[Catalyst] Beginner Info (Part 1, perhaps with more to follow)

Thomas Hartman tphyahoo at gmail.com
Mon Jan 16 11:38:50 CET 2006

I like it a lot... extremely helpful for a beginner, and nicely
complements the more step-by-step demo approach of existing how tos.

2006/1/15, Geoffrey Ferrari <geoffrey.ferrari at oriel.oxford.ac.uk>:
> I made a request recently for better documentation for beginners. As
> Kieren Demont pointed out, Catalyst is a community project, so if I
> think there's a lack of beginner documentation, perhaps I ought to
> help write some.
> A few other helpful bods have posted (links to) introductory
> documentation in response to my request. But I saw nothing that
> answered specifically to my own needs. In particular, what I think is
> lacking is a general conceptual overview of Catalyst which answers
> some very basic questions like those listed in my previous email.
> Since this is likely to be long enough as it is, I'd prefer not to
> include a potted history of CGI programming (as did raptor on 13th
> January), nor jump straight in an example application (as does Pete
> Sergeant's tutorial in his 13th Jan email). Don't get me wrong, both
> of these fulfil useful functions. But to Pete I say that I followed
> several example application tutorials, and still had difficulty
> inferring general principles from the particular examples. And to
> Raptor I say that I suspect his potted history of CGI was intended
> mainly as just one way of giving a conceptual overview of catalyst by
> illustrating the design choices and the problems they are supposed to
> solve. If that's the case, it's more direct to aim straight for the
> conceptual overview.
> So, with this in mind, I've written an extremely general overview of
> Catalyst. It's adopts the principle that things should be explained
> so as to make Catalyst comprehensible to an audience with a specified
> set of background knowledge. If anyone wants to extend it, I beg them
> to abide by that principle!
> Two things count against my writing this kind of beginner's
> documentation. First, I'm a beginner myself, which may result in the
> blind attempting to lead the blind. Second, my free time is limited.
> Nevertheless, I think there is a great need for beginner's
> documentation, so I'll try to help write some as best I can.
> Feedback to this list please.
> Beginner Info Part 1
> ===============
> =head1 What is Catalyst?
> If the answer "Catalyst is an elegant MVC web application framework"
> does not help you, you've come to the right place. This document is
> for beginners: beginners to web application frameworks in general,
> and beginners to Catalyst in particular. The only knowledge it
> presupposes is a reasonable level of familiarity with:
> - the perl programming language
> - how to split your perl code into packages and modules
> - object-oriented programming in perl
> - perl programming for the web (to give its proper name, CGI
> programming)
> If you are not reasonably familiar with all of these, there are many
> resources on the net and some excellent books that cover these topics.
> The purpose of this document is to give someone with only the
> knowledge presupposed above a conceptual overview of Catalyst. A
> conceptual overview is not a manual or a tutorial, though a beginner
> should find it a helpful complement to a manual or tutorial. A
> conceptual overview aims to do two things:
> (1) to describe at the most general level what Catalyst is
> (2) to help the user to understand why Catalyst was designed to be as
> it is.
> =head1 So again, what is Catalyst?
> Catalyst, at the most basic level, is a perl application that aims to
> help you write perl applications. I shan't try to define what an
> application is - I assume that you already have a reasonable grasp of
> that - but let's assume for simplicity that an application is made up
> of some files stored on disk, and that these files, when activated,
> result in a certain pattern of behaviour. Catalyst itself, and the
> applications that it will help you to write, are like that. We can
> also assume for present purposes that all the applications that
> Catalyst will help you to write are CGI programmes. CGI stands for
> Common Gateway Interface, and it refers to a set of protocols which
> govern requests and responses over the internet. The vast majority of
> web sites conform to CGI specifications. To forestall potential
> confusion, you should know that using the famous perl module CGI.pm
> is only one way of doing web programming in Perl. Both Catalyst and
> CGI.pm have the aim of helping you to write web (that is, CGI)
> applications.
> So, Catalyst is a perl application which tries to help you write CGI
> applications. The key question, then, is how does Catalyst help?
