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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."

Inspired by Node.js's NPM and Ruby's Bundler, Composer has ushered in a new era of PHP application development, creating a PHP renaissance of sorts. It has encouraged interoperability between packages, standard naming conventions, adoption of coding standards, and increased test coverage. It is an essential tool in any modern PHP application.

The need for speed and innovation

Today, the PHP community has a thriving ecosystem of applications and libraries. Some of the most widely installed PHP applications include WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, and MediaWiki. These applications power the Web presence of businesses of all sizes, from small mom-and-pop shops to sites like and Wikipedia. Six of the Alexa top 10 sites use PHP to serve billions of pages a day. As a result, PHP applications have been optimized for speed — and much innovation has gone into PHP core to improve performance.

In 2010, Facebook unveiled its HipHop for PHP source-to-source compiler, which translates PHP code into C++ code and compiles it into a single executable binary application. Facebook's size and growth necessitated the move away from standard interpreted PHP code to a faster, optimized executable. However, Facebook wanted to continue using PHP for its ease of use and rapid development cycles. HipHop for PHP evolved into HHVM, a JIT (just-in-time) compilation-based execution engine for PHP, which included a new language based on PHP: Hack.

Facebook's innovations, as well as other VM projects, created competition at the engine level, leading to discussions about the future of the Zend Engine that still powers PHP's core, as well as the question of a language specification. In 2014, a language specification project was created "to provide a complete and concise definition of the syntax and semantics of the PHP language," making it possible for compiler projects to create interoperable PHP implementations.

The next major version of PHP became a topic of intense debate, and a project known as phpng (next generation) was offered as an option to clean up, refactor, optimize, and improve the PHP code base, which also showed substantial improvements to the performance of real-world applications. After deciding to name the next major version "PHP 7," due to a previous, unreleased PHP 6.0 version, the phpng branch was merged in, and plans were made to proceed with PHP 7, working in many of the language features offered by Hack, such as scalar and return type hinting.

With the first PHP 7 alpha release due out today and benchmarks showing performance as good as or better than that of HHVM in many cases, PHP is keeping up with the pace of modern Web development needs. Likewise, the PHP-FIG continues to innovate and push frameworks and libraries to collaborate and cooperate — most recently with the adoption of PSR-7, which will change the way PHP projects handle HTTP. User groups, conferences, publications, and initiatives like continue to advocate best practices, coding standards, and testing to the PHP developer community.


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