Zend LaunchPad Review

Recently Zend, the company behind the scripting engine that powers PHP, released a group of tools designed to make PHP programming and execution better, faster, and more reliable. This review covers one of these new products, Zend LaunchPadâ„¢, a quality assured packaged version of PHP. Is it really worth the price?

A couple of weeks ago, Zend finally released their long awaited product line, including much needed products, such as a stable, quality Cache as well as an encoder that allows you to encrypt and distribute your code. But are these products all that they’re hyped to be? Are they worth their price tags? Over the next couple of weeks I will be offering you my reviews of the different Zend products, the Zend Launchpad, the Zend IDE + Debugger, the Zend Cache and the Zend encoder.

This week we will be covering the Zend Launchpad, Zend’s attempt at providing an easy to install, easy to configure, quality assured version of php. In the article I will first go over the specifics of the Zend Launchpad, and then I will offer my (not so) humble opinion on the product.

The Zend Launchpad consists of a set of three components, a shell based installation interface, the Zend quality assured version of PHP and the online configuration program, automagically installed.{mospagebreak title=The Zend Launchpad} A couple of weeks ago, Zend finally released their long awaited product line, including much needed products, such as a stable, quality Cache as well as an encoder that allows you to encrypt and distribute your code. But are these products all that they’re hyped to be? Are they worth their price tags? Over the next couple of weeks I will be offering you my reviews of the different Zend products, the Zend Launchpad, the Zend IDE + Debugger, the Zend Cache and the Zend encoder.

This week we will be covering the Zend Launchpad, Zend’s attempt at providing an easy to install, easy to configure, quality assured version of php. In the article I will first go over the specifics of the Zend Launchpad, and then I will offer my (not so) humble opinion on the product.

The Zend Launchpad consists of a set of three components, a shell based installation interface, the Zend quality assured version of PHP and the online configuration program, automagically installed. {mospagebreak title=Installation}
Overview
The first component of the Zend Launchpad is the installation interface. This is a shell based program, which asks you a couple of questions, such as your webserver root directory, etc. and then installs the Zend quality assured php along with the online configuration interface for PHP.

Commentary
This is probably one of the most flawed parts of the Launchpad as it currently is packaged, the launchpad installation interface provides no extra ease of use (and I compile PHP from the CVS version) while providing signifigant limitations on the person using it. For one thing only the apache webserver is supported in the Launchpad installation interface, something that I find appalling since many large corporations may want to use some other type of server with the Zend Launchpad, such as IIS or even Roxen.

The other part where the installation has a big failing is that it bundles only a small subset of php’s extensions. Many businesses need more than just the PCRE, MySQL, PostgreSQL, Oracle 8, XML, WDDX, LDAP, IMAP, GD, DB2 extensions. What if you want to connect to a Interbase or MSSQL database? What if you want to perform XSLT transformations with PHP? Then you not only have to brave compiling the different modules as a Shared Object, but you also must figure out the installation path’s of the “Zend/PHP”, no easy task.

I could probably forgive all this if the Launchpad installation program made it signifigantly easier to install php on your system. But the fact is it doesn’t, you still have to install the apache webserver and all the components that go along with that. You still have to compile any other modules you want to use with PHP, such as the XSLT or MSSQL extensions. This makes the Launchpad interface as it currently stands a failure.

Redemption?
The idea of an installation interface definetly has merit, and I like the direction Zend is going, however, as it currently stands this part of the Launchpad seems to be incomplete. If the Launchpad installation provided support for more webservers (PHP supports natively over 10 different servers, as well as providing CGI support, which allows it to interface with any webserver), more extensions (even if the Zend folks mark them as unstable) and they cleaned up the interface (GTK based installation anyone?), then I think this installation interface would be quite suitable.{mospagebreak title=The Quality Assured PHP}
Overview
The core of the Zend Launchpad is really the Quality assured version of PHP that they ship with it. This means that the folks at Zend have gone through and stress tested the version of php shipped with the Launchpad, made sure no major bugs exist, and that the product is ready for a production environment.

Comments
I see this from two perspectives really. The first as the employee of businesses who really need some company putting a Quality Assurance stamp on PHP. From this perspective, I think the Quality assured version of PHP makes the Launchpad worth its weight in gold. When you have a company backing and giving support for their distributed version of a product, it makes it easier for the big companies to adopt those products which is great. Not only that, but it seems as if the Zend folks are contributing their bug fixes back to the php community which makes it a win-win situation for everybody.

The second position I see this as is as a developer of PHP. From this view I find it very annoying. Number one the PHP project has a quite large quality assurance team, working to make PHP as bug free as possible. Secondly, I find the effort to bundle a Zend Quality Assured version of PHP to be a little insulting to the people who work to create PHP. I could see freezing a version of PHP and then distributing that version of PHP, free to customize and maintain. But they don’t distribute the whole of PHP, just the parts that they consider to be “stable”. I don’t happen to like that approach, it almost seems like Zend is taking all the credit for PHP and not really acknowledging that their quality assured version of PHP is a 100% the work of the PHP community.

Improvements?
What would be great to see in the future is Zend going and distributing all of PHP with their product, not just the extensions that they consider to be worthwhile. I’d also like to see them provide a comprehensive credit listing of all the people who actually contributed to PHP and who work to make PHP possible, something to show that Zend realizes PHP is not their show, but rather the work of a large open source community.

Overall
Overall, I’d say the product is a valuable contribution to PHP because it will definetly help PHP gain more viability among commercial markets. While I would like to see more extensions bundled with the custom PHP, and any easier method to install other, new extensions. All and all I think the product is very valuable.{mospagebreak title=The Online Configuration and Development Arena}
Overview
Once the Zend Launchpad installs the QA’ed version of PHP it also installs the Zend Launchpad configuration tool. This tool will assist you in your php development, including, quality assurance reports on the bundled PHP modules, a php.ini editor and a snapshot of the php documentation (more up-to-date documentation is available at http://www.php.net/manual/).

Comments
Overall this interface provides a good start, and its a smart idea, but it needs some improvent before it can reach its overall potential. First of all, the meat of the interface is the configuration program, which, while it is nice, is not really that much different than using vi to go into your php.ini file and change the values. The configuration is a nicety, but shouldn’t be such a large part of the online management interface.

The Quality Assurance reports are nice, but not complete enough, its seems like there is more than one line about the quality assurance performed on the modules. I want complete tests not just “well, the module’s stable, it has these two known bugs”. Plus only a small subset of PHP’s extensions are listed, if the Launchpad came with all the extensions, or at least a larger subset of them

The Launchpad interface also includes the PHP manual bundled along with it, which you can browse and read. Having integrated manual browsing is also a big bonus, as it means you don’t have to worry about installing the php manual on your local machine and provides a good search interface.

However, these are all niceties, the Launchpad online interface, while it does have some goodies, is not yet, in my opinion, mature. It still lacks some essential features, such as the ability to add external extensions to your php build, or be able to automatically upgrade your Launchpad version from the Launchpad itself. The Launchpad Online interface is missing a great deal of these features, while it shows promise, it looks like the people at Zend just decided to skimp on the feature set for this first version.{mospagebreak title=Conclusion} The Launchpad is an excellent candidate for businesses that need a commercially backed and Quality Assured version of PHP. In this area the product meets my expectations in many ways, with one or two forgivable flaws. However, I cannot yet reccomend the Launchpad to any business that has already made the decision to use PHP without the Quality Assurance and professional support, because, the ease of use features of the Launchpad are not yet mature enough to be considered that useful (actually, I found the interfaces distracting).
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