Exporting data to CSV the CakePHP way

by jeroendenhaan
After some fast and shallow searching, finding specific information on how to properly export data to a CSV file proved difficult. After digging into The Cookbook I came up with a way of presenting data to the user in a CSV format. As CakePHP 1.2 provides a lot of support for parsing extensions and request handling, as well as the ability to use custom layouts and views for different situations, I came up with a way I think CakePHP should be used in a case like this. No high profile stuff, but a great showcase for a beginner to get the feel of doing things the Cake way.
The past week I've been working on a new administration panel for our webshops. The old version (still running on CakePHP 1.1) needs a major overhaul, and I decided to start from scratch. That would also allow me dig deeper into the 1.2 version of Cake, hoping a shift to 1.3 would be easy once I cleaned up shop rigorously.

An important part of the application is the ability to export orders from our shops to an external party for further processing in the bookkeeping process. In our current application this is done using a custom component that outputs some headers to the browser and then echoes every row.

Since I'm moving to a newer version of Cake (which I already used to build the front end of our webshops), I felt the need to dig deeper in Cake's ways of presenting data to the user. I couldn't find anything specifically tailored to CSV (comma separated values) exports, so I thought I'd share my findings here. Perhaps some beginning CakePHP programmer could benefit, as I figure nothing here is really new to the pro's.

The objective of this little excersise: make a CSV export available through a default link, i.e. /orders/export.csv, and do it the proper way. Please note that I assume you are using CakePHP 1.2.

Parsing extensions

Cake's routing powers are pretty awesome. They allow you to present almost any type of link to the user, whilst you - the programmer - can maintain your controllers and actions in a clean and logical order. For this article, one method of the Router class is specifically important: parseExtensions(). This method lets Cake know how it should handle certain file types requested by the user. As we are focussing on CSV exports right now, the following line should be added to our routes.php file:

// File: /app/config/routes.php
    // Make sure CakePHP parses CSV file requests correctly

That single line tells Cake to watch out for requests ending in '.csv', and to take appropriate measures. In our case, it makes sure that a file being requested is handled by the proper action in your controller. But before that happens, data must be read from our database table to be rendered by the view. Obviously, we use our controller for that:

// File: /app/controllers/orders_controller.php
class OrdersController extends AppController
$name 'Orders';
$uses = array('Order');
// Include the RequestHandler, it makes sure the proper layout and views files are used
var $components = array('RequestHandler');
// Stop Cake from displaying action's execution time
// Find fields needed without recursing through associated models
$data $this->Order->find(
'fields' => array('id','created','name','paid','total'),
'order' => "Order.id ASC",
'contain' => false
// Define column headers for CSV file, in same array format as the data itself
$headers = array(
'id' => 'ID',
'created' => 'Date',
'name' => 'Name',
'paid' => 'Paid?',
'total' => 'Total'
// Add headers to start of data array
// Make the data available to the view (and the resulting CSV file)

First off, we start by including the RequestHandler component. It'll make sure the proper layout and view files are rendered, depending on the type of request being made. We then disable debugging (not absolutely needed, but it takes away any unwanted text in your CSV file). Last, we fetch some data from our database table and feed it to the view. The part where I set the headers is completely optional; you can omit that if no headers are needed.

Layouts & views

Next, we need to present the data to the user the way he or she requested it. We told Cake to parse file extensions and we included the RequestHandler. So, when a CSV file is requested (through /orders/export.csv for example) Cake automagically looks for the CSV layout file in /app/views/layouts/csv, called default.ctp:

// File: /app/views/layouts/csv/default.ctp

    // Echo the view's output as we would on any normal web page   
echo $content_for_layout;

As a CSV file is nothing more than plain text, we don't have much to do here. As a variation to my example, you could consider echoing the headers to the data columns here, but since we already have those together with our data in our $data variable, there is no need to put any other code in here as well. So, the only thing we do is tell Cake to echo any HTML it renders from the view template. The variable $content_for_layout being echoed will therefore contain the output of the action's view. In our case that would be /app/views/orders/csv/export.ctp. Mind the extra directory /csv added to that path; that is the place where the RequestHandler will direct CakePHP to once it goes looking for the view file belonging to the action being executed.

