Understanding the Zend Framework, Part 1: The basics

Building the perfect reader

It has been four years since this series was first published, and since then, the Zend Framework has grown up to become one of the most popular PHP frameworks. Technical alliances with companies such as Abobe, Microsoft, and IBM, have strengthened the support and stability of the framework, which is now used by startups and Fortune 500 companies around the world. This article gives you a high-level view of the Zend Framework, explaining its general concepts and preparing you for the rest of this "Understanding the Zend Framework" series, which goes into the details by chronicling the creation of a new online RSS/Atom feed reader. You won't do much coding here, but for the rest of the series, you should be familiar with PHP.


Nicholas Chase (ibmquestions@nicholaschase.com), Consultant, Backstop Media

Nicholas Chase has been involved in Web-site development for companies such as Lucent Technologies, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He has been a high school physics teacher, a low-level radioactive waste facility manager, an online science fiction magazine editor, a multimedia engineer, an Oracle instructor, and the chief technology officer of an interactive communications company. He is the author of several books, including XML Primer Plus (Sams).

18 January 2011 (First published 27 June 2006)

Also available in Japanese Portuguese

The Zend Framework

A couple of years ago, PHP sat at the top of the powerful-but-easy-to-use scripting languages heap — at least as far as popularity was concerned. It was installed on most UNIX®- and Linux®-based web servers. And if you were a programmer, it was easy to get a hosting account that would let you use it. Ruby had been around for quite some time, but not many people were using it. If you wanted to build a web site using dynamically generated content, but you weren't sure that you needed to go so far as to use an application server like J2EE, you would very likely use PHP. It was fast, easy to learn, convenient, and you didn't have to learn Perl.

And then — suddenly, it seemed — the landscape changed. Frameworks and toolkits specifically designed for easily building web-based applications came out of nowhere, led by the popular Ruby on Rails project. Being object-oriented and based on the Model-View-Controller (MVC) paradigm, these projects presented a way to do what everyone wanted to do: create a web site with virtually no effort. Several other solutions have come out since then, such as Django for Python, Catalyst and Mason for Perl, Spring for Java™, and others, each giving developers who are skilled at working in those languages a very modern and easy-to-use framework for building web applications. And PHP has no shortage of these frameworks, either, with CakePHP, Symphony, and CodeIgniter, along with the Zend Framework, all being actively developed.

What makes the Zend Framework one of the premier frameworks used by PHP developers is that it provides clean, stable code, complete with intellectual property rights. PHP is gaining ground in the enterprise space, but if you're a Fortune 500 company, you don't want to take a chance on a module submitted to a repository that may or may not be some other company's intellectual property.

What is the Zend Framework, exactly? The Zend Framework:

  • Is based on PHP
  • Is object-oriented
  • Uses the MVC paradigm
  • Has open source contributors
  • Has contributors who take responsibility for the fact that their code is not the intellectual property of someone else

It also aims to make your programming life easier, not just in general by instituting the MVC pattern, but also for specific things you tend to do all the time, like access databases or output to a PDF file. (OK — you probably don't output to a PDF file all the time. But I'll bet you would if it were easier.)

Zend Framework components include:

This module provides the overall control for the application. It translates requests into specific actions and makes sure they get executed.
This is based on PHP Data Objects (PDO) and provides access to databases in a generic way.
This makes it easy to consume RSS and Atom feeds.
This provides string-filtering functions, such as isEmail() and getAlpha().
To Zend_Filter, this is designed to work with arrays such as form inputs.
This enables you perform HTTP requests easily.
This enables you to easily translate PHP objects into JavaScript Object Notation, and vice-versa.
This provides general-purpose logging functionality.
This enables you to send text and multipart MIME email.
This is used by Zend_Mail to help decode MIME messages.
This enables you to create new PDF documents, and load and edit existing PDF documents.
This enables you to perform sophisticated searches on your own text. For example, you can build a search engine that returns results based on relevancy or other factors.
Contains several submodules that provide easy access to many popular web service APIs, such as those provided by Amazon, Yahoo, Twitter, and Flicker.
This handles the view portion of the MVC pattern.
This enables you to easily create an XML-RPC server and client.

Now let's take a look at where you're going and what you're going to do.

The project

To show all of the ins and outs of the Zend Framework, you need a project that covers a lot of ground. That's fine because my favorite project is still the online feed reader. Why? Because I still haven't found one that actually does what I want. Every time a new technology comes my way, I try to make one that's better than the ones I've used before. So you're going to create a new online RSS/Atom feed-reader service.

Does the world really need another online feed reader? Maybe. But I don't care if I'm the only one who uses it. And that's the whole point: The Zend Framework aims to make things simple enough that I can take on projects just because I want to, and not because I've justified it with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of research. So what should this wonder of news-mastering goodness do? For now, it should enable users to:

  • Save sets of feeds or subscriptions
  • Read feeds and individual items
  • Save individual posts
  • Search saved entries for particular text
  • Easily read pages that don't have an RSS feed
  • Print collections of postings

Over the course of this series, I'm going to show you how to do all of that using the Zend Framework. The series will run as follows:

