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Dig Deeper: VuFind Summit 2016

Did you know that an innovative search engine used by libraries in numerous countries for browsing catalogs was developed right here at Villanova University? It’s called VuFind, and its open source coding allows for continued innovation by institutions and individuals throughout the world.

Some of the most important contributors are coming to Falvey Memorial Library this week, on Oct. 10 and 11, for VuFind Summit 2016. Registration has closed, but you can still attend the conference virtually on the Remote Participation section of the VuFind Summit webpage. Speaking of remote participation, this year’s VuFind Summit will feature a video conference with another VuFind Summit occurring concurrently in Germany.

The VuFind Summit 2015 group.

The VuFind Summit 2015 group.

This year’s conference includes speakers such as Andrew Nagy, Leila Gonzales and Bob Haschart, among others. Nagy, one of the developers involved in starting the VuFind project here at Villanova, will be giving a talk on his new FOLIO project. FOLIO is another open source project that will integrate VuFind as it attempts to help libraries work together in new ways.

Gonzales has devised a method for using VuFind for geographical data. On her map interface, a user can draw a shape and pull full records from the designated space. Her talk features a brainstorming session for thinking up new features and applications for her software. Haschart will discuss his new SolrMarc software, which includes “extended syntax, faster indexing with multi-threading, easier customization of Java indexing code” (from Summit website above).

VuFind Summit could not be promoted, nor indeed occur, without speaking of Demian Katz. He is the VuFind Project Manager who has worked here at the Falvey Memorial Library since 2009. Demian brings the conference together each year and has even published scholarly articles on the topic of VuFind. Anyone who has spoken to him, or heard him lecture, can easily detect his passion for innovative technologies and how the user engages with them. His talk will focus on the innovations made since last year’s VuFind Summit, and he will participate heavily in mapping out the next year’s innovations.

Demian Katz lectures at VuFind Summit 2015

Demian Katz lectures at VuFind Summit 2015.

I know, on a personal level, that if you aren’t a coder, then this event might not seem pertinent to you. I encourage you, however, to check out the live stream or the YouTube videos that will be posted subsequently. Not many universities can list “developed an internationally renowned search engine” on their curriculum vitae. VuFind is part of what makes Villanova University a top 50 college in the country; VuFind is part of your daily research experience here at Villanova. It’s certainly worthwhile to give attention to those specialists who make VuFind a reality.

Website photo 2

Article by William Repetto, a graduate assistant on the Communications and Marketing Team at the Falvey Memorial Library. He is currently pursuing an MA in English at Villanova University.




VuFind Summit 2015: Technology Reaching New Heights!


For those who don’t know, VuFind is an open-source library resource portal designed and developed for libraries right here by Villanova University’s own Falvey Memorial Library. VuFind replaces the traditional online public access catalog, enabling users to search and browse through all of a library’s resources. We are proud to say that components of this system have been implemented in institutions all over the world!

In order to continue conversations about the system, Falvey Memorial Library has been the home base of several VuFind meetings over the years. In fact, on October 12 and 13, the 2015 VuFind Summit brought to Falvey about fifteen software developers from a variety of places, including Germany and Finland, to discuss the use and future course of VuFind. This event continued some conversations begun at an even larger “community meeting” held the previous week in Germany.

VuFind Conference 2015

A group shot of the 2015 VuFind Summit Conference attendees!

Presentations at the conference covered some unconventional uses of VuFind – for example, as a website to document a painting restoration project, and a set of genealogy databases – as well as providing tips on how best to manage the software, including a fascinating discussion on how to enable the software to run without interruption even when searching huge numbers of records under heavy load.

The planning session and subsequent “hackfest” led to some useful discussions about interoperability and reusability and suggest that future development of the software will focus on allowing VuFind to interact with a wider variety of systems and be reused in novel ways. Welcoming developers from distant places to interact in person also led to some useful knowledge sharing, particularly with regard to new features of VuFind’s underlying tools, and this exchange of knowledge will likely result in performance improvements in the next release of the package.

Demian Katz took notes at the 2015 VuFind Summit.

Demian Katz took notes at the 2015 VuFind Summit.

It is conventional programmer’s wisdom that “software is never done,” and this is certainly true of VuFind – a mature and widely used package that nonetheless always has room for growth and improvement. Regular meetings like the VuFind Summit help to re-energize that growth and keep the project alive and on track.

Contributed by Demian Katz, library technology development specialist


Automatically updating locally customized files with Git and diff3

The Problem

VuFind follows a fairly common software design pattern: it discourages users from making changes to core files, and instead encourages them to copy files out of the core and modify them in a local location. This has several advantages, including putting all of your changes in one place (very useful when a newcomer needs to learn how you have customized a project) and easing upgrades (you can update the core files without worrying about which ones you have changed).

