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ColdFusion Mx and Fusebox

ColdFusion MX and Fusebox

By Michael Smith

TeraTech, Inc

 

 

 

Fusebox is a popular development methodology for ColdFusion. I gave it a test drive on ColdFusion MX to see how it faired and to look for new possibilities with the new features in ColdFusion MX such as CFCs and functions.

Overview

What is a methodology? A methodology organizes your project and code for better communication, documentation and maintenance.

 

In my mind what the Fusebox methodology (www.fusebox.org) does best is showing non-programmers (of whom there are many who develop in CF) a standard, structured way of getting things done in an easy and methodical way. Any methodology would work in that respect, however Fusebox (probably because of the great community that supports it and its long history) seems to be the most popular one for CF. Also the methodology itself has been ported and used in ASP, JSP and PHP as well.

 

The biggest benefits are not technical.  Rather they result from the standardization of coding practices, everyone speaks the same language, and everyone can read the same code and understand it.  It makes for easier transitions with and for programmers.  A programmer who knows Fusebox going into a Fusebox shop is going to be a lot more productive much more quickly because they don't need to learn how that shop does its architecture.  Both sides benefit.

 

Key features of Fusebox include:

·         Splitting code into small fuses by type (HTML, SQL, CF) helps organize programs for better maintenance.

  • Having all the flow control one place (fbx_switch.cfm) makes the site’s page flow self-documenting.

·         Softcoding fuse exit points with XFAs in the fbx_switch.cfm file makes moving code between apps for reuse easier

·         Nested layouts are good for working with designers as their files mainly contain HTML and don’t have complex CFML code to confuse them.

·         XML format Fusedocs improve program communication and allow for auto test page generation.

Fusebox Lifecycle Process

Fusebox covers both the project lifecycle and actual coding. The Fusebox Lifecycle Process (FLiP) consists of wireframing, HTML prototyping and Devnote signoff. It attacks the fundamental problem of most projects -- WIBINWYCAW – “What Is Built Is Not What Your Client Actually Wanted” (as opposed to what they originally said they wanted!).

 

The first step in FLiP is wireframing -- a way to layout all the pages and links in a site in a way that the client can click through a working wireframe model of the site. No colors or graphics are done at this stage – we just focus on what the pages must do and the flow between pages. There are several wireframe tools written in ColdFusion and I tested out the one written by Lee Borkman (Bjork.net). After some tweaks for new reserved words in ColdFusion MX such as equals, it ran fine in ColdFusion MX and let me quickly create a wireframe outline of my test site.

 

The next step in FLiP is to create an HTML prototype of the pages. Obviously pure HTML runs just fine in ColdFusion MX, so this step was no problem. We ended up with an exact visual model of the site – with correct colors, graphics and layout but no functionality other than the links and buttons go to the correct pages. This may seem like trouble to write, but would you rather write pure HTML and get feedback now, or write CFML and have to rewrite it again and again?

 

We save these HTML prototype files with CFM extensions so we can add the next piece of the Fusebox puzzle – Devnotes. These are little user notes that appear at the bottom of each prototype page that the user can add comments to. They are used to communicate changes to the pages in writing from the client to the developer. The Devnotes code is called from OnRequestEnd.cfm, which is called at the end of each page request. For OnRequestEnd to work we need a corresponding Application.cfm to be run at the page beginning (it can be a single blank line)

 

After a review with the end users of the program and some changes suggested by them the client did a formal sign-off on the prototype pages. From this point on we know exactly what the site will look like – no graphics or layout changes are allowed until after delivery. In fact by tying down the layout we have also specified much of the database and functionality requirements – it is not possible to add a new field, for example, without changing the layout…

 

Now we are ready to start architecting the application. We printout the prototype screens and mark them up brainstorming exit points, fuseactions and circuits. From that information, a Mind Map is created, allowing us to visualize the application. But the Mind Map is not a dead-end. UsingFuseminder (www.grokfusebox.com), we create the application skeleton from the Mind Map. Hundreds of lines of code are written for us. Write the Fusedocs, and your fuses are ready for coding.

