with HTML Forms. So first of all we’ll have to edit the PHP file. We want the form to go, because that refreshes the page. We also want to add jQuery and a custom JavaScript file to our header. Last, we need to give some ids to some elements because now we need to update the page ourselves once we add a new movie (after all, the page isn’t refreshing). So without further delay, here’s the modified PHP.

<?php
    if (isset($_POST['movieName']))
    {
        $movieName = $_POST['movieName'];
        if ($movieName)
        {
            file_put_contents('movies.txt', htmlspecialchars($movieName) . "\r\n", FILE_APPEND);
        }
 
        exit();
    }
?>
<!DOCTYPE html>
<html>
    <?php
        function fileAsUnorderedList($fileName, $notFoundMessage)
        {
            if (file_exists($fileName))
            {
                echo '<ul id="movies">';
                $lines = file($fileName);
                foreach ($lines as $line)
                {
                    echo '<li>' . htmlspecialchars($line) . '</li>';
                }
                echo '</ul>';
            }
            else
            {
                echo $notFoundMessage;
            }
        }
    ?>
    <header>
        <title>My favourite movies!</title>
        <meta charset="utf-8">
        <meta name="description" content="A list of my favourite movies.">
        <meta name="keywords" content="Favourite,movies">
        <meta name="author" content="Sander Rossel">
        <script src="https://ajax.googleapis.com/ajax/libs/jquery/2.1.3/jquery.min.js"></script>
        <script type="text/javascript" src="Movies.js"></script>
    </header>
    <body>
        <h1>My favourite movies!</h1>
        <p>
        <?php
            fileAsUnorderedList('movies.txt', 'No favourite movies found!');
        ?>
        </p>
        <h2>Add a movie!</h2>
        <div>
            <label for="movieName">Movie name</label>
            <input type="text" name="movieName" id="movieName" />
            <button id="submit">Submit</button>
        </div>
    </body>
</html>

And then we need to add a JavaScript file (I’ve called it Movies.js) to add an event handler to our button click event which takes the value of the input, posts it to the server and on success adds the movie to our list and empties the movie input.

$(function () {
    $('#submit').on('click', function () {
        var movieInput = $('#movieName');
        var movieName = movieInput.val();
        if (movieName) {
            $.ajax({
                type: 'POST',
                url: 'Movies.php',
                data: {
                    movieName: movieName
                },
                success: function (data, status, jqXHR) {
                    $('#movies').append('<li>' + movieName + '</li>');
                    movieInput.val(null);
                },
                error: function (jqXHR, status, errorThrown) {
                    alert("An error occurred while adding movie '" + movieName + "'.");
                }
            });
        };
    });
});

And there you have it. Looks complicated? I guess it is a bit, but once you get the hang of it it’s not so bad. And luckily the documentation is rather good!
Another cool addition to our page would be pagination. Let’s say we are going to add hundreds of movies. Getting those all in once might slow down our page quite a bit. So we can use AJAX to get just ten, or twenty, or fifty at a time. The page could load them on a button click or when we scroll to the end of the page (that is, get the movie titles and add them to our list using jQuery, also make sure you ‘remember’ what page you’re on). This principle is called pagination and can greatly enhance user performance (and for large websites it’s even a must).

So that’s it for AJAX. And actually, that’s it for web development! You’ve now seen everything involved in creating awesome, responsive web pages. Of course there’s still a long way to go as we’ve only scratched the surface of web development. We’ve seen the tools, but are by no means expert in any of them. In my next, and last, blog post I’ll give you some tips on frameworks and libraries that can help you create the pages you want.

Stay tuned!

