ssh-agent does not persist over sessions in WSL2 with current openSUSE Linux and other common distributions. Linux native bashrc solutions don’t work here. Let’s use keychain instead
zypper in keychain
Then let’s add some snippet to .bashrc and remove any eval ssh-agent lines
# Once per key to load by default
/usr/bin/keychain -q --nogui $HOME/.ssh/id_rsa
/usr/bin/keychain -q --nogui $HOME/.ssh/id_host_www.ralf-lang.de
# Only once
Then open a new window. It will ask you to enter your passphrase once. Enter any additional windows, it won’t ask you
My 2023 started in a bad way. I did not attend to any non-work twitter, email or other communication and FOSS work to deal with that. Don’t worry, I will catch up soon. Sorry for any delays and inconveniences.
Satis is the lightweight, static repository generator for the composer package manager. It enables admins to provide PHP software packages inside airgapped CIs, OS packaging environments and restricted data centers.
Back in August I added a plugin mode to satis to make it work as a regular composer plugin. While working on it, I also fixed some preexisting issues found by static analysis and made it compatible with the recent composer versions 2.3 and 2.4.
This week, the upstream maintainers merged my contribution. I feel a bit satis-fied 😉
Why make it a plugin?
When looking under the hood, it is easy to see that satis always has been some awkward kind of plugin or extension. It literally sits on top of an internal copy of composer. It hooks into its internals in not quite transparent ways, it uses its class and interface organs for its own vital functions. You might call it a parasite that attaches to composer’s body for its own needs. There are downsides to this approach. The first is that you need a private copy of composer. The second is that any refactoring of composer internals likely breaks satis compatibility. That happened some time ago when composer 2.3 and 2.4 were released and not for the first time. Composer has a maturing plugin API with nice, well-defined integration points. It provides some means to overload or amend core functionality but it also provides messaging between core and plugins. I only did the bare minimum work to make satis hook into the plugin API and not break the standalone mode. When installed as a dependency, package resolution will ensure that the API versions used by satis matches the API versions provided by the underlying composer.
I don’t quite understand… What is the benefit?
By itself, this change provides little benefit. It is a feature enabling feature.
Satis can be further refactored to make compatibility bread less often
Satis can send and receive events from composer or other composer plugins. This enables running satis as part off a custom command. Think passing unit and integration tests of a project and then conditionally updating the staging or canary package repository.
Satis’ schema could be amended to make a project’s root package also function as an instruction to build a repository of all dependencies with almost zero configuration. Add this to a workflow or add a collaborator plugin that handles the necessary push/release and you have a powerful tool for CI and developer laptop alike.
But as I went along, I also re-aligned satis with the latest breaking changes inside composer 2.3/2.4. This will benefit users who do not care about the whole plugin story.
With satis 3.0-dev merging this initial change, the next steps are obvious, but not urgent. Making the new plugin mode play nice with the latest composer was already easier than fixing the standalone mode. Satis still has an internal, now updated dependency copy of composer which is only run in standalone mode.
Standalone mode should be refactored to be just a thin wrapper around composer calling into its satis plugin. Keeping intrusion into composer internals to the bare minimum to hide the builtin commands and re-brand it as satis, this would make breakage on upcoming updates much less likely. Eventually, we can maybe stop carrying around a source code copy of composer at all.
Finally, there is reaping the benefits. I want to leverage composer/satis functionality inside the horde/components tool. Rolling out new versions of horde stuff could be so much easier.
The way we write dates is very different among cultures and technologies. Even countries of the same language family might have totally different notions where to put the year, where to put the month, where to put the day when writing down a date in numbers. Apart from the order, we might use hyphen -, dot . or slash / to mark the sections. Leading zero yes or no. It gets much worse when writing out a date, like “Vlad was born on the 13th of June” or “Monday, October 10 I will have a barbecue”. Mix in different languages and different ways to abbreviate Monday as “Mo”, “Mon”, “M”. The PHP-native ways to deal with date math and date formatting are a little quirky and best wrapped in some code that hides away the nasty details but exposes useful capabilities.
The horde/date library has been around for ages and it does its job. Due to changes in the PHP 8.1+ engine, it requires some internal re-engineering. As it is also due for a conversion to namespaces and PSR-4, I decided to think about the interface a little more. These are rough ideas and I am still figuring what will be fun and safe to work it and what is possibly over-thinking it.