 

By using FLiP applications are less buggy, developed faster, and clients are happier because you delivered what they asked for.

Framework, flow control and nested inheritance

Now we are ready to code! We have a hierarchy of circuit directories and a list of fuseactions for each circuit. First lets start with the Fusebox framework files: fbx_fusebox30_CFXX.cfm, fbx_settings.cfm, fbx_switch.cfm fbx_circuits.cfm and fbx_layouts.cfm.

 

The Fusebox core file fbx_fusebox30_CFXX.cfm provides the brains behind the Fusebox framework. I tested with the CF50 file but I expect there will be a CF60 version available from www.fusebox.org that is optimized for ColdFusion MX by the time you read this article. The version 5 code seemed to run fine in ColdFusion MX, allaying my compatibility worries. I did have to change the test in index.cfm for the version in server.coldfusion.productVersion to allow versions greater than 5, but that was all.

 

The fbx_settings.cfm file contains circuit-wide settings such as security and constants such as request.dsn. The fbx_settings.cfm files are nested, starting at the root, one inside another down to the target circuit. This way, inheritance is provided to nested circuits, so that child circuits can override parent values.

Grandfather, father, son nested directories and circuits

 

The fbx_switch.cfm decides which fuses to call to accomplish the requested fuseaction. It is basically a CFSWITCH statement on the fuseaction variable with one or more CFLINCLUDEs to fuse files that dothe actual work; the display (dsp_*.cfm), CFML actions (act_*.cfm) or SQL queries (qry_*.cfm). The resulting HTML is captured using CFSAVECONTENT by the Fusebox core file. It is then displayed by the layout file specified in this circuits fbx_layouts.cfm file. This helps separate graphical layout from code. The resulting HTML is passed back up through the parent circuits providing for nest layout of menu options.  Similarly as errors are caught by the fbx_errorCatch.cfm  file and may be optionally bubbled up through the parent circuits to the root circuit.

Finally the core file outputs the completed nested layout. Layouts may also be selected based on user interaction or personalization settings. A simple fbx_switch.cfm is shown below.

 

<cfswitch expression = "#fusebox.fuseaction#">

 

<cfcase value="showInputForm">

<cfset XFA.add = "admin.add">

     <cfset XFA.edit = "admin.edit">

     <cfset XFA.delete = "admin.delete">

     <cfinclude template="dsp_InputForm.cfm">

</cfcase>

 

<cfcase value="showEmployeeList">

<cfinclude template="qry_EmployeeList.cfm>

<cfinclude template="dsp_EmployeeList.cfm>

</cfcase>

 

<cfdefaultcase>

     <cfoutput>I received a fuseaction called #fusebox.fuseaction#" that

circuit "#fusebox.circuit#" doesn't have a handler for.</cfoutput>

</cfdefaultcase>

 

</cfswitch>

 

Fuse division of labor

The fuses are where the work of a Fusebox application is done. We have already seen the Fusebox framework files – they all have the prefix fbx_. The other fuses start with dsp_, lay_, act_ or qry_ to separate out the display, layout, CFML and SQL parts of the code.

 

Display fuses (dsp_ prefix) and Layout fuses (lay_ prefix) are the only fuses that can present output to the client. Some CFML tags such as CFOUTPUT and sometimes CFIF are allowed, but the idea is to restrict these fuses to mainly HTML. This allows graphics and Web designers to edit them more easily than typical CF heavy files. Note the display may be in regular HTML for a browser, or WML for a WAP phone, or XML for a web service. In the latter cases Fusebox does not add any white space to your output, which saves many headaches with web services.

 

Action fuses (act_ prefix) on the other hand only contain CFML and cannot display output. They however may assemble data for display into variables that are used in later dsp_ files. This focus on CFML by action fuses eases debugging and reusability.

