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CMS architecture


A lot can be achieved in SilverStripe by adding properties and form fields to your own page types (via SiteTree::getCMSFields()), as well as creating your own data management interfaces through ModelAdmin. But sometimes you'll want to go deeper and tailor the underlying interface to your needs as well. For example, to build a personalized CMS dashboard, or content "slots" where authors can drag their content into. At its core, SilverStripe is a web application built on open standards and common libraries, so lots of the techniques should feel familiar to you. This is just a quick run down to get you started with some special conventions.

For a more practical-oriented approach to CMS customizations, refer to the Howto: Extend the CMS Interface which builds

Markup and Style Conventions

While SilverStripe is intended to work with JavaScript only, we're following the principles of "Progressive Enhancement" where feasible, relying on a comparatively light layer of JavaScript to enhance forms and markup generated on the server. This allows seamless customization of aspects like form fields. We're explaining this philosophy in more detail on our blog.

All CSS in the CMS UI is written in the SCSS language extensions and the Compass framework, which helps us maintain expressive and concise style declarations. The files are located in framework/admin/scss (and if you have the cms module installed, in cms/scss), and are compiled to a css folder on the same directory path. Changes to the SCSS files can be automatically converted by installing the "compass" module for SilverStripe, although installing the compass framework directly works as well. Each file describes its purpose at the top of the declarations. Note that you can write plain CSS without SCSS for your custom CMS interfaces as well, we just mandate SCSS for core usage.

As there's a whole lot of CSS driving the CMS, we have certain best practives around writing it:

  • Use dashed lowercase naming for both id and class attributes (my-class-name), instead of camel case (myClassName)
  • Use the id attribute sparingly. Remember that it "closes off" the structure to code reuse, as HTML elements require unique id attributes. Code reuse can happen both in CSS and JavaScript behaviour.
  • Separate presentation from structure in class names, e.g. left-menu is encoding the component position (which might change later on). A more structural name could be cms-menu (or cms-tools-menu for a more specific version)
  • Class naming: Use the cms- class prefix for major components in the cms interface, and the ss-ui- prefix for extensions to jQuery UI. Don't use the ui- class prefix, its reserved for jQuery UI built-in styles.
  • Use jQuery UI's built-in styles where possible, e.g. ui-widget for a generic container, or ui-state-highlight to highlight a specific component. See the jQuery UI Themeroller for a full list.

See our system requirements for a list of supported browsers.

Templates and Controllers

The CMS backend is handled through the LeftAndMain controller class, which contains base functionality like displaying and saving a record. This is extended through various subclasses, e.g. to add a group hierarchy (SecurityAdmin), a search interface (ModelAdmin) or an "Add Page" form (CMSPageAddController).

The controller structure is too complex to document here, a good starting point for following the execution path in code are LeftAndMain::getRecord() and LeftAndMain::getEditForm(). If you have the cms module installed, have a look at CMSMain::getEditForm() for a good example on how to extend the base functionality (e.g. by adding page versioning hints to the form).

CMS templates are inherited based on their controllers, similar to subclasses of the common Page object (a new PHP class MyPage will look for a template). We can use this to create a different base template with (which corresponds to the LeftAndMain PHP controller class). In case you want to retain the main CMS structure (which is recommended), just create your own "Content" template (e.g., which is in charge of rendering the main content area apart from the CMS menu.

Depending on the complexity of your layout, you'll also need to overload the "EditForm" template (e.g., e.g. to implement a tabbed form which only scrolls the main tab areas, while keeping the buttons at the bottom of the frame. This requires manual assignment of the template to your form instance, see CMSMain::getEditForm() for details.

Often its useful to have a "tools" panel in between the menu and your content, usually occupied by a search form or navigational helper. In this case, you can either overload the full base template as described above. To avoid duplicating all this template code, you can also use the special LeftAndMain::Tools() and LeftAndMain::EditFormTools() methods available in LeftAndMain. These placeholders are populated by auto-detected templates, with the naming convention of "" and "". So to add or "subclass" a tools panel, simply create this file and it's automatically picked up.

Layout and Panels

The CMS markup is structured into "panels", which are the base units containing interface components (or other panels), as declared by the class cms-panel. Panels can be made collapsible, and get the ability to be resized and aligned with a layout manager, in our case jLayout. This layout manager applies CSS declarations (mostly dimensions and positioning) via JavaScript, by extracting additional metadata from the markup in the form of HTML5 data attributes. We're using a "border layout" which separates the panels into five areas: north, south, east, west and center (all of which are optional). As layouts can be nested, this allows for some powerful combinations. Our Howto: Extend the CMS Interface has a practical example on how to add a bottom panel to the CMS UI.

The various panels and UI components within them are not tightly coupled to the layout engine, so any changes in dimension which impact the overall layout need to be handled manually. In SilverStripe, we've established a convention for a redraw() method on each panel and UI component for this purpose, which is usually invoked through its parent container. Invocation order is crucial here, generally going from innermost to outermost elements. For example, the tab panels have be applied in the CMS form before the form itself is layouted with its sibling panels to avoid incorrect dimensions.