It’s DateTime all right.
PHP provides internal data types to store and manipulate a date: DateTime and DateTimeImmutable. Horde_Date behaves similar to DateTimeImmutable but implements a lot of intricate math on its own. Still, it uses DateTime for some conversions. It makes sense to delegate most mutation math to the DateTimeImmutable class and make it also hold most state. No need to manually manage minutes, hours, days of weeks etc in most cases. Preferring Immutable safes us some clone magic.
Wrap it up or extend it?
There are two possible approaches to dealing with the builtin type: Either extend it or hide it in a wrapper. The third option would be to implement the interface but this is not possible. Extending any of the two DateTime types would be handy as it is the lingua franca between different library ecosystems. We could simply inject our Horde Date type into any library that uses it. There are down sides to this approach though. While DateTimeInterface is reasonably small and mostly useful, DateTime and DateTimeImmutable expose a lot of functionality. Some of it is awkwardly named. Some of it would have to be wrapped in extending to avoid inconsistencies in our own object. Some of it possibly clashes with own naming schemes and blocks us from using preferred signatures. Some of it might not fit into our own notion of what belongs where. There is also a risk of exposing different functionality based on PHP versions. This is undesirable. Extending is not the way to go. Hiding away the DateTimeImmutable object and exposing it explicitly might seem a little verbose. It offers some interesting applications.
Clock Date – Now is the right time.
A clock date type always emits now. Asking it again at a later point will yield a later time without having to manipulate the object. This is useful for tracing duration of processes or for emitting status messages. We can also make this clock the second element of a time span. Its duration will automatically expand. We can add a Stop method to the clock which will return a regular, fixed date for further processing.
No Date – When it’s not right for you.
Sometimes we cannot rely on a date being present in the input. It might be optional. It might be required by the current data model but used to be optional or malformed. Traditional options would be expressing the non-date as null value, throwing an exception or silently assuming no date means now. These are appropriate, good solutions in many cases. Sometimes you may prefer to have the “no date” information behave a little like a date – until it reaches a point where it cannot. For example, a “not a date” can be formatted many ways. It can be serialized to the backend, provided the backend can deal with it. It can however not be calculated, mutated or cast to a DateTimeImmutable. I am not yet sure how to handle this. Maybe it should be confined to Formatters and Readers.
In The Zone.
PHP provides an own finite list of Time Zone identifiers. Wrapping PHP’s timezone objects allow dealing with well known but unsupported timezone names. We can map them to known names. We can safe the originally provided name for later usage. We might not carry a PHP timezone at all but signal the other parts of the library that some custom code must be applied.
In Good Format.
There are a plethora of ways to express a given date. There are three builtin date renderers in PHP, IntlDateFormatter (not always installed), strftrime (deprecated) and DateTimeInterface::format (English only). You might add your own. Each has its own dependencies, arguments, requirements. It is much simpler if there is a Formatter type. Implementations can just configure it and load it with a date. Consumers have a simple interface to work with them regardless of how they are implemented.This also allows to keep the dependency footprint of the core date library low and makes adding more output formats very easy. The same is true for reading data. Reading values from various formats should not be the Date object’s concern. Another object should turn arbitrary string, integer or other data into dates – including legacy Horde_Date objects.
Regular readers of this blog and many other are aware that PHP 7.4 will stop receiving security updates when PHP 8.2 comes out in November. This has made many horde admins question if they can continue to run Horde. Some events in life have made progress slower than originally planned. So where are we?
Confirmed running under PHP 8.1 and composer 2.4
horde/base in Browser
essential Horde Base CLI tools like horde-db-migrate and hordectl
horde/base portal blocks and admin area
horde/components developer tool
horde/turba Addressbook App Reading and writing contacts in the UI
horde/mnemo Notes App UI and webdav
horde/nag Tasks Apps UI, webdav, caldav
horde/kronolith Calendar App UI, webdav, CalDAV
horde/passwd Password App – Changing passwords worked with the hordeauth driver
horde/gollem File Manager App – very limited testing so far
horde/imp Webmail – very limited testing.
I run on a setup with openssl3 and a recent mariadb against dovecot and postfix. You can also consume the openSUSE 15.4 based containers built nightly. There is still considerable log spam from deprecation notices: Mostly tentative return types and signatures, also some use of deprecated functionality like strftime. Each night a few of these disappear. They don’t stop you from running horde apps.
