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TIPS, INSIGHTS AND THE LATEST FROM THE EXPERTS BEHIND CAKEPHP

RSS Feeds, Fast and Easy

For my first entry, I am going to talk about how to create an RSS Feed on your website. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is a format used to publish frequently updated works such as blogs or featured products. RSS defines a set of XML elements that are used to describe a channel or feed of information. An RSS feed is comprised of two parts, first is the metadata describing the channel and second is the records that make up the elements of the feed. RSS feeds allow your sites visitors to access the information on your site using software that reads these feeds. This will allow your site's visitors to stay up-to-date on the information on your site.

CakePHP allows for easy integration of RSS feeds into existing controller actions through the automatic router extension parsing. This allows us to specify what type of response we want from a URL through adding the proper extension to the URL such as http://www.yoursite.com/entries.rss. This alerts the router that your are asking for RSS formatted data in return. In addition, CakePHP has an RssHelper class that can be used to output parts of the metadata and elements in the feed through an easy to use helper.

Preparation

Before we begin making the feed we must alert the router that we want to allow for extensions to be parsed in the URL and that we want it to accept .rss as a valid extension. In your sites router file we add the following:

	Router::parseExtensions('rss');

Also for CakePHP to work it magic we must also have the RequestHandler in our controller's $components array. Now the router knows that we would like to parse urls that end in .rss as requesting RSS formatted responses. The next step of preparation is to add a default layout for rss feeds on your site. When you request a different format response the layout that is rendered will be selected from a sub-folder with the same name as the format. So in this case we would need a folder called /rss in the layouts folder in our CakePHP install. The view class will search for a file that has the same name as the layout that would be rendered if you were just rendering the html. In most cases this is the default.ctp layout file in the main layouts directory, but because we are requesting the response in RSS format we must add a default.ctp layout in the /layouts/rss/ sub-directory. This layout is our default RSS Feed layout.

	echo $rss->header();

	if (!isset($channel)) {
		$channel = array();
	}
	if (!isset($channel['title'])) {
		$channel['title'] = $title_for_layout;
	}

	echo $rss->document($rss->channel(array(), $channel, $content_for_layout));

Here in the layout our RssHelper shines through. We use the method RssHelper::channel() which generates the element and associated metadata elements. The $content_for_layout variable contains the output from the view. These then get passed to the RssHelper::document() method, which wraps the RSS document in the respective elements.

Controller

The controller needs no modification in the case of a simple RSS feed. This is because we are only adding a second view that is xml/rss to the action. The same data is used in both views and because CakePHP automatically sets the correct response type we don't need to tell it to render the correct view and layout for RSS. Here is the action method in the EntriesController for a basic view sorted by a published_date field and showing only if it is published.

	public function index() {
		$this->paginate['Entry'] = array(
			'conditions' => array('Entry.published' => 1),
			'order' => 'Entry.published_date DESC');
		$this->set('entries', $this->paginate());
	}

If you do have code that is specific for only the RSS view you can use the RequestHandler::isRss() to see if the action was called with the request for xml/rss formatting on response. This method returns a boolean value based on if the .rss extension was parsed in the URL.

	if ($this->RequestHandler->isRss()) {
		// RSS feed specific code goes here
	}

Note About Channel Metadata

It may feel right to put your metadata information in the index method in the controller, using Controller::set() to send the information to the views. This is inappropriate and is one of the most common snags that we have seen in the CakePHP community with creating RSS feeds. That information which is passed in the layout file to the RssHelper::channel() method should be set in the view using View::set() which will set the $channel variable for the layout in the view.

Views

As we had to put the layout in a subdirectory of the layouts folder we also need to create a view for the index action for the blogs controller. This is done by creating a directory /views/entries/rss/ which will hold our view file that will generate the RSS to render. You will need to add your RssHelper to the list of helpers in your controller so that it is automatically loaded in the view and the layout.

Our view begins by setting the $channel variable for the layout, this contains all the metadata for our RSS feed.

