Kernl: Important BitBucket Changes

It came to my attention that the way BitBucket handles deployment keys has changed. Until recently the same deployment key could be shared across multiple repositories. That rule has been changed and now each repository requires a unique deployment key. So what does this mean for you? You’ll need to take a few steps to make sure that your “push to build” functionality continues to work as you expect it to.

  1. I’ve deployed changes that allow you to add unique deployment keys to all of your repositories. For those of you with a lot of repositories this is going to be pretty tedious, but in the end it will give you greater access control to your repositories. Documentation for adding deployment keys can be found at https://kernl.us/documentation#deploy-key , but you likely won’t need it. Just go to “Continuous Deployment” and then click “Manage Deployment Keys” (if you don’t see that button, hard refresh).
  2. Starting tomorrow (February 21, 2017) at 7pm EST, access with the old Kernl deployment key will be cut off. From this point forward only the new deployment keys will be able to access your repository.
  3. After February 21, 2017 @ 7pm EST you can delete the old Kernl deployment key from your repositories. If you do it before then your builds will fail.

Sorry for the short notice and inconvienience of this change, but it’s necessary to make sure that all customers are able to deploy continuously with Kernl. If you have any questions or concerns about this change, please reach out. And once again, sorry for this inconvience!

Kernl Goes Beta!

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 3.02.31 PM

In May of this year I launched the Kernl alpha with hopes that WordPress developers would be interested in it.  And interested they were!  6 months later Kernl has over 65 users from all around the globe and a host of new capabilities to make WordPress plugin and theme development easier.  For instance, since launch we’ve added:

  • Continuous Integration with BitBucket
  • Continuous Integration with GitHub
  • Purchase Code Validation

But new features aren’t all that make a service great.  For people to trust in something it must be reliable, and thats what the beta phase of Kernl is all about: improving reliability.  We’ve reached a point where we feel Kernl provides enough value to the WordPress community to allow us to take some time to refactor code and add a lot more tests.

What does this mean for you?  Not much.  If we do our job right you won’t notice anything.  The beta is still free and everyone will get big “heads up” before we start charging for the service.

Thank you to all of the alpha users who have made this possible.  Without you Kernl wouldn’t be where it is today.

 

Continuous Deployment of WordPress Plugins Using Kernl

One of the problems I’ve always had with WordPress plugin development is doing it in a modern build pipeline. I really wanted to be able to merge a branch into master, build the zip file, and push the update out to my clients. For the longest time I wasn’t able to do this, so I built Kernl to enable a more modern development approach to WordPress plugin development.

What is Continuous Deployment?

Continuous Deployment (or Continuous Delivery) is a software development strategy where you ship code frequently. Your pipeline is fully automated, so as soon as some event on your version control repository is triggered the deploy process starts. For me, that event is when I merge a pull request into master.

What is Kernl

Kernl started out as a way to provide private plugin and theme updates for WordPress, which grew out of my frustration at having to update clients manually every time a small bug was patched. Once I had the updates working manually, the next step was automating everything. This is where “push to build” came in.

How Push To Build Works

Getting Started with Kernl

Getting push-to-build updates on your plugin or theme is pretty easy to set up with Kernl.

