Magento Themes and Magento Extensions

Magento is difficult to modify and customize

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I’ve recently accepted a side project for a friend building an ecommerce solution that required some customizations.  I’ve read about Magento, attending a presentation about it at ZendCon 2008 by a couple guys from Varien, and viewed a few of the sample sites.  With my years of experience with oscommerce ecommerce, I was eager to dive right in and customize one of these!  Unfortunately, it turns out Magento sucks to work on.  Yes, I said Magento sucks.

Features

Magento has nearly all the ecommerce features you could imagine.  It has pretty much everything that oscommerce ever had, even after installing a hundred community contributions. They support downloadable products, grouped products, different customer types (retail, wholesale) and pricing for each, and a variety of payment and shipping modules.  Magento has “current” features such as tagging and tag clouds and on the backend also has a caching mechanism to speed things up on the site.

Bugs

There are some bugs in Magento and this is expected with any software.  They’ve been releasing an updated version every 2-3 weeks.  I’m still waiting on the payment subscription feature and a bug fix that will allow me to assign downloadable products to a group product.

Interface

Looking over a Magento store from the front end and peering into the source code you’ll quickly notice it uses very few tables.  On a given page, there was one small table in one of the sidebar objects.  That’s it!  Very good for search engine optimization.

Admin

The admin took a little getting used to.  Especially the product configuration as it’s laid out a little differently than the oscommerce I’m used to.  The main problem with the admin is that it’s freak’in SLOW!!!!  The ajax page content thing is cool and all, but not when it takes a minute to refresh!  It’s ridiculous.  At one time I had four tabs open and three of them loading a page in the admin while I worked on another.  I’ve tried it in firefox and google chrome and after reading the forums, I’m not the only one with these troubles.

Modifying code

The code… well, sad to say, but the learning curve is extremely steep.  I’m not talking in hours or days… weeks is getting closer, and I’d feel comfortable with months if you’re putting in a few hours per week.  It would probably make things a hellava lot easier if you’re a Zend Framework master as Magento is built on top of the Zend Framework.  Look into the code and you’ll just dig into directories eight or ten levels deep.  Many of the directories contain sub directories with the same name, making things even more confusing.  Each sub directory may contain one to four files and each file has about 50 to 100 lines of code that seem to only call an object or set a variable.  Where is the meat and potatoes?  You know, the controller containing all the logic?  Oh, and the XML config files for every modules and chunk of code in the system are kinda cool, but I really don’t know how they work at this point.  Below is a screen shot from my Zend Studio looking at a project and a sample file.

Magento Customize Code

Customizing

After looking at this code for an hour, I decided to try the old way of locating something in a file.  Yep, I went to the product detail page and copied the text “product description” that was printed on the page, then search the whole codebase for it.  Nothin.  Ok, it must be in the database somewhere, so check the database… damn… over 200 tables!  I tried this a few times and came up empty.

If you don’t have 100-200 hours to learn the Zend Framework and play around with Magento, then I’d say forget about making customizations to it.  Yeah, it’s open source, but not too many do it yourselfers (if any) are going to be able to modify and taylor this thing to their needs.  Sure, it’s an awesome piece of work, but take it as it is or find something else.

How they make their money

They build the most complicated open source package I have every seen… by far.  Sure, it’s open source and maybe they “gave back to the community”… no.  It’s obvious the first time you hit their website that they’re in this for big bucks.  They make it easy to download, but as soon as you need something altered, it’s damn near impossible for any casual coder.  It’s still a challenge for a PHP Expert and Zend Certified Engineer without the proper training and experience.  They do have a tutorial on “how to customize Magento” at http://www.magentocommerce.com/wiki/groups/174/changing_and_customizing_magento_code , which pretty much just tells you how to merge a new release into your existing one and show you how to create a module.  Professional installation currently goes for $149 from Magento.  I was able to install Magento on my local server, but it took some tweaking and working around a few of their bugs to get it to work.  Speaking of bugs, if you want support from them it’ll cost between $42 and $1500/yr.  Why not just look on the forums?  There are a zillion questions on their forums, but no answers.  Figures… you gotta pay for the answers. How about professional training?  Yes, they offer 19 hours of professional training for $1000. They’ve done a great job at ensuring they have jobs for a few years supporting this beast.

If you want to master this solution

  1. You need to be an object oriented PHP expert.
  2. You need an awesome IDE to work with that has intellisense. Zend Studio is a good choice. Don’t even think about using Dreamweaver here folks.
  3. Gain experience with Zend Framework.
  4. You must have a lot of time available to learn this solution
  5. Pay for their training and figure out how this damn thing works.

Thanks Varien for the cool product, but it’s not for me right now.  Don’t have the hundreds of hours to learn your system; there are much easier shopping cart solutions available.

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