There is one significant disadvantage, however: when the core files change, your copies get out of sync. Keeping your local copies synched up with the core files requires a lot of time-consuming, error-prone manual effort.

Or does it?

The Solution

One argument against modifying files in a local directory is that, if you use a version control tool like Git, the advantages of the “local customization directory” approach are diminished, since Git provides a different mechanism for reviewing all local changes to a code base and for handling software updates. If you modify files in place, then “git merge” will help you deal with updates to the core code.

Of course, the Git solution has its own drawbacks — and VuFind would lose some key functionality (the ability for a single instance to manage multiple configurations at different URLs) if we threw away our separation of local settings from core code.

Fortunately, you can have the best of both worlds. It’s just a matter of wrangling Git and a 3-way merge tool properly.

Three Way Merges

To understand the solution to the problem, you need to understand what a three-way merge is. Essentially, this is an algorithm that takes three files: an “old” file, and two “new” files that each have applied different changes to the “old” file. The algorithm attempts to reconcile the changes in both of the “new” files so that they can be combined into a single output. In cases where each “new” file has made a different change in the same place, the algorithm inserts “conflict markers” so that a human can manually reconcile the situation.

Whenever you merge a branch in Git, it is doing a three-way merge. The “old” file is the nearest common ancestor version between your branch and the branch being merged in. The “new” files are the versions of the same file at the tips of the two branches.

If we could just do a custom three-way merge, where the “old” file was the common ancestor between our local version of the file and the core version of the file, with the local/core versions as the “new” files, then we could automate much of the work of updating our local files.

Fortunately, we can.

Lining Up the Pieces

Solving this problem assumes a particular environment (which happens to be the environment we use at Villanova to manage our VuFind instances): a Git repository forked from the main VuFind public repository, with a custom theme and a local settings directory added.

Assume that we have this repository in a state where all of our local files are perfectly synched up with the core files, but that the upstream public repository has changed. Here’s what we need to do:

1.) Merge the upstream master code so that the core files are updated.

2.) For each of our locally customized files, perform a three-way merge. The old file is the core file prior to the merge; the new files are the core file after the merge and the local file.

3.) Manually resolve any conflicts caused by the merging, and commit the local changes.

Obviously step 2 is the hard part… but it’s not actually that hard. If you do the local updates immediately after the merge commit, you can easily retrieve pre-merge versions of files using the “git show HEAD~1:/path/to/file” command. That means you have ready access to all three pieces you need for three-way merging, and the rest is just a matter of automation.

The Script

The following Bash script is the one we use for updating our local instance of VuFind. The key piece is the merge_directory function definition, which accepts a local directory and the core equivalent as parameters. We use this to sync up various configuration files, Javascript code and templates. Note that for configurations, we merge local directories with core directories; for themes, we merge custom themes with their parents.

The actual logic is surprisingly simple. We use recursion to navigate through the local directory and look at all of the local files. For each file, we use string manipulation to figure out what the core version should be called. If the core version exists, we use the previously-mentioned Git magic to pull the old version into the /tmp directory. Then we use the diff3 three-way merge tool to do the heavy lifting, overwriting the local file with the new merged version. We echo out a few helpful messages along the way so users are aware of conflicts and skipped files.


function merge_directory
    echo merge_directory $1 $2
    local localDir=$1
    local localDirLength=${#localDir}
    local coreDir=$2

    for current in $localDir/*
        local coreEquivalent=$coreDir${current:$localDirLength}
        if [ -d "$current" ]
          merge_directory "$current" "$coreEquivalent"
          local oldFile="/tmp/tmp-merge-old-`basename "$coreEquivalent"`"
          local newFile="/tmp/tmp-merge-new-`basename "$coreEquivalent"`"
          if [ -f "$coreEquivalent" ]
            git show HEAD~1:$coreEquivalent > $oldFile
            diff3 -m "$current" "$oldFile" "$coreEquivalent" > "$newFile"
            if [ $? == 1 ]
              echo "CONFLICT: $current"
            cp $newFile $current
            echo "Skipping $current; no equivalent in core code."

merge_directory local/harvest harvest
merge_directory local/import import
merge_directory local/config/vufind config/vufind
merge_directory themes/vuboot3/templates themes/bootstrap3/templates
merge_directory themes/villanova_mobile/templates themes/jquerymobile/templates
merge_directory themes/vuboot3/js themes/bootstrap3/js
merge_directory themes/villanova_mobile/js themes/jquerymobile/js


I’ve been frustrated by this problem for years, and yet the solution is surprisingly simple — I’m glad it finally came to me. Please feel free to use this for your own purposes, and let me know if you have any questions or problems!