Web development #5: User input with HTML Forms

In my last blog post we’ve seen how to create dynamic web pages using PHP. The examples in this post are using the code examples from that blog post, so if you haven’t read it I suggest you do. You can find my other posts here:

  1. Web development #1: Internet and the World Wide Web
  2. Web development #2: Our first website using HTML
  3. Web development #3: Styling our page with CSS 3
  4. Web development #4: PHP in the back
  5. Web development #5: User input with HTML Forms
  6. Web development #6: Getting interactive with JavaScript
  7. Web development #7: Dynamic page updates with AJAX
  8. Web development #8: Where to go from here

In the last post we created a page that would show movies (or music, or whatever) based on a simple text file (because I’m not covering databases). You could simply add new lines to the text file and they would show on your page (after a refresh). But now you probably want to add new lines directly from your website and not in the file. Why would you want that? Well, for example, because your users don’t have access to your file (and rightfully so)! Also because your web interface is more user friendly than direct file access. When you’re going to implement an actual website you’ll probably be using an actual database and you’ll be working with more data than just lines in a file. You may want to ask users for their name, address, gender, password, for webshops you want to know their preferred shipping and payment methods. And of course you want users to add content to your site, like blogs, product reviews, messages, etc. There’s plenty of cases where you’d want user input!

So we have basically two options: HTML Forms or AJAX calls. AJAX calls are discussed in a later blog post, so in this one I’m going to focus on HTML Forms.

What are forms?

Forms are actually just a couple of HTML tags! <form></form> with some input tags, <input /> of which one has the type submit, <input type=”submit” />. Sounds easy, right? After all, you want your users to fill out a (digital) form where they give their input and then submit it to the server. How does this look?

<form action="MySite.php">
    <input type="text" name="name" />
    <input type="submit" />
</form>

Is it that easy? Almost! There are quite a few input types, such as checkboxes, radio buttons, date pickers and file pickers. We’ll look at some of them a bit later in this post. First let’s see what happens in the above HTML.

Save the above code in a file called MySite.php in your xampp htdocs folder. Now if you’d view this page you would see a field for the user to add text and a button saying “Submit” (it actually says “Verzenden” on my browser, which is the Dutch translation for “Submit”). Now what happens when you type in your name and click the submit button? You’ll be redirected to the site localhost/MySite.php?name=Your+name, which simply shows the same page again (because it was specified in the action attribute), but with your input emptied. You may not have noticed, but the entire page refreshed when you hit submit. The part behind the questionmark was added by the form and it contains the names and values of the input tags you have in your form tags. Now here’s the deal. You can actually get these values from your PHP code!

Now change your code to the following:

<?php
    if (isset($_REQUEST['name']))
    {
        echo $_REQUEST['name'];
    }
?>
<form action="MySite.php">
    <input type="text" name="name" />
    <input type="submit" />
</form>

Now what happens when you fill out your name and hit submit? Your name is being printed at the top of the page. But what’s happening in the code? Well, notice the isset($_REQUEST[‘name’])? PHP has some ‘superglobal’ variables. They’re variables that are visible in all your PHP code. $_REQUEST is one of them and it’s an array that contains any parameters that are send to your page. In this case we’re checking if the ‘name’ item was set. If it isn’t (when you first load the page) it does nothing. When it is (after a submit) we echo the value of ‘name’.

Notice that the action attribute of the form element indicates what page to navigate to. In this example I’m navigating to the page we’re already on, but it could’ve been any page. For example, try the following:

<form action="http://www.google.com/search">
    <input type="text" name="q" />
    <input type="submit" />
</form>

This will successfully open Google and search for your requested search term (Google uses ‘q’ for their parameter name).

GET and POST

So that’s the short version of it. The next thing you need to know is that in the previous examples we used the HTTP method GET to retreive our pages. Perhaps you remember from the first article in this series that GET is used to request a file from the server. In this case we requested the current page with parameter ‘name’ and we requested Google/search with parameter ‘q’.

Now what if we wanted to store information? We could use GET, sure. After all we simply send some data to our server where PHP can do with it what we want, right? All true, but that’s not always what we want. Suppose you want to save someone’s contact details. Would it look good in this huge URL http://www.mysite.com?name=sander+rossel&country=netherlands&address=…? No, it wouldn’t. Besides, your URL has a max length, so it won’t always work either.
Second, there is some data that you don’t want to send twice. What if someone was about to pay and they hit the refresh button (or even the back button)? Navigating to yourpage.com?payment=… would simply handle the payment again!
Last, there are some safety issues with GET. URL’s are stored in your browser history and on the server in plain text. Imagine sending your password like that! http://www.mysite.com?password=123456. Right, so is there another way? Yes, there is!

