Posts Tagged 'Coding'

November 6, 2014

#T4 -Tips and Tricks - Pure CSS Sticky Footers

Who doesn’t like a walk down memory lane? In our #T4 series, SoftLayer brings back popular tech tip blog posts. #ThrowbackThursday #T4 #ThrowbackThursdayTechTips

Sticky footers are still landing developers in, well, sticky situations. Don’t fret—we’ve all been there. We’re bumping our popular Tips and Tricks – Pure CSS Sticky Footers blog post that was originally posted two years ago today!

Our objective is simple: Make the footer of our web page stay at the bottom even if the page's content area is shorter than the user's browser window. We got a LOT of feedback the first time this blog was posted, a lot of you loved it, and some of you brought to my attention that some browser environments didn’t support this method.

For this throwback, I have modified the code (the HTML and the CSS), but as you can see, not by too much, only a few things have changed. This method uses the: after attribute, which in my opinion is a LOT cooler. This should help those of you who could not get the previous method to work as this utilizes more of a modern technique and has a lot more universal compatibility!

So enjoy!

Go from this:

CSS Footer

To this:

CSS Footer

  1. Start by getting the HTML structure in place first:
    <div id="page">
     
          <div id="header"> </div>
     
          <div id="main"> </div>
    </div> <!-- /page -->
     
    <div id="footer"> </div>
  2. Then code the CSS for the full page:
    * {
          margin: 0;
     
    html, body {
     
          height: 100%;
    }
  3. Code the rest as:
    #page {
          min-height: 100%;
          margin-bottom: -100px; /* equal to the fixed height of your footer */
    }
     
    #page:after {
          content: “”;
          display:block;
    }
     
     
    #footer, #page:after {
          height: 100px;
    }
  4. For Internet Explorer to not throw a fit, we need concede that IE doesn't recognize min-height as a valid property, so we have to add Height: 100%; to #page:
    #page {
          Min-height: 100%;  /* for all other browsers */
          height: 100%;  /* for IE */
          position:relative;
    }

To read my FAVORITE perk of this trick: check out the original post here.

For questions, comments, or just feel like chatting, contact us at social@softlayer.com.

-Cassandra

October 23, 2014

CSS3 Tips and Tricks – Mastering Multiple Backgrounds

I’ve written a lot of blog posts, some on our very own SoftLayer Development Network, but most of them have been posted right here on SoftLayer’s main blog. One of the most popular is a tutorial I wrote on being able to create a customized background depending on the user’s location. For example: A person visiting a website from the United States during the daytime may see a beautiful yellow background with an orange glow and a bright yellow sun just above the horizon, while a surfer from China may see the same website, but with a dark purple background with subtle white stars and a shimmering moon because it is night. The example I wrote customized the CSS to the time zone based on locale tailoring the site with a more personal touch.

The demand for sites to serve a more interactive experience has always been large in volume, but few websites actually deliver.

Luckily, our Web languages are evolving all of the time, and since I’ve written the “What time is it for you?” blog on our SLDN, more advancements have been made to the background functionality and browser compatibility. This means MORE browsers support these new features, and it’s compliant across the board!

Let’s start off with our usual HTML document (with an addition of an empty div for now, this is where we’re going to master our background techniques).

<html>
<head>
    <title>CSS3 Tips and Tricks – Mastering Multiple Backgrounds</title>
</head>
<body>
    <div class=”slBackgrounds”></div>
</body>
</html>

With CSS3, we can define multiple backgrounds in one declaration, like this:

background: url('earth.png') no-repeat top 30px center, url('star_bg.png') repeat-y center;

By separating each background with just a comma, we’re able to declare many backgrounds for one div. Let’s go ahead and add our multi-background CSS in the <head> of our document:

<style>
    .slBackgrounds {
        width: 300px;
        height: 300px;
        margin: 0 auto;
        background: url('earth.png') no-repeat top 30px center, url('star_bg.png') repeat-y center;
        transition:background-position 600s;
    }
 
    .slBackgrounds:hover {
        background-position: top 30px center, 0px 60000px;
    }
</style>

After adding the CSS styling, you should have something that looks similar to the following:

You’ll notice I added a transition property to the .slBackgrounds class, and I bet you’re wondering why? Everybody has their own learning technique that helps them absorb concepts better and faster than other methods. My learning method (and probably 75 percent of other developers) happens to be the challenge technique: When I learn something new, I think about something extremely fun and challenging that I would like to do with this newfound knowledge beyond just the base use. For instance, why learn how to use multiple backgrounds with CSS3 and just have a five-line blog when we can learn to use multiple backgrounds, AND create an awesome animation sequence that can jazz up the old and boring background system?