Layout variations


SilverStripe constructs forms and its fields within PHP, mainly through the DataObject::getCMSFields() method. This in turn means that the CMS loads these forms as HTML via Ajax calls, e.g. after saving a record (which requires a form refresh), or switching the section in the CMS>

JavaScript through jQuery.entwine

jQuery.entwine is a thirdparty library which allows us to attach behaviour to DOM elements in a flexible and structured mannger. It replaces the behaviour.js library used in previous versions of the CMS interface. See Topics: JavaScript for more information on how to use it. In the CMS interface, all entwine rules should be placed in the "ss" entwine namespace. If you want to call methods defined within these rules outside of entwine logic, you have to use this namespace, e.g. $('.cms-menu').entwine('ss').collapse().

Note that only functionality that is custom to the CMS application needs to be built in jQuery.entwine, we're trying to reuse library code wherever possible. The most prominent example of this is the usage of jQuery UI for dialogs and buttons.

The CMS includes the jQuery.entwine inspector. Press Ctrl+` ("backtick") to bring down the inspector. You can then click on any element in the CMS to see which entwine methods are bound to any particular element.

JavaScript and CSS dependencies via Requirements and Ajax

The JavaScript logic powering the CMS is divided into many files, which typically are included via the Requirements class, by adding them to LeftAndMain::init() and its subclassed methods. This class also takes care of minification and combination of the files, which is crucial for the CMS performance (see Requirements::combine_files()).

Due to the procedural and selector-driven style of UI programming in jQuery.entwine, it can be difficult to find the piece of code responsible for a certain behaviour. Therefore it is important to adhere to file naming conventions. E.g. a feature only applicable to ModelAdmin should be placed in framework/admin/javascript/ModelAdmin.js, while something modifying all forms (including ModelAdmin forms) would be better suited in framework/admin/javascript/LeftAndMain.EditForm.js. Selectors used in these files should mirrow the "scope" set by its filename, so don't place a rule applying to all form buttons inside ModelAdmin.js.

The CMS relies heavily on Ajax-loading of interfaces, so each interface and the JavaScript driving it have to assume its underlying DOM structure is appended via an Ajax callback rather than being available when the browser window first loads. jQuery.entwine is effectively an advanced version of and jQuery.delegate, so takes care of dynamic event binding.

Most interfaces will require their own JavaScript and CSS files, so the Ajax loading has to ensure they're loaded unless already present. A custom-built library called jQuery.ondemand (located in framework/thirdparty) takes care of this transparently - so as a developer just declare your dependencies through the Requirements API.

Ajax Loading and Browser History

SilverStripe uses the HTML5 browser history to modify the URL without a complete window refresh, and load its UI via Ajax by hooking into browser navigation events (through the history.js wrapper library). This technique has an impact on how any Ajax load needs to happen: In order to support browser history (and change the URL state), a CMS developer needs to fire a navigation event rather than invoking the Ajax call directly.

The main point of contact here is $('.cms-container').loadPanel(<url>, <title>, <data>) in LeftAndMain.js. The data object can contain additional state which is required in case the same navigation event is fired again (e.g. when the user pressed the back button).

No callbacks are allowed in this style of Ajax loading, as all state needs to be "repeatable". Any logic required to be exected after the Ajax call should be placed in jQuery.entinwe onmatch() rules which apply to the newly created DOM structures. See $('.cms-container').handleStateChange() in LeftAndMain.js for details.

Alternatively, form-related Ajax calls can be invoked through their own wrappers, which don't cause history events and hence allow callbacks: $('.cms-container').submitForm().

PJAX: Partial template replacement through Ajax

Many user interactions can change more than one area in the CMS. For example, editing a page title in the CMS form changes it in the page tree as well as the breadcrumbs. In order to avoid unnecessary processing, we often want to update these sections independently from their neighbouring content.

In order for this to work, the CMS templates declare certain sections as "PJAX fragments" through a data-pjax-fragment attribute. These names correlate to specific rendering logic in the PHP controllers, through the PjaxResponseNegotiator class.

Through a custom X-Pjax HTTP header, the client can declare which view he's expecting, through identifiers like CurrentForm or Content (see LeftAndMain::getResponseNegotiator()). These identifiers are passed to loadPanel() via the pjax data option. The HTTP response is a JSON object literal, with template replacements keyed by their Pjax fragment. Through PHP callbacks, we ensure that only the required template parts are actually executed and rendered. When the same URL is loaded without Ajax (and hence without X-Pjax headers), it should behave like a normal full page template, but using the same controller logic.

Example: Create a bare-bones CMS subclass which shows breadcrumbs (a built-in method), as well as info on the current record. A single link updates both sections independently in a single Ajax request.