Whenever you want to send data to your server for storage, or data that is a bit more sensitive we can use the HTTP POST method. Let’s look at our first example again.

<?php
    if (isset($_REQUEST['name']))
    {
        echo $_REQUEST['name'];
    }
?>
<form action="MySite.php" method="POST">
    <input type="text" name="name" />
    <input type="submit" />
</form>

Wow, all I did was add the method attribute to my form element and assigned it the value of POST (method is GET by default). Now if you run this you’ll see your name on top of the page again (after a submit), but your URL will simply be MyPage.php. And try refreshing the page, your browser will warn you that information might be re-submitted.

PHP has specific superglobal variables for handling GET and POST variables specifically. They’re $_GET and $_POST, so you can use them instead of $_REQUEST (which has both GET and/or POST variables).

Other input

So we can now send some text input to the server. Surely you want more than that! Let’s look at some other input types. We’ll also tidy up our form a bit by using the label element.

<form action="MySite.php" method="POST">
    <label for="name">Name</label>
    <input type="text" name="name" id="name" required /><br><br>
 
    <label for="male">Male</label>
    <input type="radio" name="gender" id="male" value="male" checked /><br>
    <label for="female">Female</label>
    <input type="radio" name="gender" id="female" value="female" /><br><br>
 
    <label for="email">Email</label>
    <input type="email" name="email" id="email" /><br>
 
    <label>Receive newsletter
        <input type="checkbox" name="receiveNewsletter" checked /><br><br>
    </label>
 
    <label>Date of birth
        <input type="date" name="dateOfBirth" /><br><br>
    </label>
 
    <label for="avatar">Avatar</label>
    <input type="file" name="avatar" id="avatar" accept="image/*" /><br><br>
 
    <input type="submit" />
</form>

So that’s quite something. First, notice the <label> tags. I’m using them in two different ways. The first is to just declare them and associate them to an input field by specifying the for attribute and giving it the value of the id of the input I want to associate it with. The second way is by wrapping the input tags inside the label tags. Both ways are fine. Now if you click on a label the input gets focus or is selected/unselected. Nice!

Now for the different input types. We’ve seen the text type, so I’ll skip that one. I did add the required attribute though. Try submitting your form without filling out your name. There are more attributes like this one like max, maxlength, min and pattern.

Next is the password type. It looks very much like the text type, but if you type in it you get to see password characters rather than text.

Then comes the radio type. Notice I have two radio types, male and female. Also notice they have the same name. That means that if a radiobutton with a certain name is selected all other radiobuttons with the same name are unselected. In this case that means we can pick either male or female, but not both. I’ve also used the checked attribute for the male input. You don’t have to specify a value for checked. It will simply make this radiobutton checked. You could specify checked for both male and female, but your browser is only going to select one. It also makes for invalid HTML, so just don’t do that.

Following we see the email type. Again, looks like the text type, but if you commit your form your browser will check if the email address has valid syntax. That’s great, but don’t forget to check on the server too! Email is new in HTML 5 and will behave like text on older browsers.

Moving on we see the checkbox type. Not much to say, except that you can specify checked to have it checked, or omit it to have it unchecked.

Next is the date type. The user can pick or enter a date. The browser will validate if it’s a valid date (no 32st januari, etc.). This one is new in HTML 5 too and will also behave like text on older browsers.

Last, but not least, is the file type. You can use this to have a user select one or more files (if you need more than one simply add the multiple attribute, much like checked).

And of course you can handle all of those in your PHP code too. But I’m sure you can figure that out. There are other input types too, but I’ll leave it up to you to check them out. Just Google for HTML input.

Completing our example

So at this point we want to make our favourite movies example from my following blog work. Actually all we want to do is POST a movie title, add it to our text file and display it on our page. There’s actually a bit more to it than you might think… Here’s the complete code for the page.

