PHP refers to Hypertext Preprocessor, but don’t let the highfalutin terminology (or the word “highfalutin”) intimidate you. It’s just a general-purpose computer language used for developing web-based applications. With it, you can create dynamic, interactive web pages that boost user experience and engagement.
PHP is open-source and ubiquitous, running on nearly 80% of websites globally in one way or another. Moreover, nearly every reputable web-hosting platform supports PHP. As a result, PHP’s impressive reach has solidified it as one of the world’s most commonly used programming languages today.
What Is PHP?
PHP is a high-level programming language created by Rasmus Lerdorf in 1994. It was written in the C programming language and was initially conceived as a set of Common Gateway Interface (CGI) binary tools. Lerdorf originally named it “Personal Home Page Tools” because he used it to track visits to his online resume.
Today, PHP is used as a server-side programming language for dynamic content websites and web applications that interact with databases. It can be used to serve many purposes, such as creating forms to receive data, creating sessions, or sending and receiving emails and cookies.
However, PHP is also a scripting language that’s interpreted at runtime and embedded in HTML. So, although PHP is used primarily for backend scripting, it actually allows the server to interact with both frontend and backend frameworks.
In addition to interactive web components, PHP scripts are used to create utilities such as plugins, design themes, and other elements that power content management systems (CMS) like WordPress.
Furthermore, PHP’s scripting background makes it easy for developers to write code. It is a loosely typed language, meaning it imposes fewer restrictions on the specification of data types. It provides eight data types to construct variables, but it doesn’t require you to explicitly declare or define them, as it can guess and evaluate them on its own.
PHP also executes computer code one statement at a time, meaning only syntactic errors are checked. As a result, PHP is more flexible and has a smaller overall digital footprint than its compiled language peers.
The advantages of PHP and what you can use it to accomplish
There are many reasons why people use PHP, most of which have to do with the advantageous outcomes it provides for developers.
1. Build and deploy applications quickly: PHP is relatively easy to learn, so individuals and organizations often leverage it for building projects that require a fast turnaround time. In addition, its installation requirements are minimal and uncomplicated. In fact, most operating systems have free utilities that offer one-click PHP installation processes.
Additionally, PHP as a scripting language requires no compilation, eliminating a system overhead that bogs down the continuous integration process. This means the PHP interpreter can receive and execute its code quickly at runtime.
2. Leverage its simplicity and power: The syntax of PHP is relatively easy to understand, especially for beginners and those learning software development for the first time. At the same time, however, it also confers immensely powerful features and functionality on the developer.
As a scripting language, PHP is adaptable and highly flexible. It offers embedded HTML programming via PHP tags—which, rather than disrupting the HTML code, complements it by rendering artifacts and resources from the server side.
3. Effective memory management and scalability: PHP has efficient memory management, allowing you to control and tailor memory requirements to your application needs.
For instance, it provides the memory_limit resource for setting the maximum amount of memory (in bytes) allocated to a script. This gives you more control over the performance of a PHP process by allowing you to dictate how much RAM it can use.
PHP also features load-balancing tools and caching techniques to boost speed and efficiency, including handling high traffic with large amounts of data. PHP applications can even be scaled vertically or horizontally by adding more mini servers or simply upgrading the hardware it runs on.
Sites as diverse as Facebook, Yahoo, WordPress, and Wikipedia run on PHP and can handle billions of daily requests—a testament to PHP’s scalability, reliability, and resilience.
4. A large pool of experts and developers: PHP has a big user base—its longevity and usefulness have created a vibrant community of users, contributors, and developers.
Many existing websites have been written in PHP, creating a legacy effect where PHP endures over time while also cultivating a large pool of knowledgeable developers. The cascading impact of this is that employers and organizations have access to a wide availability of developers with PHP skills to recruit at competitive prices.
Thus, it behooves companies to take advantage of its robust community and resources, which include developers, businesses, and thought leaders.
