In my many years of programming, almost 20 years now, I have used countless Integrated Development Environments (IDEs). I have used them from a simple text editor all the way up to the high end IDEs that Sybase, IBM, and Oracle use. In more recent years I have come to embrace the Open Source movement and more specifically development in web environments. My programming language of choice for web development these days is PHP, so it stands to reason that I would be looking for a decent or great IDE for its development. Like so many other developers I too followed a path of looking for the Pinnacle of IDEs for PHP. I started with basic text editors, then moved into text editors with code colorizations, and then into project based development environments, and finally to a fully robust IDE. The one that I most recently was using was Zend’s Studio Professional and I have been using it for a few years now.
Zend has decided, and I think this is a great idea, to join in with the Eclipse community that was founded in large part by IBM a number of years ago. The values that can be added by joining with the Eclipse community are many and varied. Since Eclipse was primarily established as a Java development environment it has certainly grown in leaps and bounds by way of add-on libraries just to name one popular area. Zend saw that this was a great place to cozy up to and has been developing a professional version of its PDT environment (released earlier this year) for over a year now. The PDT version is its open source free-ware version of an editor IDE that is based on the Eclipse foundation materials.
This article will attempt to introduce you to the Professional version that will be released soon. It is currently in beta being test run by over 800 users and PHP developers all around the world.
First Looks - Overview
The first thing that you will have to do after obtaining the software, naturally, is to install it. Zend has ensured that Studio for Eclipse will work on all major operating systems, and this review will be covering its operation on the Windows platform. The installation process is very straightforward and employs an install wizard approach.
Figure 1 - One of Studio's Installation wizard screens [click on this link for the larger version]
Figure 1 shows one of the initial installation screens where you are to select some of the additional tool options that are also included. Once the installation is completed and you start up the application you will be presented with the default PHP perspective, shown here as figure 2.
Take some time to look at Figure 2 to get yourself familiarized with the layout. Those who are seasoned users of Eclipse should not be seeing too many surprises here just the content and the context will be different. There are a few “views” here that are used in the initial perspective that are meant to aid the developer with PHP code development.
The first view to look at is in the top left corner of this figure. This is the PHP Project Explorer. Here you can manage all the files and associations that are related to a single project. The great thing about this view is that you can manage more than one project at a time and therefore draw on code or techniques that you may have used in other projects. One other thing that I like a lot here is the “Link with Editor” toggle on the project view’s toolbar ( ) it allows the developer to connect the editor with any file in the project, so that once the file gains focus in the project explorer it is automatically opened in the code editor window on the left. As I mentioned this is a toggle, so it can be turned on and off at the developer’s discretion.
The Code Editor
Also notice in Figure 2 that the main view in the figure is that of the code editor, briefly mentioned above. This is where you will be doing most of your code development. The Code editor view has many little features that become very valuable over time. This is a tabbed interface, so you can effectively have as many open code files as you like. Some of the valuable features that were alluded to are: code colorization, code folding, and syntax checking. You can see what the code colorization is doing in this figure, the HTML directives are in green, the PHP functions are in blue, PHP variables are in red, and so on. This certainly helps the developer to see if a variable is misnamed or a function misspelled. The next feature that I mentioned is code folding. Notice that to the left of the function definitions and the major HTML directives like <Table> and <Body> there are little plus and minus icons. When clicked they toggle between collapsing or expanding code. This lends itself to temporarily moving code out of view that you do not want to see in order to focus on other sections. This does not delete the code it just “folds” it out of the way for you. Lastly, syntax checking, this is the Studio’s ability to check your code as you write it and make sure that you have complete code “thoughts”. It lets you know when you have mismatched braces, incorrect function calls, misnamed variables, and so on. Also, part of this syntax checking will be preformed within the collection of smaller views at the bottom of this perspective. Another tabbed interface shows a collection of code issues, what type they are (warning or error), and what line in the code they are found in. The tab can also be seen in Figure 2 labelled “Problems”
Those are just a few of the features that Studio for Eclipse has to offer. One of my favourites is that of code completion. This is the editor’s ability to suggest the completion of the code that you are writing. It happens as you type and is quite intuitive. As shown in figure 3, I am typing the beginnings of a MySQL PHP function, but all I have typed so far was “mysql_” the popup box displays with the functions that studio knows about that would complete what has already been typed, and just pressing enter will choose the first item on the list of suggestions and insert it into the editor for you. You can select other offerings from the list with your mouse pointer and double-click on it to choose it for insertion.