  1. Go to https://kernl.us and sign up. After you’ve logged in, click “Continuous Integration”.
  2. Now connect BitBucket.  This will authorize Kernl to access your BitBucket account so that it can enable push-to-build functionality.
  3. The next step is adding a WebHook to BitBucket.  This tells BitBucket to send a message to Kernl after every code push.  To do this, go to your repository settings, scroll down to “Integrations” and click “WebHooks”.  Set the new Webhook to point at https://kernl.us/api/v1/repositories/bitbucket/webhook.
  4. In order for Kernl to know when to build a new version of your plugin, it looks for a file named kernl.version in the root directory of your repository.  Go ahead and add this file now and commit it.  The kernl.version should contain a semantic version that looks like “1.0.1”.
  5. Next, you need to add a plugin.  In Kernl, click “Plugins” on the left and then click “Add Plugin” on the upper-right.  Fill out the name, slug, and description fields, then scroll to the bottom.Kernl Select Repository and Branch You should now be able to select from a list of repositories from your BitBucket account.  You can also choose what branch Kernl should make its builds from.  The default is master, but it can be anything that you want.  Select a repository now and press “Save”.
  6. Next, you need to add the first version to Kernl manually.  Click the “versions” button for the plugin you just created, and then click “Add Version”.  The most important part of the process here is to make sure that the version number in Kernl, kernl.version, and your plugin match.  If you put 1.0.0 in the kernl.version file, make sure that it matches in your plugin’s main file, as well as in Kernl when you upload the first version.  If this still isn’t clear, check out the example plugin on BitBucket.  The kernl.version should contain one line, and on that line will be your version.  Once you have the versions figured out, zip up the plugin as if you were going to distribute it and upload it to Kernl.
  7. Thats it!  Distribute this copy of the plugin to your clients and they’ll receive private updates whenever you upload a new copy or push a new version to your BitBucket repository.

Pushing a New Version

With all the boilerplate setup complete, getting a new update out to your clients is super easy.  Follow the steps below and you’ll be good to go.

  1. Make code changes.  Whatever change you want to push out, go ahead and make it.
  2. Update your plugin’s version.  This is typically in the comment document block in your functions.php file.
  3. Update the kernl.version file.  This should match your functions.php version.
  4. Commit
  5. Push to the branch you specified in your plugin setup on Kernl.  If you didn’t specify a branch, that means you’ll need to push to master.
  6. Done.  If all went well, you’ll receive an email from Kernl that lets you know about the new version that was pushed.  You can also verify that the plugin was built by visiting Kernl and looking in the version list for your plugin.

Plugin build email

If you’ve ever wanted to modernize your WordPress development pipeline, I highly suggest you check out Kernl.  Automatic updates triggered by changes in your repository will save you tons of time and get bug fixes and updates out to your clients faster.

PHP Dark Arts: References

Remember the first time you dabbled in C?  Oh, the glorious typing, functions, and structs!  Now do you remember the first time you ran in to a pointer?  ‘*’, ‘&’, ‘->’ all made your hurt, but eventually you figured it out.  It’s fortunate (depending how you look at it) that we don’t have need to dabble with pointers or references while web programming these days.  However, PHP does allow us to passing things around by reference.  It’s not used often, but when used correctly can be very beneficial to the quality of your code.

What are PHP references?

The first thing you need to know about PHP references is that they are not C references.  You can’t do pointer arithmetic on them because they aren’t actually addresses.  In PHP references are actually symbol table aliases.  This means that you can have 2 variable names sharing the same variable content.

What can you do with references?

There are 3 things that you can do with PHP references.

  • Assign by reference.
  • Pass by reference.
  • Return by reference.
$x =& $y;
$x = 3;
echo "X: $x, Y: $y";

The above code sets $x and $y’s references to the same content area. Therefore, when $x is assigned 3, $y has access to the same data.

function add_item(&$item) {
   	$item++;
}
 
$totalItems = 0;
for($i = 0; $i <; 5; $i++) {
	add_item($totalItems);
}
echo "Total items: $totalItems";

This code allows you to modify a variable’s value without ever returning anything. In this example I made a simple counter, but you can set the value of $item to anything and it should work out just fine.

class Test {
	public $count = 0;
 
	public function &getCount() {
		return $this->count;
	}
}
 
$t = new Test();
$value = &$t->getCount();
$t->count = 25;
echo $value;

This code returns a reference to the public $count variable of the Test class. Generally this isn’t best practice, as it lowers the readability of the code.

Unsetting References

In the event that you want to free a variable from it’s reference to another, you can simply use the unset function.

$x =& $y;
unset($x);

HTML 5 Canvas: Saving to a File with PHP

So you’ve finally discovered the wonder that is the HTML5 Canvas element. Great! If you’re like me, the first thing I wanted to do with it was doodle on it. I eventually worked out how to map touch/mouse events to the canvas and draw lines, but I wanted to save my creations!