I also have an eye on PHP 8.2 compatibility – So far, there should not be too many surprises. I also check most unit tests against the development version of PHPUnit 10.
This code is quite solid on PHP 7.4 – production users run on it. On PHP 8.1 I consider it ready for adoption tests. Breakage is expected, feedback is welcome. Be sure to have a backup of the database and of any mail accounts you connect to it. There is a lot to be done over the next few weeks.
If it does not run for your combination of drivers, please contact me via the horde mailing list.
imp config SHOULD have an explicit cache setting: Set it to false to disable caching or to ‘cache’ to use Horde’s default cache. The ‘sql’ option also seems to work but I do not recommend it.
The RPC interface has seen very little testing. The json-rpc protocol should work. I have no desire to look into xmlrpc though unless somebody voices his needs. Beware, the xmlrpc extension has moved out of mainstream into pecl.
I do not have the necessary setup to comment on ActiveSync currently
Kolab integration is very likely broken. I don’t think anybody really uses recent horde with ancient kolab versions.
Most likely the SyncMl and PHPGroupware drivers are useless. If anybody really uses that bridge, please give feedback
I usually test against sabre/dav 4.4 – if you use anything else and see bugs, let me know
I don’t currently test against postgresql. MariaDB, MySQL, PerconaDB should work.
As PHP’s LDAP extension has moved from resources to objects, the LDAP authentication and addressbook drivers likely need an update. I do not currently test against LDAP but this is something I want to change
I know my former colleagues run LDAP and Redis so likely they will give some feedback in that area – Cannot comment on the timeline. I will offer a redis option for the maintaina container setup soonish.
If you ever read a github pull request or similar extension proposal, you will likely have seen side by side comparisons of the original and the changed file. You may also have seen some text format that highlights only differences and a little context but hides the unchanged rest of the file. Both of these formats are called Diff, named after the popular diff and patch utilities dating back to ancient Unix times. The git diff command does something very similar. The horde/text_diff library and its ancestor, the pear/text_diff library, are tools to generate and format such difference information for different usage scenarios.
Apart from Horde’s internal usage in its repository viewer, horde/chora, and its wiki software, horde/wicked, the tool is also used by external parties. WebSVN maintainer Michael O. approached me because he wanted to use a PHP 8.2 ready version of horde/text_diff to substitute an older component which did not do the job. Michael has been very helpful in getting me started, pointing me to some issues to solve and also providing his own solutions in some parts. The result is a conservative update of horde/text_diff that will run in the upcoming versions of PHP without causing any trouble. But this is only where I started.
Breaking bad habits
A closer look at the internal structure of the library showed that it deserved a major overhaul. The solution was to refrain from a verbatim upgrade to namespaces and the likes but to actually change some things. This meant breaking backwards compatibility. I go to great lengths to keep a conservative drop-in version of everything I touch in the lib/ folder. Sometimes it is just an interface or wrapper, sometimes the new and old code do not really share a lot.
I began with adding type hints to most methods. Targetting PHP 8.1+ for the src/ path allows to use union types and intersection types. A lot of knowledge hidden in phpdoc comments is moved into actual code and makes it more robust.
Exploring the code for base classes and interfaces, I noticed that some things I did not like.
Method signatures did not add up
Some method signatures did not add up. Depending on the type of Diff Engine, the diff() method would take different types of arguments. The interface was mixing the specifics of how the diff engine is set up with the command to create a list of operations objects. Loading the engine is now separated from running it. The running method is now always called in the same way.
Internal dependency creation
The Diff, Threeway Diff and Mapped Diff utilities all created their diff engine internally. To do this, they needed a very flexible constructor that allowed passing whatever is needed to set up the actual engine. That was bad enough but they also did it in different ways. The Differs’ constructor now only accepted a pre-constructed engine. For convenience, I created a factory which would take over the responsibilities originally assigned to the differs’ constructor: Building a differ from input and if no specific differ was chosen, selecting one by some priority logic. In the end it turned out that the Differ does not need the engine at all but rather needs the product of the Engine: A set of operations to transform document A to document B. Born is the OperationList class. I did not want to just pass an array. I added a small static method as a named constructor. It frees the actual constructor of too many responsibilities and allows to keep the interface clean and strict.