	$homeUrl = $html->url('/', true);
	$this->set('channel', array(
		'title' => __("Daniel's Recent Articles", true),
		'link' => $homeUrl,
		'description' => __("Most recent articles from Daniel.", true),
		'language' => 'en-us',
		'image' => array(
			'title' => 'Recent Articles from Daniel',
			'url' => FULL_BASE_URL . $this->webroot('/img/rss_feed_image', true),
			'link' => $homeUrl));

First we get the URL link for the website home that we will use for the links. Also we set the title, description and image to use for the RSS feed icon. By setting the channel variable using View::set() we are providing the layout the information to render the RSS feed's metadata elements.

The second part of the view generates the elements for the actual records of the feed. This is accomplished by looping through the data that has been passed to the view and using the RssHelper::item() method. The other method you can use, RssHelper::items() which takes a callback and an array of items for the feed. (The method I have seen used for the callback has always been called transformRss(). There is one downfall to this method, which is that you cannot use any of the other helper classes to prepare your data inside the callback method because the scope inside the method does not include anything that is not passed inside, thus not giving access to the TimeHelper or any other helper that you may need. The RssHelper::item() transforms the associative array into an element for each key value pair.

	foreach ($entries as $entry) {
		$postTime = strtotime($entry['Entry']['created']);

		$entryLink = array(
			'controller' => 'entries',
			'action' => 'view',
			'year' => date('Y', $postTime),
			'month' => date('m', $postTime),
			'day' => date('d', $postTime),
			$entry['Entry']['slug']);

		// This is the part where we clean the body text for output as the description 
		// of the rss item, this needs to have only text to make sure the feed validates
		$bodyText = preg_replace('=\(.*?)\=is', '', $entry['Entry']['body']);
		$bodyText = $text->stripLinks($bodyText);
		$bodyText = Sanitize::stripAll($bodyText);
		$bodyText = $text->truncate($bodyText, 400, '...', true, true);

		echo  $rss->item(array(), array(
			'title' => $entry['Entry']['title'],
			'link' => $entryLink,
			'guid' => array('url' => $entryLink, 'isPermaLink' => 'true'),
			'description' =>  $bodyText,
			'dc:creator' => $entry['Entry']['author'],
			'pubDate' => $entry['Entry']['created']));
	}

You can see above that we can use the loop to prepare the data to be transformed into XML elements. It is important to filter out any non-plain text charictars out of the description, especially if you are using a rich text editor for the body of your blog. In the code above we use the TextHelper::stripLinks() method and a few methods from the Sanitize class, but we recommend writing a comprehensive text cleaning helper to really scrub the text clean. Once we have set up the data for the feed, we can then use the RssHelper::item() method to create the XML in RSS format. Once you have all this setup, you can test your RSS feed by going to your site /entries/index.rss and you will see your new feed. It is always important that you validate your RSS feed before making it live. This can be done by visiting sites that validate the XML such as Feed Validator or the w3c site at http://validator.w3.org/feed/.

Latest articles

Responsive Websites vs. Native Apps

Do you know what the difference is between responsive websites vs. native apps? With users more and more likely to be browsing your website on their mobiles, have you considered how they see and experience it across devices? A bad mobile experience may be likely to turn potential customers away, so it’s vital to ensuring that all touchpoints match your brand experience and draw customers in. But how do you go about that - what is the best solution for you - responsive website or a native app? Below we look at the differences between the two, however, the best solution for you will be highly dependent on your website and business/consumer needs, be sure to speak with your development team to get the best fit for you! Responsive vs native Responsive Web Design is the methodology that recommends the design and implementation of a website that responds to user behavior and environment based on the screen size, orientation and operating system of their device. While a native/mobile app, once the app has been downloaded, it’s stored directly on their device, so they will be able to access it in every context. Native apps can be used both online and offline. These two mobile solutions do not answer the same needs. In today’s world, all websites should be responsive to mobile devices, but not everyone needs a mobile app. Mobile or native app’s are expensive and time consuming to produce, they also can irritate users who do not see value in downloading them. However, should your product work well or need an app to work well in, you should investigate it. Generally the development time and cost of a native app can make this look like a poor option, however, if your product or need is one of the following, an app is definitely the way to go.

