Hints and Tips on Joomla and its usage.

The use of specific Component User Tables

During our development of our Time sheet component we looked very closely at the use of specific component user tables. These are tables that are specific to a component, which are/can be very useful when there is a requirement to associate some specific criteria to one or more users. i.e We might wish to enable email sending only to specific users.  This could be achieved with the use of Joomla ACL controls but often this can be a little bit overkill especially when there are a number of different combinations involved. In these situations the number of ACL groups required could/would quickly get out of hand and require a lot more overhead in determining the result if user actions in the component. Such user tables are often automatically populated by a system plugin that would automatically add any newly registered Joomla users to the component user table and also maintain any changes that the user might make to their profile such as username or email address between the Joomla user table and the component user table.

One other use for a specific component user table would be where there is a requirement for specific ‘unregistered’ users. An example might be where the component was collecting details of users who requested information upon a specific topic by filling in a form upon the site front end, and at some later stage an administrator might process such requests from the details recorded in the component user table.

Generally component user tables work well in practice but there is one large downside, which is that there is (in all of the uses we have seen),  an explicit assumption that all Joomla users will or are required to make use of the Joomla component, which is not necessarily true.  A Joomla web site will probably have a number (often in the hundreds if not thousands) of users and if the site has a specific component installed that is used for example, by internal staff only, there is no need to have additional entries in the component users table for the non-staff members. In the case of our Timesheet component only certain of the site users would make use of the component so there is no need to have an entry in the component user table for every single one of the Joomla users.

This has resulted in our implementing a change to how Joomla users are integrated into the component user table. The former mechanism of having automatic user table update by the use of the system plugin was obviously not desirable,however we did want to synchronise any updates (and deletions).  Thus we have a need to introduce an optional parameter to the system plugin which will control whether new Joomla users are automatically added to the component user table.

With this in mind we have modified a few of our components, and are in the process of modifying a few others, so that the automatic addition of Joomla users to the component users table is a system plugin option. This change is relatively trivial, but there is an additional change required, which is to provide a mechanism so that users can manually added to the component users table by a site administrator when required, such as when new staff join the company..

The first component to use these mechanisms was our Timesheet component and we have now also added our Rialto (Classified Ads) component,  Obviously in the first of these we are only interested in providing the ability to create timesheets to our internal staff.  In the later component we may only have a select sub group of users who we may want to be able to create/manage their classified advertisements. We will also add that, yes we do also include the ability in the components to use Joomla ACL rules but this alone would not address the number of entries in the component users table and could well make the administration of ACL groups a lot more complex as mentioned earlier.

There is some additional code required but the benefits include a smaller component users table, with much clearer administrative visibility and control over who is using the specific  component.  It also provides the ability to have a simple test upon whether the register user in the front end has an entry in our component user table to control what specific front end views they may be presented with.

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Using a custom Joomla library in your components

We were aware of an article written by Roberto Segura which covers the use of libraries in ones; own written components.  This addresses (in one way) a conclusion that there was a certain amount of duplication particularly in the language strings but also in code that is used both in the front end of a Joomla site and in the back end of the site.

We have been ‘playing’ (for want of another word) with the concept in a new component that we are developing and are very pleased with the way that it is shaping up.  We had already made changes in some of our later components to use the back end language strings in preference to the front end language files, and also where ever possible use the Joomla globally defined strings, but the use of a specific component library can aid in the use of language strings but also in the use of common code, without the need for adding additional code to include specific files by making use of the Joomla library autoloader.

We thought it was worth sharing this with our readers as even though we have been using Joomla for many years there is still much more to learn and discover. This is after all another one of the things we like about Joomla.

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Joomla 3.4.x and Mootools

joomlaWe have long been aware that the use of Mootools in Joomla extensions is being discouraged, but also know that it is used in a number of different places in the core code and would be automatically loaded if required.

What we were not expecting was that relatively new extensions would be using it.  We have just spent the best part of a week playing with a particular problem involving Mootools that we thought we would share.  We tended to make things more difficult for ourselves as we were using a plugin to automatically disable Mootools (for a much older problem), which tended to ‘mask’ possible solutions which meant we would have reached a conclusion much earlier if we had remembered.

