PHP - - By Alejandro Gervasio

An Introduction to the Front Controller Pattern, Part 2

An Introduction to the Front Controller Pattern

Front Controllers act like centralized agents in an application whose primary area of concern is to dispatch commands, either statically or dynamically, to predefined handlers such as page controllers, REST resources, or pretty much anything else that comes to mind.

Building at least a naive front controller is a pretty instructional experience in understanding the nitty-gritty of them, and to promote this idea from a pragmatic standpoint, I went through the implementation of a contrived front controller in the introductory article which packaged all the logic required for routing and dispatching requests inside the boundaries of a single class.

One of the best things about front controllers is that you can keep them running as tight structures, just routing and dispatching incoming requests, or you can let your wild side show and implement a full-fledged RESTful controller capable of parsing HTTP verbs, accommodating pre/post dispatch hooks, and the like, all behind a unified API. But while this approach is appealing, it breaks the Single Responsibility Principle (SRP) and goes against the nature of OOP itself which actively pushes the delegation of different tasks to several fine-grained objects.

So does this mean I’m just another sinful soul who dared to break from the commandments of the SRP? Well, in a sense I am. So I’d like to wash away my sins by showing you how easy is to deploy a small, yet extensible, HTTP framework capable of putting to work a front controller along with the ones of a standalone router and a dispatcher. Plus, the whole request/response cycle will be independently handled by a couple of reusable classes, which naturally you’ll be able to tweak at will.

With such a huge proliferation of HTTP frameworks available packaged with full-featured components, it seems absurd to implement from scratch a front controller that routes and dispatches requests through a few modular classes, even if these ones retain the essence of the SRP. In a humble attempt to avoid being judged for reinventing the wheel, some chunks of my custom implementation will be inspired by the nifty EPHPMVC library written by Lars Strojny.

Dissecting the Request/Route/Dispatch/Response Cycle

The first task we should tackle is defining a couple of classes charged with modeling the data and behavior of a typical HTTP request/response cycle. Here’s the first one, coupled to the interface that it implements:

class Request {

  public function __construct($uri, $params) { 
    $this->uri = $uri;
    $this->params = $params;
  }
 
  public function getUri() {
    return $this->uri;
  }
 
  public function setParam($key, $value) {
    $this->params[$key] = $value;
    return $this;
  }
 
  public function getParam($key) {
    if (!isset($this->params[$key])) {
      throw new \InvalidArgumentException("The request parameter with key '$key' is invalid."); 
    }
    return $this->params[$key];
  }
 
  public function getParams() {
    return $this->params;
  }
}

The Request class encapsulates an incoming URI along with an array of parameters and models an extremely skeletal HTTP request. For the sake of brevity, additional data members such as the set of methods associated to the request in question have been deliberately left outside of the picture. If you feel in the mood to drop them into the class, go ahead and do so.

Having a slim HTTP request wrapper living happily on its own is all well and fine sure, but ultimately useless if not coupled to the counterpart that mimics the data and behavior of a typical HTTP response. Let’s fix and build up this complementary component:

class Response {
  public function __construct($version) {
    $this->version = $version;
  }
 
  public function getVersion() {
    return $this->version;
  }
 
  public function addHeader($header) {
    $this->headers[] = $header;
    return $this;
  }
 
  public function addHeaders(array $headers) {
    foreach ($headers as $header) {
      $this->addHeader($header);
    }
    return $this;
  }
 
  public function getHeaders() {
    return $this->headers;
  }
 
  public function send() {
    if (!headers_sent()) {
      foreach($this->headers as $header) {
        header("$this->version $header", true);
      }
    } 
  }
}

The Response class is unquestionably a more active creature than its partner Request. It acts like a basic container which allows you to stack up HTTP headers at will and is capable of sending them out to the client too.

With these classes doing their thing in isolation, it’s time to tackle the next part in the construction of a front controller. In a typical implementation, the routing/dispatching processes are most of the time encapsulated inside the same method, which frankly speaking isn’t that bad at all. In this case, however, it’d be nice to break down the processes in question and delegate them to different classes. This way, things are balanced a little more in the equally of their responsibilities.

Here’s the batch of classes that get the routing module up and running:

class Route {

  public function __construct($path, $controllerClass) {
    $this->path = $path;
    $this->controllerClass = $controllerClass;
  }
 
  public function match(RequestInterface $request) {
    return $this->path === $request->getUri();
  }
 
  public function createController() {
   return new $this->controllerClass;
  }
}

 
class Router {
  public function __construct($routes) {
    $this->addRoutes($routes);
  }
 
  public function addRoute(RouteInterface $route) {
    $this->routes[] = $route;
    return $this;
  }
 
  public function addRoutes(array $routes) {
    foreach ($routes as $route) {
      $this->addRoute($route);
    }
    return $this;
  }
 
  public function getRoutes() {
    return $this->routes;
  }
 
  public function route(RequestInterface $request, ResponseInterface $response) {
    foreach ($this->routes as $route) {
      if ($route->match($request)) {
        return $route;
      }
    }
    $response->addHeader("404 Page Not Found")->send();
    throw new \OutOfRangeException("No route matched the given URI.");
  }
}

As one might expect, there’s a plethora of options to choose from when it comes to implementing a functional routing mechanism. The above, at least in my view, exposes both a pragmatic and straightforward solution. It defines an independent Route class that ties a path to a given action controller, and a simple router whose responsibility is limited to checking if a stored route matches the URI associated to a specific request object.