  • interactivity /Gaming is required: an App is the best choice if you require an immersive and interactive user experience.
  • Regular usage and personalization: Are you planning that your users use the app on a regular basis?
  • Complex calculations or reporting: Think banking or financial calculators.
  • Offline accessibility: Is your concept something that you want users to be able to use offline?
A key point to take into consideration when deciding what is the best fit for your business concept, is to keep your goals in  mind. If your goal is purely from a marketing and content distribution consideration, to ensure usability on mobile platforms, then a responsive website is what you need. However, if you are requiring a more immersive brand experience, a native app is required.

Importance of backing up data for small businesses - tips and tricks for you

Data is essential to any business - regardless of the size. And with the recent ransomware attacks, it is important to keep backups regularly. A loss of your business’s data, from a down server or a ransomware attack, can cost a company a lot of money. Types of backups You can either back up online to an out of network cloud server, to a physical storage location or to an offline drive. Either should have you secured from a network attack and will enable you to be up and running after-the-fact. Having a backup strategy cannot be stressed enough, here are some strategies that you could follow:

  1. Cloud backups - keeping data offsite is helpful should you experience a natural disaster.
  2. Encryption of data in transit.
  3. Multiple backups offsite - ensuring 2 or 3 backups are kept.
  4. Testing of backups - ensuring that all backups taken are viable for use should the need arise.
Regular backups can be a life saver - ransomware attacks, natural disasters, corrupt hardware can strike at any moment. Being prepared can save your business money in the long run. Some other tips that you can consider following include
  • Having a file organization standard. Develop a standard way of organizing your files so that you or your users will always know where data belongs.
  • Determine critical files or data. Organize and sort through the files to ensure critical data or files are kept secure and regularly backed-up.
  • Create a local backup solution.
  • Create an offsite backup.
  • Automate your backup procedures.
How do you get started? Its key to create a backup routine, which includes the following information
  • A checklist for the file or data that you need to backup;
  • A backup schedule for times that your backup system will run;
  • Verify the backup to ensure the data is intact.
Also remember, for your website and hosted applications, to check with your local hosting provider as they usually offer backups. For local development work, always use a repository for code and documents, like git, while for binaries, use cloud storage so all you lose, if your hard drive was to crash, is the work of the current day.

With the latest ransomware attack, here’s what you need to know

With the latest attack, Petya, fresh in our minds, we thought it would be a good time to discuss what exactly a ransomware attack is and how you, as a business, can protect yourselves from such. These cybersecurity attacks not only attack individuals and small to medium sized business, but also large multinational enterprises from around the world. What is clear is that the attack from the past week, Petya/GoldenEye while similar, is a lot more serious than the attack of the previous month - the WannaCry worm attack that struck hundreds of thousands of computers.   Have we gotten your attention? Good! The first real way to protect yourself, and your business, is to know what the attacks are and what they look like. And then to move onto how to set yourself up so that you are secured against such an attack. With the latest ransomware worm, the ransomware infects computers and locks down their hard drives. Then demanding $300 ransom in digital currency Bitcoin.
The email account associated with the ransomware will have been blocked, so even if victims pay, they won't get their files back. Many experts are calling for people to not pay the ransom. The virus or worm is spread by infecting multiple computers on a network, and is initially contracted via an outside source, commonly an email. Many companies were hit severely this time round, as they did not update their Microsoft packages, leaving them vulnerable to the attack.  Am I at risk you may be asking yourself? Well potentially. The great news is that if you have a Windows machine, and it is up to date with security updates, then you are fine. The bad news is that if you are on a network with a machine that is not up to date, then this will cause a problem for you should they get the virus. Top tips for keeping you and your network secure:

  1. Keep all servers and network connections up to date with the latest security updates;
  2. Be sure to backup your computer regularly and keeping a recent backup copy off-site.
  3. Brief all network users on what phishing emails look like, the importance of not on links;
  4. Make sure your antivirus software is up to date.

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