<?php
    if (isset($_POST['movieName']))
    {
        $movieName = $_POST['movieName'];
        if ($movieName)
        {
            file_put_contents('movies.txt', htmlspecialchars($movieName) . "\r\n", FILE_APPEND);
        }
 
        header('Location: ' . htmlspecialchars($_SERVER['REQUEST_URI']));
        exit();
    }
?>
<!DOCTYPE html>
<html>
    <?php
        function fileAsUnorderedList($fileName, $notFoundMessage)
        {
            if (file_exists($fileName))
            {
                echo "<ul>";
                $lines = file($fileName);
                foreach ($lines as $line)
                {
                    echo '<li>' . htmlspecialchars($line) . '</li>';
                }
                echo "</ul>";
            }
            else
            {
                echo $notFoundMessage;
            }
        }
    ?>
    <header>
        <title>My favourite movies!</title>
        <meta charset="utf-8">
        <meta name="description" content="A list of my favourite movies.">
        <meta name="keywords" content="Favourite,movies">
        <meta name="author" content="Sander Rossel">
    </header>
    <body>
        <h1>My favourite movies!</h1>
        <p>
        <?php
            fileAsUnorderedList('movies.txt', 'No favourite movies found!');
        ?>
        </p>
        <h2>Add a movie!</h2>
        <?php echo '<form action="' . htmlspecialchars($_SERVER['REQUEST_URI']) . '" method="POST">' ?>
            <label for="movieName">Movie name</label>
            <input type="text" name="movieName" id="movieName" />
            <input type="submit" />
        </form>
    </body>
</html>

So that’s quite a lot! No worries. First of all you should notice that I’m handling our POST input. If movieName is set and it has a value (it’s truthy) we append it to our text file, followed by a new line (\r\n, or “line feed, carriage return” from ye olden days when we used typewriters).
What happens next is that we redirect to the current page using $_SERVER[‘REQUEST_URI’], another superglobal variable in PHP. So once we submit form data we get to our page with POST data. We handle the POST data and again load our page, but this time without POST data (a GET). If we wouldn’t do this we’d get an annoying pop-up every time we wanted to refresh our page. This technique is called the Post/Redirect/Get Design Pattern.

But there’s more happening. I’m using a function called htmlspecialchars, what’s that all about? Well, here’s a little practice for you. Remove all the htmlspecialchars from the code and add the following movie “<script>alert(‘hacked!’);</script>“. Now if you refresh the page you’ll get a popup saying “hacked!”. Quite annoying isn’t it? See it this way, people are going to submit text to your page and you’re going to echo that text as-is. But that text may be/contain valid HTML (and script)! And that would mess up your page or worse! It’s a huge security risk also known as Cross-Site Scripting or XSS. Now put the htmlspecialchars back in place and your page will simply display a movie with a rather weird name. So that’s what htmlspecialchars does. It makes sure your text is transformed into non-HTML, so > would be  echoed as &gt; etc. I’ve used this trick in a few places.

In our form elements I’m using the same tricks. I use $_SERVER[‘REQUEST_URI’] and htmlspecialchars. Why the $_SERVER[‘REQUEST_URI’]? If the name of your PHP file changes so would the URL to access it. If the URL was hard coded you’d have to check your PHP file and change all references to ‘movie.php’ to ‘myNewFileName.php’. With this trick we’ve got that covered!

A last remark on the PHP above the !DOCTYPE tag. Is this bad? Nope. Remember that all this PHP code is executed on the server and that your HTML is sent back. So by the time this file reaches your browser it has no knowledge of any code above !DOCTYPE.

Other than that you should know all the other stuff I’ve put in there. So now you have a website that actually takes user input, stores it on the server and serves that data back to the user. In the next blog we’re going to take a look at JavaScript, or code that runs from the browser! Good stuff.

Stay tuned!