As it turns out, the Canvas element has a method called toDataURL(), which base64 encodes the entire Canvas element and returns it as a string. From there, you can just pump it over to a server and handle it from there. Here’s the step-by-step, which assumes you are also running jQuery on your site.

Step 1: Save the canvas and POST the data

var data = document.getElementById("myCanvasID").toDataURL();
$.post("process.php", {
	imageData : data
}, function(data) {
	window.location = data;
});

Step 2: Process the POST data, and save it to a file.

$data = substr($_POST['imageData'], strpos($_POST['imageData'], ",") + 1);
$decodedData = base64_decode($data);
$fp = fopen("canvas.png", 'wb');
fwrite($fp, $decodedData);
fclose();
echo "/canvas.png";

Note: The first line of this script removes the header information that is sent with the encoded data.

Thats all there is to it. You can now easily save your HTML 5 awesomeness.

Caching WordPress Data with the Transients API

If you’re a plugin or theme developer, there may come a time when you need to execute a long running operation. It doesn’t need to be anything complicated, but something as simple as fetching a Twitter feed can take a significant amount of time. When you come across these types of situations, it’s handy to be able to store the data on your own server and then fetch a new copy of it every X hours. This is called caching, and WordPress convieniently comes packages with an excellent caching API called Transients .
Wordpress Transients API

The Transients API is surprisingly simple to use. In fact, it’s very much like using set_option and get_option except with an expiration time. If you aren’t familiar with caching at all, here’s the general workflow:

  1. If the data exists in the cache and isn’t expired, get it.
  2. If the data doesn’t exist in the cache or is expired, perform the necessary actions to get the data.
  3. Store the data in the cache if it doesn’t already exist or is expired.
  4. Continue from here using data.

When attempting to use the Transients API for caching, there are three functions that you need to be aware of: set_transient, get_transient, and delete_transient.

  • set_transient($identifier, $data, $expiration_in_minutes): This function stores your data into the database. The identifier is a string that uniquely identifies your data. Your data can be any sort of complex object, so long as it is serializable. The expiration is how long your want your data to be valid (ex: 12 hours would be 60*60*12).
  • get_transient($identifier): This retrieves your data. If the data doesn’t exist or the expiration time has passed, false is returned. Otherwise, the same data you stored will be returned.
  • delete_transient($identifier): This will delete your data before it’s expiration time. This is handy if you are storing post-dependent data because you can hook it into the save action so that every time you save a post, your cached data is cleared.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, how about a quick example?

if (false === ( $my_data = get_transient('super_expensive_operation_data') ) ) {
     $my_data = do_stuff();
     set_transient('super_expensive_operation_data', $my_data, 60*60*12);
}
 
echo $my_data;
 
function do_stuff() {
     $x = 0;
     for($i = 0; $i != 999999999; $i++) {
          $x = $x * $i;
     }
     return $x;
}

The example is pretty straight forward. We first check to see if there is a cached copy of the data, if not, we fetch the data from the “do_stuff” function, and store it in the database. Simple, right?

One of the benefits of using the Transients API (aside from speeding your site up) is that plugins like WP Super Cache or WP Total Cache will auto-magically cache your data into memcached if you have it set up. For you, this means an even faster site! If you have any questions about caching techniques or the Transients API, leave a comment and I’d be happy to help.

Tracking Email Open Time with PHP

You can download my code for this article here.
Some time ago I had great aspirations of launching a web company that does email tracking and analytics. One of the things that I really wanted to figure out but wasn’t well documented on the web was how to track how long a user had a particular email open. When a company like MailChimp wants to track emails that they are sending out, they put a small image in the email called a “beacon”. When the user opens the email, the beacon image is requested from the server. The server sends the image, but not before it gathers information about the computer requesting it. The works great for checking if an email was opened, or what platform the person is on, but it doesn’t work at all for determining how long the email was open for.

One option that came to mind for checking the open time of an email was long polling.  Long polling (in this case) would use Javascript to contact the server every X seconds after the email was loaded.  Using those requests, it’d be trivial to find out how long it was open for.  Unfortunately, most (if not all) email clients don’t allow the execution of Javascript within emails, so that idea was completely sank.  The only option I had left was to use the beacon image to somehow determine open time.

