Skipper ORM Database Tool Useful and Intuitive for Symfony Framework & Doctrine Users

I’ll have to admit when I first started learning Symfony probably my biggest stumbling block was to get the right data from form collections to persist or update to the database correctly.  It really shouldn’t be so complex, I mean, I spent a week learning the intricacies with the “let the framework do it” mentality the whole time knowing I had built my own database framework to handle this type of database management and querying — all I had to do was send this class I built with a command and the objects and it knew what to do — INSERT, UPDATE or DELETE.  It’s not rocket science.

DBALs will manage the interactions with the database, just trust in it.  Let go, Luke….

I get the whole wisdom behind using a database abstraction layer (DBAL) to manage the boring parts of code and standardize the way to get data in and out, but good golly, to get a form collection of 6 tables that were related was quite a bear.  It just wasn’t clear to me what the heck was going on under the hood with Symfony whispering to Mr. Doctrine, so data submitted from forms that were supposed to update instead inserted new records, etc.  It was a big pain, mostly because I just didn’t trust the framework, which I’ve learned from trial and error to really come to appreciate.

So I ran into two issues in my learning process:

  1. Trust the framework to connect the dots, you know, the typical insert customer’s account record then with that ID put it in with their address record, their sales records, etc.  Yeah, you don’t have to write any code to do that, it’s all about making sure your form collections all set up with relationships properly.  The joke is Symfony developers spend as much time trying to get their config files to work as they do actually writing code.  That means every table is an object, every object is represented as an entity and every entity has a Doctrine ORM mapping file.  You have to make sure that the owning entity of other objects can add array collections or you won’t get too far with setting sub-objects.
  2. YML mapping files and those pesky “one-to-one”, “one-to-many”, and “many-to-one” relationships.  These are where the “wiring” happens and where Symfony tells Doctrine that those certain entities are related.  It can become dizzying setting up these relationships properly.  Why can’t it just be straight forward and easy?!  Well, it makes a lot more sense to me for the most part, but I’d still like to ask Mr. Potencier for those two weeks of hell where all I was trying to do was get the form data to go into the database correctly!

Then I found Skipper to help with those entity mappings!

The joke is Symfony developers spend as much time trying to get their config files to work as they do actually writing code.  Skipper is a full database design tool with similar functions to MySQL Workbench or SQL Developer.  The one thing that set Skipper apart when I downloaded a fully-functioning trial version was how it helped me visualize and understand those menacing ORM relationships.  One to many, many to one, blah blah blah.  Can’t the framework just know based on the field names?!  I mean, “contact_id” and “customer_id” can both own each other, but if the “Customer” table has “contact_id” for a field and the “Contact” table doesn’t, what more information does it need?!  Well, if you have a development team new to Symfony and you’re going to use Symfony, you can cut back on the time, energy and hair they pull from their heads working on those ORM mappings if you have them design the database inside Skipper and export the database, entities and mappings from there.

I don’t mean to beat Symfony up, I’ve learned to really appreciate its RAD implications and how much faster I can get a fully functioning, complex website up and running, but man-alive this was a struggle.  I know I’m not the smartest bulb in the tool box (purposefully confused analogy to accentuate the fact how dumb I felt) but this should’ve been easier!  Anyway, using Skipper and bringing in my database design into Skipper helped me understand and clear up what was just fogging up my brain.  Then it clicked.  I got it, didn’t even need Skipper after I had that “aha” moment where it just all started making sense.

Disclaimer:  I didn’t actually go and buy Skipper…. yet.  I have tackled a few large and complex projects since it taught me and showed me the “Doctrine Way” and for that I am very grateful.  The first sign I think I’m going to need to speed up the process, I’m definitely going to go and buy their newest version, I just can’t justify the expense at the moment.  At $395, I don’t think that’s particularly steep for the tools it gives you and the time and frustration it will save you and your development team later, it’s there if I need it and that’s a comforting thought especially since everything I’ve delved into Symfony it’s still how it interacts with the database and updates data that I sometimes don’t trust fully.

Check out this article where I complain more about this with Symfony — all you expert Symfony users out there, please spare me the “noob” comments!  🙂  Perhaps it’s the need to “merge” and having to divert code in the controller and sometimes clearing the entity manager at seemingly arbitrary times to get that part to work, or it’s just me, still needing more practice to learn just in time for them to deprecate the procedures they’ve been touting to a simplified work flow that hopefully makes sense like most of the rest of Symfony’s components.  We’ll just have to wait and see, 3.0 is coming from Sensio Labs very soon….


– Aaron Belchamber

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Senior Cloud Software Engineer and 25+ years experienced video production, video editing and 3D animation services for a variety of global clients including local video production here in Jacksonville, Florida.

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