We were working on an update to a front end form and observed that calendar fields were not displaying the ‘popup’ calendar picker window, also that when displaying the ‘tags’ field to enable the user to select or create new tags to add to an item, that the displayed field did not match what we were expecting, or seeing in the back end of the sight using the same code constructs.   We could see a Javascript error in the error console that was either a) Tips not found, or b) Squeezebox not found.  The first coming from a form field tool tip, and the second coming from the form calendar field.  These were obviously related to the form elements, but the tag display didn’t appear to have either of these used in its construction.

The tag display with Mootools disabled looks as follows:

20151221154101 image 4

We tried adding in explicit call to load various Mootools elements yet were not seeing any change in the problems.  After much thought and investigation it was then that we realised that we had the Mootools disabler plugin enabled so all our changes were effectively being ‘ignored’.  After a little silent ‘blue’ language we disabled the plugin and the Javascript errors disappeared and the calendar popup was visible again. 

What we had not expected was that the Tag display would also correct itself, which effectively meant that the Joomla tags helper must be using Mootools somewhere in its code. 

The desired tag display form field required (and achieved):

image

Despite searching we couldn’t find any reference that documented this, so its one to watch out for if you meet it yourselves.

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Tracking down CSS icon problems

We recently noticed a strange effect upon our web site, when we implemented a new component which was making use of the Joomla Searchtools and the JHtml 'jgrid.published' method upon the front end.  The basic problem was that the methods which use various icons such as icon-search, icon-publish icon-unpublish etc. was not displaying the icons and instead all we were observing was a small square rectangle where the icon should have been shown.

It was apparent that it had to be a site template ‘feature’ since when using the Joomla Protostar template all icons were correctly displayed.

We have made use of a Bootstrap 3 based template for some time and not observed this effect before, which is probably because we had not tried to use these Joomla methods before in the site front end.

Using the Firefox Web Developer plugin, we could see the CSS that was generated, and we could try and edit the CSS until we could achieve  the desired result, which was obviously to see the icons. What puzzled us for a little while was why after adding what we thought were the correct CSS commands the screen display (Firefox) didn’t immediately show the icon specified, and instead displayed a small lined box icon.  This made us immediately think that we had the wrong code, but after adding the same codes to the actual template and refreshing the page, clearing the cache etc., the requested icons did indeed appear.  Whether this is a Web Developer feature is unclear but it was certainly misleading!

The Bootstrap 3 template makes use of Awesome Fonts and it appears that something or somehow the font family has been disassociated from the icon class, so we added a few additional CSS rules to the template and this resolved the problem.

.icon-publish:before, .icon-save:before, .icon-ok:before, .icon-checkmark:before {
font-family: FontAwesome; content: "\f00c";
}
.icon-unpublish:before, .icon-cancel:before {
font-family: FontAwesome; content: "\f00d";
}
.icon-trash:before { font-family: FontAwesome; content: "\f1f8"; }
.icon-search:before { font-family: FontAwesome;    content: "\f002"; }
.icon-archive:before { font-family: FontAwesome;    content: "\f187"; }

The above FontAwesome content codes are for the 4.4.0 release.

Whilst investigating this we also looked at a problem that we has observed some time ago but never resolved, which was that the small drop down that we present on some pages which contains the icons to Print or Email the page contents, was difficult to see, and only upon hovering with the mouse over the small box where the dropdown was positioned, actually revealed its presence.  We wished the presence of the box to be more visually evident.

Again Firefox Web Development Tools helped and we could see that the dropdown CSS code was effectively empty so we had to specify a background colour as below:

a.btn.dropdown-toggle
{
background-color: #99ccff; 
}

This added a nice light blue colour to our background and achieved what we desired.

We are still a little puzzled as to why the above was required, but suspect that the reason is that Joomla itself has implemented specific changes to its own Bootstrap 2 implementation as used by the Protostar template, as since we were/are using a template based upon Bootstrap 3 we need to add these additional CSS codes to ensure functionality is maintained. This tends to support our conclusion from an earlier problem with the use of vertical tabs, which are not supported in Bootstrap 3, but that is a different post topic completely!

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Perseverance wins the day!

