TYPO3 Content Elements: Flexform vs. TCA

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TYPO3 Content Elements: Flexform vs. TCA

When it comes to creating custom content elements in TYPO3, developers have two main options: FlexForms (XML format) and TCA (Table Configuration Array). In this blog post, we'll delve into the details of FlexForms and TCA to help you understand their differences and when to choose one over the other.

In the context of TYPO3 content elements which is very important in concern to standard TYPO3 template and content block creation – You should check some of our popular TYPO3 blogs as listed below.

Understanding TYPO3 Content Elements

Before diving into the comparison, let's take a moment to understand what TYPO3 content elements are and why they are essential for building dynamic and interactive websites.

TYPO3 Content Elements: 

Content elements in TYPO3 are the building blocks of your website's content. They allow you to display various types of content, such as text, images, videos, forms, and more, in a structured and organized manner. These elements can be used to create anything from simple paragraphs to complex layouts like sliders, accordions, and tabled content.

Flexform: The Old Approach

Flexform is one of the traditional methods for creating custom content elements in TYPO3. It has been around for quite some time and has served TYPO3 developers well. FlexForms are a well-established method for configuring content elements (CE) or plugins in TYPO3. They provide a flexible way to store configuration data within an XML structure inside a single database column. Here are some key aspects of FlexForms:

Optional Configuration

One essential characteristic of FlexForms is that they are optional. While they can be used to configure content elements or plugins, you can also create these elements without using FlexForms. This flexibility allows developers to choose the most suitable approach for their specific needs.

Individual Configuration

FlexForms allow you to configure content elements or plugins differently based on where they are added. The configuration set via the FlexForm mechanism applies only to the content record it has been configured for. Editors can modify FlexForms in the TYPO3 backend, giving them more control over plugin features and rendering.

Feature-Rich Configuration

FlexForms provide extensive configuration options. Developers can use input fields, select lists, and conditional show options, among other features, to fine-tune the behavior and appearance of content elements or plugins.

XML-Based Configuration

Flexform stores its configuration data within an XML structure inside a single database column. This XML structure defines the appearance and functionality of the content element. While this approach offers flexibility, it can be challenging to manage and modify for complex elements.

Integration with Popular Extensions

Flexform has been widely used in conjunction with popular TYPO3 extensions like DCE (Dynamic Content Elements) and FluidTYPO3 Flux. These extensions provided an excellent way to create complex content elements using Flexform technology.

Flexform: Code Example

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8" standalone="yes" ?>
<T3DataStructure>
    <sheets>
        <sDEF>
            <ROOT>
                <TCEforms>
                    <sheetTitle>Fields</sheetTitle>
                </TCEforms>
                <type>array</type>
                <el>
                    <description>
                        <TCEforms>
                            <label>LLL:EXT:ns_theme_t3karma/Resources/Private/Language/locallang_flex.xlf:ns_alert.description</label>
                            <config>
                                <type>text</type>
                                <rows>5</rows>
                                <cols>30</cols>
                                <eval>trim</eval>
                                <enableRichtext>1</enableRichtext>
                                <richtextConfiguration>default</richtextConfiguration>
                            </config>
                        </TCEforms>
                    </description>
                </el>
            </ROOT>
        </sDEF>
    </sheets>
</T3DataStructure>

Key Information About FlexForms in TYPO3

Aspect Description
Purpose FlexForms are used to configure content elements (CE)
or plugins in TYPO3, allowing dynamic configuration
of their appearance and behavior.
Usage FlexForms are optional, so plugins or content elements
can be created without using them.
Configuration Scope FlexForms provide a way to configure individual plugins
or content elements differently based on where they are added.
Editors can customize plugin features and rendering.
Configuration Options FlexForms offer various configuration options, including input fields,
select lists, conditional display, and more, similar to TCA.
Structure Configuration Schema: Defines how fields should be arranged and
configured in FlexForms using XML.

FlexForm Registration: Specifies the FlexForm schema file in the plugin
or content element registration.
Use Cases FlexForms are used to configure rendering options, such as transition
intervals and types for content elements like carousels. They are also
utilized by extensions like georgringer/news.
How it Works Extension defines a configuration schema in
T3DataStructure format (XML).Schema is attached to content elements
or plugins.

Configuration is saved to tt_content.pi_flexform.Extension reads and
acts based on the configuration.
Modification When changing the data structure of a FlexForm or switching from
one plugin to another with a FlexForm, use the CLI command
cleanup:flexforms to update records and avoid issues.
Access Settings FlexForm settings can be accessed from Extbase controllers,
PHP functions, TypoScript, and Fluid templates, providing flexibility
for customization.
Examples Examples include configuring rendering options for carousels and
utilizing FlexForms in extensions like georgringer/news.
Glossary Terms like configuration schema, FlexForm registration, T3DataStructure,
and CLI command cleanup:flexforms are relevant to FlexForms in TYPO3.