All about VUFind Infographic


Infographic designed by Joanne Quinn with copy and invaluable assistance provided by Demian Katz and Darren Poley.


Digital Library upgrade provides enhanced discovery

Villanova University’s Digital Library has recently upgraded its discovery interface, introducing a more detailed search experience. This represents the first major upgrade of the application’s existing structure which was introduced a year ago when it was migrated to a Fedora-Commons Repository and debuted a public interface utilizing the Open Source faceted search engine VuFind.

Part 1 – Modeling the Repository

First we will discuss the systems architecture and components. Fedora (Flexible Extensible Digital Object Repository Architecture) provides the core architecture and services necessary for digital preservation, all accessible through a well-defined Application Programming Interface (API). It also provides numerous support services to facilitate harvesting, fixity, and messaging. It also supports the Resource Description Framework (RDF) by including the Mulgara triple store.


Figure 1

It is through these RDF semantic descriptions that Fedora models the relationships between the objects within the repository. An object’s RDF description contains declarative information regarding what kind of object it is. In our case we created one top-level model (CoreModel) that describes attributes commons among all objects (thumbnails, metadata, licensing information) and two second-level models that represent all basic shapes in the repository (Collections and Data). Collections represent groups of objects and Data objects represent the actual content being stored. (See Figure 1)

Figure 2

Figure 2

From here we further extrapolated these two models into specific types. Collections can be either Folders or Resources and Data objects can be Images, Audio files, Documents, etc. (See Figure 2)

Figure 3

Figure 3

Another important component found within the RDF description is the object’s relationship to other objects. It is this relationship that organizes Resources with their Parent Folder, and book pages within their parent Resource. (See Figure 3)

Look at the following RDF description for our Cuala Press Collection. You can see that it contains two “hasModel” relationships stating that it is both a Collection and Folder (Fedora does not support inheritance in favor of a mixin approach). Note also the one “isMemberOf” relationship referencing vudl:3, the top-level collection of the Digital Library.

<rdf:RDF xmlns:rdf="http://www.w3.org/1999/02/22-rdf-syntax-ns#" xmlns:fedora="info:fedora/fedora-system:def/model#" xmlns:rel="info:fedora/fedora-system:def/relations-external#">
  <rdf:Description rdf:about="info:fedora/vudl:2001">
    <fedora:hasModel rdf:resource="info:fedora/vudl-system:CollectionModel"/>
    <fedora:hasModel rdf:resource="info:fedora/vudl-system:FolderCollection"/>
    <rel:isMemberOf rdf:resource="info:fedora/vudl:3"/>

A more detailed explanation of this data model was presented at Open Repositories 2013. Abstract

Part 2 – The Discovery Layer

Villanova’s Falvey Library is the focal point and lead development partner for VuFind, an Open Source search engine designed specifically around the discovery of bibliographic content. Its recently redesigned core provides a flexible model for searching and displaying our Digital Library, making it the perfect match for the public interface.

The backbone of VuFind is Apache Solr, a Java-based search engine. A simple explanation of how it works is that you put “records” into the Solr search index, each containing predefined fields (title, author, description, etc), and then the application can search through the contents of the index with high speed and efficiency.

Our initial index contained all Resource and Folders from the repository, which allows us to browse through collections by hierarchy, and search receiving both Resources and Folders in the results.

Figure 4

Figure 4

An early enhancement to the browse module made available Collections that reside in multiple locations. For example our Dime Novel collection contains sub-collections whose resources can exist in 2 places. (See Figure 4)
Look at the Buffalo Bill collection and notice how its breadcrumb trail denotes residency in multiple places. This is achieved by adding an additional “is MemberOf” relationship in its RDF description:

<rdf:RDF xmlns:rdf="http://www.w3.org/1999/02/22-rdf-syntax-ns#" xmlns:fedora="info:fedora/fedora-system:def/model#" xmlns:rel="info:fedora/fedora-system:def/relations-external#">
  <rdf:Description rdf:about="info:fedora/vudl:279438">
    <fedora:hasModel rdf:resource="info:fedora/vudl-system:CollectionModel"/>
    <fedora:hasModel rdf:resource="info:fedora/vudl-system:FolderCollection"/>
    <rel:isMemberOf rdf:resource="info:fedora/vudl:280419"/>
    <rel:isMemberOf rdf:resource="info:fedora/vudl:280425"/>

Part 3 – The Upgrade

The existing search interface supports “full text” searching. We routinely perform Optical Character Recognition (OCR) using Google’s Tesseract application, on all scanned Resources, storing this derivative in the accompanying Data object. When the parent Resource is ingested into Solr, a loop is performed over all of the associated child Data objects, grabbing their OCR file and stuffing it into the full text field for the Resource. This works, as it will match searches from that particular page of the book and direct the patron to the parent Resource, but from there it is often difficult to determine what page matched the query.

