The Road to EasyAdmin 3: No More Arrays

EasyAdmin is an admin generator for Symfony applications. EasyAdmin 3 is the new version that will be released soon. This article is part of a series that explains some of its biggest changes and the reasoning behind them.


Arrays are the most used structures for data storage in PHP. The main reason is that they are easy to use and provide lots of utilities. Their biggest problem is that they are a generic data storage, so they don’t provide any semantics.

In EasyAdmin 2, the entire config was defined using YAML and then it was transformed into a big associative array. Managing everything through this array is not easy because keys are not autocompleted (although the latest versions of the great PhpStorm IDE are improving that).

We could use constants to define the keys, but the resulting code would be cumbersome (e.g. $config[CONFIG_KEYS::DESIGN][CONFIG_KEYS::CSS_CLASSES]). That’s why we ended up using regular associative arrays, which makes it harder to develop the application (is it $config['design']['css_classes'] or $config['design']['cssclasses'] or $config['design']['cssClasses'] ?).

EasyAdmin 3 already removes all YAML config, so we decided to also remove all arrays from our code. We left some arrays in some parts used by end users (because arrays are much easier to use than other alternatives), but we removed all arrays from our internal code. What did we use instead of arrays? DTOs.

DTOs

DTOs or “Data Transfer Objects” are objects that carry data between processes. In its simplest form, a DTO is a PHP object with public properties. More generally, DTOs can include getters, setters and serialize/unserialize logic. They shouldn’t contain any business logic.

At first we tried to create “pure” DTOs which only included getters. However, during runtime we must update some values of some DTOs, so we needed some kind of setter. Instead of adding regular setters we first tried defining wither methods:

$originalObject = new SomeDto(['foo' => 'bar']);
$aDifferentObject = $originalObject->with('foo', 'not bar');

// the with() method looks like this
class SomeDto
{
    // ...

    public function with($propertyName, $propertyValue): self
    {
        $newObject = clone $this;
        $newObject->{$propertyName} = $propertyValue;

        return $newObject;
    }
}

This was too convoluted and felt like a hack (the wither is just a setter acting under a different name). Ultimately we made a trade-off between “real-world code convenience” and “academic code purity” and that’s the reason why our DTOs have both getters and setters.

Config Objects

DTOs don’t provide a great DX (developer experience) because they are too low level. Instead of forcing end-users work with DTOs to configure backends, we created high-level “config objects” with semantic setters and fluent interfaces.

For example, when you configure an action, you can choose if it’s displayed as a link or as a button. This is how you configure that:

use EasyCorp\Bundle\EasyAdminBundle\Config\Action;

$action = Action::new('name', 'Some Label')->displayAsLink();
                                     // or ->displayAsButton();

Internally, this config object calls to the related DTO object (ActionDto in this example):

namespace EasyCorp\Bundle\EasyAdminBundle\Config;

use EasyCorp\Bundle\EasyAdminBundle\Dto\ActionDto;

final class Action
{
    private $dto;

    private function __construct(ActionDto $actionDto)
    {
        $this->dto = $actionDto;
    }

    public static function new(string $name, $label = null, ?string $icon = null): self
    {
        $dto = new ActionDto();
        $dto->setName($name);
        // ...

        return new self($dto);
    }

    // ...

    public function displayAsLink(): self
    {
        $this->dto->setHtmlElement('a');

        return $this;
    }

    public function displayAsButton(): self
    {
        $this->dto->setHtmlElement('button');

        return $this;
    }
}

In other cases, the config object validates the given data or performs some logic before passing the data to the DTO (because DTO don’t contain any validation or business logic):

// validating the given data before trying to store it in the DTO
public function setDefaultSort(array $sortFieldsAndOrder): self
{
    $sortFieldsAndOrder = array_map('strtoupper', $sortFieldsAndOrder);
    foreach ($sortFieldsAndOrder as $sortField => $sortOrder) {
        if (!\in_array($sortOrder, ['ASC', 'DESC'])) {
            throw new \InvalidArgumentException('...');
        }

        if (!\is_string($sortField)) {
            throw new \InvalidArgumentException('...');
        }
    }

    $this->dto->setDefaultSort($sortFieldsAndOrder);

    return $this;
}

// performing some operations with the DTO methods
public function addMenuItems(array $items): self
{
    $this->dto->setItems(array_merge($this->dto->getItems(), $items));

    return $this;
}

The resulting code provides benefits for all parties:

Collection Objects

Sometimes we need to pass or return a group of DTOs, such as a group of ActionDto to define all the actions of the page or a group of FieldDto to list all fields displayed on the page. Although it’s tempting to use an associative array for this, we decided to define specific collection objects.

Our collection objects are similar Doctrine’s ArrayCollection but simpler, because they only provide the methods we really need in our code. This change may look minor, but improves the code significantly. Instead of a generic array with no specific semantics, we can type-hint arguments and return types with these objects, making the code easier to read and write:

public function processFields(FieldCollection $fields, EntityDto $entityDto): void
{
    // ...
}

public function processGlobalActions(ActionConfigDto $actionsDto): ActionCollection
{
    // ...
}

Generic DTOs

In some cases, defining a specific DTO felt like overengineering, so we created a generic and multi-purpose storage called KeyValueStore. It’s similar to Symfony’s ParameterBag but we added support for a feature that simplifies our code significantly: “dot notation”.

Thanks to the “dot notation”, we don’t need to perform checks for array keys (if (isset($config['foo']['bar']) { ... }) and we can quickly get/set/check nested elements: $config->get('foo.bar'), $config->set('foo.bar.baz', 'value'), $config->has('foo.qux.bar'), etc.

We use a KeyValueStore object for example to manage the options passed to Symfony form types:

$field->setFormTypeOptionIfNotSet('row_attr.class', $field->getCssClass());
$field->setFormTypeOption('attr.align', $field->getTextAlign());

In Summary

Using arrays is a quick and simple way of storing information, data and config in your PHP applications. However, as soon as your application grows in size or complexity, arrays are not an optimal solution.

Using objects made our code much easier to read and manage. Thanks to IDE autocompletion, code is much easier to write too. Finally, objects consume less memory than arrays (at least in PHP 7) so they also improve your application performance.

👋 If EasyAdmin is useful for you or your company, please consider sponsoring me on GitHub.