Work

Heh

Well, shit happens, and unfortunately OOE 1.1 hasn’t as I’d planned. I HOPE to be able to have this going by next week….

I’ve wanted something to make browsing through largish JSON objects a bit easier for work for a long while now, and suddenly got the idea that 01:00 on Saturday morning would be a good time to create such an application.

The result is the rather simple but effective JSON Explorer.

Debian Powered Notebook

Yay, on Friday, I decided to take the plunge, and install Debian on my laptop. I’ve always wanted to try working in a Linux desktop environment, considering I do practically no Delphi development any more, everything’s either PHP or Python. Since Debian has plenty of support for both of these, it seemed quite ideal.

I’m not dumping the existing Windows install though, so I had to partition my drive. Now, partitioning drives is about the most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever done, no matter what software I’m using, no matter how little data I stand to lose, I’m always scared as hell something will go wrong. Doubly so on this laptop since I use it constantly for work, and it’s the default installation HP put on, which I’m not really eager to bugger up. Luckily, that all went smoothly though :D.

When it came to installing Debian though, I had a problem with the netinst installer I was using, in that a package or two would not install due to missing some authentication files or something. So, since that installer didn’t work, it was suggested that I try an older Sarge installer and upgrade to the Unstable branch from there.

As expected, that installation went without issue. Unfortunately I just had to try my best to keep the machine cool while waiting for the installation to complete and the ACPI applications to kick in so the fans would do their thing. Thanks Korpse for warning me about that in advance ;).

So anyway, after the base installation was done, it was trivial (as I have come to expect from Debian,) to get Gnome, X.org and GDM installed and running. Apache, PHP and the rest were even easier. I was very pleased to see that the Firebird SQL server (open source’d Interbase fork thingey) was available in Debian right away, so I plonked that in as well. All that was left was to install Subversion, and check out my work stuff. Once done, I was 100% ready for work :D.

There are a few things not working yet – I haven’t had much luck with the wireless LAN. Gnome’s wireless LAN configuration applet thing is missing WPA-PSK authentication options (which I’ve configured my wireless AP to use), it only supports WEP. I also can’t seem to get the WPA tools (wap_supplicant) to work correctly. Based on the output I’m getting though, it *looks* like it’s connecting to the access point – it manages to find the AP’s MAC address and everything just fine, and it reports the authentication was successful, but beyond that, I can’t actually ping anything, and all traffic still seems to be trying to go through eth0 (wired LAN) rather than eth1 (wireless). Guess I need to learn a bit more about Linux networking… heh.

Another thing that’s not quite working is Bluetooth. Again, it *seems* to be working, the hardware is detected, and is working fine. My phone can pair with the laptop fine, using the PIN I’ve defined, but I can’t seem to transfer files or anything in either direction. I’ll admit that I haven’t played with this much yet, but I’m not really sure where to go next. I haven’t even tried looking into infra-red yet :).

And yes, I do use all these things, that’s why I spent so much on this laptop :P.

I also haven’t installed the ATI drivers yet, it looks like it’s going to be a bit of a mission on it’s own though.

Along the way I’ve also discovered some interesting new applications I haven’t seen or heard of before. gDesklets seem like a nice way to waste some CPU time and memory if you like to keep your desktop busy. Beep Media Player seems like a very nice alternative to XMMS, seems a lot more stable, and the general feel integrates better with Gnome. RapidSVN looks like it’s trying to be a nice enough SVN front-end, however I find the good old command-line a lot more friendly and efficient (and it crashes less). Sylpheed is a rather nice little mail client, and works well as an alternative to Thunderbird – assuming you’re unhappy with Thunderbird though. ibWebAdmin is a neat web-based tool for managing your Interbase databases, not as feature-packed or good looking as phpMyAdmin, but it does what it needs to do pretty well.

All that’s left now is to give it a shot at work tomorrow, and see how it all goes :).

Serializing objects to XML with PHP and PEAR

I decided it might be a good idea, from a debugging and administrative point of view, to save the reports people were viewing in my application at work. Since users are distributed all over the country, and I have to communicate with them over the phone with on-the-spot problems, it’s hard and very time consuming to get them to tell me all the parameters etc they’re using to generate a report which they are having problems with (mostly, the data looks like something they weren’t expecting).

Anyway, I thought saving the exact report they are viewing is much easier for me to simply call up while someone’s on the phone, than doing the whole ‘which options did you use?’ thing.

Option one was saving each report to a PDF file on the server, but, that’s pretty inflexable, and also, people can view more than just PDF files with my reporting options (emails can be send direct, zip files can be downloaded, and data can be downloaded in csv format), so that wouldn’t always work out.