Figure 5

Figure 5

A solution to this dilemma was achieved by including all Data objects in the Solr index. This would allow specific pages to be searched in the catalog, leading users to the individual pages that match the query. The first obvious problem with this idea is that the search results would then be cluttered with individual pages, and not the more useful Folders and Resources. This was ultimately overcome by taking advantage of a newer feature in Solr called Field Collapsing. This allows the result set to be grouped by a particular field in Solr. (See Figure 5) In our case we group on the parent Resource, which allows us to display the Resource in the result set and the page which was matched. (See Figure 6) A live example of this can be seen here.

Figure 6

Figure 6

We are pleased to make this available to the world, with the hopes that it will be helpful.

Happy searching…

Useful Links

The components of our infrastructure are all Open Source, freely available applications.

Fedora-Commons Repository
The backbone of the system

The public Discovery interface

The admin used to ingest objects into Fedora

File Information Tool Set (FITS)
A file metadata extraction tool

A OCR engine



If you follow Villanova’s Digital Library on Twitter, you may have seen this tweet recently:

Check out our new responsive design (thanks to @crhallberg!): http://t.co/VmWL30gonx Play around & let us know what you think! #webdesign

— VillanovaDigitalLib (@VillanovaDigLib) December 5, 2013

Proud to say that the shout-out refers to me, Chris Hallberg, and I’m going into my third year of working on the front end of the Digital Library. That probably doesn’t mean much to you though, so let’s cut to the chase.


aka. what is Chris’ job?

That’s a fancy way of saying that the design of the website adapts to any size screen that it’s viewed on. This is an evolution from the design model of having two completely different websites to handle desktop users (ie. Wolfram Alpha) and mobile users (Wolfram Alpha again, mobile edition). There’s two major problems here: developers have to design, build, test, deploy, host, and update two separate sites; and some functionality is lost.

Faster browsers, faster Internet speeds, and updated web technologies allow web builders to create more powerful web pages than ever before. Web users know this, and they don’t want to settle. They demand the complicated features of the “full” website on their phones and more and more users and mobile browsers try to use their ever increasing phone sizes to look at the desktop version. If you’ve ever tried this, you’ll know a lot of full websites look terrible on phones. This is where responsive design saves the day.

The biggest problem with smaller screens causes features normally laid horizontally, like this text and the navigation on the left, to clobber each other when the real estate vanishes or to become so tiny the crushed text within looks like something out of House of Leaves. Worst, in my opinion, is the horizontal scroll bar that turns your browser into a periscope in a vast, hidden field of content.


One word per line necessary to fit in these tiny columns


Bum bum bum

Responsive design actively reorganizes the page so that this doesn’t happen.

That’s better

“Play around”?

Here’s how to properly play with this blog to enjoy responsive design.

If this window is full screen, click the resize button (next to the close button) on this window so that you can see all the edges of the window. Now, drag the right edge of the window to the left, squeeze the window if you will. Come on. It’s ok, no one’s watching. If you don’t do it, the rest of this blog won’t make any sense. Thank you.

The first thing that will happen is that the navigation buttons above (called “pills”) will jump below the search bar. Then, the menus on the very top and below the search bar will collapse into buttons.

Pause a moment. You are entering the land of the Mobily-Sized Browser Window. We designed the new library and digital library web sites to reorganize itself when you look at it on any screen the size of an iPad or smaller. In this case, the menu on the left (and up) is going to move on top of this blog post and fill the available space. We spare no expense! Just keep an eye on the search bar as you squeeze the window down as far as you’d like.

That’s responsive design at work.

What’s going on here?

In order to make websites look beautiful, developers use a language of rules called CSS, short for Cascading Style Sheets. It looks like this:

button { ← What are we applying the “rules” below to?
   background: #002663; ← Villanova blue in code
   color: white; ← Color of the text
   border: 1px solid black;
   border-radius: 4px; ← Rounded corners!
   height: 45px;
   width: 90px;
   margin: 3px ← Distance from border to the next element
   padding: 14px 4px; ← Distance from border to content
} ← That’s enough rules for our buttons

That code is more or less how we made the four pills next to the search bar look so pretty.

