PHP Dev Tools (for CodinGame or elsewhere)


Static code analysis to catch bugs before you run the code (PHPStan)

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In its original philosophy, PHP is quite forgiving: you can easily write messy code and get away with it without any error messages, sometimes even without warnings. The typesystem is dynamic, and variable types are often silently converted by the interpreter as needed. While many people like this flexibility, it can bring weird bugs, which are sometimes very hard to find.

Moreover, as PHP is an interpreted language, there is no separate compile step. So, if there is an error in your code, it comes up only after you run it. This doesn't make too much difference at a solo CG puzzle, but can be problematic in real-life applications that were meant for productive use.

A static code analyser tool scans the codebase for possible errors WITHOUT running the code. It can detect much more than just syntax errors: type juggling, invalid assumptions on function return types, and lots of other code smells. It does NOT replace proper testing, but complements it.

There are several great code analyser tools available, in this playground we will use PHPStan. (See the links section at the bottom for some others.)

Installing PHPStan

You can install PHPStan following its documentation. While we can use some PHPStan extensions only with Composer, but we won't really need them, so the simplest approach is the same as we did for the other tools in the previous chapter: download the Phar file, move it to our devtools directory, and create a phpstan.bat helper:

curl -OL
@echo off
set BIN_TARGET=%~dp0/phpstan.phar
php "%BIN_TARGET%" %*

Now we can run a code analysis for the current directory with:

phpstan analyse --level max --verbose .

When running the first time against some old code, most likely there will be TONS of error messages.

The best approach is this:

  • Start with the lowest rule level by using the command line argument --level 0. Now only the most basic rules are checked.
  • Go over the error messages one by one. Either modify your code to conform, or add some exceptions (see later).
  • When your code passes at this rule level, increase the level setting, rinse and repeat.
  • The maximum level is 9, with some quite strict rules, but it is absolutely OK to stop the process earlier.
  • You can also create a baseline. In this way, the old errors are ignored, but you can still check any new code you write for possible problems, even at a high rule level.

Improving your code

While static analysis can help any code, for maximum benefit you shall start to use php in a much more 'typed' way.

  • Use declare(strict_types=1); and adhere to it.
  • Use type hints for all function parameters and function return types.
  • Use property types in classes. This is supported only from v7.4, so for a CG puzzle code that must run with php v7.3, you can use /** @var ... */ PHPDocs (also known as DocBlocks) to declare the type of the property. While the information in such PHPDocs is not enforced by the interpreter at runtime (treated as a comment), phpstan uses it during its analysis, and checks whether a value of an other type is ever assigned to that property or not.
  • Many library functions can return false as an error condition (e.g. str_pos(), but even stream_get_line()). You must always check the return value before assigning it to a property, or pass it to a function that was not meant to receive a boolean value.
    • That means that even an innocent $a = explode(' ', stream_get_line(STDIN, 256, "\n")); input parsing line in a CG puzzle is not a "clean code". While we know that stream_get_line() would never fail in a CG puzzle, the analyser will not, and warns you that explode() expects a string as its second parameter and not a string|bool. The easiest way to deal with this is to add an ?: '0' after the stream_get_line() call, so phpstan will now deduct that a false return value would be converted to string, and no harm can happen.
  • The php array is a very flexible type, but using the array word in type hints does not tell much about its actual contents. At high rule levels, you need to add an additional PHPDocs block to define the array's real shape. For example, int[] is a vector of integers, while array<string, float> is an associative array where the keys are strings and the values are floats. More complex shapes are also supported. At first, doing this feels tedious, but the additional analysing capability can prevent many bugs. (And you might start feeling like you are coding in Java... :-) )
  • In many CG puzzle codes, I made debug logging toggleable by using a global const DEBUG = true; line, then later using if (DEBUG) { error_log('...'); } conditionals. At some rule level, phpstan will figure out that the condition is always true (or false) and will complain. You can silence such 'false positives' by adding a // @phpstan-ignore-next-line line to your source. Another possibility is to add the constant to a dynamicConstantNames entry in your config file (see below).
  • Usually, you run static analysis for a single project at a time. However, as we discussed in a previous chapter, we might have multiple independent puzzle solutions within the same repo. phpstan assumes that the source files are related, and complains if there is a name collision. For example, in many puzzle solutions I have class names such as Position, Point, Cell, Graph, etc. To prevent phpstan error messages, just use namespaces.

Custom configuration file for PHPStan

Instead of passing command line arguments each time we run phpstan, we can create a config file and save it as phpstan.neon in the main project directory. The NEON file format is essentially a YAML file with some additional features. See the PHPStan Config Documentation for more details.

As an example, here is a possible phpstan config file:

    level: 9
    phpVersion: 70300
    editorUrl: 'vscode://file/%%file%%:%%line%%'
    tmpDir: .tools/phpstan
    reportUnmatchedIgnoredErrors: false
        - .
        - .git
        - .temp
        - .tools
        - .vscode
        - vendor
        - clash
        - codegolf
        - contest
        - DEBUG
        - PERF_LOG

Having this file in your project directory, you can simply run phpstan --verbose

Useful links

The following documents are must reads for any PHP developer:

  • Clean Code PHP, a collection of principles on "producing readable, reusable, and refactorable software in PHP".
  • PHP The Right Way, a very thorough quick reference for PHP best practices.

Coming next

Some CodinGame-specific tools and sites by the community.

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