Web development #4: PHP in the back

Missed me? It’s been a while since I last blogged (about three months). I’ve been busy moving to my own house and getting up-to-speed at a new job. Lots of good stuff, but no blogging. Well today is the day I’m picking this up again and I’m just going to act like it’s three months ago and continue with the series.

  1. Web development #1: Internet and the World Wide Web
  2. Web development #2: Our first website using HTML
  3. Web development #3: Styling our page with CSS 3
  4. Web development #4: PHP in the back
  5. Web development #5: User input with HTML Forms
  6. Web development #6: Getting interactive with JavaScript
  7. Web development #7: Dynamic page updates with AJAX
  8. Web development #8: Where to go from here

So in the previous installments we’ve created a web page using HTML and CSS. We can actually build pretty nice websites using just those, but we still run into some trouble. What if we wanted to add content to our site? We’d have to edit our HTML each time. What if we wanted to display our website in multiple languages? What if we wanted users to be able to add content to the site (such as a blog)? In other words, we want our content to be dynamic. That’s all not possible using just HTML and CSS. We’re going to need a bit more. We’re going to need something creating our HTML on the back-end.

For this blog post I assume you are familiar with HTML and CSS, which you can read about in my previous blog posts, and that you’ve worked with some programming language before, preferably some C-based language such as C# or Java.

Introduction to PHP

So our back-end is just a server listening for requests. Whenever a request comes in we want to handle it and send a response (such as an HTML web page). We can handle these requests with a variety of tools and languages, but for this article I’m using PHP.

Why PHP? First of all it’s free. Second, it’s one of the most popular web languages that has been around for a good long while. It has a huge community and lots of documentation and tutorials. Third, virtually all web hosts, even the free ones, have support for PHP. Other languages, such as C#, are not always supported. Last, but not least, PHP is quite easy to learn because it can be pretty lightweight. Actually I’m simply going to write my PHP in Notepad++.

So PHP was created twenty years ago, in 1995, by Rasmus Lerdorf. Back then the PHP stood for Personal Home Page. They changed it to PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor, making it a recursive acronym (because the first P stands for PHP, of which the first P stands for PHP, of which the first P…). Clever, huh? Anyway, PHP is a scripting language, meaning it is interpreted rather than compiled. It’s also procedural, object oriented, weakly typed and it has C-based syntax. Enough talking, let’s code!

Setting up your environment

Unfortunately we can’t code just yet. Remember that your browser renders HTML and CSS. It can also run JavaScript (which I will discuss in another blog post), but it can’t execute PHP files. Usually your server handles PHP execution. Chances are you don’t have a web server laying around. Luckily you can configure your own PC to act as a web server.

To do this simply install web server software. You have a few choices, but I’m going for XAMPP. You can download XAMPP here and then simply install it (choose all default options, or change them if you know what you’re doing). When the installation is done XAMPP will ask you to start the XAMPP Control Panel. Start it and you’ll see a list of options. We’ll need Apache, so just start it. Now start your favourite browser and navigate to http://localhost. You should see a XAMPP page. Congratulations, you have just installed a (local) web server and you can now run PHP files!

To check if it really works create a new text file and name it “hello.php”. Inside the file place the following text:

<?php
    echo "Hello, PHP!";
?>

Now go to the installation folder of XAMPP (you can go there quickly by using the ‘Explorer’ button in the XAMPP Control Panel), find the htdocs folder and place your hello.php file there. Now, in your browser, navigate to http://localhost/hello.php. You should see the text “Hello, PHP!” And now that we’ve got the mandatory Hello world example out of the way let’s start writing some real PHP.

Learning the syntax

So let’s first look at some basic PHP syntax. Basically you’re going to write an HTML page with some PHP in it. The PHP is going to create some text representing more HTML. To indicate that you’re going to use PHP use the <?php open tag and to indicate that you’re done with PHP use the ?> closing tag. You’ve seen this in the example earlier.

The echo, or alternatively the print, statement outputs your code to HTML. In the above example it creates the HTML “Hello, PHP!”, which is just some text. But we could make that echo “<h1>Hello, PHP!</h1>” and we would get a header on our page.