A year and a half ago, the powers that be added a new feature to CSS: media queries. Media queries can tell us all kinds of things about how you’re looking at our web pages. We can tell whether or not you’re running your browser on a screen, mobile device, TV, projector, screen reader, and even braille reader. It can also tell if you’re holding your phone sideways or vertically, what colors it can display, and (most importantly) what the dimensions of your screen are. By putting code like our button example inside these queries, we can apply rules, like fonts, colors, backgrounds, and borders, to elements of the page depending on the context of the browser.

@media print { ← If we’re printing something
  // Hide ads and colorful content
@media (max-width: 768px) { ← Anything thinner than a vertical iPad
  // Show a special menu for mobile users

Responsive designs are built right on top of this technology.

Browsers are really good at stacking things on top of each other. This paragraph is under the previous one. This makes sense and it’s quite easy on your eyes, and your computer. With a few CSS rules, we can tell the browser to put things next to each other. The trick is to put things next to each other, until it’s impractical to do so. Being able to tell your web site where to put things and how they look depending on how and where your user is looking at it is what responsive design is all about.

The Magician’s Secret

Before media queries were invented, developers had to write some pretty serious code. This code had to constantly watch the size of the screen and then, basically, rewrite the files where the CSS rules are kept. It was very complicated, which is why it made much more sense to create two completely different sites and route users to each depending on their “user agent,” a small snippet of information that your browser sends to a server when you open a page in your web browser. The problem is, these bits of information were made for people to read for statistical reasons, so they are complicated and change every time a browser updated to a new version. It was a digital guessing game.

Some of the people behind Twitter decided to make a framework that web developers could build on. Instead of starting from scratch, developers could start with their collection of code and CSS that pre-made a lot of common elements of web sites like tabs, accordions, and toolbars, for them. They called it Bootstrap. In 2011, they added responsive design, making it easy for developers to create a site that looked good on any device. In 2012, a graduate assistant named Chris Hallberg was charged with rebuilding the Digital Library front end. In 2013, he, along with web developers all over campus, made Villanova’s web presence responsive. Without this framework, creating a responsive site would have taken much, much longer, and possibly wouldn’t have occurred at all. Not only was it an essential tool to the process, it is a broadcasting platform for the technology. Bootstrap makes responsive design possible and popular.

A Final Word

While I did the work you see over at the Digital Library, I did not create the page you are looking at. I can only take credit for the menu on the left, which I’m clearly very fond of. David Uspal was the magician who conjured this page’s design and David Lacy is the magician behind-the-scenes, organizing and delivering the thousands of books containing the tens of thousands of images we’ve scanned. We both received invaluable input from the Falvey Web Team and even viewers like you. Your feedback helped and continues to help us fix errors and typos, and (most importantly) pick the colors for our pretty new web site.

– Chris Hallberg

PS. A fun example of the new power of the web is Google Gravity from the gallery of Chrome Experiments.
PPS. As a reward to offset the new habit you’ve developed of resizing every window you find, here’s an accordion to play.


A More Complex VuFind 2 Unit Test

Okay, much sooner than expected, I found a good candidate for some more complex unit testing: the VuFindCart object that we mocked in the previous post.

Preparing for Testing

As I mentioned in the previous post, sometimes a bit of work needs to be done before classes can be easily tested.

In the case of VuFindCart, the class reads and writes cookie values (since this is how VuFind tracks book bag contents).  This is problematic for testing — the class is dependent on web-specific elements in the environment.  The solution is easy enough, though: add some extra abstraction.

First, we add the ability to override $_COOKIE through an extra constructor parameter: diff.

Next, we create a wrapper function around setcookie(): diff.

Now we can test everything easily even if we don’t have real cookies.  This abstraction may also come in handy in the future if Zend Framework offers its own cookie handling utilities, since we have reduced the number of times that VuFind directly utilizes low-level PHP functionality.

Writing the Test

As of this writing, we don’t have 100% test coverage for VuFindCart, but the work-in-progress test demonstrates a few useful techniques.  You might want to open the full code in another tab so you can look at it as you read the notes below.

First of all, as discussed in the previous post, VuFindCart depends on VuFindRecordLoader.  I use a mock object to satisfy that dependency.  The mock object is created as a property of the test class — this way, if tests need to make assertions about how VuFindCart interacts with VuFindRecordLoader, these can easily be set up.  (I haven’t done this yet, but it will be necessary to get 100% coverage).

I have created a getCart() convenience method which returns a VuFindCart mock object.  This routine uses the second parameter of getMock(), which can be used to specify which methods are to be mocked out.  In this case, we are only mocking out the setCookie() wrapper function, since we don’t want our test to actually call PHP’s setcookie() function.  Everything else will be executing real code from the VuFindCart class.

Most of the actual test cases are simple low-hanging fruit — setting values in the constructor and making sure that the corresponding get methods return them correctly, etc.  It should be fairly self explanatory.