More explicit type juggling
Creation if diffs contains some interesting math. The algorithms use a lot of short variable names and operations that make sense if you know the underlying theory but otherwise look like garbage. I added some explicit conversions between string and integer and made some changes to ensure a number zero or an empty string is not mistaken for a “false” or “null” value which would have another meaning. Overall it is now much easier for static analyzers to spot any issues.
Dual stacks have a price tag
Essentially maintaining two different sets of the library comes with some cost. One must ensure that unit tests targeted at the newer platform are not run when testing for compatibility with the older platform. The conservative lib/ is ready to run PHP 7.4 code but the modern version in src/ must be transpiled to be run in PHP 7.4 – I do that on release but still it is another aspect that needs minding. As I also use automated tools for some upgrade tasks, I need to ensure I do not upgrade the lib/ path. The price is worth it as I cannot convert the code base at once and I want to provide a good development experience to all who are caught in between maintaining an older release or creating new code. I am in that spot myself. Essentially it allows me to run two conflicting major versions of some critical libraries and pick the right one for different sub systems. The need will go away as code is gradually migrating towards the newer implementations. At some point a next major version will drop the conservative path. Anybody interested is free to maintain the older major version and keep using it.
I consider the external interface of the newer horde/text_diff implementation fairly stable by now. Internally, however, there is a lot of room for improvement. Some functionality should move out of the base classes and into separate traits – which the base classes will use. Some getters should be added and used, preparing to move some public variables to internal state in a next major release. The new OperationList gets unloaded to plain arrays in several places – It needs to learn some tricks without degrading into a glorified array. None of this should stop early adopters from using the new code base. None of this is supposed to break any user code.
Out of scope for now
There are some items which I decided to postpone for now. One thing which bothers me is the amount of dependencies. While a dependency on horde/exception makes sense, it pulls in horde/translation for no good reason. Horde\Util is pulled in but really only used in two places: A horde/string call which could be reduced to a direct call to an internal function and one call to a helper for handling temporary files. That helper should maybe live in its own library, nicely decoupled from unrelated utilities. There was a reason why they were packed together but it is no longer relevant.
Also, some functionality is missing in the Xdiff-based engine. Most distributions do not even offer php-xdiff, including my own development platform. I will add that feature once I get it into CI and into the development setup. I do not want to delay other items to do that right now. Patches welcome 🙂
Code generators have been invented and forgotten at least four times in software history. They have an appeal to developers like the sun to Daedalus’ son. Let’s not be Icarus, let’s keep them generators at a distance and watch them carefully.
Whenever a language, framework or paradigm forces developers to do the same thing over and over and over and over again they will try to get rid of that repetition. One approach is to automate writing code. It is not pretty but it saves time to concentrate on more interesting and useful things. Seasoned and reasonable software developers have resorted to that solution and many inexperienced have followed. Outside very narrow use cases I think generated code should better not exist at all.
Valid use case
Generated code and other kinds of boilerplate code are valid where avoiding them is not practical. This is often true for entry points. Depending on language, it might not be trivial for a the first piece of running code to find
its collaborators, base classes, dependencies
useful data from previous runs
I have written a long, long piece on two-stage autoloaders and other two-stage bootstrapping topics and I keep rewriting it, breaking out separate topics. It is still unreleased for a reason. Any two-stage process that splits automated detection or definition of artifacts from the production run that uses them is essentially code generation. Avoiding it might be possible but impractical. Some level of repetition cannot be avoided at all and is best automated.
Another valid use case is generating code from code or transpiling. Nothing is wrong with that.
Unfortunate Use Cases
There are other use cases that should be avoided. Your framework follows convention over configuration so making magic work requires having some artifacts in the right places. Even if they have no natural place in your specific solution they are needed for technical reasons so you copy/paste or auto-generate the minimum sufficient implementation and make it fit. This is something to look for. Often there are ways around it. Another case is limits of the underlying language. You evolved from using magic properties and methods to implementing type safe, explicit equivalents but now you have to re-invent the type specific list or container type and you automate it. Bonus points if your ORM tool requires it. If your language does not support generics or another templating method, you are stuck between repetitive, explicit code and weakly typed magic. You end up using a code generator. Hopefully at one point somebody is annoyed enough and ventures to bring generics into your language. That would be the better solution but it is likely out of scope for your day to day work.
