Coding with Jesse

Saving data to a file with PHP

February 24th, 2008

Lately, I've been skipping using MySQL in situations where I just want to store a few variables, like configuration options, and don't necessarily want the hassle of setting up a database.

You can easily store data to a file using serialize and unserialize to turn a PHP object into a string, and then read and write the string in a file.

Here are a few functions that do just that:

function get_data($filename) {
    // create file if it doesn't exist
    if (!file_exists($filename)) {

    return unserialize(file_get_contents($filename));

function get_option($filename, $key) {
    $data = get_data($filename);
    return $data[$key];

function set_option($filename, $key, $value) {
    $data = get_data($filename);
    $data[$key] = $value;

    // write to disk
    $fp = fopen($filename, 'w');
    fwrite($fp, serialize($data));

// probably should put somewhere off the web root
$config = '../config.dat';

set_option($config, 'width', 1024);
echo get_option($config, 'width'); // will echo 1024

So there you have it. Feel free to use or modify this code as much as you like. If anyone has an idea for rewriting it to be cleaner, please share in the comments.

Easy web scraping with PHP

February 17th, 2008

Web scraping is a technique of web development where you load a web page and "scrape" the data off the page to be used elsewhere. It's not pretty, but sometimes scraping is the only way to access data or content from a web site that doesn't provide RSS or an open API.

I'm not going to discuss the legal aspects of scraping, as it may be considered copyright infringement in some situations. However, there are also perfectly legal reasons to need to scrape, like if you have permission.

To make things really easy, we're going to let the power of regular expressions do all the work for us. If you're not familiar with regular expressions, you may want to google for a tutorial. Here is the documentation for PHP regular expression syntax.

First, we start off by loading the HTML using file_get_contents. Next, we use preg_match_all with a regular expression to turn the data on the page into a PHP array.

This example will demonstrate scraping this web site's blog page to extract the most recent blog posts. This is just for demo purposes - of course, the RSS feed is much better suited for this.

// get the HTML
$html = file_get_contents("");

Here is what the HTML looks like for the blog posts:

<ul id="main">
        <h1><a href="[link]">[title]</a></h1>
        <span class="date">[date]</span>
        <div class="section">

So we will use a regular expression that looks for all the li elements and capture the content using parentheses at the appropriate places (link, title, date & content).

    '/<li>.*?<h1><a href="(.*?)">(.*?)<\/a><\/h1>.*?<span class="date">(.*?)<\/span>.*?<div class="section">(.*?)<\/div>.*?<\/li>/s',
    $posts, // will contain the blog posts
    PREG_SET_ORDER // formats data into an array of posts

foreach ($posts as $post) {
    $link = $post[1];
    $title = $post[2];
    $date = $post[3];
    $content = $post[4];

    // do something with data

There's a lot going on inside that regular expression, but there are really only a few "tricks" that are used. Anytime I want to say "skip over whatever is between" I use .*?. And any time I want to say "match whatever is in here" I use (.*?). And lastly, the s at the end tells PHP to allow the dot . to match newlines. That's about all there is to it.

The regular expression will only match blog posts, because they are the only <li> elements that contain an <h1>, <span class="date"> and <div class="section">.

Web scraping is highly unreliable - if the HTML structure were to change this code would break instantly. However, it's often quite easy to write this code, and usually produces a perfectly usable hack solution.

See all the articles

February 12nd, 2008

I've just added a new page where you can see a listing of all the articles I've written (this article is my 181st). This might be an easier way to see older articles than going page by page or month by month. Check it out: All Articles

IBM: Where and when to use Ajax

February 6th, 2008

My second IBM developerWorks article is now online: Where and when to use Ajax in your applications.

It's not a very technical article, so you can read it even if you've never programmed before. I talk about the benefits of using Ajax, and point out some problem areas that need special attention so that Ajax doesn't end up ruining your web site. It's essentially a summary of my Unobtrusive Ajax book.

The article was fun to write and I hope you enjoy reading it!