5. Extensive library: A direct benefit of PHP’s legacy and longevity is the subsequent abundance of resources, manuals, and tutorials on every aspect of PHP. The sheer volume of helpful PHP documentation has contributed to making the language even easier to learn and master.
6. Tried, tested, and well-supported: In addition to having a vibrant community, PHP has many frameworks and libraries that speed up the development process and prevent users from needing to reinvent the wheel.
Some popular PHP frameworks include CakePHP, Zend, Symfony, CodeIgniter, and Laravel.
Most of these frameworks are battle-tested, empowering developers to write code faster and more efficiently without much hassle. As such, PHP frameworks provide preconfigured code to implement authentication, authorization, validation, routing, templating, caching, testing, logging, and so on.
Meanwhile, PHP also supports all the leading databases and data sources, interacting with those as diverse as MySQL, SQLite, MongoDB, PostgreSQL, and ODBC.
7. Platform-independent: PHP runs on any hardware and can be deployed on various platforms and operating systems like Windows, Linux, Unix, and MacOS. Moreover, it is reusable on most web servers, including Nginx, Internet Information Server (IIS), and Apache.
With this level of applicability, deployment is easy because installation only occurs on the server side. Moreover, client machines only need access to a browser to your app, and you can also eschew installation by using a portable server like XAMPP.
8. Reduced costs: PHP is open-source and free, which means it’s cheap and reliable. Consequently, it also means you can develop cost-efficient solutions without the burden of paying for proprietary software licenses.
Therefore, PHP helps organizations and individuals to optimize costs.
Popular websites running on PHP
Some of the most popular and prominent websites were built on PHP, including the following:
- Magento (now Adobe Commerce)
- Time Magazine
For these reasons and more, website owners sidestep PHP at their own peril. Even if you don’t adopt PHP as your server-side technology, its ubiquity means that your competitors are likely using it. Therefore, you should stay abreast of the advantages it offers in terms of optimization, speed, rapid pace of development, and more.
Why PHP Is Important for WordPress
First and foremost, WordPress is written in PHP. Consequently, as a PHP-powered content management system, the language interacts seamlessly with WordPress. So, as part of its fundamental architecture, PHP is the sole customization tool for those building or hosting sites on WordPress.
Many of the internet’s top blogs also choose WordPress because of its rich ecosystem. This is partly because WordPress began as a pure blogging platform before evolving into a full CMS and website builder. But while WordPress has remained one of the best blogging platforms to this day, it has also added many simple and sophisticated features to facilitate the creation of highly scalable websites.
Incidentally, all of these productivity-boosting functionalities in WordPress are made possible by PHP.
For example, PHP enabled WordPress to embrace the role of a content management system. However, most users of WordPress, especially casual ones, often don’t grasp the centrality of PHP to WordPress. This is because WordPress has done a marvelous job of abstracting and shielding normal users from the need to apply any coding.
Without the CMS functionality of WordPress, you’d face the drudgery of manually building a new landing page for every single blog post, archive, and static page on a website. Fortunately, WordPress automatically generates these for you at the click of a button using a bunch of PHP tags within its theme files.
At the end of the day, even without PHP, WordPress is still a solid choice if you are building a website with limited resources and are focusing on ease of development. That said, you’ll definitely lack the advantages of custom functionality and scalability that PHP provides.
Why it is important to understand PHP as a WordPress user
To avoid ambiguity, when we refer to WordPress in this article, we mean the self-hosted WordPress.org. It shouldn’t be confused with WordPress.com, the hosting service. It is crucial to understand this distinction.
Due to the wealth of assorted free and paid functionality in the WordPress universe, it is possible to use WordPress very well without any knowledge of PHP. For instance, you can use WordPress to learn how to create a website without having to write any frontend or backend code. Crucially, WordPress eliminates the need to create each webpage separately and manually with HTML and CSS.