We recently investigated a problem upon our web site that impacted our Forum, and the ability to submit new topics or edit 'old' topics.
The problem was complicated in that there were no error or warning messages to provide any indications of what may be the cause. The most obvious symptom was that all of the problems were related and concerned the inability to submit 'form' data. i.e. The login process submits the entered details to the login process.  The creation or editing of a forum post involves submitting 'entered data' to the post process.  

Our immediate thought was that we were seeing a jQuery conflict, since we have seen similar problems in the past, again with no indication of the cause. We then proceeded to look at all the components, modules and plugins that we use upon the site but despite intensive searching we couldn't find anything that might be the cause, and there was certainly only one version of jQuery being loaded.  Investigation also revealed that only forms submitted by the forum software were impacted.  Very strange and seemed to indicate the forum software itself was at fault, but nobody had reported such a problem and when we tried it on another web site it worked perfectly.  We also tried installing an 'older' version of the forum software and this didn't resolve the problem either.

One complication was that we were also having problems with our backup software, and found that it was not possible to restore a backup to enable to perform some tests upon a copy of the live site.  We tried the software upon an earlier version of the site and it was working perfectly. This just made the problem more difficult to understand since that particular site was more likely to have a problem since it was more complex.

Once we have a solution to enable us to restore a current backup working correctly we performed a restore.  This was interesting since the 'restore site' worked perfectly and didn't exhibit the problems seen on the 'live site'.  This meant that the problem had to be caused by either a) the operating software upon the two platforms, b) the version of the underlying database, or c) the version of the PHP software used by the site.  Looking at the technical requirements of the software all were being met but there had to be something getting in the way.

Upon a hosted platform there is very little if anything one can do about the operating system, so we were left with the PHP and/or database versions. We looked at the PHP versions and tried a number of versions including 5.4.44, 5.5.28 and 5.6.12, without any change in the problem. Changing the database version is more complex since it required the creation of a new database and a restore.  The database versions upon both system was virtually the same being MySQL upon the live site and MariaDb upon the test site, although they were the same versions.

We therefore took the decision to try a system restore upon the live site with very little hope of a solution. To our surprise a system restore corrected the problem, which leads one to suspect that there was some corruption in the file system somewhere, but we currently have no idea exactly where at the moment. The most likely is that one or more of the forum software files was corrupt.

This was a long and exhausting investigation covering many days and resulting in delay to other activities.  Looking back if our backups had been working correctly then we might have got there sooner, which makes one ask just how regularly does one test the backups.  Obviously not enough has to be the answer in our case, even though we do test them periodically.  I suspect we are not alone in not testing the backups sufficiently often.

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MariaDB and Joomla update

Further to our original post, we have now carried out a series of tests and are pleased to say that we have found no problems with using MariaDB with Joomla.  Our tests compared version 5.5_44 of Maria DB and MySQL and to all intents and purposes no difference is noticeable.  We cannot say there is any difference performance wise, since we were testing upon different server instances, which makes such a comparison impossible to determine.

We can also say that our NAS in now running MariaDB as standard, so we will be using this version (5.5.44) for all our development work henceforth.

“For all practical purposes, MariaDB is a binary drop in replacement of the same MySQL version (for example MySQL 5.1 -> MariaDB 5.1, MariaDB 5.2 & MariaDB 5.3 are compatible. MySQL 5.5 is compatible with MariaDB 5.5). What this means is that:

  • Data and table definition files (.frm) files are binary compatible.
  • All client APIs, protocols and structs are identical.
  • All filenames, binaries, paths, ports, sockets, and etc... should be the same.
  • All MySQL connectors (PHP, Perl, Python, Java, .NET, MyODBC, Ruby, MySQL C connector etc) work unchanged with MariaDB.
  • The mysql-client package also works with MariaDB server.
  • The shared client library is binary compatible with MySQL's client library. “
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Joomla Smart Search Index size observations.

We have recently upgraded the underlying database version of our Joomla site to MySQL 5.5, from 5.1 and carefully observed the sizes of the underlying databases as we progressed. The source database was reported as being some 200Mb in size, which is not excessive for our modest site, but we were very surprised when after restoring the system to the new database the database size was reported as 37Mb.  We understand how databases store their data, so it was not the fact that it was smaller than was the surprise more the dramatic difference.