To get things finally sorted out, we would need to set up a swift dispatcher that can be put to work side by side with the previous classes. The below class does exactly that:

class Dispatcher {

  public function dispatch($route, $request, $response)
    $controller = $route->createController();
    $controller->execute($request, $response);
  }
}

Scanning the Dispatcher, you’ll notice two things about. First, it doesn’t carry any state. Second, it implicitly assumes that each action controller will run under the surface of an execute() method.

This can be refactored in favor of a slightly more flexible schema if you wish (the first thing that comes to my mind is tweaking the implementation of the Route class), but for the sake of simplicity I’ll keep the dispatcher untouched.

By now you’re probably wondering how and where to drop a front controller capable of bring all of the previous classes together. Don’t be anxious, as that’s next!

Implementing a Customizable Front Controller

We’ve reached the moment we’ve all been waiting for since the very beginning, implementing the long awaited front controller. But if you were expecting the implementation to be pretty much some kind of epic quest, given the number of classes that we dropped up front, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. In fact, creating the controller boils down to just defining a class that shields the functionality of the router and the dispatcher behind a ridiculously simple API:

class FrontController {

  public function __construct($router, $dispatcher) {
    $this->router = $router;
    $this->dispatcher = $dispatcher;
  }
 
  public function run(RequestInterface $request, ResponseInterface $response) {
    $route = $this->router->route($request, $response);
    $this->dispatcher->dispatch($route, $request, $response);
  }
}

All that the FrontController class does is employ its run() method for routing and dispatching a given request to the corresponding action controller by using the behind-the-scenes functionality of its collaborators. If you’d like, the method could be a lot fatter and encapsulate a bunch of additional implementation, such as pre/post dispatch hooks and so forth. I’ll leave this as homework for you in case you want to add a new notch to your developer belt.

To see if the front controller set up is actually as functional as it seems, let’s create a couple of banal action controllers which implement an execute() method:

In this case, the sample action controllers are pretty simple creatures that don’t do anything particularly useful other than outputting a couple of trivial messages to screen. The point here is to demonstrate how to call them via the earlier front controller, and pass along the request and response objects for some eventual further processing.

The following snippet shows how to accomplish this in a nutshell:

$request = new Request("http://example.com/test/");
 
$response = new Response;
 
$route1 = new Route("http://example.com/test/", "Acme\\Library\\Controller\\TestController");
 
$route2 = new Route("http://example.com/error/", "Acme\\Library\\Controller\\ErrorController");
 
$router = new Router(array($route1, $route2));
 
$dispatcher = new Dispatcher;
 
$frontController = new FrontController($router, $dispatcher);
 
$frontController->run($request, $response);

Even though the script looks somewhat crowded because it first goes through factoring a couple of routes which are passed into the front controller’s internals, it demonstrates how to get things rolling and call action controllers in a pretty straightforward fashion. Moreover, in the example an instance of TestController will be invoked at runtime, as it effectively matches the first route. Needless to say that the routing can be customized from top to bottom, as calling other action controller is just a matter of passing around a different URI to the Request object, and of course a matched route.

Despite of all the up front setup required through the implementation process, the actual beauty of this approach rests on the modularity exposed by each class involved in the request/route/dispatch/response cycle. There’s no need to deal with the oddities of a monolithic front controller anymore, not to mention the fact that most of the objects included in the whole transaction, such as the Request/Response duet, can be easily reused in different contexts or swapped out by more robust implementations.

Closing Thoughts

Though the academic definition of a front controller seems to be pretty rigid as it describes the pattern as a centralized, command-based mechanism narrowed to just dispatching requests, the truth is that in the real world the number of approaches that can be used for getting a functional implementation is anything but scarce.

In this quick roundup, my goal was just to demonstrate how to create at least a couple of customizable front controllers from a pragmatic standpoint by appealing first to a compact, tight implementation, where the routing and dispatching processes were packaged inside the limits of one single, catch-all class, and second, through a more granular solution, where the execution of the processes in question were dissected and delegated to a few fine-grained classes.

There’s still a lot of additional options out there worth looking, other than the ones showcased here, with each one having their own benefits and drawbacks. As usual, which one you should to pick up depends exclusively on the taste of your picky palate.

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