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PHP creator extolls language's modest start

Joab Jackson | July 20, 2012
It is one of the widely used programming languages across the Web today, but PHP was created with decidedly modest ambitions, according to the creator of the language.

PHP "is more about how easy it is for people to get started, without thinking too much about the technology," Lerdorf said. "You can have the prettiest language in the world, but if it can't talk to the back end, and you have no way to host it, it is useless."

ISPs (Internet Service Providers), in particular, found the technology useful because it worked very well in shared environments. Each account on a server could use a single copy of PHP without having any effect on other users. Also, the language scaled very well, thanks to Lerdorf's reluctance to complicate PHP with features, such as a database, that could be better supplied by external technologies. "PHP, on its own, scales infinitely. You never read about PHP scaling problems," Lerdorf said.

After his reminiscences, Lerdorf also spoke of the latest release of the language, as well as future plans.

The most recent edition of PHP, version 5.4, released in May, comes with a number of improvements, he said. Memory management has been vastly improved. "We've seen a 50 percent reduction" of memory used in some large configurations, Lerdorf said. For busy environments, this means more copies of Web server software can be placed on a single machine. PHP 5.4 also features a built-in Web server, which could be really handy for debugging, especially given the sometimes opaque nature of PHP's error reporting. With the PHP 5.4 server, you can run an instance of the WordPress blog from the command line.

One thing that did not make the 5.4 release was the full support for Unicode, the universal character set for all the world's languages. Because PHP is used the world over, it makes sense to support all the globe's languages out of the box. But the problem is that current Unicode libraries use far too much memory. "We're looking for a good Unicode library. The current [International Components for Unicode] library is a monstrosity," Lerdorf said.

Going forward, future editions of the PHP will be released more frequently, he said. "Instead of going three or four years between major releases, we are going to try to speed things up a bit. We will have smaller, quicker releases. Developers don't have to wait five years to try a new feature."

Version 5.5 of the language will be released by the end of this year or the early part of next year, Lerdorf said. This is a much shorter turn-around time than the nearly three-year lapse between PHP 5.3 and PHP 5.4, released in May.

Lerdorf also talked about the debugging process of PHP. The language's developers rely on outside testers to ensure a new version of PHP works across all combinations of hardware and software. Reviewing and fixing can be an exhausting process, he explained. Thus far, users have reported more than 62,000 bugs in PHP, though more than 20,000 of them turned out not to be bugs at all, but rather due to faulty external configurations or user errors.


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