Autocompletion with Zend Framework and Dojo

I've fielded several questions about setting up an autocompleter with Zend Framework and Dojo, and decided it was time to create a HOWTO on the subject, particularly as there are some nuances you need to pay attention to.

Which dijits perform autocompletion?

Your first task is selecting an appropriate form element capable of autocompletion. Dijit provides two, ComboBox and FilteringSelect. However, they have different capabilities:

  • ComboBox allows you to enter arbitrary text; if it doesn't match the associated list, it is still considered valid. The text entered is submitted — not the option value. (This differs from normal dropdown selects.)
  • FilteringSelect also allows you to enter arbitrary text, but it will only be considered valid if it matches an option provided to it. The option value is submitted, just like a normal dropdown select.

Once you've chose the appropriate form element type, you then need to specify a store. provides a consistent API for data structures consumed by dijits and other dojo components. At its heart, it's simply an array of arbitrary JSON structures that each contain a common identifier field containing a unique value per item. Internally, both ComboBox and FilteringSelect can utilize stores to populate their options and/or provide matches. Dojo provides a variety of stores for such purposes.

Defining the form element

Defining the form element is very straightforward. From your Zend_Dojo_Form instance (or your form extending that class), simply call addElement() as usual. Later in this tutorial, depending on the approach you use, you may need to add some information to the element definition, but for now, all that's needed is the most basic of element definitions:

$form->addElement('ComboBox', 'myAutoCompleteField', array(
    'label' => 'My autocomplete field:',

Providing data to a store

We're going to work backwards now, as providing data to the data store is relatively trivial when using Zend_Dojo_Data.

First, we'll create an action in our controller, and assign the model and the query parameter to the view. We'll be setting up our store to send the query string via the GET parameter q, so that's what we'll assign to the view.

    public function autocompleteAction()
        // First, get the model somehow
        $this->view->model = $this->getModel();

        // Then get the query, defaulting to an empty string
        $this->view->query = $this->_getParam('q', '');

Now, let's create the view script. First, we'll disable layouts; second, we'll pass our query to the model; third, we'll instantiate our Zend_Dojo_Data object with the results of our query; and finally, we'll echo the Zend_Dojo_Data instance.

// Disable layouts

// Fetch results from the model; again, merely illustrative
$results = $this->model->query($this->params);

// Now, create a Zend_Dojo_Data object.
// The first parameter is the name of the field that has a
// unique identifier. The second is the dataset. The third
// should be specified for autocompletion, and should be the
// name of the field representing the data to display in the
// dropdown. Note how it corresponds to \"name\" in the 
// AutocompleteReadStore.
$data = new Zend_Dojo_Data('id', $results, 'name');

// Send our output
echo $data;

That's really all there is to it. You can actually automate some of this using the AjaxContext action helper, making it even simpler.


We now have an endpoint for our data store, so now we need to determine which store type to use. is a fantastic store allowing you to create arbitrary queries on data. It creates the query as a JSON object:

    "query": { "name": "A*" },
    "queryOptions": { "ignoreCase": true },
    "sort": [{ "attribute": "name", "descending": false }],
    "start": 0,
    "count": 10

This is problematic in two ways. First, if you were to use it directly, you'd be limited to POST requests, submitting it as a raw post. Second, and related, this means that requests could not be cached client-side.

Fortunately, there's an easy way to correct the situation: extend and override the fetch method to rewrite the query as a simple GET query with a single parameter.


    "custom.AutocompleteReadStore", // our class name,      // what we're extending
        fetch: function(request) {  // the fetch method
            // set the serverQuery, which sets query string parameters
            request.serverQuery = {q:};

            // and then operate as normal:
            return this.inherited("fetch", arguments);

The question now is, where to create this definition?

You have two options: you can inline the custom definition (less intuitive) and connect the data store manually to the form element, or you can create an actual javascript class file (slightly more work) and have your form element setup the data store for you.