This table provides an overview of what FlexForms are, their purpose, how they are structured, and their use within TYPO3 for dynamic configuration of content elements and plugins.

TCA: The Modern Approach

TCA (Table Configuration Array) is the modern and recommended approach for creating custom content elements in TYPO3. Here are the key characteristics of TCA:

Integration with TYPO3 Core

TCA is built directly into the TYPO3 core, making it a more native and seamless way to create content elements. It aligns with TYPO3's core structure and architecture.

User-Friendly Configuration

TCA uses a structured array-based configuration, which is more human-readable and manageable. This approach simplifies the definition of content element properties, making it easier for developers to work with.

Table Definition

One of the primary purposes of TCA is to define which database tables are editable within the TYPO3 backend. Without a corresponding entry in the TCA for a table, it remains "invisible" to TYPO3's backend editing interface. Therefore, TCA determines which tables are accessible for content editors and administrators.

Defining Relations

TCA defines relationships between different database tables. It specifies how different tables are related to each other, allowing TYPO3 to handle complex data structures and associations between records.

Backend Display Configuration

TCA controls how tables and their fields are displayed within the TYPO3 backend. This includes specifying the layout, icons, field labels, and columns to be shown in the backend forms.

Validation Rules

TCA enables the definition of validation rules for fields, such as whether a field is required, should contain an integer, or must adhere to specific criteria. These rules help maintain data integrity and quality.

Frontend Usage

TCA provides information on how fields are used in the frontend, especially by Extbase, TYPO3's extension framework. It dictates how data should be rendered and accessed by extensions and custom TYPO3 applications.

Extensibility

TCA is highly extensible through TYPO3 extensions. Extensions can add new fields to existing tables, create entirely new tables, and modify existing TCA configurations. This extensibility allows developers to tailor TYPO3 to meet specific project requirements.

TCA: Code Example

'rte_example' => [
    'exclude' => 1,
    'label' => 'rte_1 description',
    'description' => 'field description',
    'config' => [
        'type' => 'text',
        'enableRichtext' => true,
        'fieldControl' => [
            'fullScreenRichtext' => [
                'disabled' => false,
                ],
        ],
    ], 
],

How TCA Works

Understanding how TCA works within TYPO3 involves comprehending its structure and how it's applied:

Structure

TCA follows a hierarchical structure. At the top level, it defines properties for each table (e.g., pages, tt_content). These properties are grouped into sections such as "ctrl" (for table-level control), "interface" (backend display configuration), "columns" (individual field configuration), "types" (form layout for editing), and "palettes" (field order within palettes).

Property Configuration

Each property in TCA has specific configurations that define its behavior. These configurations are categorized into scopes like "Display," "Proc" (processing), "Database," and "Search." Display properties affect the backend forms, Proc properties impact data processing, Database properties influence database structure, and Search properties are related to backend searching.

Extensions

TYPO3's core, as well as additional extensions, provide TCA files in their "Configuration/TCA" directories. The core includes tables like "pages" and "fe_users," while other extensions can introduce new tables and fields. Developers define the TCA for a new table in an extension's "Configuration/TCA" directory, following a specific naming convention.

Compilation

When TYPO3 initializes, it compiles the final TCA array by loading TCA files from various locations. The compiled TCA array is then cached for subsequent requests. This cached array is available as $GLOBALS['TCA'] and is used throughout TYPO3, including frontend, backend, and command-line interface (CLI) requests.

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Key Information About TCA in TYPO3

Aspect Description
Purpose $GLOBALS['TCA'] (Table Configuration Array) is a global array
in TYPO3 used to configure database tables beyond SQL definitions.
It plays a central role in TYPO3's architecture.
Visibility Control Tables not defined in $GLOBALS['TCA'] are
"invisible" to the TYPO3 backend.
Configuration Scope Defines database table structure and behavior, including relations,
field display, validation, and frontend usage.
Extensibility Highly extendable using extensions to add fields, tables, and modify
TCA settings.
Preloaded Extensions Core extensions like "core" and "frontend" come with predefined TCA
settings for tables like pages, tt_content, and more.
File Location TCA definitions are stored in extension directories under
Configuration/TCA/ as PHP files.
Caching TCA is compiled on the first call, cached, and then quickly loaded from
cache for subsequent requests.
Structure Table entries: Define tables by name, e.g., $GLOBALS['TCA']['pages'].

Inside tables: Configure tables with sections like 'ctrl', 'interface',
'columns', 'types', and 'palettes'.
Sections 'ctrl': General table properties affecting display and processing.

'interface': Backend interface properties.

'columns': Configuration for each table field (column).

 'types': Form layout for editing.

 'palettes': Field order in palettes.
Property Scopes Properties can have scopes like 'Display', 'Proc.' (processing),
'Database', 'Search', or special scopes, indicating their impact
on display, data processing, database structure, search functionality,
or other specific effects.
Glossary Includes terms like TCE (TYPO3 Core Engine), "list of" (comma-separated list),
field name (column name), record type (determined by a field in the record), and
LLL reference (localized string fetched from locallang files).