Another big aspect to Zend’s Studio for Eclipse is its full-featured debugger. This is one of the best debuggers that I have seen in a long time. Figure 4 shows a sample program in debug mode in the PHP Debug Perspective. There are many views here that are supporting the debug process. In the middle of the top pane you can track your variables, breakpoints, and parameter stack. To the right of that is a view that holds the outputs of the debugger in both HTML and browser-rendered format. Then showing in the middle pane is the code that is being traversed with the debugger, so you can see the code as it is being executed.
If you can see the mouse-pointer in figure 4 it is pointing to the toolbar items in the debugger that help you navigate through a debugging session. Here you can step into, over, or through (to the cursor) your code as you are looking for the problems in your application. Having the ability to stop you code at certain stages of execution and inspecting values can be very valuable indeed.
The plethora of options that control how the Studio works is huge! If you select the preferences option under the window menu you will be presented with the dialog that appears in figure 5. Here you can change the default behaviour of almost every aspect of this IDE. From the editor to the SQL connections to the Internet settings it’s all here. Specifically shown in figure 5 are the options that you have for altering the syntax colorization for the PHP code. Since there are so many options for you to choose from be sure to only change one or two features at a time so that you can see what the alteration really does, and so that you don’t have so many changes to roll back that you forget which option enacted the change that you really wanted.
Studio for Eclipse also has a very nice SQL Perspective where you can interact with any local or remote data source. As exampled in figure 6, I have a local MySQL data source selected in the left pane, the Data Source Explorer, with some executed SQL select statements run in the lower central portion of the screen. On the lower right is the display of the results of the most recently executed SQL command, and at the top is a SQL editor file where you can write your own more complex SQL commands to be executed.
This SQL interface has many features and options as well. In the Data Source Explorer there are a number of options presented to you when you click the right-mouse button. You can even edit the data in a table directly within this perspective.
One other feature that is great from the team development point of view is the code gallery that Zend has implemented into Studio for Eclipse. This is a two-pronged repository of tried and tested code snippets that can be used repeatedly in multiple projects. The idea is that you can come up with some great code segments and then save them into this gallery for others to use. Figure 7 has a screen shot of an entry being made into the gallery. Once you have a library of code to draw from you can open its defined view and simply click on the ‘insert’ button on its tool bar to insert the code at the current location of your cursor within code that you are developing.
The second prong of this code gallery is that Zend has a global gallery where they have collected some of the best code ideas from the PHP community. With your Zend username and password you can access this repository and use the code in your own projects. As well, if you come up with a great segment of code on your own, you can also ‘suggest’ it to the Zend gallery, and upon review it may be included into Zend’s gallery for all the world to peruse.
Zend’s Studio for Eclipse has many more features that I have not mentioned here. Following is a brief list just to mention what else is in store for you.
- Zend Framework Integration
- CVS file management
- FTP/ SFTP connection
- WYSIWYG editor
- Zend Platform Integration
- Code Refactoring
As I mentioned in the opening paragraphs I have been looking for the perfect IDE for many years and have experienced many different stages of their incantations. Zend Studio for Eclipse is young and un-seasoned as of yet, but I think it will definitely be in the running for a top icon spot on my desktop and will be used on a regular basis as I continue my development journey with PHP. As Studio for Eclipse matures and versions 2 and 3 show up over time I am sure that Zend will be continually adding features to it, so it can only get better.