Part 1: The basics
This article, which explains the project in general and the Zend Framework.
Part 2: Adding a database
This tutorial shows how to use the Zend_DB module to create and manipulate the central database used to store subscription information, as well as saved entries and other information.
Part 3: The feeds
Now you add feeds into the equation, enabling the user to create an account, subscribe to particular feeds, and display those feeds. This tutorial uses the Zend_Feed and Zend_Inputfilter modules, the latter used to verify email addresses and to strip HTML tags from feed entries.
Part 4: When there is no feed: the Zend_HTTPClient
Not all sites have feeds, but it's still useful to track everything in one place. This article shows how to use the Zend_HTTPClient module to create a proxy to pull data into the feed-reader interface.
Part 5: Creating PDF files
This tutorial explains how to use the Zend_PDF module to enable the user to create a customized PDF of saved articles, images, and search results.
Part 6: Sending email
This article explains how to use the Zend_Mail module to alert users to new posts and subscribed feeds, and even to send those posts using HTML email.
Part 7: Searching
This article explains how to use the Zend_Search module to search existing current and saved blog entries for a particular search term and return ranked results.
Part 8: Adding related information and services
This tutorial explains how to use the Zend_Service modules to pull in information from other services — specifically, Amazon, Flickr, Twitter and Yahoo! The interface will use Ajax to pull books, photos, and search results related to a current blog entry or from a search term the user clicks.
Part 9: Adding Ajax
The Zend Framework makes it easy to add Asynchronous JavaScript + XML (Ajax) interactions to your application by automatically translating native PHP objects to and from JavaScript Object Notation (JSON). This article shows how to add this functionality to the feed reader. It also includes a basic description of JSON.

Setting up

The Zend Framework doesn't require any particular installation, but you need to keep some requirements in mind. The Zend Framework requires PHP V5. It is compatible with V5.2.4 and above, so you can use V5.3, but you don't have to. You must, however, make sure that the library directory, where the framework expects to find all of its files, is included in the include_path. To do that, be sure to set it in the php.ini file, as in:

; Windows: "\path1;\path2"
include_path = ".;c:\php\includes;e:\sw\zendframework\library"

That's it.

The MVC pattern

Many developers are not particularly adept at graphic design, so it's helpful to be able to break out the work involved in designing a web-based application so designers can do what they do well, coders can do what they do well, and DBAs can do what they do well. That is the essence of the MVC pattern, which breaks a project down into three tiers.

Defining Model-View-Controller

Patterns are, by definition, ways of doing things that have evolved over years because they're a good solution to a problem. The Model-View-Controller (MVC) pattern is no exception. Because of this other organic means of creation, you will occasionally find differences in definitions. For example, some definitions of the MVC pattern define the controller's role as simply to change state, with all of the business logic in the model tier. In the end, the only thing that's important is that the application does what you want it to do most efficiently.

The model tier consists of the representation of the actual data. For example, in your feed-reader project, you have users, feeds, and feed entries. Their representation in the database conceptually models their structure and, thus, consists of the model tier.

The view tier consists of the logic that actually defines how the displayed data looks. It doesn't decide what the displayed data is — just how it looks. In an ideal world, this template contains no logic. It simply takes the information it's given and displays it.

The controller is what actually defines what the data is. The controller, in fact, is where all of the logic resides. In the Zend Framework, this tier controls the actions to be executed. For example, if I want to display a single feed-item object, the responsibility is parsed like this: The feed-item object has a controller, which defines what happens when the display action is called. That action calls back to get the desired data from the model (in other words, the database or other persistent store), then feeds those fields — such as title, content, permalink, and so on — to the view, which simply displays it in the browser.

When this article was first written, using an MVC architecture for building a web application was fairly new concept in the web world. But now, with the numerous web frameworks out there built on this principle, MVC has became one of the de-facto standards in web application development.

Now let's look at what's expected of you.

Coding guidelines

When you are coding for the Zend Framework, or even with the Zend Framework, it is expected that you will follow certain guidelines. These are designed to make group projects easier. In other words, by defining coding conventions, you will not only avoid problems later but you will also make it easier for others to read your code. The Zend Framework documentation includes several pages of guidelines, including:

  • Make sure the files are clean. In other words, no leading or trailing spaces that can call a web server to unexpectedly send content before headers, standard indents of four spaces, etc.
  • Start your class name with Zend_ if and only if it is intended to be part of the Zend Framework itself, rather than just an application that uses the framework.
  • Underscores are forbidden in function names. Use camel-style lowercase (as in getTodaysDate()), instead.
  • Start your variable names with an underscore only if they are private or protected.
  • Declare all variables as private, protected, or public. Don't use var.
  • Use the standard PHP tag, as in <?php ?>— not the short form (<? ?>).
  • Make sure your code is easy to read. In other words, when you use a period (.) to concatenate text, be sure to put spaces before and after the period to make it more readable. The same holds for adding spaces after commas when declaring an array.
  • If you must pass-by reference, do it only in the declaration of a function. Call-time pass-by reference is prohibited.
  • Every PHP file must include documentation that can be read by PhpDocumentor, and the coding guidelines specify certain minimum tags.

This is not a complete list of guidelines, of course, but it should give you an idea of the types of requirements. Check the documentation for the full list, so your code more easily fulfills the promise of making PHP projects easier to share.


The Zend Framework provides a new IP-certain way to build your PHP applications. In that, it aims to improve your PHP coding experience. In this series, you use the Zend Framework to build an RSS/Atom feed reader. Future parts of the series will cover data access, searching, web services, and other portions of the framework. In Part 2, you create the login system and start building the database.



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