// File: /app/views/orders/csv/export.ctp
    // Loop through the data array
foreach ($data as $row)
// Loop through every value in a row
foreach ($row['Order'] as &$value)
// Apply opening and closing text delimiters to every value
$value "\"".$value."\"";
// Echo all values in a row comma separated
echo implode(",",$row['Order'])."\n";

In our view template it gets down to echoing the actual headers and data. Nothing CakePHP about that; we just loop through each row, make sure all values are delimited properly and echo every row array through the implode() method to end up with a single line of text. Each row ends with a newline, just the way your spreadsheet program likes it when opening a CSV file.

Note: when echoing the data in the CSV file's view, be careful to properly escape any characters in your data that might interfere with the file build up you're trying to achieve. Think of escaping characters that are being used as text delimiters, end of line characters and so on. Depending on the platform that's used to open the resulting CSV file, different solutions may prove to work best. Check out http://www.csvreader.com/csv_format.php for a nice overview on the CSV format.

Note 2: like ADmad points out in his comment, echoing the data in the CSV view file could be improved by using a helper. It seems to take care of some of the issues described under my first note. Check out http://bakery.cakephp.org/articles/view/csv-helper-php5. As far as I can see, that helper would indeed be a great help.

Tip: It's easy to give your user more control over what's being exported. In my application I start off with form that allows the user to pick a start and end date, for example. I make that form post to the file being exported, even adding today's date to the filename. Using the Form helper that's pretty easy, as Cake takes care of most of the work:

echo $form->create('Order',array('url'=>'/orders/export/orders_'.date("Ymd").'.csv'));

That's it

Sure hope it helps someone, even though there are probably ways of further improving this. Most information provided above can be found in The Cookbook, although scattered and sometimes not specifically targeted at the problem at hand. I welcome any questions and comments you might have, as it will probably make my own code better.


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  • tgurske posted on 08/09/11 08:41:04 AM
    Thanks for posting - it helped me a lot!!!
  • salvin posted on 06/28/10 08:56:23 AM
    your input data (two leading chars) cannot start from string "ID" as Excel tries to interpret the file as some kind of SYLK format and echos errors on display.

    hope that will be helpful
  • watermark86 posted on 05/25/10 07:44:17 AM
    I needed to do this and your article helped a lot.

    If you're using PHP 5 >= 5.1.0, then you can use native php calls to export to CSV. Faster and less headaches, but requires newer versions of PHP.

    // File: /app/views/orders/csv/export.ctp
    $fp = fopen('php://output','w+');
    foreach($results as $row) {
    $row['ModelName']['Field3'] ));
    • jeroendenhaan posted on 06/01/10 12:58:15 AM
      @Bryan: good to know there is a PHP native way of doing this, but to be honest I prefer the use of a helper, like ADmad suggests. In my opinion, if a good helper exists, you should use that. Could be just a matter of taste, though ;)
  • jeroendenhaan posted on 04/23/10 03:20:12 AM
    @ADmad: that's a great suggestion. I realize there's a lot more that can be done to make the export better (or safer), but I didn't want to go into details to much. However, the CSV Helper you suggest seems to take away a lot of the possible headaches that might surface when echoing the data in the view - I've added a second note to the article pointing that out. So: thanks a lot!
  • ADmad posted on 04/23/10 02:50:43 AM
    Your article is quite descriptive which would be helpful for newbies to understand extension based routing and layout/view selection. Good work there. It would be nice though if you made/used a generic csvhelper for rendering the csv content. This is a nice example http://bakery.cakephp.org/articles/view/csv-helper-php5
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