The definitive guide of Symfony 1.0

8.1. Why Use an ORM and an Abstraction Layer?

Databases are relational. PHP 5 and symfony are object-oriented. In order to most effectively access the database in an object-oriented context, an interface translating the object logic to the relational logic is required. As explained in Chapter 1, this interface is called an object-relational mapping (ORM), and it is made up of objects that give access to data and keep business rules within themselves.

The main benefit of an ORM is reusability, allowing the methods of a data object to be called from various parts of the application, even from different applications. The ORM layer also encapsulates the data logic — for instance, the calculation of a forum user rating based on how many contributions were made and how popular these contributions are. When a page needs to display such a user rating, it simply calls a method of the data model, without worrying about the details of the calculation. If the calculation changes afterwards, you will just need to modify the rating method in the model, leaving the rest of the application unchanged.

Using objects instead of records, and classes instead of tables, has another benefit: They allow you to add new accessors to your objects that don't necessarily match a column in a table. For instance, if you have a table called client with two fields named first_name and last_name, you might like to be able to require just a Name. In an object-oriented world, it is as easy as adding a new accessor method to the Client class, as in Listing 8-1. From the application point of view, there is no difference between the FirstName, LastName, and Name attributes of the Client class. Only the class itself can determine which attributes correspond to a database column.

Listing 8-1 - Accessors Mask the Actual Table Structure in a Model Class

public function getName()
  return $this->getFirstName().' '.$this->getLastName();

All the repeated data-access functions and the business logic of the data itself can be kept in such objects. Suppose you have a ShoppingCart class in which you keep Items (which are objects). To get the full amount of the shopping cart for the checkout, write a custom method to encapsulate the actual calculation, as shown in Listing 8-2.

Listing 8-2 - Accessors Mask the Data Logic

public function getTotal()
  $total = 0;
  foreach ($this->getItems() as $item)
    $total += $item->getPrice() * $item->getQuantity();

  return $total;

There is another important point to consider when building data-access procedures: Database vendors use different SQL syntax variants. Switching to another database management system (DBMS) forces you to rewrite part of the SQL queries that were designed for the previous one. If you build your queries using a database-independent syntax, and leave the actual SQL translation to a third-party component, you can switch database systems without pain. This is the goal of the database abstraction layer. It forces you to use a specific syntax for queries, and does the dirty job of conforming to the DBMS particulars and optimizing the SQL code.

The main benefit of an abstraction layer is portability, because it makes switching to another database possible, even in the middle of a project. Suppose that you need to write a quick prototype for an application, but the client hasn't decided yet which database system would best suit his needs. You can start building your application with SQLite, for instance, and switch to MySQL, PostgreSQL, or Oracle when the client is ready to decide. Just change one line in a configuration file, and it works.

Symfony uses Propel as the ORM, and Propel uses Creole for database abstraction. These two third-party components, both developed by the Propel team, are seamlessly integrated into symfony, and you can consider them as part of the framework. Their syntax and conventions, described in this chapter, were adapted so that they differ from the symfony ones as little as possible.

Note In a symfony project, all the applications share the same model. That's the whole point of the project level: regrouping applications that rely on common business rules. This is the reason that the model is independent from the applications and the model files are stored in a lib/model/ directory at the root of the project.