The only option I could think of for using the image beacon without any Javascript was to redirect the image back to itself.  After much trial and error, I came up with the following.

//Open the file, and send to user.
$fileName = "../img/beacon.gif";
$fp = fopen($fileName, "r");
header("Content-type: image/gif");
while(!feof($fp)) {
    //Do a redirect for the timing.?
    sleep(2);
    if(isset($_GET['clientID'])) {
    	$redirect = $_SERVER['REQUEST_URI'];
    } else {
    	$redirect = $_SERVER['REQUEST_URI'] . "?clientID=" . $clientID;
    }
    header("Location: $redirect");
}

So what’s happening in this code?  First of all, we’re opening a small GIF file that we’re going to pretend to send to the user.  The second step is to send a header for an image file to the user so that their mail client expects one to be delivered.  This step is important because if the header isn’t sent, the browser/mail client will close the connection.  After that, you make the request sleep for a few seconds (as few or as many as you want depending on how granular you want your timing data to be) and then redirect back to the same page.  The “if” statement within the while loop is there so you can identify incoming requests and log the data accordingly.

So there you have it.  If you’ve ever wondered how people track the open time of an email, it’s probably a method very similar to this.  The only caveat to this method is that it relies on the user loading images in an email.  However, if you have a large enough sample you can just take the average open time from the users that did open it and be fairly confident with that.

Note: There has been some discussion over on Stack Overflow about this article. You may find it helpful.

 

If you liked this article, then you may like:

  • PHP Dark Arts: Multi-Processing (Part 1)
  • PHP Dark Arts: Multi-Processing (Part 2)
  • PHP Dark Arts: Shared Memory Segments (IPC)
  • PHP Dark Arts: Semaphores
  • PHP Dark Arts: GUI Programming with GTK
  • PHP Dark Arts: Sockets
  • PHP Dark Arts: Daemonizing a Process
  • WordPress Development as a Team

    At my day job I’m really the only person that knows how to write WordPress plugins, so when I write one it’s usually sand-boxed on my machine where nobody can touch it. However, in a side endeavor I’m part of we have a team of 3 people developing on one plugin. As I’m the most experienced plugin developer amongst our team, I was tasked with coming up with a development style and plugin architecture that would work for us.

    Development Style

    Everyone will be running a local copy of WordPress and making their changes to the plugin locally. The plugin itself will be under version control using Git, and developers will push/pull changes from either a self-hosted Git server or Git Hub. Database schema will be tracked in a file called schema.sql. When someone makes a change to the schema, it goes into that file at the bottom with a comment about why the schema changed. We’ll being jQuery as our Javascript framework of choice, and we’ll be writing all of our Javascript in CoffeeScript (see my previous entries).

    Plugin Architecture

    The more difficult aspect of developing this plugin as a team is the sheer size of the plugin. Realistically this could probably be split into about 6 different plugins by functionality, but we want to keep everything together in one tidy package. To illustrate the architecture, I made a quick drawing.

    The first layer of the plugin is essentially a wrapper. It initializes the ORM that we are using to access the database (we are using a separate database for this plugin’s data), and includes the wrapper class. The wrapper class is where developers drop their sub-plugin include file and instantiate it’s main object. For instance, for each sub plugin there will probably be two classes instantiated in the wrapper. One being admin related functionality, and the other being for front-end display functionality. My thinking with this architecture was that we could all work on separate sub-plugins without crossing paths too frequently. This also allows us to separate the different functionality areas of the plugin in a logical manner. The other benefit to architecting the plugin like this is that it will be very easy to port to a different architecture in the future. I’m well aware that WordPress probably isn’t the best tool for the job, but it is the best tool for the team with the deadline that we have.

    Thoughts

    While thinking about WordPress Plugin Architecture, I cruised the source code of a lot of plugins and it seems that everyone goes about it in a different way. If you’ve ever developed a large-scale plugin with a team, how did you go about doing it? Did you run in to any problems that you didn’t foresee at the beginning of the process?