WordPress boasts a broad panoply of plugins, themes, and functionality. These themes and plugins are also written in PHP. Therefore, although WordPress users aren’t obligated to learn PHP, they won’t be able to implement any advanced customizations or create themes and plugins in WordPress.
The ability to make constant updates to content is the defining feature of dynamic websites, and PHP empowers your WordPress website to render dynamic content. With embedded PHP tags, websites can retrieve database data to refresh content and display it on the client-side as HTML output.
Despite the high level of abstraction that WordPress offers on its own, you’d be very constrained without the ability to leverage the power of PHP. Think of it as being limited to creating only static web pages.
The latest version of PHP
Software and programming languages are like living organisms. They never stop evolving, and there are always bugs to fix and improvements to make.
PHP typically supports three versions at any one time. While the newer versions are more vigorously updated, older ones are allowed to exist because of persistent user adoption and massive popularity.
In the newer versions, PHP strives to correct flaws or mistakes in previous ones. Although some keywords and features are deprecated in later versions, PHP also maintains backward compatibility with the preceding versions.
Nevertheless, it is always advisable to upgrade to the latest PHP version.
This is because newer versions are more secure, are optimized for speed, and are designed to address changing industry expectations. Additional advantages include access to better support, along with newer, state-of-the-art features.
There’s a number of programming languages other than PHP out in the wild, each of them with upsides and downsides.
Why you might consider PHP alternatives
Too much ease can be detrimental: While PHP’s ease and simplicity have made it a juggernaut, it has also scared off many organizations from using it for enterprise-grade applications. The main reason for this is that it’s too forgiving, allowing developers to get away with poor coding practices at times. For instance, one of the biggest pet peeves people have with PHP is that it allows programmers to avoid defining variable types.
While PHP offers lots of independence and flexibility, this freedom can be problematic when it’s in the hands of inexperienced programmers, as it creates fertile ground for security vulnerabilities and loopholes to metastasize.
Issues with separation of concerns: PHP also lacks sufficient separation of concerns, notoriously mixing views and business logic together. This exponentially increases the difficulty of maintaining a project’s codebase. It also makes it more challenging to scale the project, since adding new features to a cluttered mess becomes even tougher.
However, PHP frameworks like Zend, Laravel, and CodePHP ameliorate this by adopting a model view controller (MVC) paradigm.
Not very versatile: As a scripting language, PHP is ideal for web development. However, it is quite constrained when it comes to doing anything else. This is a huge detriment in today’s fast-paced IT landscape where programming languages need to do heavy lifting with big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual/immersive reality, and so on.
The three most popular alternatives to PHP
Python: Since Python is ideal for big data sets, automation, and implementing AI algorithms, it’s become the standard language for machine learning and big data applications. This is due to its bias for data analysis and built-in processing functions.
Like PHP, Python is also used for web development and scripting. However, Python has a more coherent structure than PHP. For instance, instead of using curly braces to delineate blocks of code— which is prone to messiness—Python uses clear indentation, which is more helpful to visualize and follow a code’s flow and structure.
As a result, this improved syntax reduces complexity, leading to fewer errors and vulnerability holes. This also makes Python highly readable and easier to maintain. However, Python doesn’t provide the same seamless database connectivity as PHP.
Java: This is a widely used programming language for building web, general-purpose, and enterprise applications. It is very versatile, embodying network-centric, object-oriented, and multi-platform capabilities.
Java is more secure, with more advanced built-in security features than PHP. In contrast, PHP needs to use frameworks to bolster its security, which creates the effect of tacking on security as an overlay instead of being deeply embedded.
Unlike PHP, which is primarily a scripting language, Java is more robust and better suited for complex projects such as native and embedded applications. Java allows developers to program closer to the “bare metal,” thereby giving them the ability to block low-level programming features to protect the PC and network systems.
Java is an all-around better-structured language than PHP. It’s also better suited for enterprise and mobile applications, especially on Android OS.