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PHP at 20: From pet project to powerhouse

Ben Ramsey | June 12, 2015
When Rasmus Lerdorf released "a set of small tight CGI binaries written in C," he had no idea how much his creation would impact Web development. Delivering the opening keynote at this year's SunshinePHP conference in Miami, Lerdorf quipped, "In 1995, I thought I had unleashed a C API upon the Web. Obviously, that's not what happened, or we'd all be C programmers."

The Web as a community of coders

PHP's lasting impact on Web development isn't limited to what can be done with the language itself. How PHP work is done and who participates — these too are important parts of PHP's legacy.

As early as 1997, PHP user groups began forming. One of the earliest was the Midwest PHP User's Group (later known as Chicago PHP), which held its first meeting in February 1997. This was the beginning of what would become a vibrant, energetic community of developers assembled over an affinity for a little tool that helped them solve problems on the Web. The ubiquity of PHP made it a natural choice for Web development. It became especially popular in the shared hosting world, and its low barrier to entry was attractive to many early Web developers.

With a growing community came an assortment of tools and resources for PHP developers. The year 2000 — a watershed moment for PHP — witnessed the first PHP Developers' Meeting, a gathering of the core developers of the programming language, who met in Tel Aviv to discuss the forthcoming 4.0 release. PHP Extension and Application Repository (PEAR) also launched in 2000 to provide high-quality userland code packages following standards and best practices. The first PHP conference, PHP Kongress, was held in Germany soon after. came online, and to this day, it is the most authoritative news source in the PHP community.

This communal momentum proved vital to PHP's growth in subsequent years, and as the Web development industry erupted, so did PHP. PHP began powering more and larger websites. More user groups formed around the world. Mailing lists; online forums; IRC; conferences; trade journals such as php[architect], the German PHP Magazin, and International PHP Magazine — the vibrancy of the PHP community had a significant impact on the way Web work would be done: collectively and openly, with an emphasis on code sharing.

Then, 10 years ago, shortly after the release of PHP 5, an interesting thing happened in Web development that created a general shift in how the PHP community built libraries and applications: Ruby on Rails was released.

The rise of frameworks

The Ruby on Rails framework for the Ruby programming language created an increased focus and attention on the MVC (model-view-controller) architectural pattern. The Mojavi PHP framework a few years prior had used this pattern, but the hype around Ruby on Rails is what firmly cemented MVC in the PHP frameworks that followed. Frameworks exploded in the PHP community, and frameworks have changed the way developers build PHP applications.

Many important projects and developments have arisen, thanks to the proliferation of frameworks in the PHP community. The PHP Framework Interoperability Group formed in 2009 to aid in establishing coding standards, naming conventions, and best practices among frameworks. Codifying these standards and practices helped provide more interoperable software for developers using member projects' code. This interoperability meant that each framework could be split into components and stand-alone libraries could be used together with monolithic frameworks. With interoperability came another important milestone: The Composer project was born in 2011.


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