> Catalyst provides help in several forms, but the most central kind -
> and it is most central because the majority of the help that Catalyst
> provides depends on it - is a set of programming conventions.
> A set of programming conventions is a set of default rules - some of
> which can be overriden, some of which can't - about how your perl web
> application will be structured. We'll get on to looking at some of
> those rules later, but why, you might ask, is it worth the trouble of
> following the Catalyst rules? There are basically only two reasons
> why you should follow the rules of Catalyst, or any other good web
> application framework. (A web application framework, by the way, is
> really just a set of conventions for writing web applications,
> perhaps along with an application that will help you write
> applications that conform to those conventions. See! You're making
> progress already. Anyway, back to the reasons for following the rules):
> Following the rules of a web application framework is good because:
> (i) it solves a coordination problem
> (ii) it gives elegant solutions to some common problems.
> =head2 The Coordination Problem
> Let's talk about the co-ordination problem first. Co-ordination
> problems arise when you have at least two agents working towards a
> common goal. In the context of a web application framework like
> Catalyst, one set of agents includes the end users, the programmers
> like you and me. The other set of agents strictly speaking is the
> Catalyst development team, who write the Catalyst programme and make
> it available to the end users. But for simplicity, we'll think of the
> second agent as being the Catalyst programme itself. So now we have
> our two agents, Catalyst and you. The goal, of course ,is to write
> web applications.
> On your own you can probably write some pretty cool web applications.
> But, if you write your web applications in accordance with the
> Catalyst conventions, then Catalyst will be able to do at least some
> of the hard work for you. This has a powerful and potentially
> frightening result: your perl code now works differently. Don't worry
> - it's still perl! But now Catalyst may take your perl code and do
> things with it that you wouldn't normally expect and at first won't
> be able to understand. This is precisely the sort of thing that is
> frightening for a beginner! But let me reassure you. The things that
> Catalyst will do with your code are things that most people, most of
> the time, find extremely helpful. And whilst you may be frightened by
> what Catalyst does, there is an obvious solution: what all beginners
> must do is learn the Catalyst conventions. That way you will
> understand what Catalyst will do with your code, and thus come to
> write code which takes advantage of all the help that Catalyst offers.
> To help you to understand how conventions can be helpful, let's
> consider an analogy. Usually, if you twitch your finger it
> achieves... nothing much. But that's not always the case. In the
> context, for example, of an auction house, twitching one's finger
> hooks into a set of conventions which give it additional
> significance. In an auction, a twitch of the finger can register a
> bid, indicate a legally-binding commitment to buy, and indicate that
> one will stop by the office after the auction to settle one's
> account, thus ensuring that if the auctioneers want your money,
> there'll be someone there to take it. The conventions of the auction
> house, just like the conventions of Catalyst, are apt to frighten
> beginners. But for those in the know, having conventions ensures that
> things can be bought and sold with minimal effort. And just as with
> Catalyst, the conventions of the auction house solve a co-ordination
> problem - in this case, the problem is how you and the auctioneers
> can achieve the common aim of a legal, efficient, exchange of goods.
> =head2 Elegant Solutions to Common Problems
> The second kind of help that Catalyst provides is that some of its
> rules were chosen to help you avoid common pitfalls, or, where the
> problems are unavoidable, to help you to solve them in an efficient -
> perhaps even beautiful or elegant - way. Of course, you could just
> try to follow the Catalyst rules without understanding them, but it
> will probably make your life easier if you understand why some of
> those rules were chosen.
> One of the most common problems that Catalyst tries to help you solve
> is that of designing one's application so that it is easy to
> understand and easy to maintain. Over time, it became clear to some
> programmers that most applications have three areas of concern.
> What's an area of concern? Basically, an area of concern is one well-
> defined problem. All applications try to solve problems. But it's
> also possible to sub-divide the big problem that an application tries
> to solve into smaller, sub-problems, which you can then deal with
> individually. So what I really mean is that over time it became clear
> that most applications try to solve three general kinds of sub-problem.
> First of all, there is the problem of accessing a store of data,
> which your application will certainly want to read, and may also want
> to update. The part of your application that tries to solve this
> problem is called the Model. For our purposes, we don't care about
> the specifics of the data. It can be anything you like - your BT
> phone records, weather data, or the results of a poll. It's all data,
> and the problem of accessing is solved by the Model part of an
> application.