We then proceeded to rebuild the ‘Smart Search (Finder)’ indexes and checked the database size yet again.  This is necessary, since the backup does not by default include the Smart Search table data in the dump file. It was now reported as being 147Mb, and increase of 110Mb.

The fact that this increase was on our modest site, must make one wonder whether the benefits out weight the database storage overhead.  Ours’ is certainly not a large site, and the use of ‘smart search’ on large sites is not something we would wish to consider, and a dedicated standalone search engine, such as Solr, or possibly the Google Site Search, rather than the pure-PHP implementation used in Smart Search may well be found to be more suitable.

Smart Search itself consists of a number of ‘tables’ in the Joomla installation, of which at least 16  are "mapping tables". These mapping tables resolve the many-to-many relationship between search terms and the content items that contain them. In theory those 16 tables could be merged into a single table and doing so would have negligible impact on small sites. However, on larger sites there would be a substantial impact on performance because the mapping table would have a very large number of entries and updating such a large table can be time-consuming.  Maintaining the search term index requires a fair amount of disk space, which increases the more terms that content items contain. Since phrases are also indexed, the longer the phrases, the more disk space required. For Smart Search a reasonable compromise has to be reached between search usability and disk space usage.

Our observations must question this compromise and possibly we need to review the settings that we are actually using. It is likely that most readers may not be aware of exactly how large the ‘smart search tables’’ are in their own Joomla installations.  The decision as to whether to continue using the Smart Search’ component should also be reviewed.

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Making a component truly Multilingual (6)

We duly released our ‘multilingual’ component Rialto, and there are just a few additional points worth mentioning before we wrap up our series of blog posts upon this topic

One cool trick that we discovered from reading the Joomla documentation is the ability load arbitrary front-end and back-end language files of any component and language. For example, you may want to load the English language file and mix it with the user's current language. This means that untranslated strings will appear in English and not as untranslated keys. You can use something like this for the back-end language files:

$language = JFactory::getLanguage();
$language->load('com_yourcomponentname', JPATH_ADMINISTRATOR, 'en-GB', true);
$language->load('com_yourcomponentname', JPATH_ADMINISTRATOR, null, true);

And to load the front-end language files, using the same trick:

$language = JFactory::getLanguage();
$language->load('com_yourcomponentname', JPATH_SITE, 'en-GB', true);
$language->load('com_yourcomponentname', JPATH_SITE, null, true);

This  is particularly useful for the situation where not all of the ‘foreign’ language translations are up to date, yet you still wish to present an ‘intelligent’ output.   

One associated use of the above is the situation where we have the front end making use of helper files from the back end, and the strings used in the helper files are (obviously) making use of the back end language files. To avoid re-specifying the strings in the front end language files we can ensure that the back end files are picked up by including the above in our helper files.

We have avoided describing how a multilingual site is set up, as this is adequately covered in many other posts upon the net. We would again strongly recommend the component named ‘JAMultiLingual’ from Joomla Arts that we have successfully used to set up a Joomla site for ‘Multilingual’ and certainly simplifies the steps in getting started into Joomla Multilingual. It is not the only possibility but one which we have used and found very well constructed.

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Making a component truly multilingual (5)

Whilst finishing up our component there were a few matters which we needed to address.

 

Site Map Generation

The first of these related to the generated ‘site map’ which was not displaying correctly. The problem was caused by us omitting to include the ‘new’ alternative language main menu items in our site map generation component (OSMAP/XMAP) which soon resolved the matter. To be more precise the ‘site generator component’ was installed prior to our multilingual work upon the site, so did not ‘automatically’ pick up the menu items it uses in the map generation. Obvious once one looked at it. It did reveal an addition place where we had to add out additional ‘'database query condition to include only the current displayed language (plus those marked all or undefined).   This just required adding to the ‘getCategories’ method, although to be absolutely certain that only the relevant entries were shown, we also added it to the ‘GetEntries’ method as well. This latter is probably not required except where entries are added to the incorrect categories, but acts as an extra check when the entries are generated.