// mysite/code/MyAdmin.php
class MyAdmin extends LeftAndMain {
    static $url_segment = 'myadmin';
    public function getResponseNegotiator() {
        $negotiator = parent::getResponseNegotiator();
        $controller = $this;
        // Register a new callback
        $negotiator->setCallback('MyRecordInfo', function() use(&$controller) {
            return $controller->MyRecordInfo();
        return $negotiator;
    public function MyRecordInfo() {
        return $this->renderWith('MyRecordInfo');

<% include CMSBreadcrumbs %>
<div>Static content (not affected by update)</div>
<% include MyRecordInfo %>
<a href="admin/myadmin" class="cms-panel-link" data-pjax-target="MyRecordInfo,Breadcrumbs">
    Update record info

<div data-pjax-fragment="MyRecordInfo">
    Current Record: $currentPage.Title

A click on the link will cause the following (abbreviated) ajax HTTP request:

GET /admin/myadmin HTTP/1.1

... and result in the following response:

{"MyRecordInfo": "<div...", "CMSBreadcrumbs": "<div..."}

Keep in mind that the returned view isn't always decided upon when the Ajax request is fired, so the server might decide to change it based on its own logic, sending back different X-Pjax headers and content.

On the client, you can set your preference through the data-pjax-target attributes on links or through the X-Pjax header. For firing off an Ajax request that is tracked in the browser history, use the pjax attribute on the state data.

$('.cms-container').loadPanel('admin/pages', null, {pjax: 'Content'});

Ajax Redirects

Sometimes, a server response represents a new URL state, e.g. when submitting an "add record" form, the resulting view will be the edit form of the new record. On non-ajax submissions, that's easily handled through a HTTP redirection. On ajax submissions, browsers handle these redirects transparently, so the CMS JavaScript doesn't know about them (or the new URL). To work around this, we're using a custom X-ControllerURL HTTP response header which can declare a new URL. If this header is set, the CMS JavaScript will push the URL to its history stack, causing the logic to fetch it in a subsequent ajax request. Note: To avoid double processing, the first response body is usually empty.

State through HTTP response metadata

By loading mostly HTML responses, we don't have an easy way to communicate information which can't be directly contained in the produced HTML. For example, the currently used controller class might've changed due to a "redirect", which affects the currently active menu entry. We're using HTTP response headers to contain this data without affecting the response body.

class MyController extends LeftAndMain {
    class myaction() {
        // ...
        $this->response->addHeader('X-Controller', 'MyOtherController');
        return $html;

Built-in headers are:

* `X-Controller`: PHP class name matching a menu entry, which is marked active
* `X-ControllerURL`: Alternative URL to record in the HTML5 browser history
* `X-Status`: Extended status information, used for an information popover.

Some links should do more than load a new page in the browser window. To avoid repetition, we've written some helpers for various use cases:

  • Load into a PJAX panel: <a href="..." class="cms-panel-link" data-pjax-target="Content">
  • Load URL as an iframe into a popup/dialog: <a href="..." class="ss-ui-dialog-link">


SilverStripe automatically applies a jQuery UI button style to all elements with the class .ss-ui-button. We've extended the jQuery UI widget a bit to support defining icons via HTML5 data attributes (see ssui.core.js). These icon identifiers relate to icon files in framework/admin/images/btn-icons, and are sprited into a single file through SCSS and the Compass framework (see tutorial). Compass also creates the correct CSS classes to show those sprites via background images (see framework/admin/scss/_sprites.scss).

Input: <a href="..." class="ss-ui-button" data-icon="add" />Button text</a>

Output: <a href="..." data-icon="add" class="ss-ui-button ss-ui-action-constructive ui-button ui-widget ui-state-default ui-corner-all ui-button-text-icon-primary" role="button"><span class="ui-button-icon-primary ui-icon btn-icon-add"></span><span class="ui-button-text">Button text</span></a>

Note that you can create buttons from pretty much any element, although when using an input of type button, submit or reset, support is limited to plain text labels with no icons.

The navigation menu in the CMS is created through the CMSMenu API, which auto-detects all subclasses of LeftAndMain. This means that your custom ModelAdmin subclasses will already appear in there without any explicit definition. To modify existing menu entries or create new ones, see CMSMenu::add_menu_item() and CMSMenu::remove_menu_item().

New content panels are typically loaded via Ajax, which might change the current menu context. For example, a link to edit a file might be clicked within a page edit form, which should change the currently active menu entry from "Page" to "Files & Images". To communicate this state change, a controller response has the option to pass along a special HTTP response header, which is picked up by the menu:

public function mycontrollermethod() {
    // .. logic here
    $this->getResponse()->addHeader('X-Controller', 'AssetAdmin');
    return 'my response';

This is usually handled by the existing LeftAndMain logic, so you don't need to worry about it. The same concept applies for 'X-Title' (change the window title) and 'X-ControllerURL' (change the URL recorded in browser history). Note: You can see any additional HTTP headers through the web developer tools in your browser of choice.


The CMS tree for viewing hierarchical structures (mostly pages) is powered by the jstree library. It is configured through sapphire/admin/javascript/LeftAndMain.Tree.js, as well as some HTML5 metadata generated on its container (see the data-hints attribute). For more information, see the Howto: Customize the CMS tree.

Note that a similar tree logic is also used for the form fields to select one or more entries from those hierarchies (TreeDropdownField and TreeMultiselectField).

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