I’ve been doing commercial software development for vBulletin 3.x (and, by extension, 4.x) off and on now for a couple of years. While there are some things that irritate the crap out of me about both of these products, vBulletin (both versions) have features that just aren’t found in other bulletin board packages. Admittedly, many of these exclusive features are provided by an extensive library of 3rd party software, but the point still stands–as much as I hate to admit it. Few other message boards have a plugin system that’s easy to develop for, and fewer still have the vast library of plugins available. phpBB doesn’t even come close. vBulletin still has its shortcomings for developers, but I’ll save my complaints for a later installment.
What I’m going to write about tonight is something that bit me, and I know it’s going to bite someone else out there: Template hooks have been the bane of my existence in vB4 for the majority of this weekend, and once you start adding a few yourself, you’ll grow to appreciate the manic schizophrenia that is the vBulletin 4.x template system in all its unadulterated glory. I hope to save you from the onset of severe insanity, so keep reading for my story and my solution.
Side note: You might also want to make this a summer project, because you’ll be bald by the time you’re finished, and I understand that bald heads get cold quite quickly. If you’re already bald, accept my apologies and tear something else out–like the upholstery stuffing in your desk chair. Don’t have a chair? Reach for the carpet. Don’t have carpet? Well, you’re on your own.
Template Hooks: They Work–But not When You Want Them To
I’ve written a couple of plugins that rely on the various
forumhome_wgo_pos* template hooks for both vBulletin 3.x and 4.x. These hooks work perfectly for most use cases, regardless of when your plugin fires, and are almost foolproof. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security, though. The moment you do anything unusual with template hooks in vBulletin 4.x, you’ll be bitten by the what-the-heck-happened-to-my-output surprise.
To reproduce the ailment that has been afflicting my sanity for the better part of this last Sunday, I direct you to a simple test:
- Create a new product, complete with its very own plugin.
- Set the plugin to fire on the
- Add the following code to the plugin:
$template_hook['footer_test_hook'] = '<b>Hi!</b>';
- Add the following code to your
- Run it!
You should notice that you now have a nice, shiny string containing Hi! at the bottom of your page in the footer code. Now, let’s break it:
- Add a template, such as
break_my_footerto your product XML (optional; you could use any other template if you like)
- Call this template from your plugin using something like:
$tpl = vB_Template::create('mytemplate');
Or, if you decided to use an existing (small) template:
$tpl = vB_Template::create('option');
- Then modify your template hook code appropriately:
$template_hook['footer_test_hook'] = htmlentities($tpl->render());
- Watch in horror as nothing appears in your footer.
Try as I might, I spent a good hour or two trawling various vBulletin support sites for answers. Rather than make a post somewhere and risk having one of their ill-tempered devs explain “Well, this is how it’s supposed to work, didn’t you use the search?” when the built in search generally sucks and Google doesn’t always pick up their help threads, I decided that this issue became personal. That is to say, this code insulted my mother, my father, my nonexistent siblings, and each of my ancestors going back 1,500 years.
After performing various blind tests I concluded that somehow the call to the
vB_Template::create() factory method was effectively wiping the contents of $template_hook–or ignoring it, or purging it, or performing an exorcism on it with tremendous glee while I steamed with fury in front of my monitor. I then decided that I’d had enough, and so I searched for the
footer template to determine where it was being called, prepared, and possibly rendered in the code. My hunch was that the footer was being generated separately from the
forumhome cruft that so happily seemed to work no matter where I used it or what I did with it (and indeed it is generated separately). Yet my own template hook refused to work.
Then I came across this code in
$templater = vB_Template::create('footer'); $templater->register('admincpdir', $admincpdir); $templater->register('ad_location', $ad_location); $templater->register('cronimage', $cronimage); $templater->register('languagechooserbits', $languagechooserbits); $templater->register('modcpdir', $modcpdir); $templater->register('quickchooserbits', $quickchooserbits); $templater->register('template_hook', $template_hook); $templater->register('facebook_footer', $facebook_footer); $footer = $templater->render();
Pay careful attention to the line
$template->register('template_hook', $template_hook);. Clearly, the footer is processing the template hook here–so I thought to myself, perhaps there’s a nearby hook that I could attach my plugin to so I can guarantee I know that the content of
$template_hook won’t be interfered with.
I scrolled up and found a hook that probably should have been fairly obvious to me from the start. But hey, it’s the weekend. What more can you expect?
($hook = vBulletinHook::fetch_hook('parse_templates')) ? eval($hook) : false;
Sheepishly, I changed my plugin to use the
parse_templates plugin hook instead of
global_start, and it worked! So the upshot is: If you’re going to try using custom template hooks and you discover that they won’t work the moment you load a template, try changing the plugin hook to
parse_templates. It might just fix the problem.
Now, this was admittedly all my fault for not realizing that
parse_templates may be the correct solution; I really should have examined the vBulletin sources more closely. Shame on me. In my defense, though, the vBulletin documentation is pretty poor, much of it is outdated, and even less of it focuses on issues specific to 4.x. However, I have one particular bone to pick: It’s puzzling to me that whatever is in
$template_hook will work fine up until the moment you decide to call
vB_Template::create(). There’s a comment under the
create() method that indicates something to do with
$template_hook and treating it as a special case for the purpose of various globals or some such, along with a reference to a bug tracker ID. I think that’s more coincidental than anything else, and certainly if I wanted to find out what was happening, I could run a trace with XDebug, but I’m not that desperate–or bored (yet). My guess is that, somehow, subsequent calls to
vB_Template::create() clobber the contents of
$template_hook by the time vBulletin gets around to rendering the footer; I may be wrong–I probably am–but this is an example of bizarre code suffering from manic schizophrenia.
Frankly, the vBulletin sources are so stupidly convoluted it’s a miracle the software works as well as it does. I’ll save that for another rant much later this week or next. In short, remember: If you’re toying with custom template hooks, you might just break your code. If you do, try changing the plugin you’re writing for template rendering purposes to hook into
parse_templates. You’re almost guaranteed to have little to no interference with the contents of
$template_hook and the
parse_templates hook is nearest to the templates that are most likely to be affected.
Toodles for now. Expect to see a whiny rant soon!