So I looked into serializing the actual report object used to generate any of the above report types, since that object contains absolutely all data, totals, titles, info, etc.. Unfortunately, PHP’s built-in serialize() and unserialize() functions don’t work too well with complex data structures (arrays within classes, multi-dimentional arrays, etc, etc), and I couldn’t really work around all that without writing a few GBs of code onto my report class.

SO, I turned to XML. As it turns out, the PEAR ‘suite’ of scripts contains a rather useful XML serialization class -XML_Serializer, which can turn any data structure into an XML string, and for reading those strings back to usable PHP variables and objects.

It’s really quite simple:

$object = new SomeClass();
$object->var1 = "Hello World";
$object->etc();

$serializer = &new XML_Serializer(array("indent" => "  ", "typeHints" => true));
$serializer->serialize($object);
$xml = $serializer->getSerializedData();

$xml now contains the full definition of $object in XML. You can write $xml to a file, save it in a database, whatever you like.

You can then come back later, and load the file/database record/etc into a string, and unserialize it…

$unserializer = &new XML_Unserializer();
$unserializer->unserialize($xml);
$object2 = $unserializer->getUnserializedData();

echo $object2->var1;
$object2->etc();

Quite fun actually :D. You can obviously do a lot of error checking, and other things, but that’s just the basics.

SmoothWall

I must say, I’m rather dissapointed with my “SmoothWall experience” so far. I’ve been tasked with setting up a SmoothWall firewall/proxy machine at work, and from what I’ve read, it’s like the best thing since sliced bread.

Unfortunately I cannot agree.

The installation tends to go fine, it partitions the hard disk by itself, installs fairly fast, then steps through a simple setup ‘wizard’. Here we are prompted if we want to enable or disable ADSL. Now, I want SmoothWall to connect via our ADSL line. BUT, it seems the developer’s idea of “ADSL” is in fact “USB ADSL Modem”.

Anyway, after figuring that one out, and after much shuffeling of subnets and IPs between the router, SmoothWall, and my PC, I finally get it to use the router as a gateway. I try visiting some sites – DNS lookups fail. I take a look in all the log options on SmoothWall, and find the firewall is blocking DNS traffic, and is trying to route everything through the same (“Green”) NIC, rather than the second (“Red”) one.

Sooo, turns out I can fix this by running the “setup” tool again, and ‘pretending’ to change the IPs, so it resets everything (re-writes the firewall rules maybe?). Cool, everything’s working again. Not quite.

Seems after that, the proxy magically stops working alltogether, so from the web interface, I just disable it, and re-enable it. Cool, everything’s working now. Riiiiight.

A few hours later, suddenly the internet is dead. Hmm, seems the firewall is blocking all traffic again and routing though the same NIC. Sooo, I repeat the whole IP change/reset, proxy reset, etc, and everything’s cool.

A few hours later I find myself repeating the whole procedure again.

This is seriously lame, having to practically reboot the entire machine every few hours. So I think maybe I’ll try to set up a PPPoE connection. So I go and configure the router correctly, test ‘dialing up’ with my machine in XP, all’s cool. Now to set up SmoothWall. Running the setup tool again lets me set the “Red” interface to “PPPoE”, and that seems done. Now where do I put my username and password to dial up?

Aparrently the “ppp settings” page of the web GUI is where it’s done. Now excuse my ignorance, but this looks like a modem dial-up page, asking for phone numbers, which COM port my modem is on, etc, etc. A bit of searching around the rather un-helpful support forums, reveals that this is indeed where you need to configure PPPoE usernames and passwords. Just leave all settings alone except for login details.

I give it a shot, tell it to connect, nothing happens. Check the logs, and not surprisingly, it’s trying to connect via ttyS0 (COM1).

Now, aparrently there’s supposed to be an option to select the correct interface in the drop-list where you select which port your modem is on, on the “PPP Settings” page, but for some magical reason this does not exist for me.

Unfortunately their forums are also not very helpful it seems, and even after composing a very descriptive help request, I get a rather sarcastic “RTFM” response for a subject not covered in the manual.

Basically the manuals are not up to scratch, the support forums are full of leetbois, the options in both the setup tool and web UI are obscure, and the whole thing is bloody useless, needing a darn reboot every few hours. WTF.

I’d love to send the whole thing to hell, but unfortunately I have to get it to work. *sigh*

Some PHP resources

I’ve been adding some nifty things to my PHP project at work (cellphone starter pack invoicing, usage tracking [big bro is watching you earn him money every time you use your pre-paid airtime :P], etc). It’s got a lot of pretty nice features. Using client-side JavaScript, it actually pretty much behaves as a normal desktop application, only it lags like hell when you visit other pages (slow web server :P).