So as I mentioned PHP is weakly, or loosely, typed. That doesn’t mean PHP doesn’t have types, it means a variable can change its type while the code executes. It also means you can add 3 to “3” and the result might be 6 or “33”, so a bit of caution is required when working with weakly typed languages (and in fact PHP always converts text to numeric when adding).
So what are the types in PHP? First we have the int for numerics without fractional components (so 1, 8, 42 and 986 are valid integers, 1.12 is not). Second there is float, or double, for numerics with fractional components. Then we’ve got the boolean or bool for a simple true or false. Next is the string for text (or an array of characters). Then we’ve got the array, or a 0-based indexed collection of stuff. There’s the object type, which encapsulates state and behaviour. And last, and actually pretty literal least, there’s NULL indicating the absence of any value.
Nothing special if you’ve worked with other languages before.

So how do we go about and use these types? Usually we’d want to store them in variables. So how do we declare variables? We actually don’t… Just assign a value to some variable and all of a sudden it’ll be there. It’s a kind of magic! And a variable always start with the $ sign. The typical variable declaration then looks like this:

$intVar = 42;
$floatVar = 3.142;
$boolVar = true;
$stringVar = "Some string"; // Double quotes.
$stringVarAltern = 'Alternative string'; // Single quotes.
$arrayVar = array('Pulp Fiction', 'Fight Club', 'Star Wars');

class person
{
    public $name = NULL;
    public $age = NULL;
}

$objectVar = new person();
$objectVar->name = 'Sander';
$objectVar->age = 27;

$nullVar = NULL;

Now aside from the class and objectVar that looks pretty straightforward right? But beware, the following is completely legal (PHP is weakly typed, remember?):

$stringVar = 'Some string';
$stringVar = 42;

Now that’s something you do want to look out for.
There’s something else about strings too. See how you can declare a string using single or double quotes? Well, the double quote strings are interpreted strings, meaning that any variable name you place in there will be evaluated before the string prints. If you ever need to concatenate string you can use the . operator.

$hello = 'Hello';
echo '$hello world!'; // Outputs $hello world!
echo "$hello world!"; // Outputs Hello world!
echo "$helloish world!"; // Error, $helloish is undefined!
echo "{$hello}ish world!"; // Outputs Helloish world!
echo 'Conc' . 'aten' . 'ate!'; // Outputs Concatenate!

Another thing that might surprise you is that PHP can treat anything as a boolean! Any non-default value will be true while all default values will be false, also called truthy and falsey. The next example uses an if/else statement to illustrate this. Try playing around with it.

if ("Hello") // Try 0, '', '0', 0.1, NULL and array().
{
    echo "Yep...";
}
else
{
    echo "Nope!";
}

So I’ve also shown you an if/else statement. Let’s look at some loops too.

$movies = array('Pulp Fiction', 'Fight Club', 'Star Wars');

for ($i = 0; $i < count($movies); $i++)
{
    echo "$movies[$i] <br>";
}

foreach ($movies as $movie)
{
    echo "$movie <br>";
}

Now there’s actually quite something going on there! First we initialize an array, which we’ve seen before. Now in the first for loop we start by declaring our counter variable $i, then we do a boolean test to check if we need to loop once more and finally we do an update (increment $i) after each iteration. In the boolean check we also use the count(array) function to check if we still have more elements in the array. Ideally you would perform this count outside of the statement so it only gets performed once.
The second loop is a bit more readable. I’m basically saying “for each element, which I will call $movie, in the array $movies do this…”. Now in the loop’s body you can freely use the current element using the $movie variable.
There are also do– and while loops, but I won’t discuss them here. For a programmer this shouldn’t be anything new!

Writing a page

Now let’s write an entire page. Usually you’d have a database, such as MySQL, running, but that’s a bit overkill for this post. So we’re going to read lines of text from a text file and show them on the page. You’ll see that you can update your page without actually modifying your HTML or PHP file.