The testFullCart() method might be of some interest — this demonstrates using a series of assertions to confirm that an expected sequence of events happens in the appropriate order (in this case, we are making sure that the cart registers as being full at the right point in time).

The testCookieWrite() method further demonstrates the power of mock objects.  We want to test that adding an item to the cart writes the correct values to the cookie.  Since we have mocked out the setCookie() method, we can set up expectations that it will be called at particular times with particular values — this allows us to test that a call to $cart->addItem() results in the expected calls to $cart->setCookie(), without actually writing any real cookies.  The PHPUnit syntax can seem a bit weird at first, but it’s not really too bad.  In this example, $this->at(0) and $this->at(1) are being used to set up rules relating to the first and second calls to $cart->setCookie; the ->with() portion sets up expectations for particular parameters at each call.


I hope this further demonstrates how testing can be achieved.  As before, please feel free to ask questions!


A Simple VuFind 2 Unit Test

I have said on several occasions that test-writing might eventually become a good way for new developers to contribute to the VuFind project. By increasing our test coverage (and thus future code stability), new tests are a valuable contribution to the software… and the act of studying all the code paths in order to write a test is a good way to learn how things work.

Of course, the reality of the situation is not so straightforward. There is still a lot of code in VuFind that is inherently hard to test, usually due to complex dependencies. At this point in time, the process of writing tests is often also the process of refactoring code to reduce coupling, which in turn makes it more testable — and this often requires a deeper understanding of the system than a newcomer is likely to have. (See my previous blog post for an example of the sort of refactoring I mean).

So testing isn’t always easy…  but still, it can sometimes be straightforward.  Here’s a relatively simple example to demonstrate some of the principles.

Getting Set Up

This post assumes you have a clean copy of VuFind 2 checked out somewhere separate from your production instance, and that you have the necessary tools (PHPUnit, Phing, etc.) installed.  More background on the setup can be found in the VuFind wiki.

What We Are Testing

For this example, we are testing VuFind’s Cart view helper (VuFindViewHelperRootCart).  This is a very trivial piece of glue code whose purpose is to make VuFind’s cart object (which keeps track of user selections in the optional “book bag” feature) available for use in view scripts.  You don’t really gain much by writing a test for this class — it is unlikely to change much and it contains no complex logic — but since it is so simple, it’s a good candidate for this tutorial.  We can get to 100% coverage very quickly.

You can view the full code of the view helper in our Git repository.

There are only two methods: the constructor (which takes a VuFindCart object as a mandatory parameter) and __invoke (a PHP magic method which returns the Cart object when the helper is invoked as if it were a function).

Getting Started

By convention, unit tests (i.e. all tests that exercise VuFind functionality without relying on an active test instance) reside in module/VuFind/tests/unit-tests/src.  Within this directory, test classes are arranged and namespaced to correspond with the code that they test.

This means that we’re going to create a module/VuFind/tests/unit-tests/src/View/Helper/Root/CartTest.php, living in the VuFindTestViewHelperRoot namespace.

All PHPUnit test cases must be subclasses of the PHPUnit_Framework_TestCase class.  VuFind includes some base test classes with additional convenience methods (see the VuFindTest namespace), but this particular test is simple enough that we can simply extend the default base class:

class CartTest extends PHPUnit_Framework_TestCase

Writing the Test

One of the keys to writing an effective test is to avoid doing any work that is not related to the task at hand.  You don’t want your test to fail because of a problem in a different area of the code — this will make bugs harder to locate when something breaks.

We are trying to test something very simple here — essentially we want to be sure that when we put a cart object into the view helper’s constructor, we get the same object out when we invoke the helper.

This is where the “don’t do unrelated work” rule comes in.  We could construct a real VuFindCart object for testing purposes, but then if there was a bug in the VuFindCart constructor, that might cause our test to fail, even though that has nothing at all to do with our view helper.  Fortunately, we don’t have to construct a real VuFindCart object, thanks to PHPUnit’s mock object feature.

With mock objects, we can create objects that serve as placeholders for real classes in our code.  They accept the same method calls and pass the same instanceof tests as real objects, but they don’t actually do anything — unless we configure them to expect particular incoming data or simulate specific responses under specific circumstances.  These are a very valuable testing tool!

In our particular case, we don’t need to do anything fancy with mocks — we just need to call PHPUnit’s built-in $this->getMock() method to construct a fake Cart object.

