Why Do PHP Developers Think MVC Is An Application Architecture?

I’ve pointed out before that Model-View-Controller is a user interface pattern, not an application architecture. But why would PHP developers get the idea that MVC is an application architecture in the first place? (This may apply to all server-side developers, not just PHP folks.)

I used to think that MVC was an application architecture. Even after reading Fowler’s POEAA and seeing that MVC was for the user interface, I figured that meant I was doing “user interface applications.” But that was not quite right; it would have been more accurate to say that I had been mixing the concerns of user interface with the underlying core application.

Based on that experience, I think the reason MVC is mistaken for an application architecture is because PHP developers generally start with page scripts. In our first page scripts, we combine all the concerns in a single ball of mud: SQL queries are intermingled with HTML, and the business logic is scattered throughout. As far as we are concerned, the page script itself is “the application.” Later, as more functionality is required, we add another page script, and another, and another. We continue to see that collection of page scripts as “the application.”

Then, as we progress in our profession, and begin to learn how to better organize our work, we start separating the different concerns of “the application.” When we begin separating concerns, we separate them out of the page script, which we see as “the application.” Extracting the view concerns from the page script means extracting them from “the application.” Separating the model from the page script into its own layer means separating it from “the application.” Pulling the controller logic out of the page script means pulling it out of “the application.” So of course Model-View-Controller is seen as an application architecture – we separated the concerns of our application according to that pattern, right?

Except, in retrospect, it’s not. One of the big leaps we have to make is to realize that MVC is for the user interface portion of our systems, just like Fowler notes. We on the server side think the user interface is HTML, CSS, and Javascript, but it’s not. Instead, the user interface is the HTTP Request and Response. In other words, the template is not the View.

Once we make that conceptual leap, we begin to realize that the Model layer is the entry point to “the application”. That is where “the application” should live, or at least where it should look like it lives. The Controller should have little to do but take input from the Request and pass it to the Model; likewise, the View should do nothing but put together the Response using the output from the Model.

With that idea of server-side MVC, we then begin to see that a lot of what’s in server-side MVC frameworks is “too much.” Framework functionality that is not related to merely taking input from a Request and presenting output through a Response becomes entirely secondary to, perhaps even actively harmful to, building well-structured applications – applications that are independent of any particular user interface.

Afterword

The server-side MVC pattern, as descended through Sun’s Model 2 architecture, is so distinctive from the client-side MVC pattern as to be a completely different thing. I realized this as I was writing my book on modernizing legacy applications, and further research led me to write up Action-Domain-Responder as a web-specific alternative to MVC. Action-Domain-Responder places a much stronger emphasis on the HTTP Request and Response as the user interface elements. If you are interested in building better applications, you may wish to read the ADR essay, and try it out in your next project.


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