Stinking unnecessary use cases
Beyond that you are likely in the land of fluff where things just happen while they can and lines of code are generated just because it is customary. This is a foolish thing best avoided. Granted, automating code is better than hand-writing it. It does however not mean the code should exist at all. If you have no specific reason to repeat code, it is likely a design smell. This is not new, the Cunningham wiki had this thought a decade or more ago. Likely they were not even the first to recognize it. Refactoring, abstraction, configuring the specifics can help reduce the necessity for repetitive code.
My programming tools were full of wizards. Little dialog boxes waiting for me to click “Next” and “Next” and “Finish.” Click and drag and shazzam! — thousands of lines of working code. No need to get into the “hassle” of remembering the language. No need to even learn it. It is a powerful siren-song lure: You can make your program do all these wonderful and complicated things, and you don’t really need to understand.
Let us take the input to a code generator and make it the input to abstracted, ready to run code instead. We will know when it is not practical, not performant or not possible. Then code generation is a blessed thing. Otherwise it is a sin.
Behind every lofty architecture mantra there is mundane execution. This is best left to tools and I don’t mean anybody in particular but programs that help us make better programs. It basically goes like this: Build tool. Use tool. Build better tool. Build tool to build better tool. Build better tool to build better tool faster. And so on. Implementing this in practice can be quite boring but the alternative is to do boring things again and again and again and that’s enough already. So let’s see.
Maintaining 100+ libraries and programs involves doing a few things over and over again. Automating these seems natural but requires some thought. Developers want to spend their time in interesting and useful ways. Querying and manipulating git repositories is repetitive. Updating a changelog file with a select subset of messages also present in the git commits is repetitive. Rewriting project metadata and updating CI jobs for new PHPUnit and PHP versions or base operating systems is repetitive and requires no brains at all, why should I do this 100+ times?
Off the shelf tools
Using tools that already exist and are maintained by other parties is a no-brainer. Which tools can help?
PHPUnit helps us spot and eliminate regressions before any user is affected. The tool itself is maintained by Sebastian Bergmann but writing and upgrading the actual test code is a chore.
PHPStan or Psalm – I prefer PHPStan – are static analyzers which help developers spot places where signatures, types and assumptions don’t add up. To get the best out of it, either phpdoc annotations or parameter and return types must be added. No tests to write, which is good – but PHPStan is organized in progressively strict levels and each library needs to be checked against the level it is supposed to pass. Micromanaging that is boring as hell, tools are needed.
php-cs-fixer is developed by friendsofphp – it is a basic code manipulation tool which helps anywhere from adhering to PSR-12 or PER-1 to automatically upgrading from array() to  notation. Configuring this beast is easy but ensuring the most current rules are used in every project is another burden.
rector is another tool that transpiles code either up or down to select standards. It will move implicit knowledge or phpdoc data into actual code or do the different thing. It will choose older ways to express something over new ones or vice versa. Configuring it to do only what is helpful is quite a challenge. Also ensuring the most recent config is used is just boring and cumbersome. Tool needed.
The horde project has some home grown tools that can help but need development themselves.
horde/git-tools by Michael Rubinsky used to be the way to assemble a bleeding edge developer copy from zillions of github repos. In a modern composer based installation this tool is less useful but it contains a lot of interesting capabilities that should be factored out
horde/components can generate composer and pear metadata from a self-defined yaml format. It can create tar archives from repositories, implements a basic workflow engine for release and quality check tasks and does some other things. Its internal architecture is rooted in history and while some of its functionality seems out of touch with 2022, many other parts deserve expanding or factoring out into modern self-contained libraries for reuse.
horde/hordectl is a command line tool to interact with a Horde installation. Inject users and passwords, configure permissions, groups or app-specific resources from yaml files and defaults. It needs some upgrading, it could do so much more to facilitate proof of concept, showcase or CI installations.
horde/horde-installer-plugin is a plugin for composer that helps bootstrap a horde installation and its web-readable part. Much of its code would best be moved out to separate libraries.
