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Forms Processing with the Zend Framework

November 23, 2009


One of the key reasons for the meteoric rise of the World Wide Web is that unlike television, radio, or the traditional newspaper, it offers an immediate conduit for two-way communication. Yet many Web developers, particularly those with relatively little experience, seem to place remarkably little emphasis on devising efficient methods for accepting and processing user-provided information. Much of the reason for such oversight is due to complexity; effectively validating a complex string such as an e-mail address, or ensuring that a password is of a certain length are programmatic tasks which can strain the boundaries of many beginning developers' knowledge. Additionally, developers need to understand how to effectively respond to errors which crop up in the validation process, whether it's providing the user with error-specific feedback, or repopulating the form in order to not discourage the errant user from correcting his errors and submitting the form anew.

Given the universal challenge forms processing presents to Web developers no matter the project, it's no wonder that implementing an efficient forms processing solution is often high on the priority list of most Web framework developers. The Zend Framework is no different, offering developers a powerful solution for not only validating forms data, but actually programmatically building the form HTML. In this tutorial I'll introduce you to the Zend Framework's validation feature, showing you how easy it is to not only validate user provided data with confidence, but also how to inform the user of the error should validation fail.

Introducing the Zend_Validate Component

These days most serious Web sites provide the visitor with an opportunity to become a registered user in order to access restricted material or customized content. Because the number of registered users is often directly proportional to a Web site owner's income, it's crucial for the registration step to be streamlined and convenient in order to give the visitor every incentive to complete the process. Although you should keep the required registration fields to a minimum in order to provide the user with the shortest path to completion, the validation necessary to vet the data often goes beyond merely determining whether a field was left blank. Figure 1 presents what such a registration form might look like.

A Web site registration form
Figure 1. A Web site registration form

Although consisting of just five fields, validating this form presents several challenges:

  • Name: The name field must not be blank.
  • E-mail Address: The e-mail address field must not be blank, and must contain a valid e-mail address as defined by RFC 2822.
  • Password: The password must not be blank, and must consist of at least six characters. Further, the password and confirmed password must match.
  • Terms of Service: The check box must be checked.

Using the Zend Framework's Zend_Validate component, carrying out these field validations is a trivial process. Zend_Validate offers developers an extensive suite of validation procedures capable of ensuring data meets a wide variety of specifications, such as whether a number falls within a certain range, a credit card is valid as defined by the Luhn algorithm, or a value falls within a predefined list of valid values as defined by elements within an array. These procedures are packaged within the component as a number of different classes, with each class serving a specific validation purpose. See this page of the Zend Framework manual for a complete list of what's available.

To validate the fields, first you'll invoke the Zend_Validate() class, and then add validators by passing each to the addValidator() class, like this:

$validator = new Zend_Validate_NotEmpty();

Next you'll call the isValid() method, passing in the field you'd like to validate. If the isValid() method returns FALSE, you can call the getMessages() method to retrieve a list of predefined error messages.

  if (! $validator->isValid($this->_request->getPost('name'))) {
    echo "The name is not blank";
  } else {
    foreach($validator->getMessages() as $message) {
      echo "{$message}<br />";

As I mentioned, the Zend_Validate component's capabilities go well beyond merely checking a value for existence. For instance, to validate an e-mail address, you can both ensure the value is not blank and that it meets the requirements as defined by RFC 2822 by invoking the EmailAddress class:

  $validator = new Zend_Validate_EmailAddress();
  if (! $validator->isValid($this->_request->getPost('email')) {
    echo "Please provide your e-mail address.";

Streamlining the Validator Invocation Process

Although it's possible to invoke each validation class as needed, you can use a very convenient static method named Zend_Validate::is() to streamline the invocation process. For instance, to determine whether a field is blank, you can invoke the NotEmpty class like this:

  if (! Zend_Validate::is($data['name'], 'NotEmpty')) {
    echo "Please provide your name.";

Customizing Error Messages

When an error occurs, the getMessages() method will retrieve a list of predefined error messages. However, these messages can be quite terse; For instance, in the case the Zend_Validate_NotEmpty() validator determines a value to be empty, the following error message will be provided:

Value is required and can't be empty

This isn't exactly an ideal message, if for any other reason because it doesn't tell the user precisely which value is required and can't be empty. You can override the default messages

$validator->setMessages(array(Zend_Validate_NotEmpty::IS_EMPTY => "Please provide your name."));

Next, rather than output the error messages using a for loop within your controller action (which would break the MVC paradigm), create an array used to contain errors, and then assign the getMessages() return value to it:

  $this->view->errors = array();
  $this->view->errors = $validator->getMessages();

Finally, to present the errors in a well-organized fashion, I like to use a custom view helper which can be repeatedly used throughout the Web site as desired:

    class Zend_View_Helper_Errors extends Zend_View_Helper_Abstract
      public function Errors($errors) 
        echo "<div id='errors'>";
        echo "<p>Errors were found:</p>"; 
        echo "<ul>";
        foreach ($errors AS $error) {
          echo "<li>$error</li>";
        echo "</ul>";
        echo "</div>";

Within the view, you can call the helper like this:

  <?php if (count($this->errors) > 0) { ?>  
    <?= $this->Errors($this->errors); ?>
  <?php } ?>

After some CSS styling, attempting to submit the form with a blank name will produce the error message shown in Figure 2.

Displaying an error message
Figure 2. Displaying an error message

Validating Multiple Fields

Of course, chances are your form will contain multiple fields, such as the aforementioned registration form. Because you'll need to validate each field, it's possible that several errors could crop up. You'll need to keep track of all errors and present them to the user. To do this, I like to eliminate the need to use the getMessages method altogether and just use my own simple error tracking feature, like this:

  $this->errors = array();
  if (! Zend_Validate::is($this->_request->getPost('name'), 'NotEmpty')) {
    $this->errors[] = "Please provide your name.";
  if (! Zend_Validate::is($this->_request->getPost('email'), 'EmailAddress')) {
    $this->errors[] = "Please provide a valid e-mail address.";
  if (count($this->view->errors) > 0) {
    $this->view->errors = $this->errors;
  } else {
    // Continue with processing

Where to From Here?

Processing user input is such a commonplace task within Web sites of all sizes and purposes, that there's really no excuse to not rely upon a well-organized approach such as the one offered by the Zend Framework. In fact, forms processing is so important that the framework actually offers quite a bit more functionality than what has been introduced in this tutorial. Check out the following links for more information!

  • The Zend_Form Component: This component gives developers the ability to not only programmatically create forms, but also filter and validate input.
  • The Zend_Filter_Input Component: This component offers developers a means for declaratively identifying which form fields must be validated.

About the Author

Jason Gilmore is founder of, and author of the popular book, "Easy PHP Websites with the Zend Framework". Formerly Apress' open source editor, Jason fostered the development of more than 60 books, along the way helping to transform their open source line into one of the industry’s most respected publishing programs. Over the years he's authored several other books, including the best-selling Beginning PHP and MySQL: From Novice to Professional (currently in its third edition), Beginning PHP and PostgreSQL: From Novice to Professional, and Beginning PHP and Oracle: From Novice to Professional.

Jason is a cofounder and speaker chair of CodeMash, a nonprofit organization tasked with hosting an annual namesake developer’s conference, and was a member of the 2008 MySQL Conference speaker selection board.

Jason has published more than 100 tutorials and articles within prominent publications such as, Linux Magazine, and TechTarget.

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