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ColdFusion: Article

CFEclipse: The Developer's IDE, Eclipse For ColdFusion

CFEclipse (CFE) is a plug-in developed to integrate into the open platform created by the Eclipse Foundation

Many paths lead developers to ColdFusion. In the past ColdFusion was often viewed as an entry-level language enabling designers and other nonprogrammers to build dynamic sites. Since the release of CFMX it has become more recognized among developers familiar with languages such as Java and PHP.

This is partly due to language enhancements such as CFCs, and partly because it now runs as a Web application on top of a J2EE servlet container, thus allowing it to be used to develop the presentation layer for complex J2EE applications. For both types of developers there are requirements that an IDE must support. Many Web development tools are geared toward the first type of users mentioned above. They include features such as WYSIWYG Design Mode and image mapping functionality. For many developers falling into the second category, the WYSIWYG tools are lacking in the features that they are used to in other IDEs, and the non-WYSIWYG tools are either aging or not geared specifically to ColdFusion development. The goal of the CFEclipse project is to provide a tool for this second type of developer.

CFEclipse (CFE) is a plug-in developed to integrate into the open platform created by the Eclipse Foundation. Eclipse is designed specifically to be flexible enough to be used as a base for an IDE, a simple text editor, Web browser, e-mail client, or practically any other user application you care to mention. Eclipse is often perceived as a Java IDE, but in fact the Java development features are provided by nothing more than a plug-in much the same as (albeit much more mature than) CFEclipse. Eclipse itself is written in Java and runs on just about any platform that has a JVM version 1.4 or later.

Although other ColdFusion IDEs are also under development for use within the Eclipse platform, CFE is set apart by one main difference: the CFE project is an open source development project. The benefits of open source development are beyond the scope of this article; however, it is fundamental to the success of this IDE. Anyone can download the source code for CFE, and with that code add any feature he or she desires. Although this task may seem daunting for some beginners, it is also a very liberating experience. In preparation for this article we polled the CFEclipse users' mailing list (http://cfeclipse.tigris.org/servlets/ProjectMailingListList) to learn which features were other users favorites. One of the features mentioned most was the amazing release cycle. Users really appreciate that their suggestions are taken seriously and implemented quickly. This is due to the nature of open source software; anyone can contribute to the code base, which allows for features to be added quickly.

The concept of synergy is an amazing thing. The idea is that the sum of the contributions of the group exceeds those of individual developers. Think of just a few of the people you know who are passionate about technological advances and the things they can accomplish. Now imagine those people working together under a common banner to achieve a common goal. This is what open source development is about. Closed source development is hard to do without strong financial backing. We are all individuals and don't want to be at the mercy of an independent financial backer. There is also a lot of satisfaction in creating the tool you use to do the majority of your day-to-day work.

So now that you are familiar with the "why" and the "how," let's focus on the "what." CFEclipse is built as a developer's CF tool. CFE includes features that every person who writes CF code needs on a daily basis. All of the standard features you would expect are included. CFE supports syntax highlighting of CF code, CF tag, function insight, and project-based development. Here are some features you'll find in CFE that you won't find in contending tools:

  • Bracket matching: When writing functions or script, it is very easy to get lost in your nested elements. If you place your cursor next to a character that supports matching brackets ( ( ) { } [ ] ), CFE will highlight both the character you are near and its matching character. Never again get lost inside a dateAdd() inside a dateFormat() function!
  • Code folding: Available in CF Studio and Homesite, this feature has been resurrected in CFE and has had some bells and whistles added to it. When working in large files it is often convienent to be able to highlight a section of code and collapse it. This feature adds an icon to the right margin allowing you to expand and collapse this bit of code as you need it. Not only does CFE allow you to add your own collapsed sections, but it can automatically add them to many block-level CFML constructs. By default, when you open a file it will collapse CFML and HTML comments and cffunction blocks that span more than three lines. It will also add folding markers in the right margin for cfquery, cfscript, cfloop, cfif, cfswitch, and cfcase, and blocks that span more than three lines, but these will not be collapsed automatically. These defaults can be customized in the preferences area. A very handy organization feature!
  • Methods view: Since the addition of ColdFusion Components in CFMX, many developers have been wooed by the benefits they provide. When working in CFE you can open a CFC, file, and in the Methods View see a summary of the cffunction tags in your document. You can filter your functions based on type of access (private, package, public, remote) and you can sort them alphabetically. Double-clicking on a method name will move the cursor to that method in the document and expand the method if it is currently collapsed.
  • Outline view: The Methods view is convenient for files such as CFCs, which are mostly made up of cffunction tags. Sometimes it's also nice to have an overview of the structure of normal CFML files. The Outline view is designed to do exactly this. The real benefit is that when working in large files, you can filter your view based on the type of tag. You can filter on the currently selected element, or on a list of predefined tags such as cfmodule, cfset, cfquery, cfinclude, and cfcase. This makes working with long documents much more manageable (see Figure 1).
  • Versioning integration: Although not a ColdFusion-specific feature, the integration with Versioning Systems via other Eclipse plug-ins is incredible. Beyond being able to utilize all the features of CVS and SVN repositories, Eclipse also has a local history. The local history allows you to compare against the versions of the file that Eclipse has kept locally on your computer. So where normally you would need to go to the versioning server to compare previous versions, Eclipse allows you to do this very easily with every saved version of the file. By default Eclipse maintains seven days worth of changes locally.
  • Integrated browser: Many Web-centric IDEs will allow you to launch the page you are currently working on into an external browser. CFEclipse allows you to open a browser window inside the IDE itself. This is very similar to what you get in both DreamWeaver and Homesite. The difference in CFE is that you can specify a single root URL for a project and always have that URL loaded when you fire up the browser. CFE also allows you to have two tabbed browsers active. This allows you to review the page you are working on, as well as keep the Macromedia Livedocs or any other Web site at your fingertips. And all inside the IDE!
  • Scribble pad: At one point or another pretty much every Web developer has created a tmp.cfm file, or something similar, to test some small snippet of code outside the existing project. CFEclipse allows you to designate a file within any project that will act as a "scribble" file. While working in CFE you can activate the scribble pad via a keyboard shortcut. This will open the scribble file and load it into the integrated browser, allowing you to quickly test short snippets of code without having to hunt around in the file system for the last file you used. Using the same keyboard shortcut again will save the scribble file and refresh the integrated browser.
  • Snippets: Reminiscent of the snippets of Homesite , snippets allow you to create blocks of code that can be entered into your document by double-clicking the snippet from the snippet view. A text trigger can also be assigned to a snippet, allowing you to type the text trigger followed by a keyboard shortcut to add the snippet to your document. This approach literally gives you an unlimited number of snippets that can be inserted using only triggers and the keyboard shortcut. The snippets implementation also allows you to use Homesite-style snippet variables of the form $${variable:default} within the snippets. When you insert a snippet of this type you are prompted for the values you would like to use. This is very convenient for creating snippets that contain skeleton code for constructs like CFC getter and setter function pairs.
  • Right-click to open/create file from cfinclude: cfinclude offers many benefits to developers. CFE allows you to right-click on the template attribute of a cfinclude tag and choose the file to include. If the file does not exist, CFEclipse will attempt to create the file in the location you specify.
  • File Explorer: One of the most frequent complaints I have heard of Eclipse-based plug-ins is that there is no way to edit a file that is not part of a project. The File Explorer solves this problem by allowing you to explore your computer and open any file. Another benefit of the File Explorer is that it uses the same split-view approach that Homesite uses, with folders on top and files below. The File Explorer view also allows you to browse FTP sites and edit the files as if they were local, again in the same manner as Homesite (see Figure 2).
  • TODO tasks: Another popular feature is the ability of the IDE to track comments containing TODO items. Any comment that contains the string "TODO:" is tracked globally and can be viewed in the tasks view. When looking at the tasks view you can double-click on a task and the relevant file will be opened with the cursor on the line where the TODO: marker is located. The overview ruler in the right margin also allows you to quickly scan all the TODO tasks for the current document and jump directly to any one of them.
  • Framework support: Currently under development are many enhancements to the CFEclipse IDE that allow specialized functionality based on frameworks such as Mach-ii, Fusebox 3, and Fusebox 4.
  • Problems view: CFEclipse also includes a parser that checks for syntax errors in your ColdFusion document. When problems are found, they are compiled into a list that is tracked globally in the same way as the TODO tasks. In the latest development versions of CFEclipse, parser problems are also underlined in the text of the document. This makes it much easier to see exactly where the parser found a problem and it is usually relatively easy to spot the cause, such as an extra </cfif> tag in a nested set of if statements.

More Stories By Simeon Bateman

Simeon Bateman is director of development for Business Transitions LLC of Portland, OR. Simeon is a Certified Macromedia Coldfusion developer and has been utilizing Macromedia Coldfusion daily for the last 5 years.

More Stories By Stephen (Spike) Milligan

Spike has been working with ColdFusion since 1998, and has worked on some of the largest ColdFusion projects in Europe and Australasia. He is a Macromedia Certified Instructor and member of Team Macromedia for ColdFusion. Originally from Ireland, he has lived and worked in many countries in Europe and traveled the globe in search of new and interesting challenges. He moved to the Pacific Northwest in December 2003, and is currently the lead developer for the CFEclipse project.

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