Not only does this jazz it up, but by using additions such as the transition and :hover properties, we’re able to open new doors to possibilities with interactivity.

If you haven’t guessed already, the .slBackgrounds:hover section covers what should happen to the .slBackgrounds div when the user hovers over it; in this case, there’s a background-position declaration. The ‘top 30px center’ applies to the first background image, and the ‘0px 60000px’ applies to the second (gotta love multiple backgrounds!).

Go ahead and hover over our images! You should see something like this:

Something pretty simple, but I bet you can already think of a hundred things you can do with the CSS3 multiple background ability, huh? The great news is that the cross-browser compatibility is awesome and supports all newer browsers and most reasonably older ones too! And to think . . . barely five or six years ago it took MUCH more innovative coding and workarounds to achieve results like this without just embedding a flash file or an animated gif!

We’d love to hear how YOU’RE using multiple backgrounds!

- Cassandra

October 16, 2014

#T4 – Tips and Tricks–jQuery Select2

Who doesn’t like a walk down memory lane? In our #T4 series, SoftLayer brings back popular tech tip blog posts. #ThrowbackThursday #T4 #ThrowbackThursdayTechTips

Creating a drop-down menu? Here’s an abridged version of our Tips and Tricks – jQuery Select2 Plugin post from two years ago tomorrow!

Turn your drop-down menu from this:
Option Select

To this:

Pretty Option Select

  1. Download Select2 and upload it to your server.
  2. Add the jQuery library and scripts to the <head> of the page document:
  3. <script src="jquery.js" type="text/javascript"></script> 
    <script src="select2.js" type="text/javascript"></script>
  4. Add Select2's included style sheet:
  5. <link href="select2.css" rel="stylesheet"/>

  6. Before closing the <head> tag, invoke the Select2 function:
  7. <script>
    $(document).ready(function() { $("#selectPretty").select2(); });
    </script>
  8. Then add the #selectPretty ID to the select element you want to improve:
    <select id="selectPretty">
    <option value="Option1">Option 1</option>
    <option value="Option2">Option 2</option>
    <option value="Option3">Option 3</option>
    <option value="Option4">Option 4</option>
    </select>

For questions, comments, or just feel like chatting, contact us at social@softlayer.com.

-Cassandra

September 16, 2014

CSS3 Tips and Tricks – Generated Content Without jQuery

If you guys have read any of my past blogs, you know how much I LOVE jQuery, but every good developer knows that if there’s an easier or more efficient way of doing something: DO IT. With all the new developments with CSS3, HTML5, etc. etc., sometimes we have to get back to basics to relearn how to do things more efficiently, so here it goes!

Nearly every website has some form of 2.0/dynamic/generated content nowadays, and if your site doesn’t… well, it probably should catch up! I’ll show you how with some new CSS tricks and how it can reduce a lot of overhead of including the entire jQuery library (which would save you approximately 84kb per page load, assuming you have no other asynchronous/client side functionality you need).

I’ll start off with an easy example, since I know most of you take these examples and let your creativity run wild for your own projects. (Note to self: start a “Code Gone Wild” series.)

Usually this is the part where I say “First, let’s include the jQuery library as always.” Not this time, let’s break the rules!

FIRST, start off your document like any other (with the basic structure, set your DOCTYPE appropriately, i.e. strict vs transitional):

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html>
<head>
</head>
<body>
</body>
</html>

Wow, you can already tell this generated content’s going to be a TON easier than using jQuery (for those of you whom aren’t already jQuery fans).

Now let’s add in a div there; every time we hover over that div, we’re going to display our generated content with CSS. Inside of our div, we’re going to place a simple span, like so:

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html>
<head>
</head>
<body>
     <div class=”slisawesome”>
          <span data-title="Hello Cassandra!">What’s my name?</span>
     </div>
</body>
</html>

As you can see, the span content contains a simple question and the data-title attribute contains the answer to that question.

Now let’s just make this div a little bit prettier before we get into the fancy stuff.