Anyway, I can’t claim I’ve written all the snazzy features myself unfortunately. Due to time and pressure I’ve been relying on good old Open Source to help me out. There’s actually a helluva lot of stuff out there to make things easier for just about anything you need to do…

  • ADOdb - http://adodb.sourceforge.net/
    Obviously the first thing to get going on any database-aware application, is to actually interact with the database. PHP has an Interbase module, with a whole bunch of Interbase functions. These all work fine, and there’s really no problem with them. ADOdb however makes working with SQL databases so much easier. No need to remember PHP’s randomly named module functions, and it gives you access to a huge assortment of database drivers (of corse all dependent on normal PHP modules). It’s even available for Oython now!
  • Smarty - http://smarty.php.net/
    Next you’d presumably like a fancy presentation for your application. You have three options here – painfully output every single line of HTML manually through your code, create yourself a template engine/language, or use Smarty. Smarty is a Template Engine, which lets you define “.tpl” files which are bascally just HTML files with a couple of variable placeholders and smarty function calls. But it’s not just the simplicity of creating a Smarty instance, assigning variables to it, and then just calling display(), it’s the functions you can put into your template files. Looping through customer listings, building tables or drop lists, check lists, etc, etc, etc. One of the most useful things I’ve found is the ability to define your own smarty functions, allowing you to add custom functionality to your templates and the output they generate.
  • PHP pdf / PDFClasshttp://ros.co.nz/pdf/
    One of the requirements of this project was that reports had to be generated in user and printer friendly PDF format. At first I looked into the option of having Smarty generate tabular reports, and get an HTML to PDF processor (there are several PHP options available) to turn my HTML into the PDFs required. Unfortunately, for the most part, these converters are heavily buggy, and didn’t give me very much control at all over the output (ok, I had full control over the output, but things like page headers and footers, page numbering, etc, etc are required for nice reports). Anyway, so I set about using PHP’s PDF functions. Unfortunately, that turned out rather risky across different versions of PHP, and was generally a pain to work with. Enter this package. It doesn’t require any of PHP’s PDF modules, so it’s free from cross-version and cross-platform bugs and stuff. It also has a bunch of nice functions for headers, footers, tables, etc. It also provides the option to save the output to disk, output direct to browser, or plop the output into memory where I can play with it. I’ve built a very nice reporting class around this package.
  • Code 3 of 9 Barcode Generatorhttp://www.sid6581.net/cs/php-scripts/barcode/
    Another requirement of the system is the ability to group multiple items into a single item. From the code side of things, it’s fairly simple, but to users, trying to manage these million boxes of starter packs and remembering or creating their own codes for these boxes would obviously be rather difficult. Anyway, I though it’d be nice to offer a barcode people can print and stick to the boxes. Enter this little script. Couldn’t be easier to use, and with the help of a little Javascript, users can even scale the barcodes up and down (by dynamically reloading the image, not just changing the dimensions and possibly corrupting it) before printing.
  • PHPMailerhttp://phpmailer.sourceforge.net/
    I’m using this for sending my PDF reports via email. It allows you to easily attach files, or file content (so I don’t need to save the PDF’s to temp files before attaching, just attach the output directly from script). Also supports SMTP, so no need to rely on PHP’s mail configuration.

I’m also using a nifty little ZIP lib that allows me to zip my in-memory PDF reports, and send them direct to the browser for downloadable reports (since a normal PDF will open in the browser). Unfortunately there’s no readme or author URL in the source :)

I did get it from PHPClasses.org though, which has quickly become by first stop for anything I need in a hurry that I couldn’t be bothered, or don’t have time to write myself. Nice rating system and “top 10″s filter out the good stuff instantly, making finding stuff really simple. I highly recommend it to any PHP developers.

Off to Jo’burg v2

Well because I’m aparrently not doing any work here… I’m being trekked off to JHB yet again. No idea when I’m even getting back. Lovely 3 days notice I’m given too.

Seems whenever things in my life start settling down and I actually start getting things done, this shit pops up…

Hrm, I just remembered I was supposed to do some work for an old client this weekend too… LOLOLOL…… :-(

Off to Jo’burg

*sigh*

Seems I’ve been called off to head office again at literally a day’s notice. I was heading up next weekend though for a LAN with the Avatars (the UT clan I’m in), so I guess it isn’t all bad. Only problem now is carting around my PC, a new LCD monitor which I’ll pick up while I’m there, 2 weeks worth of clothing, and my laptop. Going to have to courier the PC up and have someone courier it and the monitor back after the LAN :(.

Internet is also blocked during office hours in head office, so I’m basically stuffed as I can’t exactly go home and see to things in the evenings. Where I’m responsible for a bunch of projects, websites, etc online, this isn’t exactly helpful at all. Hopefully I can still SSH home every now and then… Can’t even use VNC since my PC’s going to be all over the country.

Should be back by Monday the 28th… They don’t even know where I’m going to be staying while I’m up there.

*sigh* I hate this :(.