 

Query fuses (qry_ prefix) also can not display output, but unlike action fuses they are for SQL queries and other record set producing tags such as CFDIRECTORY. In addition to the query tag they might also use CFPARAM and CFQUERYPARM to validate their arguments but no other CFML processing. Keeping all the queries in one file type makes it easy to hand off SQL to a DBA for optimization or conversion to stored procedures. In fact some Fuseboxers use a fake query generating tag called CF_QuerySim(www.halhelms.com) to generate result sets even before the database design is complete!

Glue and documentation

We want fuses to be code “black boxes” that we can use without having to open them up to modify code for reuse. One way we improve reuse is by replacing all hardcoded exit points by variables called Exit Fuse Actions (XFAs). This way the exit point can be defined in the fbx_switch.cfm file and the fuse “rewired” from the outside if it is moved to another application. Compare this to traditional CF coding practice where to reuse code you often have to edit all the code to change the URLs, Form submit and other exit points to the new directory structure. Additionally it documents the exits points in the switch file so that all flow control is visible there.

 

Note that XFA are usually given names like XFA.success and in ColdFusion MX these automatically become a structure XFA instead of just being a variable called “XFA.success” as they would be in earlier versions of ColdFusion. This didn’t seem to cause any problems with using them and could come in handy if you wanted to loop over all available XFAs.

 

What happens when you do need to go into the black box of a fuse? How will you know what it does – the answer is the XML formatted Fusedocs. Similar to Javadocs, these notes give developers a standard way to communicate what a fuse does, the change history and what input/output it handles. Plus as they are in a format that is easily read by programs, they can be used by automatic documentation and test generation tools. By specify modules in detail before coding fewer bugs are produced.

 

The future of Fusebox

The new features in ColdFusion MX such as CFC components and full functions let us improve Fusebox more. One possibility is to move the fuseactions for a circuit into a CFC as public methods. The fuses could then be private methods in that CFC. There are several potential problems with this idea. Firstly instead of having all the code available for editing by multiple developers it is now all in one file. This makes giving all the HTML to a designer and all the SQL to the DBA harder. Additionally finding the fuse of a given name is now no longer a case of just finding the fuse name in the file window. Fortunately I understand that the new code editor Dreamweaver MX may have a method browser similar to the one in Visual Basic.

 

Another issue to resolve is the fact that currently fuses all run in the same variable scope due to the use of CFINCLUDEs. Methods in a CFC keep their variables private, so either all variables will need to be passed explicitly, or put in the request scope so that they are available to all fuses in the page request..

 

Both ColdFusion MX and Fusebox bring some aspects of object-oriented design to ColdFusion programming. Similarly some of the ideas from the java world such as javadocs have influenced Fusebox. I expect more ideas to come over from java, in particular there has been some interested in the Model-View-Controller (MVC) model by the godfather of Fusebox Hal Helms (see article http://halhelms.com/writings/MVC.htm)

Model circuits, especially, would seem ideally suited for the object-based nature of CFCs.

 

Summary

In conclusion Fusebox is a helpful methodology for programming in ColdFusion MX and gains new power with this new release of ColdFusion. Fusebox separates flow control, display, action and query code into modular files for easier maintenance. Soft-coded exit points and XML formatted documentation aid code reuse. The Fusebox Lifecycle methods of wireframing, prototyping, devnotes and formal signoff ensure your client gets want they really want.

 

Bio

Michael Smith is president of TeraTech http://www.teratech.com/ , a 13-year-old Rockville, Maryland based consulting company that specializes in ColdFusion, Database and Visual Basic development. TeraTech uses the Fusebox development methodology. Michael runs the MDCFUG and recently organized the two-day, Washington, DC-based CFUN conference that attracted more than 700 participants. You can reach Michael at michael@teratech.com or 301-881-1440.


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