Existing and new libraries should inherit functionality moved out from existing tools or newly created
horde/vcs is a version control library. Its main origin are the horde/chora application and the installation/development tools. Recently I began to move or re-implement code from git-tools and horde/components into this library. I am less interested in the rcs, cvs and svn parts. The original library followed an approach abstracting the differences between git, cvs, svn & friends. This limits its usefulness. I see how it facilitates creating an application that consumes and shows code from these. Still, there should be a lower level of abstraction that provides the unique capabilities of git in a programmatic fashion. This is one thing I currently work on
horde/rampage used to be a dead end but I am reusing the library for deployment and introspection related code factored out from other tools.
horde/filesystem is a new library, focused on object-oriented filesystem traversal and manipulation. Still very immature but I hope to turn it into a standalone and reusable tool.
horde/registry is the stub of an upcoming redesign of the core bootstrapping process. No more globals, reliance on PSR-11 DI containers and PSR-4 autoloading – this registry will do less than its ancestors yet be much more powerful and easy to use. This is still much work.
horde/cli_modular is a tool to write extensible, pluggable commandline interfaces. It is used by horde/git-tools, horde/components, horde/hordectl and a few others. In the current upgrade cycle some redesign is necessary to make it viable for modern environments and free it from problems already solved by autoloaders or DI containers.
So much work to do but devoting some time to better tools is better than doing mindless conversions of existing code over and over.
Developers sometimes choose not to use the latest available language features that would be appropriate to tackle a problem for fear of alienating users and collaborators. This is a bad habit and we should stop doing that. Part of the solution are transpilers. What are transpilers, where are they used and what is the benefit? Why should we consider transpiling all our code?
I cut this piece from an upcoming article that is way too long anyway. I made this new article by reusing and reshaping existing text for a new audience and frame. You are reading a new text that first was built as a part of another text. – Yes. This was transpiling: Rephrasing an input, including externally supplied, derivative or implicit facts about it to an output that generally expresses the same. Excuse me, what? Let me go into some details.
Transpiling: Saying the same but different
In software, transpilers are also known as source to source compilers. They take in a program written in one language and write out a roughly equivalent program for another language. The other language may be another version or dialect of the input language or something entirely different. Don’t be too critical about the words: transpilers are just like all other compilers. Source code is machine-intelligible, otherwise it could not be compiled. Machine code is intelligible by humans, at least in principle.
Preprocessors are transpilers
A preprocessor is essentially a transpiler even if it does not interpret the program itself. The C language preprocessor is a mighty tool. It allows you to write placeholders that will be exchanged for code before the actual C compiler touches it. These placeholders may even have parameters or make the program include more code only if needed. Concatenating many source files into one and minifying these by stripping unnecessary whitespace can also be seen as a primitive form of transpiling.
Coding Style Fixers are transpilers
Automatic tools that edit your source code are transpilers. They might only exchange tabs for four space characters or make sure your curly braces are always in the same place or they may do much more involved stuff. For example php-cs-fixer transforms your technically correct code written in plain PHP into technically correct code in standards-conforming plain PHP. One such standard is PSR-2, later deprecated in favor of PSR-12 and PER-1 – these are all maintained by the PHP FIG. Software projects may define their own standards and configure tools to transpile existing code to conform to their evolving standards.
Compilers are transpilers
A compiler is a transpiler. It takes in the source code and builds a machine-executable artifact, the binary code. It might also build a byte code for some execution platform like Java’s JVM. It might build code for a relatively primitive intermediate language like CIL or a machine specific Assembly Language. Another compiler or an interpreter will be able to work with that to either run the software or turn it into a further optimized format. These transformations are potentially lossy.
Decompilers are transpilers
Earlier in life I used tools like SoftICE that would translate back from binary machine instructions to Assembly Language so that I could understand what exactly the machine is doing and make it do some unorthodox things. Compiling back from Machine Code to the machine-specific Assembly Language is technically possible and lossless but the result is not pretty.
Lost in translation
When humans rewrite a text for another target audience, they will remove remarks that are unintelligible or irrelevant to the new audience. They may also add things that were previously understood without saying or generally known in the former audience. Transpilers do the same. When they transpile for machine consumption, they remove what the machine has no interest in: Whitespace, comments, etc. They can also replace higher concept expressions by detailed instructions in lower concepts. Imagine I compiled a program from assembly language into binary machine code and then decompiled back to assembly language. Is it still the same program? Yes and no. It is still able to compile back into the same machine program. It does not look like the program I originally wrote. Any macro with a meaninful name was replaced by the equivalent step by step instructions without any guidance what their intention is. Any comments I wrote to help me or others navigate and reason about the code are lost in translation. The same is true anytime when we translate from a more expressive higher concept to a lower concept. Any implicit defaults I did not express now show up as deliberate and explicit artifacts or the other way around, depending on tool settings.