Add some style to the <head> section of our document:

<style>
     .slisawesome  {
          /* Will TOTALLY be making another blog about the cool CSS gradients soon */
          background:linear-gradient(to bottom, #8dd2d9 , #58c0c7);
          padding: 20px;  /* give the box some room to breathe */
          width: 125px;  /* give it a fixed width since we know how wide it should be  */
          margin: 100px auto;  /* move it away from the top of the screen AND center it */
          border: 1px solid black;  /* this is just a little border */
          position: relative;  /* this is to help with our generated content positioning */
     }
</style>

Now you should have something that looks like this:

This is good; this is what you should have. Now let’s make the magic happen and add the rest of our CSS3:

<style>
     .slisawesome  {
          /* Will TOTALLY be making another blog about the cool CSS gradients soon */
          background:linear-gradient(to bottom, #8dd2d9 , #58c0c7);
          padding: 20px;  /* give the box some room to breathe */
          width: 125px;  /* give it a fixed width since we know how wide it should be  */
          margin: 100px auto;  /* move it away from the top of the screen AND center it */
          border: 1px solid black;  /* this is just a little border */
          position: relative;  /* this is to help with our generated content positioning */
     }
     .slisawesome span::before {
          content:attr(data-title); /* assigning the data-title attribute value to the content */
          opacity: 0; /* hiding data-title until we hover over it */
          position: absolute; /* positioning our data-title content */
          margin-top: 50px; /* putting more space between our question and answer */
 
          /* Fancy transitions for our data-title when we hover over our question */
          /* which I’m TOTALLY going to write another blog for ;) If you guys want, of course */
          -webkit-transition:opacity 0.4s; /* determines the speed of the transition */
          transition:opacity 0.4s; /* determines the speed of the transition */
     }
</style>

Now, right now, your page should still look like this:

That’s okay! We still have ONE more step to go:

<style>
     .slisawesome  {
          /* Will TOTALLY be making another blog about the cool CSS gradients soon */
          background:linear-gradient(to bottom, #8dd2d9 , #58c0c7);
          padding: 20px;  /* give the box some room to breathe */
          width: 125px;  /* give it a fixed width since we know how wide it should be  */
          margin: 100px auto;  /* move it away from the top of the screen AND center it */
          border: 1px solid black;  /* this is just a little border */
          position: relative;  /* this is to help with our generated content positioning */
     }
     .slisawesome span::before {
          content:attr(data-title); /* assigning the data-title attribute value to the content */
          opacity: 0; /* hiding data-title until we hover over it */
          position: absolute; /* positioning our data-title content */
          margin-top: 50px; /* putting more space between our question and answer */
 
          /* Fancy transitions for our data-title when we hover over our question */
          /* which I’m TOTALLY going to write another blog for ;) If you guys want, of course */
          -webkit-transition:opacity 0.4s; /* determines the speed of the transition */
          transition:opacity 0.4s; /* determines the speed of the transition */
     }
     /* Drum Roll --------- Here’s our hover magic */
     .slisawesome span:hover::before{
          opacity:1;
     }
     /* Okay… that was a little anticlimactic… losing cool points */
</style>

Despite my anticlimactic adding of “the magic,” we just added a :hover that will show full opacity when we hover, so refresh your page and try it out! You should see something like this when you hover over THE QUESTION:

Of course you could REALLY start getting fancy with this by adding some php variables for the logged in user, or perhaps make it dynamic to location, time, etc. The possibilities are endless, so go… go and expand on this awesome generated content technique!

-Cassandra

June 3, 2014

My 5 Favorite Sublime Text 2 Plugins

I can’t believe that is was only a mere year ago since I learned of Sublime Text 2. I know, I know … where have I been? What kind of developer was I that I didn’t even know of Sublime Text? I’ll take the criticism, as I can honestly say it has been the best text editor I have ever used.

It’s extremely fast. I rarely wait for saves, uploads, or syntax highlighting, it keeps up with everything I do and allows me to develop directly from the keyboard. I hardly ever reach for my mouse!

It looks awesome. It has kind of retro-look for those developers who remember coding purely from the terminal or DOS. It really brings back memories.

It can be extended. Need some extra functionality that doesn’t come out-of-the-box? Sublime Text 2 has a range of available plugins that you can install to enhance your capabilities with this awesome text editor. In this blog, I’ll cover my top five favorite plugins of all time, what they do, and why they’re great!

1. BracketHighlighter

Many people believe that bracket highlighting should be a ready-made helper for developers of all languages. I agree on this point, however, at least Sublime Text 2 provides a plugin for this. It’s a very simple addition; it allows you to see if your opening brackets have an accompanying closing bracket. Many developers will tell you stories of these large and complex programs that consumed much of their time as they searched for one simple error … only to find that it was just a missing closing bracket.

In addition, it highlights opening and closing tags and quotes, for those of you who do a lot of HTML/XHTML, both bracket and tag settings are customizable.

For more details on the plugin check out the BracketHighlighter GitHub page.

2. DocBlockr

This is a neat plugin that speeds up and simplifies documentation. It supports PHP, Javascript, Java, Action Script, Objective C, C, C++, and Coffee Script.

By typing this:

/** (Press Enter)

The plugin automatically returns this:

/**
*
*/

Boom, the quickest way to document that I’ve ever seen.

