Magento2 and the ugly truth

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I’ve been working with Magento for a long time and I can say that the platform changed a lot over time and I would like to share my personal thoughts on it.

How Magento 2 learned from the past to make some brand-new mistakes

I had my first encounter with Magento in 2011 and, back then, all I knew about it was that it was based on Zend Framework and that it was doing e-commerce (obviously).

I was coming from the Symfony framework world, with a lot of documentation, a great community and a rock-solid implementation. This was still Symfony 1, Symfony 2 was just coming out.

By comparison, Magento had next to no documentation, barely any community and the implementation had a plethora of bugs. In my first few days on the job I was seeing a lot of people debugging deep in the Core, I was just perplexed, I almost never needed to debug Symfony, let alone actually find bugs.

Some may argue that Symfony is a framework and Magento is a platform and the argument is as solid as a guinea pig.

The reason for this situation was simple: they didn’t expect the platform to have so much success; but it did and the reason was simple – it was pretty much the only platform in the PHP world that was built with modularity in mind at that time, period! There were other platforms, but definitely not as versatile, fully featured and modular as Magento.

Moving forward, they’ve spent a lot of time and effort in building ample documentation for Magento1, focused on quality, rock-solid stability, all paired with exceptional support for enterprise partners!

Psych! No, they did not! The documentation for M1 was always sparse and of very poor quality. Basically, the best resource was Ben Marks’ “Fundamentals of Magento Development” course, a book (about which and not entitled to an opinion, since I didn’t read it), some blog posts from individuals or companies that worked with the platform and a lot of StackOverflow questions and answers. All this was paired with exceptionally bad support for enterprise users, extremely slow and low quality solutions and, to top it off, plenty of Core bugs. It wasn’t unusual to find non-standard, half-baked implementations and bugs in the Core. But the Core was simple enough that, with Xdebug and a lot of patience, everything was more or less fixable.

Fixes coming from their support team were close to a myth. If you didn’t want to fix a bug, or just didn’t feel like working, you could open a ticket and in most cases it took days or even weeks to get a proper response. By that time you would have usually fixed it already and (in some cases) even sent the fix to their support so they can also include it in the Core.

And along comes Magento 2

With the burden of the popularity-driven growth of Magento 1, Magento 2 came to the rescue.

It took a long time for Magento 2 to be ready, and I think that is more of a story in itself, but some actions were taken to prevent some of the issues that the first version had.

Let’s look on some of the platform issues:

  • classes could only be extended by overwriting;
  • the frontend was based on the Prototype framework.

There were many other changes but I think these were among the most important ones.

And now let’s see how Magento 2 managed to fix all these issues

It is a good practice to start with something nice, so I will start with the documentation, Magento2 had documentation from the start and it was both useful and well made!

Regarding the classes overwrite, there were implemented two approaches:

  • implementing dependency injection (from Symfony)
  • implementing plugins using interceptor pattern.

Dependency injection really helped with the ability to substitute classes and functionality, and the plugins helped a lot with a non-invasive way of extending the functionality. Before plugins, only observers were able to modify data in a non-invasive way, and the big problem was that (in many cases) there just weren’t observers everywhere you needed them to be.

Unfortunately, this created a lot of overhead. Maybe in M1 you could just put a breakpoint and look in the stacktrace to see what methods are changing what, but now… it is just a lot more complex, each method has an interceptor class that triggers the plugin mechanism. Each plugin can be triggered before, after or around the method, the around method can prevent the actual method from getting called. In short, it is a lot more code with a lot more methods and a lot more code to follow. When it is working is a lot more elegant, but when it doesn’t it is a lot worse to debug.

In a dramatic twist, many of the classes were not implemented properly in the Core. You see, when Magento2 was released, a lot of compromises had to be made, and some of the Core modules were just “made to work” in the new framework. Later when everyone was expecting the cleanup to be made… it wasn’t, the reason is simple, why fix the Core when you can break compatibility with the modules already created?

This issue even made Magento Core developers suggest that you should follow the guidelines, not use the Core as an example: do what we say, not what we do.

Frontend was fixed even better! You may ask yourself what is that “prototype” library and why would anyone in their right mind choose it? It made a lot of sense back then, when Magento1 was created and there were several popular js libraries, mainly: jQuery, Prototype and MooTools. There were a lot more than these 3, but these were the popular ones. There was a war between jQuery and Prototype, just like there is now between React, Angular and Vue. The first had a new approach with almost a new language, while the second was aiming at extending the browser capabilities in a more discrete fashion. We now know who won, but back then it wasn’t obvious. As a small note, I was also a fan of Prototype back then.

The Magento 2 team realized over time that it was a mistake and, to fix it, they promised to make something more flexible. The new more flexible solution didn’t involve the Prototype library, but instead included: jQuery, Knockout.js, and Require.js just at the top level, without taking dependencies into consideration.

The idea was to separate the frontend and the backend, to have the ability to make completely new frontend APPs. And, as before, this was never properly finished and now there is a highly complicated system, partially separated, partially single page App and partially… multi page, implemented in a variety of styles. And this is only on the store front, the store backend has a slightly different, more complex system of xml, phtml, html and js files.
As a backend developer I can truly say that it is a lot harder to debug (or just to understand how the frontend part works) now than before.

The XML part of generating grids is probably the hardest part, it is extremely difficult to debug anything in it and, if you mess something up, you get no warnings at all, you have to find the class that is building the grid and see if an exception is triggered there, but that is not an obvious solution at all…

And, of course, the entire thing is a lot slower because of all these “new engineering features”. When all the code is generated and the links to static resources and everything set to production mode, it isn’t slow; it isn’t exactly fast, but it isn’t terribly slow either. But when you don’t have cache, and didn’t deploy the static resources, and you are in developer mode, it is just awfully slow, it can take a few minutes to load a simple product page! It is just ridiculous if you ask me, it isn’t an operating system, or a video game, it is a shopping cart, why in the world would it take 5 minutes to display a page, even without a lot of new modules.

Keep in mind that Magento 2 didn’t come with a lot of new features, most of the functionality was in M1, only more “engineered”, so those 5 minutes of code generation and linking and whatever magic is going on in there aren’t adding a lot of new features, just a lot of refactoring of the old system.

The Magento Cloud

Magento offered a Cloud, I don’t know if they are anymore and I don’t care, nobody really cares about it anymore, mostly because it wasn’t what everybody wanted.

People want simple things, you have an app, you push it to the clouds and money starts raining down. That should be it, less things to worry about.

Demandware, who doesn’t have a nice open source core, is doing something exactly like this: you don’t have the same amount of control, but you don’t take care of your website, the gods in the clouds do! The developer only develops, doesn’t need to care about what magic operations are doing, because he is not ops, he is dev!

The Magento Commerce Cloud was aimed to do that, just push this monster in the cloud and some very smart ops will scale it for you! But it wasn’t like this, it was never easy, nor fast. And, on top of that, other hosting providers started making hosting solutions for Magento that were better at scaling then the official one, which is just ridiculous.

A positive note to end on

There is an interesting core underneath it all.There are plenty of very smart features that make the platform so popular. Now you also have tests, so you can even do TDD.

Even with all this (over) engineering challenges, there are still plenty of passionate developers out there that are able and willing to overcome them.

There are also a lot of tools developed by the community to overcome some of the shortcomings, like generate the huge amount of files required for a model, or MSP_DevTools to help with debugging the frontend, or n98-magerun2 to help with crons and lots and lots more.

And lastly, there are still a lot of very brilliant and passionate developers out there that are willing to figure out a way to develop, scale and make sales for one more day!