So let’s first take the example with my favourite movies. We’re going to put our favourite movies in a text file and print them on our page. So create a new PHP file, call it movies.php and put it in the hpdocs folder (which is in your XAMPP folder). Now create a text file called movies.txt and put it in your htdocs folder with your PHP file. You can put some movie names in your text file. Each name goes on a seperate line (I’m calling it movies, but any value would suffice, of course).

For this example I’m going to use an unordered list. I haven’t shown this yet, but the HTML is as follows:

<ul> <!-- Unordered List -->
    <li>Some item</li> <!-- List item -->
    <li>Another item</li>
    <li>Third item</li>
    <li>etc...</li>
</ul>

You could also use an ordered list, in which case you’d use <ol> tags instead of <ul> tags.

So your PHP file could look like this (excluding the !DOCTYPE, html, header and body tags):

<h1>My favourite movies!</h1>
<p>
    <?php
        if (file_exists('movies.txt'))
        {
            echo '<ul>';
            $lines = file('movies.txt');
            foreach ($lines as $line)
            {
                echo "<li>$line</li>";
            }
            echo '</ul>';
        }
        else
        {
            echo 'No favourite movies found!';
        }
    ?>
</p>

So using the PHP function file_exists(string) we’re first checking if the movies.txt file exists at all. If it doesn’t we’ll simply show “No favourite movies found!”, but if it does we’re going to create an unordered list and read the files contents using the file(string) function. The file(string) function reads all lines of a file and puts them in an array. There’s more functions for file manipulation, but I won’t discuss them here. Next we’re looping through the lines we just got from the file. For each line we’re appending a list item element to our HTML. When all the lines are processed we close our unordered list.
And that’s our page! You can view it by navigating to http://localhost/movies.php. You can use some CSS to make it look a bit prettier and you’ll probably want to add some content too.

Now imagine you’d get that out of a database? Pretty neat, huh!

Functions

Now there are times when you have certain code that you want to reuse. Let’s say we want to create another unordered list based on another file. The same rules apply, except maybe we don’t have movies, but songs that we’d like to display. We can create function for this and have the filename passed in as a parameter. So let’s look at how we can put the code above in a function. At the top of your page put the following:

<?php
    function fileAsUnorderedList($fileName, $notFoundMessage)
    {
        if (file_exists($fileName))
        {
            echo "<ul>";
            $lines = file($fileName);
            foreach ($lines as $line)
            {
                 echo "<li>$line</li>";
            }
            echo "</ul>";
        }
        else
        {
            echo $notFoundMessage;
        }
    }
?>

As you can see we’ve defined a function that does the same as our previous code, except the filename and the message when the file is not found are passed in as parameters. Now how can we call this?

<h1>My favourite movies!</h1>
<p>
    <?php
        fileAsUnorderedList('movies.txt', 'No favourite movies found!');
    ?>
</p>
<h1>My favourite music!</h1>
<p>
    <?php
        fileAsUnorderedList('music.txt', 'No favourite music found!');
    ?>
</p>

And look at that! You can now add a second text file to your htdocs folder and your favourite music will be displayed the same as your movies. You still see almost identical code here, so we could change our function and make it do a bit more or we could create a second function that creates the header and paragraph for us.

And what if you wanted to use this function on other pages? Simply put the function in a seperate file and include the following line of code in the PHP file where you want to use the function.

<?php include("MyFunctions.php"); ?>

If you want to further organize your code, and you’ll want that, you’ll have to use objects and namespaces. You’ve already seen a little example of an object earlier and I’m leaving it at that. Be careful with putting functions directly in your files though. What if two files you want to include contain the same functions (or variables)!? You’d have a problem. Using objects and namespaces help toward preventing this.

So that was a very short introduction to PHP. Probably shorter than it deserves. PHP has lots of functions, libraries, third party tooling and a large and active community. If you want to learn more about PHP I suggest you start by Googling for tutorials or perhaps read a book about it. For now you’ve created your first website with dynamic content using a server-side language though! In my next post (which won’t take me another three months) we’ll look at sending data from our website to the server so we can use our page to add movies or music to the text files.

Stay tuned!