In order to document your functions, just put it in your comment:

/** (Press Enter)
function myFunction(var1, var2) { }

And, it'll become:

/**
*[myFunction description]
* @param {[type]} var1 [description]
* @param {[type]} var2 [description]
* @param {[type]}
*/

function myFunction (var1, var2) { }

When you want to do variable documentation, the structure is similar:

/** (Press Enter)
myVar = 10

The plugin will fill out the documentation block like this:

/**
*[myVar description]
* @type {Number}
*/

Tell me that this isn’t nifty! If you want to try it out or just get a closer look at this plugin, head here.

3. Emmet (previously known as Zen Coding)

Unfortunately, I encountered some oddities when I tried to install Emmet with SublimeLinter, so I decided to disable the Linter in favor of Emmet to give it a spin. I absolutely love Emmet.

It provides a much more efficient way to code by providing what they call “abbreviations.” For example, if I want to create a div with an unordered list and one bullet point in it, Emmet lets me save myself a lot of time ... I can type this into Sublime:

div>ul>li

And press Control+E, and my code automatically turns into this:

<div>
    <ul>
        <li></li>
    </ul>
</div>

If I need to add multiple <li> tags, I can easily replicate them with a small addition:

div>ul>li*3

When I hit Control+E, voila! The unordered list structure is quickly generated:

<div>
    <ul>
        <li></li> 
        <li></li>
        <li></li>
    </ul>
</div>

That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Emmet's functionality, and if you’re as impressed as I am, you should check out their site: http://docs.emmet.io/

4. SFTP

I think the title of the plugin says it all. It allows you to directly connect to your server and sync projects and files just by saving. You will never have to edit a file in a text editor, open your FTP client and upload the file again. Now, you can do it directly from Sublime Text 2.

When used in conjunction with Projects, you’ll find that you can easily save hours of time spent on remote uploading. By far, SFTP for Sublime Projects is one of the most essential plugins you’ll need for any project!

5. SideBarEnhancements

This is a small plugin that makes minor adjustments to the Files and Folders sidebar, providing a more intuitive interface. Though this doesn’t add much functionality, it can definitely speed things up. Take a look at the plugin on the SideBarEnhancements GitHub page

I hope this list of Sublime Text 2 plugins will enhance your capabilities and ease up your processes, as it has done for me. Give them a try and let me know what you think. Also, if you have a different favorite plugin, I’d love to hear about it.

-Cassandra

October 16, 2013

Tips and Tricks: Troubleshooting Email Issues

Working in support, one of the most common issues we troubleshoot is a customer's ability to receive email. Depending on email server, this can be a headache and a half to figure out, but more often than not, we're able to fix the problem with one of only a few simple solutions. Because the SoftLayer Blog audience loves technical tips and tricks, I thought I'd share a few easy steps that make pinpointing the root cause of email issues much easier.

Before you gear up to go into battle, check the that server is not out of disk space on /var and that it is not in a read only state. That precursory step may seem silly, but Occam's Razor often holds true in technical troubleshooting. Once you verify that those two common problems aren't causing your email problems, the next step is to determine whether the email issues are server-wide or isolated to one mail account/domain. To do that, the first thing you need to do is make sure that the IMAP and POP services are responding.

Check IMAP and POP Services

The universal approach to checking IMAP and POP services is to use telnet:

telnet <serverip> 110
telnet <serverip> 143

If either of those commands fail, you're able to pinpoint which service to check on your server.

For most variants of Linux, you can check both services with a single command: netstat -plan|egrep -i "110|143". The resulting output will show if the services are listening and which process is doing the listening. In Windows, you can run a similar command from a command prompt: netstat -anb|find "LISTEN"| findstr "110 143".

If the ports are listening, and you're able to connect to them over telnet, your next stop should be your server's error logs.

Check Error Logs

You want to look for any mail errors that might clue you into the root cause of your email issues. In Linux, you can check /var/log/maillog, and in Windows, you can filter eventvwr.msc for mail only. If there are errors, a simple search will highlight them quickly.

If there are no errors, it's time to dig into the mail queue directly.

Check the Mail Queue

Depending on the mail server you use, the commands here are going to vary. Here are a few examples of how we'd investigate the most common mail servers we encounter:

QMail

Display the mail queue: /var/qmail/bin/qmail-qread
Display the number of messages in the queue: /var/qmail/bin/qmail-qstat
Reference article: Gaining Control Over the QMail Queue

Sendmail

Display the mail queue: sendmail -bp or mailq
Display the number of messages in the queue: mailq –OmaxQueueRunSize=1
Reference article: Quick Sendmail Cheatsheet

Exim

Display the mail queue: exim -bp
Display the number of messages in the queue: exim -bpc
Reference article: Exim cheatsheet

MailEnable

MailEnable users can can check to see that messages are moving by opening the mail directory:
Program Files\MailEnable\Queues\SMTP\Inbound\Messages
Reference article: How to diagnose inbound message delivery delays

With these commands, you can filter through the email queues to see whether any of them are for the users or domains you're having problems with. If nothing obvious presents itself at that point, it's time for some active testing.