There’s just one small issue.  If you just call:


You will get an error.  VuFindCart’s constructor expects a VuFindRecordLoader object, and we have to satisfy this dependency even when building a mock.  Fortunately, the third parameter of getMock() accepts constructor parameters for the new mock object, and nothing stops us from creating a mock VuFindRecordLoader to satisfy the dependency.  Thus, we end up with:

$cart = $this->getMock(
‘VuFindCart’, null, array($this->getMock(‘VuFindRecordLoader’))

Now that we have our fake cart, the rest is simple…  Just construct a view helper:

$helper = new VuFindViewHelperRootCart($cart);

…and then test that invoke works by making an assertion that invoking the helper will return the same object that we passed to the constructor:

$this->assertEquals($cart, $helper());

Assertions are the most important part of any test — these are what determine whether each test passes or fails.  Never write a test without any assertions!  PHPUnit includes a wide range of assertion methods, allowing you to express many different conditions.

Running the Test

Now that the code is written (full test class available here), it’s just a matter of using your VuFind test instance to run it, as described in the wiki.

After confirming that a new test passes on my local system, I push it to the Git master and then check the code coverage report in Jenkins after everything rebuilds.  In this case, I’m now seeing 100% coverage for the cart helper.

What Next?

I hope this has served as a helpful introduction to some fundamentals, but I realize that most real-life testing is significantly more complicated.  I may try to write an article describing a more difficult test in the future if time permits.  In the meantime, if you want to try your hand at test-writing, feel free to send me questions — I’ll be happy to recommend some areas that might be worth looking at, and I can help with any refactoring that may be necessary.


VuFind, Zend Framework 2, and Flash Messages

One minor weakness of VuFind 1.x is that it doesn’t always provide good feedback for user actions.  One of the advantages to switching to a standard framework is that we can leverage an existing “flash message” mechanism to display messages to users in a consistent way.  Zend Framework 2 includes a simple FlashMessenger helper, but it took a bit of learning to use it as effectively as possible.  I hope that a discussion of my solution to this problem will helpfully demonstrate some aspects of the framework and VuFind 2.x’s architecture.

The Problem

In Zend Framework, flash messages are stored in an object by the controller.  For example:

    ->addMessage('Email sent successfully.');


    ->addMessage('Operation failed.');


The view is then responsible for pulling information out of the object and formatting it for display.

I wanted VuFind to display messages in a consistent way, so it seemed to make the most sense to use a View Helper to render flash messages.  This helper could take care of pulling messages from the namespaces in the object, applying translation, and building <div> tags with appropriate classes. This way, all I would have to do is add this code to a template:



and my flash messages would display.

There’s just one hard part: getting the object containing the messages from the controller to the view with a minimum of fuss.

Solution #1: Brute Force

My first solution was not hard to come up with, but I was never happy with it.

Controllers in Zend Framework 2 pass values to their corresponding views by returning a value (often a ZendViewModelViewModel object).  If we want to ensure that all of these objects contain a particular value, we can establish a convention where VuFind’s controllers never construct a ViewModel directly; instead, they always call a $this->createViewModel() method defined in an abstract base class.  This helper method is responsible for constructing a ViewModel and then attaching the flash messenger object to it.  Once the ViewModel has a flash messenger attached, the View Helper responsible for rendering the messages can simply pull the messenger from a known named property in the model.

Advantage: It works.

Disadvantage: It’s ugly.  It relies on a particular arbitrary value being in a particular arbitrary place.  It takes away some of the flexibility of the framework by forcing the user to always return ViewModels, and to construct them in a particular way.  It makes the user jump through a hoop (calling createViewModel to create a view model) and punishes them in an unintuitive way if they don’t comply (flash messages stop appearing).

Solution #2: Working with the Framework

Fortunately, there is a better way.

One of the nice features of ZF2 is its service manager system (described in more detail in this blog post).  Service managers are responsible for constructing and storing instances of important objects used by the application.  Ugly application-specific details can be pushed into service manager configuration so that the actual components of the application can be simpler and more reusable.

The flash messenger controller helper and our custom view helper are both constructed by service managers.  This means that, through proper service manager configuration, we can ensure that the flash messages view helper always has access to the flash messenger controller helper, with no need for the intervention of a nasty createViewModel() method.

This is achieved with the help of a factory in our view helper service manager configuration:

'flashmessages' => function ($sm) {
    $messenger = $sm->getServiceLocator()
    return new VuFindViewHelperRootFlashmessages(


Here’s how it works: service manager factories are passed an instance of the service manager that is doing the object construction ($sm in the example above — an instance of the service manager devoted to view helpers). $sm->getServiceLocator() retrieves the service manager that constructed $sm — the top-level service manager that manages the whole VuFind application. From here, we can call ->get(‘ControllerPluginManager’) to obtain the service manager for controller plugins. We can then call ->get(‘FlashMessenger’) on the controller plugin service manager to get hold of the flash messenger. This object ($messenger) is then passed to the constructor of the new VuFindViewHelperRootFlashmessages helper. The object now has access to the flash messenger as soon as it is constructed. None of the other code needs to know about the details — it just works like magic.

