Lovingly Mass-Produced HTML
One of my goals at work has been to grossly reduce the amount of HTML that our HTML Guy writes. Every time he writes more lines of HTML than are absolutely necessary, it's a failure. This shouldn't be a weird idea, because HTML is code, and any time anybody writes more code than is needed to clearly express an idea, it's more likely to have mistakes. For example, there's this input:
Well, this input won't work as part of a form, because there's no
name attribute that tells the value how to get into the form. Then there's the incredibly tedious generation of radio buttons partly in HTML and partly in Perl:
Building HTML like this over and over is just horrible, and it gets worse when the people producing the HTML aren't also expected to be very good Perl programmers. There needs, instead, to be a very simple way to say things like, "and then I want a radio button" -- because "we'll just be very careful each time" is not a viable strategy for anything in programming, and especially not anything boring that gets done frequently. The right solution is, as usual, "build a reusable component."
The Widget Factory
What we wanted was to provide a simple way to say, "make a radio button here" and always get the right thing -- and to make it easy enough to provide custom tweaks that we'd almost never have to resort to hand-written HTML.
We built HTML::Widget::Factory, which serves as a hub for plugins that build HTML. For example, consider that gross radio-button-building example, above. We had a list of options,
%options, and the value of the currently selected one in
%ARGS. We ignored a bunch of considerations like option ordering, or warning that would arise if the existing
is_jolly argument was undef, because they would have made the example even uglier. The widget factory does deal with those problems, but the code looks fine, because it's abstracted away:
We work primarily with Mason, and have added a factory to our HTML::Mason::Request subclass, so in a component, we'd write the above as:
Or we could set up a bunch of checkboxes:
Part of the factory's job way of making things easy to get right is in filling in all the boring attributes the right way. For example, we gave an attribute id, but not a name. The name will default to the id. The checked value is just a boolean that results in either
checked="checked" or nothing. This kind of behavior is all over: text gets HTML escaped, common element attributes (like id, class, and others) are handled for you, and so on.
If you have to pass something weird into the produced element, you can often put it into the
Adding New Products to the Factory
Everything that the factory produces comes out of a plugin. There are a bunch of really useful plugins, but it's easy to write more. This is the source for one of the simpler plugins, used to generate
When you call the
textarea method on a factory with this plugin, the arguments are rewritten in light of the
_boolean_args given. Boolean args produce those weird
x='x' things expected for true values in HTML, and attribute args are then merged directly into the
attr argument described above. The
textarea method gets called with the rewritten args and is expected to return HTML.
Notice that the method gets passed
$factory, the object on which
textarea actually got called. This means that you can write widget plugins defined in terms of other widgets. For example, the (non-core) plugin HTML::Widget::Plugin::Struct takes a Perl data structure and turns it into a bunch of hidden form inputs that can be reconstructed into the data structure by CGI::Expand. For example, it can turn:
It does that by repeatedly calling the
hidden method on the factory, so it gets exactly the same kind of hidden inputs that the rest of our code does -- and the thing producing those inputs can be replaced if we want all our hidden inputs to have different properties, like using end tags instead of
/> empty tag markers.
struct widget is implemented by a class, we can do things like subclass the struct widget to make an editable struct (maybe by turning array entries into multiselects and everything else into normal inputs), or do emit a
In the end, we can get all kinds of uniform, bug-free content produced with a nice, simple interface.
Experiments and Annoyances
One early complaint we got internally about the factory was that it had too many quirks because of how Mason and Perl were interacting, and that it would be better if the widgets all worked like Mason components. In response, Dieter Pearcey wrote the excellent MasonX::Resolver::WidgetFactory, which exposed a Mason component-like interface, allowing code like this:
Then, we added MasonX::Resolver::Multiplex, which let us say that things found under /w would look first in on disk and then in the widget factory. This meant we could let the HTML authors write simple widgets as basic Mason components, and then alter we could turn them into faster or more reusable Perl plugins, and the interface wouldn't need to change.
Unfortunately, Mason's caching layer would break on this sometimes, because widget factories are blessed into weirdly-named, auto-generated classes in order to resolve methods like textarea to the right plugin. These names might change or be generated in the wrong runtime order, breaking things that have cached objets blessed into them.
This is a surmountable problem, although tedious and annoying, so we haven't addressed it yet. It's one of the places where Perl's lack of per-instance method resolution really becomes a hinderance. Instead, we were forced to ask HTML Guy to suck it up, for now, and use
Before the end of Advent, I'll talk about potential solutions to this kind of problem.