Active Testing

Send an email to your mailserver from an external mailserver (anything will do as long as it's not on the same server). Watch for logging of the email as it's delivered:
tail -f maillog
On busy mailservers you might add |grep youremailid or simply look for a new message in the directory where the email will be stored.

The your primary goal in troubleshooting your email issues in this way is to isolate the root cause of your problem so that you can fix it more quickly. SoftLayer customers have direct access to our support team to help you through this process, but it's always nice to keep a quick reference like this in your back pocket to be able to pinpoint the problem yourself.

-Bill

September 24, 2013

Four Rules for Better Code Documentation

Last month, Jeremy shared some valuable information regarding technical debt on SLDN. In his post, he discussed how omitting pertinent information when you're developing for a project can cause more work to build up in the future. One of the most common areas developers overlook when it comes to technical debt is documentation. This oversight comes in two forms: A complete omission of any documentation and inadequate information when documentation does exist. Simply documenting the functionality of your code is a great start, but the best way to close the information gap and avoid technical debt that stems from documentation (or lack thereof) is to follow four simple rules.

1. Know Your Audience

When we're talking about code, it's safe to say you'll have a fairly technical audience; however, it is important to note the level of understanding your audience has on the code itself. While they should be able to grasp common terms and development concepts, they may be unfamiliar with the functionality you are programming. Because of this, it's a good idea to provide a link to an internal, technical knowledgebase or wiki that will provide in-depth details on the functionality of the technology they'll be working with. We try to use a combination of internal and external references that we think will provide the most knowledge to developers who may be looking at our code. Here's an example of that from our Dns_Domain class:

 * @SLDNDocumentation Service Overview <<< EOT
 * SoftLayer customers have the option of hosting DNS domains on the SoftLayer
 * name servers. Individual domains hosted on the SoftLayer name servers are
 * handled through the SoftLayer_Dns_Domain service.
 *
 * Domain changes are applied automatically by our nameservers, but changes may
 * not be received by the other name servers on the Internet for 72 hours after
 * your change. The SoftLayer_Dns_Domain service does not apply to customers who
 * run their own nameservers on servers purchased from SoftLayer.
 *
 * SoftLayer provides secondary DNS hosting services if you wish to maintain DNS
 * records on your name server, but have records replicated on SoftLayer's name
 * servers. Use the [[SoftLayer_Dns_Secondary]] service to manage secondary DNS
 * zones and transfers.
 * EOT
 *
 * @SLDNDocumentation Service External Link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domain_name_system Domain Name System at Wikipedia
 * @SLDNDocumentation Service External Link http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1035 RFC1035: Domain Names - Implementation and Specification at ietf.org
 * @SLDNDocumentation Service See Also SoftLayer_Dns_Domain_ResourceRecord
 * @SLDNDocumentation Service See Also SoftLayer_Dns_Domain_Reverse
 * @SLDNDocumentation Service See Also SoftLayer_Dns_Secondary
 *

Enabling the user to learn more about a topic, product, or even a specific call alleviates the need for users to ask multiple questions regarding the "what" or "why" and will also minimize the need for you to explain more basic concepts regarding the technology supported by your code.

2. Be Consistent - Terminology

There are two main areas developers should focus on when it comes to consistency: Formatting and terminology.

Luckily, formatting is pretty simple. Most languages have a set of standards attached to them that extend to the Docblock, which is where the documentation portion of the code normally takes place. Docblocks can be used to provide an overview of the class, identify authors or product owners and provide additional reference to those using the code. The example below uses PHP's standards for documentation tagging and allows users to quickly identify the parameters and return value for the createObject method in the Dns_Domain class:

*
     * @param string $objectType
     * @param object $templateObject
     *
     * @return SoftLayer_Dns_Domain
     */
   public static function createObject($objectType = __CLASS__, $templateObject)

Keeping consistent when it comes to terminology is a bit more difficult; especially if there have been no standards in place before. As an example, we can look to one of the most common elements of hosting: the server. Some people call this a "box," a "physical instance" or simply "hardware." The server may be a name server, a mail server, a database server or a web server.

If your company has adopted a term, use that term. If they haven't, decide on a term with your coworkers and stick to it. It's important to be as specific as possible in your documentation to avoid any confusion, and when you adopt specific terms in your documentation, you'll also find that this consistency will carry over into conversations and meetings. As a result, training new team members on your code will go more smoothly, and it will be easier for other people to assist in maintaining your code's documentation.