> Second, of course, there is the problem of reporting things back to
> the user. The part of your application that tries to solve this
> problem is called the View. Again, we don't care what is reported
> back to the user, but most of the time your user will want some
> feedback on the results of his actions.
> Finally, there is the problem of doing the right thing in response to
> your user's input. The part of your application which tries to solve
> this problem is called the Controller. This way of conceiving of the
> the various sub-problems of your application is called the Model-View-
> Controller design pattern. It's a design pattern because it's a set
> of rules for separating your code into three different parts each of
> which tries to solve just one of the three sub-problems just described.
> =head2 An example
> Let's recap for a second and discuss an example. I said above that
> the most central kind of help that Catalyst provides is a set of
> conventions. If you abide by those conventions when you write your
> web application, then your perl code will take on added significance
> and behave differently than it normally would. Let me give you an
> example. Whether you think this is an example of Catalyst solving the
> co-ordination problem or Catalyst providing an elegant solution to a
> common problem doesn't really matter. In fact, it's an example of
> Catalyst doing both.
> The CGI protocol ensures that all web applications consist of a
> request from the user and a response back to the user from the
> application. The way the user makes a specific request is by making a
> request for a specific resource. The names for these resources comine
> in the form of a URI e.g. 'http://www.greatapp.com/users/list'. Now,
> one of the recurrent problems designers of web applications must face
> is how to ensure that the correct piece of code is executed in
> response to a request for a specific URI. One way or another, the
> application (broadly conceived) must have a way of mapping individual
> requests to invididual sections of code.
> This is such a common problem that the Catalyst development team came
> up with an elegant solution to the problem. The way to solve this
> problem, according to Catalyst, is to let your Controller modules
> mirror your URLs. Of course, there is some flexibility in the
> mirroring. But in the simplest case, the Catalyst convention is that
> a URI that ends in, say, '.../users/list', will call the 'list'
> method of the 'users' controller module. As we shall see in a moment,
> Catalyst gets you to organise your packages and modules under three
> directories, one for each of the Model, View and Controller problems
> that your code tries to solve. So, in this case, we would have a
> controller module called Users.pm under the Controller directory, and
> in that module we would have a subroutine called 'list'. There are
> other ways to achieve the required URI to code mapping, but this is
> the simplest and one of the most often used.
> But that's not all that Catalyst does for you. So far, all we've done
> is come up with a way of organising you code so that there is an
> intuitive mapping from URIs to subroutines. We haven't yet done
> anything to implement that the user requests are despatched according
> to that mapping. And that's the brilliant thing! If you use Catalyst,
> you don't have to! In simple terms, Catalyst automatically handles
> the URI to subroutine despatching for you. If you want to do
> something in response to a request for '../users/list', all you have
> to do is make a module, Users.pm, under your Controller directory,
> and then put a subroutine, 'list', in that module, and that is enough
> to ensure that that piece of code will get called in response to that
> request. So you see, Catalyst not only provides an elegant solution
> to the common problem of URI to code mappings, but since it 'knows'
> that you will follow those rules, Catalyst can do something else for
> you, too. Knowing that you'll follow the elegant solution to the
> problem of mapping URIs to code also solve sa co-ordination problem
> that allows Catalyst to perform automatic URI to subroutine
> despatching. And that's a really helpful thing for Catalyst to do!
> In fact, as we'll see later, Catalyst does one more thing which is
> really helpful in this example. You know from past experience that if
> you have code in a module, say in .../Controller/Users.pm, then in
> order to deploy that module you have to have a
> 'use ..::Controller::Users;' somewhere in your application. Well,
> there is a convention in Catalyst that all your code is located under
> the directories ../Model, ../Controller, and ../View. If you follow
> that convention, then, because Catalyst knows where to look for your
> modules, it can load them automatically for you. That way you don't
> need to worry about maintaining a lot of 'use' statements. If you put
> your modules where Catalyst knows to find them, they'll be loaded
> automatically.
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