Deletion of Associated Items

This actually applies to both the front end and the back end of the site. We decided to take a deeper look at the code to handle the deletion of any associations when an item is deleted. To be more precise when an item is deleted, the existing association entry for that item should also be deleted from the associations table. As originally written all association records would be removed for the deleted item and hence also for the associated items. However this is not necessary correct when there are three (3) or more associated items, since one really only wished to remove one association record.  For two associated items it is fine, since we also wish to remove the ‘other’ record in the associations table at the same time. .  So to be precise, we should for situations where there are more than 2 associations for an item, only remove the single record in the associations table, but if there are only two item, then we should remove both records from the associations table. This has worked well in all our tests and wonder why some similar code does not exists in the base Joomla components such as com_content etc. On a busy site with items being created and deleted on a regular basis we can see the situation where the database associations table would be much larger than is necessary, since there would be without similar code being present in the components, resulting in a slower response to other queries.

 

How the PHP tests work

One of the things we omitted to mention in our last post was how the actual code checks were working and didn’t explain what the checks were actually ‘checking’. We made use of two specific methods which we expand upon below:

JLanguageMultilang::isEnabled()

This method determines if the language filter plugin is enabled.  It works for both site and administrator on the site.  If the site is supporting multiple languages then true is return else false is returned.  The presence of the language filter plugin is what is determining whether multiple languages are being used upon the site. Note it does not check whether multiple languages are actually installed.  The distinction is subtle but very clear.

JLanguageAssociations::isEnabled ()

This method is used to determine if the language filter Items Associations parameter is enabled.  One can always have a multilingual site and not make use of item associations, which is ‘relating’ items that are ‘effectively’ the same, but only expressed in a different language. An example might be a site located in a country with two different locally spoken languages (i.e. Serbia) and items are translated and presented in both languages to site visitors.

Making use of the two standard Joomla provided methods simplified our coding, however we still had to add our own code to pick up any desired associations for our displays.

 

To be continued…

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Making a component truly Multilingual (4)

Continuing on from our earlier posts about item associations. we continue our look at the front end.  As explained this is slightly more complicated.

We require changes to the following files:

There is the module in place required by JMultilingual that performs the ‘switch’ between the various installed available languages. We need to pick up the current displayed language and modify the displayed data based upon the determined value.

We need to implement the following changes:

Models that display lists such that there is an additional statement in the SQL query to detect the language. Such a statement might look similar to the this:

        $query .= " WHERE c.language in (" . $db->quote(JFactory::getLanguage()->getTag()) . "," . $db->quote('*') . ",'')";

This will pick up all the current displayed items for the determined language and also any items that are marked as ‘All’ or undefined. Hopefully there will be no undefined items but this allows for that possibility.

The front end views need modifying to display the ‘language’ field if deemed necessary.  We need to add the ‘language’ field to any select statement so that it is then available.

Any drop down select lists (if present) similarly need modifying so that the ‘language’ criteria is also applied. i.e. If being viewed in Spanish, we do not want to display any drop down list selectable item in English. The appropriate entries would have been defined in the admin side of the site, along with the required associations.

Any list view models will probably need to have some additional criteria added to the select statement along the following lines:

if ( JLanguageMultilang::isEnabled() ) {
if (JLanguageAssociations::isEnabled() ) {
// Criteria where associations will change the displayed values.       // …    } else {       // Any criteria where associations are not used.
      // ……    } } else { // Criteria for non multilingual sites.    // Effectively the code we had before we implemented multilingual. }

Any displayed module using the component data would similarly require the language criteria to be added to any select statement. Whilst on the subject of modules it is worth mentioning that any link which might be present in the module, to display more specific data would need inspection to ensure that they still work. We found that if a menu id (itemid) is specified in the link that it did not always result in the correct data being displayed.

If we are allowing items to be deleted in the front end then we also have to modify the appropriate model delete code to handle any ‘associations’ that may exists for the item to be deleted. We can choose to use similar code to that used in the back end.

The creation of item associations in the front end was touched upon in our last post upon the subject. Further investigation reveals that there was a conscious decision by the Joomla Multilingual team not to implement associations on the various ‘base’ Joomla components, instead relying on the back end functionality to perform the necessary actions. In the lack of more information at the current time we have decided to adopt the same approach, but may change this at some later time..

To be continued…

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