Bonus: It's much easier to search and replace when you only have to search for one term.

3. Forget What You Know About Your Code ... But Only Temporarily

Regardless of the industry, people who write their own documentation tend to omit pertinent information about the topic. When I train technical writers, I use the peanut butter and jelly example: How would you explain the process of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Many would-be instructors omit things that would result in a very poorly made sandwich ... if one could be made at all. If you don't tell the reader to get the jelly from the cupboard, how can they put jelly on the sandwich? It's important to ask yourself when writing, "Is there anything that I take for granted about this piece of code that other users might need or want to know?"

Think about a coding example where a method calls one or more methods automatically in order to do its job or a method acts like another method. In our API, the createObjects method uses the logic of the createObject method that we just discussed. While some developers may pick up on the connection based on the method's name, it is still important to reference the similarities so they can better understand exactly how the code works. We do this in two ways: First, we state that createObjects follows the logic of createObject in the overview. Second, we note that createObject is a related method. The code below shows exactly how we've implemented this:

     * @SLDNDocumentation Service Description Create multiple domains at once.
     *
     * @SLDNDocumentation Method Overview <<< EOT
     * Create multiple domains on the SoftLayer name servers. Each domain record
     * passed to ''createObjects'' follows the logic in the SoftLayer_Dns_Domain
     * ''createObject'' method.
     * EOT
     *
     * @SLDNDocumentation Method Associated Method SoftLayer_Dns_Domain::createObject

4. Peer Review

The last rule, and one that should not be skipped, is to always have a peer look over your documentation. There really isn't a lot of depth behind this one. In Development, we try to peer review documentation during the code review process. If new content is written during code changes or additions, developers can add content reviewers, who have the ability to add notes with revisions, suggestions and questions. Once all parties are satisfied with the outcome, we close out the review in the system and the content is updated in the next code release. With peer review of documentation, you'll catch typos, inconsistencies and gaps. It always helps to have a second set of eyes before your content hits its users.

Writing better documentation really is that easy: Know your audience, be consistent, don't take your knowledge for granted, and use the peer review process. I put these four rules into practice every day as a technical writer at SoftLayer, and they make my life so much easier. By following these rules, you'll have better documentation for your users and will hopefully eliminate some of that pesky technical debt.

Go, and create better documentation!

-Sarah

September 20, 2013

Building a Mobile App with jQuery Mobile: The Foundation

Based on conversations I've had in the past, at least half of web developers I've met have admitted to cracking open an Objective-C book at some point in their careers with high hopes of learning mobile development ... After all, who wouldn't want to create "the next big thing" for a market growing so phenomenally every year? I count myself among that majority: I've been steadily learning Objective-C over the past year, dedicating a bit of time every day, and I feel like I still lack skill-set required to create an original, complex application. Wouldn't it be great if we web developers could finally get our shot in the App Store without having to unlearn and relearn the particulars of coding a mobile application?

Luckily for us: There is!

The rock stars over at jQuery have created a framework called jQuery Mobile that allows developers to create cross-platform, responsive applications on a HTML5-based jQuery foundation. The framework allows for touch and mouse event support, so you're able to publish across multiple platforms, including iOS, Android, Blackberry, Kindle, Nook and on and on and on. If you're able to create web applications with jQuery, you can now create an awesome cross-platform app. All you have to do is create an app as if it was a dynamic HTML5 web page, and jQuery takes care of the rest.

Let's go through a real-world example to show this functionality in action. The first thing we need to do is fill in the <head> content with all of our necessary jQuery libraries:

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html>
<head>
    <title>SoftLayer Hello World!</title>
    <meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1">
    <link rel="stylesheet" href="http://code.jquery.com/mobile/1.3.2/jquery.mobile-1.3.2.min.css" />
    <script src="http://code.jquery.com/jquery-1.9.1.min.js"></script>
    <script src="http://code.jquery.com/mobile/1.3.2/jquery.mobile-1.3.2.min.js"></script>
</head>

Now let's create a framework for our simplistic app in the <body> section of our page:

<body>
    <div data-role="page">
        <div data-role="header">
            <h1>My App!</h1>
        </div>
 
        <div data-role="content">
            <p>This is my application! Pretty cool, huh?</p>
        </div>
 
        <div data-role="footer">
            <h1>Bottom Footer</h1>
        </div>
 
    </div>
</body>
</html>

Even novice web developers should recognize the structure above. You have a header, content and a footer just as you would in a regular web page, but we're letting jQuery apply some "native-like" styling to those sections with the data-role attributes. This is what our simple app looks like so far: jQuery Mobile App Screenshot #1

