PHP object orientation: Separating concerns

Building more modular PHP applications

Separation of concerns is a concept in object-oriented (OO) software design that allows you to build more-modular applications. Modular applications are easier to maintain and add new features to. PHP's OO language features allow you to apply design concepts to build more robust, maintainable applications.

Nathan A. Good, Senior Information Engineer, Freelance Developer

Nathan GoodNathan A. Good lives in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. Professionally, he does software development, software architecture, and systems administration. When he's not writing software, he enjoys building PCs and servers, reading about and working with new technologies, and trying to get his friends to make the move to open source software. He's written and co-written many books and articles, including Professional Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3, Regular Expression Recipes: A Problem-Solution Approach, and Foundations of PEAR: Rapid PHP Development.

30 June 2009

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Maintaining a separation of concerns is an important part of building OO applications. By separating concerns, you can build more-modular applications. As your applications become more modular, they become easier to maintain.

Even though PHP supports OO language features like classes and interfaces, you can still write a PHP application that does not use any OO features. Sometimes, building an OO design is difficult and, depending on the project, can seem like a diminishing return for a small, simple application.

Because OO designs allow for easier application modifications during the application's lifetime, as well as the benefits of reusability, I use a simple test to determine whether I should build my application using OO techniques. If the application does not pass my test, I take a more-functional approach, still incorporating techniques as best I can to build modular functions:

  • Can parts of my application be reused elsewhere? If you will be building other applications, think about where you can reuse parts of the application.
  • Is my application likely to need changes later? If your application contains business logic or rules, it is likely that when the business logic changes, the application will need to change as a result.

Identifying a concern

It's fine to know that you should separate concerns when you're building applications. But before you can do a good job of separating them, you must know what a concern is. When building an application, a concern is "is a particular set of behaviors needed by a computer program, the conceptual sections" (see Resources).

To define this better, think of a typical application. For the most part, most applications get data from somewhere (input), put the data away somewhere (persistence), and then get the data back again later (presentation). When your application gets input from a user, it might validate the data before putting it away. When the application is displaying the data back to the user, it might format the data in such a way that it is easier to read.

All of these — holding data, formatting data, validating data — are concerns. If your application's concerns are separated from each other, a Person component that contains data elements about a person should not have any idea about how to format the person's name. Although it is data from the person that is being formatted, something like formatting preferences can change from application to application. Some applications might format a person's name in first-name/last-name format. Others may only use the first name. Formatting is a type of a presentation concern that should not be integrated tightly into a component, as doing so limits the component's reuse.

Identifying a boundary

When separating concerns horizontally by using layers — as in presentation, process or business logic, and data layers — a boundary is the line drawn that defines the edges of the layer. For instance, there is a boundary between presentation layers and logic layers. Using a framework that supports the Model-View-Controller (MVC) pattern will help enforce these boundaries.

But if you are not using a framework to help you, you must start separating concerns by identifying the concerns, then drawing boundaries between them. Your PHP code should stay inside the boundaries you identify. For instance, a boundary separates the presentation layer from the data layer. That means you keep PHP code that deals with presentation behaviors, such as arranging text, concatenating values, or formatting numbers, out of the layer that contains the data behaviors. Conversely, keep your PHP code that connects to a database and runs queries separate from the code that arranges the text or numbers.

Identifying dependencies

Identifying a dependency is also very important when learning how to separate concerns properly. Using the person and name formatting example, a dependency exists between a component that formats a person's name and the data. The data must exist before it can be formatted. However, the data doesn't depend on the formatter to exist.

One way of knowing that you can and should separate concerns is whether you can draw a unidirectional (not circular) dependency between two behaviors. If one can exist without the other, separate them.

Identifying components

After you have the concerns separated, you can draw components that handle the concern. A Person component contains the data about a person, and a PersonFormatter contains methods that properly format the Person component for viewing. Various validators, like PersonNameValidator, can be built to validate the data about a person.

You can also build components that represent domain objects. For instance, Person may represent an employee, customer, student, or contact. Depending on your application, a person might log in to work, place an order, take a class, or provide personal information. These can be turned into components, like an Order component or a Class component.

It's important when building the components to think of the components' data as a concern for each component. For instance, a Person component should not calculate Order subtotals or determine whether Classes are full.

Isolating logic

Isolating logic in an application is important because, most of the time, the logic should be separated from the other areas. In other words, think of the logic in your application as a concern all by itself.

In a business application, logic is what you do to your data between user input (presentation) and putting it away in storage (data). If you calculate interest rates, a customer's total orders for the year, or whether a customer has a certain number of bonus points based on the total orders for the year, you are using logic to make the calculations. It's best not to intertwine this logic with the code that simply represents the object or stores it in the database or validates the data. Instead, it's best to put logic like this in different classes so the other objects don't need to be concerned about the details of the logic.


Identifying and separating concerns is an important step in building modular object-oriented applications. As you identify concerns and learn to identify boundaries, you learn where to put your PHP code that does certain behaviors.



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