PHP Overview

Feature: Why has PHP become so popular ?

PHP is ubiquitious - found on every OS Platform: BSD, Linux, Mac, Solaris, Windows, etc
One of the interesting diversions on the PHP Homesite is the following rhetorical question asked midway down the left navigation column - "Ever wondered how popular PHP is? See the NetCraft Survey." And in a little boasting not frequently found on Open Source sites, following the link produces a NetCraft graph showing PHP usage on websites worldwide growing from less than 200,000 in January 1999 to over 13 million in August 2003 and then nearly 21 million in July 2007 (curiously, there is no update).

This is nothing short of astounding. In the middle of the bust when many very good technologies are going under or merging away, PHP has been growing at 230% annual rate for the past 4 years. I know a lot of software vendors that would take 1/10th that rate and be very happy indeed. Now in the midst of Web 2, PHP continues to maintain its popularity. So lets look at a quick list of factors that might explain this phenomenal growth:

1)PHP is a server-side interpreter which is Open Source and free;
2)So is a growing number of PHP web applications - start at PHP Resources;
3)PHP provides familiar syntax to C, Perl and Java developers;
4)PHP has fast connections to popular databases;
5)PHP has fast native connections to the Open Source MySQL database;
6)PHP runs reliably on Windows, Linux and Mac servers and clients;
7)PHP web pages run reliably on all the popular browsers;
8)PHP's associative arrays are very useful for UI and database apps;
9)PHP's object oriented classes are easy to understand;
10)PHP has been very promiscuous-linking to PDF, SWF, XML, Java, etc, etc.

So without even trying we came up with a Dave Letterman Top Ten reasons for at least considering trying PHP. And downloading the PHP code results in another surprise - the system is a 5MB zip (or tar.gz) file. Compare this with Java's 18MB and .NET Framework's 1GB. Admittedly there is no IDE for PHP; but neither is there one for the Java SDK nor for the .NET Framework. All use Visual Notepad (or your favorite text editor) as the initial point of development. IDEs-Interactive Development Environs are arising all over the place: Nusphere, ActiveState, and Macromedia have some diverse offerings.But users will not have the huge learning curves associated with Java (J2SE, J2ME, J2EE) and .NET (the Framework, ADO.NET, ASP.NET, etc). The bottom line is that PHP is to Web Development what Visual Basic was to Windows -easy to use, very familiar and approachable, and at the time - cheap.

But just like Visual Basic, PHP is having its growing pains. Its applications are being thrust up the IT organization and are being applied in serious transaction, content management, and e-Commerce applications. And some of the creaky scalability, security and reliability issues are coming to the foreground. Three or four times this past year, patches and upgrades to PHP or its components have been necessitated by security gaps. Its performance is very good on small to medium size sites; but for serious high end use PHP needs the boost of 3rd party accelerator and load balancing software. And the fact that it is a server-side only app forces developers to interface with client-side tools like ASP, Flash, Java, JavaScript for validations, rich media presentation, and other desktop related tasks. However, PHP has seen a new version, PHP 5, released in the summer of 2003. This edition added enhanced and advanced OO syntax (though, like in C++, one can sidestep a strict OO implementation)and Try catch and other error/exception handling extensions. The talk in the community is how well it meet some of these professional or enterprise development requirements. And as always performance is under scrutiny as PHP trails most other languages by significant multiples in runtime operations (see here for all the gory details).

So the following PHP tutorials will try to place PHP in context with the many other web development tools and choices users have to make. But one can confidently say that PHP is Pareto optimal - that's the economist's way of saying well worth the look because the potential utility easily exceeds the costs/efforts to try it out - and of course that has been a key to PHP's success.


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