While it's not very fancy (yet), you see that the style is well suited to the iPhone I'm using to show it off. Let's spice it up a bit and add a navigation bar. Since we want the navigation to be a part of the header section of our app, let's add an unordered list there:

<div data-role="header">
    <h1>My App!</h1>
        <div data-role="navbar">
            <ul>
                <li><a href="#home" class="ui-btn-active" data-icon="home" data-theme="b">Home</a></li>
                <li><a href="#softlayer_cool_news" data-icon="grid" data-theme="b">SL Cool News!</a></li>
                <li><a href="#softlayer_cool_stuff" data-icon="star" data-theme="b">SL Cool Stuff!</a></li>
            </ul>
        </div>
    </div>

You'll notice again that it's not much different from regular HTML. We've created a navbar div with an unordered list of menu items we'd like to add to the header: Home, SL Cool News and SL Cool Stuff. Notice in the anchor tag of each that there's an attribute called data-icon which defines which graphical icon we want to represent the navigation item. Let's have a peek at what it looks like now: jQuery Mobile App Screenshot #2

Our app isn't doing a whole lot yet, but you can see from our screenshot that the pieces are starting to come together nicely. Because we're developing our mobile app as an HTML5 app first, we're able to make quick changes and see those changes in real time from our phone's browser. Once we get the functionality we want to into our app, we can use a tool such as PhoneGap or Cordova to package our app into a ready-to-use standalone iPhone app (provided you're enrolled in the Apple Development Program, of course), or we can leave the app as-is for a very nifty mobile browser application.

In my next few blogs, I plan to expand on this topic by showing you some of the amazingly easy (and impressive) functionality available in jQuery Mobile. In the meantime, go grab a copy of jQuery Mobile and start playing around with it!

-Cassandra

August 29, 2013

HTML5 Tips and Tricks - Local Storage

As I'm sure you've heard by now: HTML5 is all the rage. People are creating amazing games with canvases, media interactivity with embeds and mobile/response sites with viewports. We've come a long way since 1990s iFrames! In this blog, I wanted to introduce you to an HTML5 tool that you might find useful: Local Web Storage — quite possibly the holy grail of web development!

In the past (and still most of the present), web sites store information about a surfer's preferences/choices via cookies. With that information, a site can be customized for a specific user, and that customization makes for a much better user experience. For example, you might select your preferred language when you first visit a website, and when you return, you won't have to make that selection again. You see similar functionality at work when you select themes/colors on a site or when you enlist help from one of those "remember me" checkboxes next to where you log into an account. The functionality that cookies enable is extremely valuable, but it's often inefficient.

You might be aware of some of the drawbacks to using cookies (such as size limitation (4KB) and privacy issues with unencrypted cookies), but I believe the most significant problem with cookies is overhead. Even if you limit your site to just a few small cookies per user, as your userbase grows into the thousands and tens of thousands, you'll notice that you're transferring a LOT data of over HTTP (and those bandwidth bills might start adding up). Cookies are stored on the user's computer, so every time that user visits your domain, the browser is transferring cookies to your server with every HTTP request. The file size for each of these transactions is tiny, but at scale, it can feel like death by a thousand cuts.

Enter HTML5 and local storage.

Rather than having to transmit data (cookies) to a remote web server, HTML5 allows a site to store information within the client web browser. The information you need to customize your user's experience doesn't have to travel from the user's hard drive to your server because the customization is stored in (and applied by) the user's browser. And because data in local storage isn't sent with every HTTP request like it is with cookies, the capacity of local storage is a whopping 5MB per domain (though I wouldn't recommend pushing that limit).

Let's check out how easy it is to use HTML5's local storage with JavaScript:

<script type="text/javascript">
    localStorage.setItem('preferredLanguage', 'EN');
</script>

Boom! We just set our first variable. Once that variable has been set in local storage for a given user, that user can close his or her browser and return to see the correct variable still selected when we retrieve it on our site:

<script type="text/javascript">
    localStorage.getItem('preferredLanguage');
</script>

All of the lead-up in this post, you're probably surprised by the simplicity of the actual coding, but that's one of the biggest reasons HTML local storage is such an amazing tool to use. We set our user's preferred language in local storage and retrieved it from local storage with a few simple lines. If want to set an "expiration" for a given variable in local storage the way you would for a cookie, you can script in an expiration variable that removes an entry when you say the time's up:

<script type="text/javascript">
    localStorage.removeItem('preferredLanguage');
</script>

If we stopped here, you'd have a solid fundamental understanding of how HTML5 local storage works, but I want to take you beyond the standard functionality of local storage. You see, local storage is intended primarily to store only strings, so if we wanted to store an object, we'd be out of luck ... until we realized that developers can find workarounds for everything!

