Making administrative web apps in PHP

July 4, 2015 at 6:40 pm Leave a comment

What do I mean by administrative web apps?  Basically, a web app that lets you update a series of database tables,

Let’s take my most recent one as an example.  We are about to deploy LTE capable routers (Referred to as Modems in some places in this blog entry) to our remote locations.  800+ of them.  Each remote site will have an LTE router with modem and two SIM cards.  One of those SIMs will be active and the other will be there so we could switch to it, in the event we have trouble with the primary SIM (Vendor A has trouble, Vendor B might work better).  Each Vendor requires certain data when activating a SIM.  One wants the modem IMEI, another wants the modem MEID.  They all want to know which SIM ID is involved.  Oh, and each SIM is associated with a static private IP address.

The easiest way to manage such a thing is probably via a database table that can be edited via a web interface.  If it’s just you doing it all, perhaps you can edit the tables “in the raw” using something like PhpMyAdmin.  But, if you have a team involved, you might want to dial back the control a bit.  This is where you’d want to built a website to manage these database tables intelligently.

Rule #1:  Use a Web Framework!

A couple years back I learned about Bootstrap, the framework that lets you easily create clean, professional looking websites.  Using one of the frameworks will make your web apps look clean and professional.  Just pick one, and stick with it.

Rule #2:  Authenticate!

Whenever you are creating any sort of administration web app, make sure authentication plays a part.  You want to be sure that the people using your web apps are supposed to be using it.  While this is a “duh” statement for anyone writing publicly available apps, it also holds very true if it’s a private app that’s only visible to company employees.  In my case, I had a rudimentary system in place for a very important page, but many others were wide open.  While revamping the system using Bootstrap, I created a simple radius-based authorization include file to add to all the pages I wanted to secure.  I used a radius class I found online, I think this one.  I actually love it that I’m not very familiar with the class, as I’ve had to do so little with it.  I pretty much dropped it in, and it’s been working great ever since.  Since it’s just a single “include” line, securing other pages is drop-dead simple.

Rule #3:  Use Editor

This is an amazingly smart library of code.  With it, you can build a modern AJAX enabled web interface to manage your database tables very easily.  You may have to pick up a little bit of Javascript knowledge, but the back-end is PHP, and if you are half decent at PHP, you should be all set.

They have example code galore.  The majority of what you probably want to know how to do is right there.

If what you want to do isn’t listed in the examples, just ask!  Support on their forum is very good.  Most of my problems seem to stem from a lack of knowledge on the Javascript side of things.

 

Ok, time to talk about the elephant… No, Editor isn’t free.  It’s $119 if you are a solo developer, and goes up from there depending on the size of your team.  But trust me, it is so worth it.  If you were to try to write your own class library to do all the things Editor does, you’d spend many, many hours doing it, making the price tag a bargain.

Rule #4: Make an Audit Trail!

Any time you build a web interface that allows users to edit database tables for anything important, you should include code to audit the database tables, so you’ll see exactly who made what changes.  If you’ve used an authentication include, as I suggest, you can probably grab the logged-in user so you can write that into the audit trail as well.  I’m not suggesting this so you can beat up on the guy who made the mistake.  It’s so that you can quickly look back, see what has changed, so you can quickly fix the mistake.  It also allows you to do a little remedial training with whoever made the mistake, so they won’t make it again.

Now, an audit trail when using Editor is a bit of a challenge.  Unfortunately, the PHP code for Editor doesn’t include a smart audit capability or anything similar.  If you are serious about this, though, you can find the driver file for the database type you are using and modify it to create your audit trail.  Heck, a timestamped log file including the username and the UPDATE, DELETE, and CREATE SQL queries is probably all you need.  I actually parsed the SQL and wrote it out in an audit table so the NOC team can look through it (in another tab in the web interface) and figure out what happened, but that’s probably just me.

Rule #5:  Consider the Work Flow!

If you are writing this for someone else to use, it may be tempting to quickly write it in the fastest way you can, and then move on.  Don’t do it.  In my case, my users will be using this to keep 800+ sites straight.  That’s a big job, so I’m trying to make it as easy as possible.

Consider the things the users will need to do with the application.  When adding a new modem to my database, they’ll first scan in the IMEI (using a barcode scanner), then the MEID, so those are the first two fields on the “Create Modem” page.  The next item is the location number that will get this modem, then they can select two SIMs, and then a Vendor dropdown to indicate which SIM is active.  Design with the workflow in mind.

Build in logic to keep errors from happening.  In my case, I’m repopulating the SIM dropdown lists to only include SIMs that have not been selected before, since a SIM can only be in one modem at a time.  Similarly, if the user has selected AT&T and Verizon SIMs, don’t let them select Sprint as the Active Vendor.

Handle “special things” in the web app.  In my case, I’m going to have some LTE Survey kits that I’m giving “fake” location numbers.  I’ve added logic to the tool to prevent records marked with “fake” location numbers from being edited by the user.

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