Inlining a custom QueryReadStore class extension

Inlining is a bit tricky to accomplish, as you need to declare things in the appropriate order. When using this technique, you need to do the following:

  1. require the class
  2. define a global JS variable that will be used to identify your store
  3. use dojo.provide and dojo.declare to create your custom data store extension
  4. define an onLoad event that instantiates the data store and attaches it to the form element

We can do all the above within the same view script in which we spit out our form:


// Define a new data store class, and 
// setup our autocompleter data store
$this->dojo()->javascriptCaptureStart() ?>
        fetch: function(request) {
            request.serverQuery = {q:};
            return this.inherited("fetch", arguments);
var autocompleter;
<?php $this->dojo()->javascriptCaptureEnd();

// Once dijits have been created and all classes defined,
// instantiate the autocompleter and attach it to the element.
$this->dojo()->onLoadCaptureStart() ?>
function() {
    autocompleter = new custom.AutocompleteReadStore({
        url: "/test/autocomplete",
        requestMethod: "get"
        store: autocompleter
<?php $this->dojo()->onLoadCaptureEnd() ?>
<h1>Autocompletion Example</h1>
<div class="tundra">
<?php echo $this->form ?>

This works well, and is an expedient way to get autocompletion working for your element. However, it breaks the DRY principle as you cannot re-use the custom class in other areas. So, let's look at a better solution

Creating a reusable custom QueryReadStore class extension

The recommendation by the Dojo developers is that you should create this class as a javascript class, with your other javascript code. The reasons for this are numerous: you can re-use the class elsewhere, and you can also include it in custom builds — which will ensure that it is stripped of whitespace and packed, leading to smaller downloads for your end users.

The process isn't as scary as it may initially sound. Assuming that your public/ directory has the following structure:


what we'll do here is to create a sibling to the dojo subdirectory, called custom" and create our class file there:


We'll use the definition as originally shown above, and simply save it as public/js/custom/AutocompleteReadStore.js, with one addition: after the dojo.provide call, add this:


This is analagous to a require_once call in PHP, and ensures that the class has all dependencies prior to declaring itself. We'll leverage this fact later, when we hint in our ComboBox element what type of data store to use.

On the framework side of things, we're going to alter our element definition slightly to include information about the store it will be using:

$form->addElement('ComboBox', 'myAutoCompleteField', array(
    'label'     => 'My autocomplete field:',

    // The javascript identifier for the data store:
    'storeId'   => 'autocompleter',

    // The class type for the data store:
    'storeType' => 'custom.AutocompleteReadStore',

    // Parameters to use when initializint the data store:
    'storeParams' => array(
        'url'           => '/foo/autocomplete',
        'requestMethod' => 'get',

If you've been following along closely, you'll notice that the "storeParams" are exactly the same as what we used to initialize the data store when inlining. The difference is that now the ComboBox view helper will create all the necessary Javascript for you.

The view script now becomes greatly simplified; we no longer need to setup any javascript, and can literally simply echo the form:

<?= $this->form ?>

Hopefully it should now be clear which method is easiest in the long run.

Next Steps offers much more than simply specifying the query string. As noted when introducing the component, it creates a JSON structure that also includes keys for sorting, selecting how many results to display, and offsets when pulling results. These, too, can be added to your query strings to allow finer grained selection of results — for instance, you could ensure that no more than 3 or 5 results are returned, to allow for a more manageable list of matches, or specify a sort order that makes more sense to users.


Learning new tools can be difficult, and Dojo and Zend Framework are no exceptions. One compelling reason to learn Dojo if you're using Zend Framework, however, is that its structure and design should be familiar: it uses the same 1:1 class name:filename mapping paradigm. Additionally, because it is written to utilize strong OOP principles, familiar concepts such as extending classes can be used to customize Dojo for your site's needs.

Hopefully this tutorial will shed a little light on both the subject of autocompletion in Dojo, as well as class extensions in Dojo, and help get you started creating your own custom Dojo libraries for use with your applications.