Lost in Translation but with Humans
You may know that from machine translated text. Put any non trivial text into a machine translator, translate it from English to Russian to Chinese to German and then back to English. In the best case, it still expresses the core concept. In the worst case it is complete garbage and misleading.
Another such thing are Controlled Languages like Simple English, Français fondamental, Leichte Sprache, etc. They use a reduced syntax with less options and variations and a smaller selection of words. Some like Aviation English or Seaspeak also try to reduce chance for fatal ambiguity or mishearing.
These reduced languages are supposedly helpful for those who cannot read very well, are still learning the language or have a learning disability. They may also enable speakers of a closely related foreign language to understand a text and they generally cater to machine translation. For those who easily navigate the full blown syntax and vocabulary and can cope with ambiguity and pun, simplified language can be repetitive, boring and an unnecessary burden to actual communication. Choosing a phrase or well known roughly fitting word over a less used but more precise word is an intellectual effort. Reading a known specific word can be easier on the brain than constructing a meaning from a group of more common words. Speaking to an expert in a language deliberately evading technical terms may have an unintended subtext. Speaking to a layman in lawyerese or technobabble might not only make it hard for them to understand you but also hard for them to like you. Readers will leave if I make this section any longer.
Now that everybody is bored enough, let’s see why it is useful and how good it is.
Upgrading Code to newer language versions
You can use a transpiler to upgrade code to a newer version of the language. Why would you want that? Languages evolve. New features are added that allow you to write less and mean the same. Old expressions become ambiguous by new syntax and features. Keywords can be reserved that previously weren’t. Old features become deprecated and will finally stop working in later versions. A transpiler can rewrite your code in a way that it will run in the current and next version of a language. It can also move meta information from comments or annotations into actual language code.
* @access private
* @var FluffProviderInterface Tool that adds bovine output
* Constructs an example
* @access public
* @param IllustrableTopicInterface A topic to explain by example
* @param bool $padWithFluff Whether to make it longer than needed
* @param int $targetLength How long to make the article
* @return string The Article
function constructExample($topic, $padWithFluff=true, $targetLength=3000)
Now that’s what I call a contrived example. Code might look like this if it was originally written in PHP 4 and later enhanced over the years, only using new expressiveness where needed. While it technically runs, it is not how we would possibly write it today.
* @var FluffProviderInterface Tool that adds bovine output
private readonly FluffProviderInterface $fluffProvider;
* Constructs an example
* @param IllustrableTopicInterface A topic to explain by example
* @param bool $padWithFluff Whether to make it longer than needed
* @param int $targetLength How long to make the article
* @return string The Article
public function constructExample(
That could be the output of a transpiler. It takes meta information from controlled language in the comments and uses the advanced grammar of the improved PHP language to express them. In other words, the upgraded code has turned instructions for the human or for external tools into instructions that the language can actually enforce at runtime. Before it helped you understand what to put in and what to expect out. Now it forbids you from putting in the wrong things and errors if the code tries to give back anything but text.
It may drop comments that are already expressed in the actual code. Some project standards suggest to drop @param and @return altogether to make the code more consise to read. I am a little conservative on this topic. A documentation block may be removed if it does not contain any guidance beyond the code. There is no need to rephrase “this is the constructor” or “The parameter of type integer with name $targetLength tells you how long it should be”. But sometimes things deserve explaining and sometimes the type annotations exceed what actual the language expresses. Intersection types are PHP 8.1+. PHP 8.2 can express “return this class or false but not true” while before the language only allowed “This class or a boolean (either true or false)”. Annotations can be read by tools to work with your code. As demonstrated, a transpiler can use them to rewrite your code to a more robust form. Static analyzers can detect type mismatch that can lead to all sorts of bugs and misbehaviours. Documentation generators can strip away the actual code and transform the comments and structural information into something you can easily navigate and reason about. Code including high concept and documentation is first and foremost for humans. Adapting it for machines often means dumbing it down.
