*adjective, easily modified or changed; opposite of hardcoded

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PHP | Works Conference – Toronto Sept 14 – 16, 2005

This summer marks the tenth anniversary of the birth of PHP and, given this fact and the healthy state of PHP, this was a very upbeat conference. 

Rasmus Lerdorf, the originator of PHP, gave the keynote address and a number of PHP core developers made presentations – often in the same time slot, leaving this developer wishing he could defy the laws of physics and be in two places at the same time. But, once a presentation started there was only one place you wanted to be.  

Just to give you some examples, Ilia Alshanetsky spoke on managing PHP performance, Marcus Böerger on the Standard PHP Library and Derick Rethans and Wez Furlong on a variety of topics. There was also a sprinkling of non-PHP web-related talks.

Three separate presentations addressed the topic of security.  Rasmus himself weighed in with a graphic demonstration of cross-site scripting - brave delegates submitting their sites for a mock attack. No public humiliation for me though. On returning home I quickly plugged a few holes - which only goes to show that the biggest security hole in any application is the developer. With this in mind, free PHP certification testing was on offer during the conference. Raise the skill levels of developers and you’ll automatically improve security.

One final comment on the subject of security -  the high level of interest in this topic is indicative of the maturity of PHP. The language that was once Personal Home Page has certainly grown up to become PHP Hypertext Preprocessor. Security is a more pressing concern because the use of PHP continues to grow as does the variety of applications it is used for. Some figures, speculative perhaps, would put the number of websites using PHP at over 20 million and the number of developers at over 2 million. Whatever the case, there’s no denying that PHP is the most popular language for creating dynamic web sites.

PHP has grown up but it can’t be accused of forgetting its origins. It is still principally a web programming language committed to ease of use. It is on these grounds that it is sometimes criticized by proponents of other technologies. There are inconsistencies due to maintaining backwards compatibility. Naming conventions are also inconsistent, especially for objects. In short, it won’t win any awards for purity of concept. It’s a hybrid language but it’s nimble and powerful.  

Rasmus Lerdorf’s more arresting way of putting it is, “Fail early, fail cheap”. The point being, why invest in WebSphere and training for J2EE when the job can be done much more easily by PHP.  If the project proves unfeasible better to lose hundreds of dollars rather than thousands.

Some IT managers may choke at the suggestion that PHP can substitute for Enterprise Java but make no mistake about it – PHP is enterprise ready.  

Witness the fact that web services was another hot topic with REST, XML-RPC and SOAP all warranting attention. Web services have been greatly improved with last year’s release of PHP 5 and a unified approach to XML. And ease of use has not been sacrificed but improved. Use the SimpleXML extension and you’ll only need 3 lines of code to read and display an RSS feed. In similar fashion, you can create a SOAP client without any concern for the underlying XML. 

Any IT manager unsure of whether he should be using PHP would do well to attend a conference such as this. Seeing the language, warts and all, and hearing some of the disagreements amongst the developers may be a bit disconcerting at first but ultimately it is a healthy process. Seeing firsthand the vitality of the PHP community can’t fail to impress. Likewise the PHP core developers were approachable and sensitive to the skill levels of their audience. A recent book, “Open Source for the Enterprise”, gives us a model for assessing the maturity of open-source projects and hence their ease of adoption. Apply this test to PHP and you’ll find that it scores top marks in virtually every category.  

One final word of advice for IT managers. Need to bring your programmers down a peg or two? Send them to a conference such as this. The level of expertise on display is a humbling experience. 

About the Author

Peter Lavin runs a Web Design/Development firm in Toronto, Canada. He has been published in a number of magazines and online sites, including UnixReview.com, php|architect and International PHP Magazine. He is a contributor to the recently published O'Reilly book, PHP Hacks and is also the author of Object Oriented PHP, published by No Starch Press.

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