Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Aleks Bochniak writes... How to make a tag cloud (using Matrix)

Apart from being better at Matrix implementation than me by building his blog using MySource Matrix, Aleks has also written a great tutorial on how to build a tag cloud using Matrix. He uses metadata for tagging, an asset listing to show the tags and some JavaScript to make the magic happen.

Well worth a read if you're looking to implement a tag cloud on your own site, or if you just want to see an example of different parts of Matrix coming together to produce something beyond what they were designed to do.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

MySource4 caching and keywords - I think I'm in love!

Sometimes things just fall into place.

When designing the sub-systems for MySource4, even when designing seemingly basic copies of MySource Matrix functionality, I often find myself surprised by the way we've managed to make slight design changes (often forced by the MySource4 architecture) but come out with systems that are significantly better than they are in MySource Matrix. Sometimes, design decisions made months ago suddenly start to pay off in ways I don't expect. The caching and keyword systems are a perfect example; they are a match made in heaven and I'm deeply in love with both of them!

Caching was to be a fairly simple copy of the MySource Matrix caching system. One of the strengths of MySource4 is the ability to replace core systems (like caching) with a system that is better designed for a site's specific needs. Knowing this, we started thinking about a basic caching system that Matrix users could migrate to easily, with plans to write other caching systems and allow users to pick the one they wanted. What we ended up with is something I am very proud of. Not only because of the feature set, but also because of the way it fits so nicely into my MySource4 vision. This is why we designed MySource4 like we did, and it is really starting to pay off.

The MySource4 caching system is made possible by a simple but critical change to the way content is printed. In MySource Matrix, each asset type and design area grabs attribute values from the database and prints them when required. When designing the keyword system (very early on) we made a decision to always print keywords rather than real values. So instead of a menu printing asset names and links, it would print keywords that would later be replaced by the keyword system. This provides two immediate benefits; assets and design areas take less time to print and keywords can be batch replaced in a page. Both those are performance-based, but now that decision has enabled us to make a fantastic caching system.

By utilising the MySource4 channels architecture, the caching system is able to hook into the frontend painting code and cache a copy of the page after static keywords have been replaced and before dynamic keywords have been replaced. Dynamic keywords are things like the contents of a custom form or the name of the current user, and should not be cached. The next time around, the caching system can serve up a copy of the page with just the dynamic keywords left to be replaced. Note that this is a full page cache, unlike Matrix which constructs the page each time using small cache blocks. That means that the MySource4 caching system is already faster than the MySource Matrix caching system and we haven't even got to the bonus features!

One of the biggest problems with the Matrix caching system is that we can never really know which assets are cached on which URLs. For example, we know that the name of the "Contact Us" page has changed but we have no idea which asset listings to clear the cache of or which pages have the old page name in the menu. We can't know this in Matrix because we don't have a consistent way of printing data. That is solved in MySource4 because the keyword system forces us to print keywords rather than real data. The result is that the MySource4 caching system knows exactly which URLs the name of the "Contact Us" page appears on and it can clear them for you.

That is a very powerful feature. You can now go to any asset and see exactly what parts of the asset have been cached and which URLs they are cached on. You can make an informed decision about clearing the cache; do you really want to clear 400 URLs because the name of the "Home Page" has changed?

We also have some other statistics that we are trying to decide how to use best. We know how many times a page's cache has been served and how many times it was generated (cache hits and misses). We also know how long each page generation took (on average), the static keywords used on the page and the dynamic keywords used.

We can obviously calculate how much time was saved by the caching of a page by looking at the hits and misses. That is a nice figure to have available, but it's not going to really help you in any way. So we thought about looking through the cache data and showing you how much performance improvement can be gained by removing a dynamic keyword. For example, we could calculate the time saving gained by removing the name of the current user from the design. Those sort of figures can help you modify your content and designs to improve performance.

I'd love to hear any suggestions for other ways these statistics can be used. Please leave a comment if you have some ideas.

Monday, 7 January 2008

MySource Matrix 3.18.0 RC1 released with PHP5 support

MySource Matrix 3.18.0 RC1 was released today; the first release that supports PHP5. It's been quite tough moving such a large project from PHP4 to PHP5 for a couple of reasons.

Changes to reference handling has been a big one. We've been changing so many lines of code to fix E_STRICT reference errors that we inevitably end up with some variables being copied rather than passed by reference.

Moving from PEAR::DB to PDO has also been a big deal. Not only have we moved to PDO, but we've also moved to the MySource4 DB abstraction layer, called DAL. DAL gives us the ability to write a single XML-based query for both Oracle and PostgreSQL, and native support for bind variables (an often requested feature). Learning the differences in syntax between PEAR::DB and DAL took time, as did DAL changes that were required to support the more complex queries that Matrix contains. In the end, we have a better, faster and more flexible DB abstraction layer that will see Matrix through until the MySource4 release and beyond. We also get the added benefit of testing such a key component of MySource4 in the real world.

On a more personally note, the large number of changes and testing required for this release got me more involved in Matrix development than I have been in a few years. Instead of sitting back and watching, I had enough time to dig in and convert part of the core, some packages and the unit testing system.

Speaking of unit testing, I couldn't imagine going through a process like this without an extensive unit test suite and some dedicated testers. Day-to-day, it is easy to forget why you write tests as you rarely get failures if you are careful enough. During a large core change like this, using the failing tests as a todo list gives you some guidance and, of course, confidence in your changes.

Besides PHP5 support, 3.18 has a couple of new features and improvements, some from the feature bazaar at the MMIUC 07. Many of the improvements are performance-based, with HIPOs and paint layouts getting special attention. All performance improvements in 3.18 have been road-tested in MySource4 first, so even though MySource4 has not been released, MySource Matrix users can be confident that they are benefiting indirectly from the project even at this early stage.

MySource Matrix 3.18.0 RC1 is not ready for production, but you can download a copy of the GPL version to give it a test on PHP 5.1.6 and PostgreSQL. Grab it from the MySource Matrix download page.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Baby Sherwood arrives

Gerred Charles Sherwood was born into the world at 8:51am on Sunday the 30th of December 2007, just in time to spend new year's in hospital learning how to be a dad. He weighed 2755 grams at birth and is 47cm long, a fair bit smaller than we were expecting. Mum is thankful!

Here are some pics: