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Smarty For Dummies

September 5th, 2008
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Are Smarty Templates really that useful? Well, I have my opinions, but decide for yourself. I hope you’ll do a doubletake after reading this.

For a long time now, I’ve avoided using Smarty Templates as much as possible. Perhaps it’s the cheesy assuming name, or perhaps it’s that I like to keep my applications simple to deploy and free of unneeded dependencies. More than anything, I think it’s because templating has been a solved problem for me for some time now and I didn’t have the desire to fix what was not broken. 

A while back, I had the opportunity (tongue in cheek) to use Smarty Templates for an existing project I was working on, and I was able to evaluate its functionality, its proposed NEW paradigm and how it integrates into the development process. Now, by no means am I a Smarty expert now and I don’t know everything about its benefits, but for better or for worse, I have formed an opinion that seems to adequately describe the “reality” of Smarty Templates. They pretty much work about how I expected. No surprises there, but here are some things to think about. 

  • Smarty Templates are simply one way of implementing a template based system into a website. It adds another layer of processing to your development. It has the benefit of caching parts of the design so that processing is lessened.
  • The main idea behind any templating system or CMS is to provide separation between the various layers of development: design, site structure, basic logic, core libraries, etc… Some systems provide some basic separation and others provide many layers of separation. Smarty Templates aim to resolve a lot of the problems that come about with having multiple roles working on a site: designer, interactive developer, programmer, etc… Separation of these roles can often be difficult. I think much of this comes down to a core problem with the PHP community as a whole. PHP has become a very popular language but has also been adopted by a lot of people that are not programmers by trade. Thus, the lack of standards and experienced developers is not at the same level that you might find in other web or application language communities. Smarty Templates, although seen by many as a godsend, seems to be a temporary solution for a community that for the most part lacks the structure and standardization to solve the problem in a more appropriate way.
  • Smarty Templates allow you to build backend code, allows designers to build templates, and then allows the developers to hodge-podge them all together with a series of inclusions. This, like much of the PHP code I see on the web, lends itself to disasterous application structures and does not enforce a paradigm. I’m all for flexibility, but all Smarty Templates have done is add another arbitrary level of confusion on top of what is usually already messy code.
  • I understand that Smarty Templates is supposed to shelter core logic from the designer, allowing them to use a “templating language” to create the display. However, the Smarty language itself uses programming methodologies to display data. So, not only do you have programming on top of programming, but the designer still has a way to destroy the interface from lack of knowledge, understanding and perspective. If the interface looks wrong or breaks in some fashion, where do you go to fix the problem?
  • Smarty Templates were obviously created from a developers perspective. I am a developer with a design background and I have to say that with good understanding of both perspectives the lines between design and development are blurred with Smarty Templates. A developer can simply develop less logic and assume that the designer will take care of the rest with the variables he has access to, or a developer could limit the designer by only making available the core necessary values. The point is that, this line is blurry and just adds yet another level of abstraction with which internal standards must be enforced. Not so ironically, although developers have told me that they use Smarty Templates to allow the site to scale and to allow the designers to maintain the templates, I have never seen a situation where the roles were separated. The developer creates the PHP, then the same developer has to go in and modify the templates, bypassing the whole proposed benefit of using Smarty Templates in the first place.
  • With some more forethought, developers can create very structured and modular code, that with the proper API’s and CSS integration, can give the designer all the control necessary while still protecting data. Ideally, you would have a robust CMS, that allows your designers to have control over certain components, while still being able to deploy your core logic and modules. Then, for areas of the site that need more flexibility, you could use Smarty Templates within the CMS for those designers with a bit more technical skill and allow them to control sections of the page with Smarty Templates, not the entire site structure.
  • Although Smarty Templates can be useful if standards and structure is enforced, it seems as though it’s just another bandwagon thing that gets adopted out of pure social acceptance before the needs and resources of the project are adequately assessed.

I know that some of you may LOVE Smarty Templates and I understand that it may play a crucial role in your development, but please keep in mind that I am always ready and willing to use technologies that TRULY benefit my development (I’ve used Smarty on blogs for instance). This isn’t the place for flaming, but perhaps you can share something that I have missed. 

If I think really hard about what my needs are as a developer, Smarty kinda makes sense. The problem is that Smarty Templates seem to be the result of a desparate developer who’s fed up with designers messing up his apps, and/or who simply hates HTML (or all of the presentation layer for that matter) and doesn’t want to do anything but pump out logic. I don’t see how Smarty Templates benefit the designer or the project management process. I know, I know…. there are all the arguments about separation of presentation, from logic, from data, etc…. blah, blah, blah. Smarty is no more a clean separation of these layers than adding more frivolous layers of management to an organization to make it more effective. Smarty attempts to make the separation, but it’s not clean. The designers job should be completely separate from any kind of backend logic, allowing them to focus on HTML, graphics, CSS, etc… Smarty Templates don’t enforce this separation as HTML can be done by the designer, or a Smarty variable can contain HTML. So where is this separation they speak of? The second a developer includes HTML into any Smarty variable, the notion that the designer has full control over the UI goes right out the window and all you’re left with is another blurry layer of logic….. logic that cannot adequately communicate errors or debug info back to the backend logic. 

Ideally, if you want a cleaner separation of code and design, consider using or creating an MVC style framework which more strictly enforces this separation and allows for constrained usage of Smarty Templates or similar templating code. Zend Framework, Code Igniter and Cake are a few worth looking at.

I’m not trying to deter people from using Smarty Templates. I want to make it clear that I am simply urging you to use them as a tool to aid and not replace proper development. I see the value that Smarty Templates has the potential to bring to the table and will probably continue to use it for some things in my development. However, in the meantime, I am jumping off the wagon until it becomes something that I cannot live without.

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