CiviCRM Developer Guide


Having a general overview of the codebase and high level understanding of how it is organised, where to find specific types and bits of code, etc. is really useful when you are getting started with developing CiviCRM. This chapter looks at a few key parts of the code base to give you an idea of how everything fits together.

Download CiviCRM from unzip it and have a look around the codebase.  The rest of this chapter explores the directories inside the CiviCRM zip file.

Object oriented 

The CiviCRM codebase is object oriented. If you aren't familiar with object oriented programming, spend a little time reading some beginner tutorials on the net.  Object orientated programming might be a little intimidating at first, but isn't actually that complicated when it comes down to it, and it is very useful.

Business logic

Most of the business logic of CiviCRM, that is to say the part of CiviCRM that defines what it does and how it behaves (e.g. that allows people to register on events) is found in the CRM directory ('CIVICRM_ROOT/CRM').  Looking in this directory, you'll find directories for core CiviCRM functionality like contacts, groups, profiles, deduping, importing, and the CiviCRM components like CiviCampaign, CiviMail, Pledges, etc.

Each of these directories is slightly different depending on what they do but there are some subdirectories that you'll find in most of them, for example BAO, DAO, Form and Page.  So what can you expect to find in these directories?


DAO stands for data access object.  Code in this directory exposes the contents of the database.  The DAOs are automatically generated for each release based on the data schema (which is why you won't see them - and will have to generate them - if you checkout CiviCRM from SVN). DAO objects tend to be instantiated in BAO classes.

The DAO has a property for each field (using the actual field name, not the unique name).  They also have standard create retreive update delete type functions, etc.


BAO stands for business access object.  BAOs map to DAOs and extend them with the business logic of CiviCRM.  A lot of the meat of CiviCRM is found in the BAOs, for example they have the code that creates follow up activities when an activity is created, or create activities and populating custom fields when a pledge is created.


In general each page in CiviCRM which contains a form that maps to a file in one of the form directories.  Form files contain a class that extends CRM_Core_Form.  This class has different methods that are used before the form is displayed to do things like check permissions, retreive information (preProcess), display the form (buildForm), validate the form (formRule) and carry out tasks once the form is submitted (postProcess).  Forms can take information from the BAO to be displayed to users and call the BAO on submission. In general, each form has an associated template (see below) which is used to create the html of the form.  Perhaps the best way to get to grips with the Forms is by experience and experimentation.


If a CiviCRM screen isn't a Form, it is probably a page.  Pages files contain a class that extend CRM_Core_Page.  Similar to the form class, Pages have methods that are called before the page is displayed to control access, set the title, etc. (preProcess), and when the page is displayed (run). Pages tend to take information from the BAO to be displayed to users. In general, each page has an associated template (see below) which is used to create the html of the page.


This directory contains a menu directory which maps urls to CRM form or page classes and controls access to these URLs using permissions.


The templates directory contains all the HTML for pages and forms.  Directly inside the templates directory is a CRM directory.  In general, all templates map to a form or page class.  CiviCRM chooses a template for the form or page based on the class name.

For example, the class CRM_Member_Form_MembershipRenewal looks for a template in templates/CRM/Member/Form/MembershipRenewal.tpl

Templates are written in smarty, a common PHP template engine.  Variables can be passed to smarty using the assign() method which is available to all Form and Page classes.

Customising templates is discussed in more detail in 'Techniques'


The application programming interface (API) is stored in the api root directory.  Best practice for using the API is discussed in more detail in 'Techniques'

bin scripts

The bin directory contains a variety of scripts that can be run to carry out specific functions.  Some of these scripts are run on a regular basis, for example the CiviMail 'send' and 'process' scripts.  Others are run on a one of or occasional basis, e.g. update geo-coding.


The SQL directory is automatically generated as part of a release.  It contains useful files like the SQL to create the database and insert demo data. Most developers won't need to edit files in this directory.


This directory contains lots of automatically generated localisation files.  You should not need to edit this directory directly.  You should instead use CiviCRM's online translation tool transifex.


CiviCRM makes use of a lot of 3rd party packages for things like the database, form, javascript and pdf libraries, wysiwyg editors and so on.  You shouldn't need to edit these packages directory.

Database structure

The database structure is defined in a series of XML files.  These files are not packaged in the releases but are available in the SVN repository. They are located in Civicrm/xml/Schema. All the folders within this directory also have folders in the main CRM folder which contain a DAO folder and generally a BAO folder too.

Looking in CiviCRM/xml/Schema/Pledge we see 4 files:

  • files.xml
  • Pledge.xml
  • PledgePayment.xml
  • PledgeBlock.xml

files.xml is just a list of the other files. Each of the others represents a table in the Database. The XML files describe the database and are used to build both the DAO files and the new database sql generation script.

The XML describes fields, foreign keys and indexes, an example of a field definition is:

       <title>Total Pledged</title>
       <comment>Total pledged amount.</comment>

When should I edit core CiviCRM?

The above should have given you a reasonable idea of what the CiviCRM code based looks like.  Remember that most of the time, editing the core code base directly is not the recommended way for developers to customise and extend CiviCRM.

There are other recommended ways for the majority of scenarios - for example the APIs and hooks. Be sure that any edits that you make to the core code base are really necessary.

To help you decide, here are a couple of principles:

  • Bug fixes should always be applied to core.
  • Some (but not all) new features make sense to put in core, especially if they would be useful to others.

If you aren't familiar with CiviCRM, by far the best way to get a sense if you should be editing core is by talking with the CiviCRM developer community on IRC, the forums, etc.