Using some handy JSON, we can stringify and parse any object we want to store as local storage:

<script type="text/javascript">
    var user = {};
    user.name = 'CWolff';
    user.job = 'Software Engineer II';
    user.rating = 'Awesome';
 
    //If we were to stop here, the entry would only read as [object Object] when we try to retrieve it, so we stringify with JSON!
    localStorage.setItem('user', JSON.stringify(user));
 
    //Retrieve the object and assign it to a variable
    var getVar = JSON.parse(localStorage.getItem('user'));
 
    //We now have our object in a variable that we can play with, let's try it out
    alert(getVar.name);
    alert(getVar.job);
    alert(getVar.rating);
</script>

If you guys have read any of my other blogs, you know that I tend to write several blogs in a series before I move on to the next big topic, and this won't be an exception. Local storage is just the tip of the iceberg of what HTML5 can do, so buckle up and get ready to learn more about the crazy features and functionality of this next-generation language.

Try local storage for yourself ... And save yourself from the major headache of trying to figure out where all of your bandwidth is going!

-Cassandra

May 10, 2013

Understanding and Implementing Coding Standards

Coding standards provide a consistent framework for development within a project and across projects in an organization. A dozen programmers can complete a simple project in a dozen different ways by using unique coding methodologies and styles, so I like to think of coding standards as the "rules of the road" for developers.

When you're driving in a car, traffic is controlled by "standards" such as lanes, stoplights, yield signs and laws that set expectations around how you should drive. When you take a road trip to a different state, the stoplights might be hung horizontally instead of vertically or you'll see subtle variations in signage, but because you're familiar with the rules of the road, you're comfortable with the mechanics of driving in this new place. Coding standards help control development traffic and provide the consistency programmers need to work comfortably with a team across projects. The problem with allowing developers to apply their own unique coding styles to a project is the same as allowing drivers to drive as they wish ... Confusion about lane usage, safe passage through intersections and speed would result in collisions and bottlenecks.

Coding standards often seem restrictive or laborious when a development team starts considering their adoption, but they don't have to be ... They can be implemented methodically to improve the team's efficiency and consistency over time, and they can be as simple as establishing that all instantiations of an object must be referenced with a variable name that begins with a capital letter:

$User = new User();

While that example may seem overly simplistic, it actually makes life a lot easier for all of the developers on a given project. Regardless of who created that variable, every other developer can see the difference between a variable that holds data and one that are instantiates an object. Think about the shapes of signs you encounter while driving ... You know what a stop sign looks like without reading the word "STOP" on it, so when you see a red octagon (in the United States, at least), you know what to do when you approach it in your car. Seeing a capitalized variable name would tell us about its function.

The example I gave of capitalizing instantiated objects is just an example. When it comes to coding standards, the most effective rules your team can incorporate are the ones that make the most sense to you. While there are a few best practices in terms of formatting and commenting in code, the most important characteristics of coding standards for a given team is consistency and clarity.

So how do you go about creating a coding standard? Most developers dislike doing unnecessary work, so the easiest way to create a coding standard is to use an already-existing one. Take a look at any libraries or frameworks you are using in your current project. Do they use any coding standards? Are those coding standards something you can live with or use as a starting point? You are free to make any changes to it you wish in order to best facilitate your team's needs, and you can even set how strict specific coding standards must be adhered to. Take for example left-hand comparisons:

if ( $a == 12 ) {} // right-hand comparison
if ( 12 == $a ) {} // left-hand comparison

Both of these statements are valid but one may be preferred over the other. Consider the following statements:

if ( $a = 12 ) {} // supposed to be a right-hand comparison but is now an assignment
if ( 12 = $a ) {} // supposed to be a left-hand comparison but is now an assignment

The first statement will now evaluate to true due to $a being assigned the value of 12 which will then cause the code within the if-statement to execute (which is not the desired result). The second statement will cause an error, therefore making it obvious a mistake in the code has occurred. Because our team couldn't come to a consensus, we decided to allow both of these standards ... Either of these two formats are acceptable and they'll both pass code review, but they are the only two acceptable variants. Code that deviates from those two formats would fail code review and would not be allowed in the code base.

Coding standards play an important role in efficient development of a project when you have several programmers working on the same code. By adopting coding standards and following them, you'll avoid a free-for-all in your code base, and you'll be able to look at every line of code and know more about what that line is telling you than what the literal code is telling you ... just like seeing a red octagon posted on the side of the road at an intersection.

-@SoftLayerDevs

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