 

Difference between FlexForms and TCA (Table Configuration Array)

Once we have learned both concepts individually here’s a brief  key differences between FlexForms and TCA (Table Configuration Array) in TYPO3 which will help you with conceptual clarity;

Aspect FlexForms TCA 
Definition Method XML-based configuration
within fields
PHP-based configuration
in TCA arrays
Integration It’s Optional, we can configure
content elements and plugins
Core part of TYPO3, integral to
creating content elements and plugins
Flexibility Offers flexibility for
customizing content elements
and plugins provides
Provuides a structured approach
with predefined fields and
data structures
Individual Configuration Configuration applies to the
specific content record
it's configured for
Configuration is shared across
all content elements of the same type
Editor Control Editors can modify FlexForms
in the TYPO3 backend
Configuration is typically
predefined by developers
Configuration Options Wide range of input fields,
select lists, conditional settings,
and more
Limited set of predefined
fields and data types
Storage Configuration data is
stored as an XML structure within
a database column
Configuration data is stored in
the TYPO3 database tables
Accessing Settings Settings can be accessed via
$this->settings in Extbase
controllers, PHP functions,
and TypoScript
Accessed using predefined TCA fields
in TypoScript or custom PHP code
Modification from PHP Can be programmatically
modified using TYPO3's
FlexFormTools class
Configuration is typically
predefined and not modified from PHP
Main Use Cases Customizing the behavior
and appearance of content elements
and plugins
Defining the structure
and properties of content
elements and plugins
Version 13.0 Update The TCEforms tag is
removed and no longer
evaluated in FlexForms
No impact;
TCA remains unaffected
Performance Provides flexibility but may
have some performance overhead
Integrated into TYPO3 core for
optimized performance and efficiency
Future Compatibility May require adjustments
when upgrading to newer
TYPO3 versions
Part of TYPO3 core,
ensuring long-term
compatibility and support
Recommended for Customized content
elements and plugins,
allowing editors to
fine-tune settings
Defining standardized content
elements and plugins with a
structured approach
Learning Curve Requires understanding
of XML-based configuration
and FlexForm concepts
Requires familiarity
with TCA array structure and
configuration options

 

Structured Content Initiative by TYPO3 Community

In addition to the FlexForms vs. TCA comparison, it's worth mentioning the Structured Content Initiative, which aims to improve TYPO3's native support for custom, semantically structured content element types. They have also launched Ext:TYPO3 CMS Content Blocks

The primary focus of this initiative is to prioritize user experience and flexibility, looking beyond the current limitations and technologies. The key objectives are:

Goals:

  • Improve the editor's experience by making content types more intuitive to work with.
  • Enable integrators to create semantically correct and easily reusable content types that are not tied to layouts, templates, or technologies like FlexForms.

Scope:

To address the complexity of structured content, the initiative has identified specific focus areas to expedite progress through separate working groups. Notably, the TYPO3 UX Initiative handles changes related to the editing interface UX. Our primary areas of focus are:

  • Content Blocks: Streamlining the creation and registration process for content blocks (content elements).
  • Dynamic Grid: Simplifying the creation of grids (rows and columns) in the page module without the need for nested content.

By considering these advancements alongside the FlexForms vs. TCA decision, TYPO3 developers can choose the best approach for their projects while staying informed about ongoing improvements in the TYPO3 ecosystem.

Conclusion

Both FlexForms and TCA have their strengths and use cases, and the choice between them depends on the specific requirements of your TYPO3 project. FlexForms offer more flexibility for customization and editor control, while TCA provides a structured and performance-optimized approach for defining content elements and plugins.

If you're considering migrating from Flexform to TCA, it's a strategic move to keep your TYPO3 website in line with modern best practices and ensure that it remains adaptable to future TYPO3 developments. The migration process may require some effort, but the benefits of improved performance and long-term sustainability make it a worthwhile investment for TYPO3 website owners and developers.

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  • user
    Steffen Foerster 2024-04-29 at 8:06 pm

    Thinking about migrating to TCA now. Seems like it'll offer more long-term benefits.

  • user
    Christine Lowev 2024-04-06 at 7:10 am

    Nice to see TYPO3 making things better for editors. Those new features sound useful!

  • user
    Kevin Frey 2024-04-01 at 6:26 pm

    I appreciate the examples provided for both FlexForms and TCA. Makes it easier to understand.

  • user
    Uta Meyer 2024-03-03 at 1:15 pm

    I've been hesitant about migrating from FlexForms to TCA, but after reading this article, I'm convinced of the benefits. The performance and long-term compatibility advantages make it a worthwhile transition

  • user
    Benjamin Kruger 2024-03-01 at 12:38 pm

    The distinction between FlexForms and TCA is well-explained here. It's reassuring to know that TYPO3 developers have options depending on their project requirements and future scalability needs.