Friday, February 14, 2014

TECHNICAL TESTER FRIDAY: In Praise of Virtual Machines, and Tweaking with PHP

It's Friday, one week in to this project, and as I mentioned in an  earlier comment, I reserve the right to go back and change my mind about any of the options I've worked with and what I've put together. Today, I am doing exactly that.

For those who read last week's entry, I sad it would be worth your time to install the needed software on your base machine, so that you could get a feel for each of the components and what it takes to do that. While I still think there's a vale to doing that, after having to uninstall, reinstall, unconfigure, reconfigure, modify, point somewhere else, change options again, and then notice that my hardware machines just don't quite line up the way I expect them to, I have decided to heed the call of so many who left their comments on my post from last week.

In this first block of stuff, I hereby wholeheartedly recommend that you set up a virtual machine to do this work. Set up several if you'd like, but your sanity will be preserved, and  have a few extra benefits:

- you can play what if with multiple machines if you choose
- if you decide to use a Linux virtual machine, your CPU, memory and disk footprint to run the VM is really small.
- applications like VirtualBox and VMWare server allow for saving states and for taking snapshots. It's sort of an on-the-cheap version control, and it can save you from shooting yourself in the foot. Much more so that using your base environment to do all of this.
- set up Dropbox or some other file share location, and you're golden, everything that matters gets placed in a spot where it can be accessed as you need it.

I had every intention of bringing VM's into the conversation at some point, but this past week made me decide now was the best time. If you want to do these exercises in both a hardware machine and a VM, you'll learn a lot. You'll learn a lot by sticking your tongue on an icy pole in the dead of winter, too. I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide if some learning is best done vicariously. In any event, if you've taken the VM route with this, smart move, you won't regret it.

Next step is to set up a site with PHP. That would be great if I knew enough PHP to set up a site. Today, I can say I almost know enough to do that. PHP insertion is super easy. It's just a tag, in this case " to close, and  and some basic code that would look very familiar to anyone who has ever written a sample program in C or another language anything between the tags is PHP doing the work.

//dot (".") is the concatenation element (like + in JavaScript)
echo "Say" . " something" . " witty!";
$teabags = 0;
if ($teabags > 0) {
  echo "There are $teabags tea bags! I'll have a cup!";
} else {
  echo "No more tea! I guess I won't have a cup.";

If you create the front end page to evaluate PHP, it will happily do so. Note, you will need to save your pages with a .php extension, instead of .html, to do this. If there's other ways to do this, be patient with me, I haven't gotten that far yet ;).

There's a lot of different resources for PHP available, and one of the quickest to play with and try out is the Codecademy course. They cover the basics of the language, as well as how to put the snippets of PHP into a web page.  Another quick tutorial for building basic site elements can be seen at W3Schools, that perennial old school favorite of web arcana, and the PHP site itself likewise has a fairly quick overview of how to make pages with PHP. Right now I'm playing around with a few elements to see what I can do to create some dynamic content and reference things like images and navigation elements. 

Noah says to allow yourself a couple of weeks to get familiar with the language elements and practice making some simple pages. I'm going to reiterate that advice. It's really tempting to get greedy quick, and want to do too much or try top accomplish too many things at the same time. Noah's lesson 2 focuses on finessing HTML, CSS and JavaScript, so save those for lesson 2. Emphasize the focus in the short term on learning PHP basics, and trying to incorporate a whole bunch of the options into a few web pages. 

Also, save these snippets in a side file with some visible explanations, either in the HTML source or on the page itself. Why? Because this can be a running note tab to remind you of things that work and why. Make a tutorial page for PHP, using mostly PHP. Get a little meta. Put the page in a place you can readily access and review. Right now, I'm doing a hit of copy/paste to add elements and examples (oh for shame! I know, I'm breaking the Zed rule #1 here). Focus on understanding what you are doing first, *then* go back and see if there are ways to save these to include files to make more efficient and refactor. Yes, I'm saying incur a little technical debt right here. That's OK, it'll make the refactoring portion of this project a little more interesting ;).

My goal for this extended weekend and into next week is to get a mockup of a site, not just a page, that includes these PHP aspects, and start playing with them. Now of course, comes the tough part... how to make a site that will interest me enough to engage, but not be so detailed as to cause me to climb down too many rat holes. Stay tuned for next week's edition of TECHNICAL TESTER FRIDAY to see how well I did ;).
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