Yes, this is a bit ugly. But the important thing is that the ugliness is now in the configuration of the application — part of the glue that holds everything together. It’s okay for this part of the code to be a bit convoluted and application-specific, because its whole purpose is to make the various parts of the application fit together. The beautiful thing is that those component parts don’t have to know anything about the details of how the glue works — as a whole, the application has become less coupled and more flexible. Compare this to solution #1, where the ugliness was more deeply embedded in the application’s controllers and in the behavior of the view helper itself.

The Code

If you want to see how VuFind transitioned from Solution #1 to Solution #2, take a look at these diffs.

The Bottom Line

There’s definitely a learning curve involved with ZF2, but I continue to feel that it is worth the effort.  I hope this example has shed a little light on some of the issues… but if anything is unclear (and I’m sure something is), feel free to ask questions.  I’m always happy to help, especially if it means that more people are potentially able to help with the process of improving the code.


Moving VuFind to Zend Framework 2: Part 5 — The Dreaded forward() Bug

IMPORTANT UPDATE: The problem discussed in this post only applies to Zend Framework 2.0 RC4 and earlier. Starting with RC5, a fix was introduced which eliminates the double-rendering issue described below. With the fix in place, you can do the logical thing of returning the output of $this->forward()->dispatch() rather than having to return false. Thanks to Nicholas Calugar, Matthew Weier O’Phinney, and all the others on zf-contributors and #zftalk.2 who talked to me about this problem and helped me refine my pull request to fix it.

It’s a law of software development that if you can’t explain some weird behavior and you choose to ignore it, it will inevitably come back to bite you. I know this very well, but knowing it doesn’t prevent it from happening.

The Problem

When I first implemented VuFind’s Flash Messenger view helper (designed to display status messages stored in the session), I ran into a strange problem. The behavior of the helper was simple: check the session for messages, display them, then clear the session. The problem was that flash messages never displayed. Eventually I just commented out the “clear the session” line and everything started working. I didn’t have time to figure out what was really going on, so I just put a note in the code to check it later, and moved on to other things.

The Real Problem

I kept running into bizarre flash messenger behavior, so I decided I needed to solve this problem for real rather than just putting on a band-aid. After digging deep into ZF2 and putting logging lines all over the place, I figured out what was causing the problem: many of my view templates were getting rendered twice. Even though the templates displayed on screen just once, the code was executing twice. This was the reason for my flash messenger problem: the first render displayed the messages and cleared them. The second render replaced the first, and by this point, the messages were gone.

The Root Cause

After a lot more digging and some extremely valuable help from mpinkston on the #zftalk.2 IRC channel, I discovered the root cause. Sometimes you want to forward from one controller action to another. In ZF1, you could use “return $this->_forward(…)” to achieve the effect. In ZF2, there is a controller plug-in called forward() that does the same basic thing. I was using it like this:

return $this->forward()->dispatch('controllerName', array('action' => 'actionName'));

Seems harmless enough, but what actually happens here is that the forward() plug-in dispatches an action, which causes ZF2 to attach a view model to the top-level layout object. The forward() plug-in then returns that view model. When the calling controller returns it, ZF2 attaches a second copy to the layout object. And then both copies get rendered!

What I should have been doing was this:

$this->forward()->dispatch('controllerName', array('action' => 'actionName'));
return false;

A simple, honest mistake with evil, subtle consequences.

The Solution

I’ve already found a solution to my immediate problem, as described above. I won’t make this mistake again, and VuFind’s flash messenger now works correctly. I was concerned that the solution would only work when forwarding to actions that return a ViewModel, but it seems to work for all cases, even when a Response is returned instead (i.e. when redirecting to another page).

I remain concerned that this is a big potential pitfall for users of ZF2 in general. It’s an easy mistake to make, and the consequences are extremely non-obvious, especially since in many cases, the only result of the mistake is a slight performance hit caused by duplicate work being done.

Hopefully this will be addressed in the future either by notes in the documentation or by the introduction of a convenience method in the forward() plugin that returns false instead of the actual output of the dispatched action. If either of these things had existed, I probably wouldn’t have spent the better part of a work day chasing this problem. But I don’t mean to criticize the ZF2 team — I like the framework, and these are the perils of working with software that is still under development. I just point this out as something to watch out for that should be addressed, one way or another, before the final 2.0 official release.


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Last Modified: August 13, 2012