Downgrading to an older platform or language version
Imagine we create a book for small children. We will first create a compelling story, lovely characters and possibly some educational tangent using our words and our thoughts, the level of abstraction we are fluent in and the tools we can handle. We finally take care to adapt wording, level of detail and difficult concepts to fit the desired product. We don’t write to the agent, the publisher or the printing house in baby english. So why should we use anything less than our own development environment supports? It is not healthy. Outside very special situations or for the joy of it, we generally don’t work with one hand tied to the back, using antiquated tools and following outmoded standards.
If we cater to the lowest assumable set of capabilities at development time, we limit ourselves in a costly way. We cannot benefit from the latest and most convenient, i.e. effortless and reliable set of tools. We are slower than we could be, we will make more mistakes and it will exhaust us more than needed.
Provided our production pipeline from the development laptop or container to the CI are able to work with the latest tools, we can use them.
Deliver using a transpiler
The source branch should always target your development baseline, tools as modern as you can come by. Delivery artifacts, i.e. released versions, should deviate from the source distribution anyway:
Why should you ship build time dependencies with a release?
Why should you ship CI recipes or linter configurations with a release?
Depending on circumstances, shipping the unit tests might be useful or waste.
You would not normally ship your .git directory, would you?
Adding a transpiler step is just another item, just another reason. Transpiling to your lowest supported baseline is not really different from zipping a file, editing a version string or running a test suite to abort faulty builds before they ship. But still, it is not perfect. The shipped code will run on the oldest supported environment but it will miss many runtime benefits of newer versions. This is especially true if your library is a build time dependency of another project. In the best scenario, a build for a fairly recent but reasonable platform expectation exists and another build for an well-chosen older target exists. Both need to run through the test suite and ideally the older build will pass the test suite both when actually run on the old platform and when run on an upgraded platform. There are some details, edge cases and precautions needed to make this feasible and reliable. This will be detailed in an upcoming article which just shrank by a good portion.
tl;dr – I packaged horde/components as a single file for easy inclusion in build pipelines.
The horde/components commandline app is an important development tool. It lets you generate a composer.json file from the .horde.yml definition, helps with managing the changelog yml and provides a simple workflow utility which I use for release pipeline. Last year I added some capabilities for managing git branches and tags. It is very opinionated and I often think about generalizing some functionality to make it more useful beyond horde development.
But the tool is unwieldy. It installs 69 horde dependencies, 5 pear libraries and several more stuff, including a complete distribution of sabre/dav. This is an issue that will eventually get solved by slowly redesigning the dependency graphs. For now we have to live with it. But how? You don’t want to require-dev that beast into your working tree. Chances are it would blur what is really needed for the unit worked on and what is only needed to support the tool. It could also lead to library version conflicts.
So move it out of tree and run it as a separate root project, then symlink the commandline program to some path like /usr/local/bin? Yes, that did work but still two or three steps when there ought to be only one. I wished for a single file that I could easily install. The solution in php is a phar file, similar to a jar in java.
The documentation of phar consists of only a few pages detailing all the possible calls into phar, all the capabilities of the extension – but it left me completely in the dark how to actually use it. Looking at some CI pipelines of popular tools distributed via phar.io / phive gave some ideas but also did not bring the wanted outcome. The evening dragged on and on. Finally I found an old article by Matthew Weier O’Phinney. Back in 2015 he advised to use a helper (box-project/box) to build a phar. He pointed out what I already learned in a painful way: The official documentation won’t get me where I want fast.
His article also included some bits on distribution and signing which I will consider at a later stage and some bits specifically linked to Travis CI, back then the natural champion for CI needs in Github. Today Github promotes Github Actions as the preferred CI tool so I will have a look into this.
horde/components not only contains some internal workflows, it also used to have functionality to set up a jenkins CI environment. I haven’t used it in years and it is likely broken. I think I should rather implement functionality to call into a Github or Gitlab Hook, read metadata from the API, create artifacts like packages and release notes. Having the components tool in one ready to run file also makes it easy to get it into a CI. But we are not yet there.
My preliminary build is available via https://horde-satis.maintaina.com/horde-components – there are no versions yet, there is no nightly update and there is no signing yet. I am still figuring out which parts work as expected and which need further improvements. This build is based on the maintaina-com repository and differs in functionality from the official horde.org code base. I think this deviation is inevitable for the moment though I don’t like it much.
If you want to build and distribute your own phar component, read the original article by MWOP. I am very glad I found it – saved this evening’s success.