The Power of PHP: The "Swiss Army Knife of Digital"
by Michelangelo van Dam
Guest post by Michelangelo van Dam – Michelangelo van Dam is a professional PHP consultant and Zend Framework expert working mainly for governments and larger enterprises. Michelangelo is also president of PHPBenelux, a PHP user group operating in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. He is a respected and sought-after speaker at PHP conferences around the world.
In the Beginning...
Since the day Rasmus Lerdorf open-sourced PHP back in 1995, millions of businesses have relied on this technology to build rich, interactive, and dynamic web applications. Companies like Facebook and Yahoo grew in part due to the flexibility this technology offered. Tools like Wordpress and Drupal were built to allow regular people to create an online presence, build online shops and communities, and interact directly with their customers and visitors.
But this wasn't always the case. For many years, PHP was regarded by some as a “toy.” Some thought that it was not mature enough as a programming language to be used within enterprises, or that it was not secure enough to build high-profile financial applications, for example.
During the period that technologies like Java and .NET flourished within the enterprise, the open-source community that was working on PHP was constantly making improvements to it. Over the years, in the shadows of the leading languages, PHP quietly grew from a procedural scripting language to a fully fledged, object oriented programming language.
The Game Changer
In 2008, the global economic crisis hit. Organizations were forced to search for cheaper alternatives to build their applications. Leading technology companies saw customers cancel contracts as budgets decreased.
This was the break PHP needed. Not only was PHP attractive in terms of cost, but development teams were finding they could complete projects quickly with PHP. This news spread like wildfire among businesses and boosted the adoption of PHP within enterprises.
It was also the break the open-source community needed. With the usage of PHP within enterprises on the rise, missing functionality or broken features surfaced quicker than ever. This led to an increase in the number of changes and improvements the developers involved were contributing back to the PHP community. PHP was getting better fast – more feature rich, more secure and more performant – thanks to the velocity of fixes and features going into the codebase. This led to a virtuous circle of even more adoption and thus to even more rapid improvement.
Governments Adopt Open-source
In Europe, governments also also began migrating from proprietary software to open-source solutions in this period. Even though this migration would take a couple of years to complete, it also provided a big boost for PHP.
Public bodies from city administrations to national governments started interacting directly with the public online. Using digital versions of their town halls, citizens could now use the Internet to interact with their community and public institutions. Applications were built with PHP to do everything from registering the birth of a child, to paying taxes, to facilitating transparency and citizen participation.
When the White House website relaunched on Drupal in 2009, there was a huge boost in the profile and use of ready-to-use content management systems (CMSs) and blog applications. The adoption rate for these applications grew enormously and we saw the rise of web agencies solely focusing on specific PHP-based applications like Drupal, Wordpress or Joomla and also for PHP frameworks like Zend and Symfony.
Silos, Sharing, and Convergence
By 2010, people were building their own solutions to any given problem. On the one hand, there was a lot of reinvention of the wheel going. On the other, since this was going on in an open source context, the broader PHP community benefitted greatly. The resulting discussions on forums, IRC, and mailing lists led to tremendous gains in knowledge and expertise through the sharing and comparison of many experiences along the way. From this exchange of information came improved security, better performance, and a rich set of tools that allowed developers to build robust applications.
Another result of this period of experimentation and improvement was the start of the movement within the PHP community to combine forces and ensure interoperability between different frameworks and solutions. Existing tools started moving towards a common core with their specific, custom layer on top of it, making it easier for each PHP project to focus on core functionality. Next generation CMSs and other applications will be built on existing, leading frameworks. Drupal is making a move in this direction, incorporating components of the Symfony 2 framework into Drupal 8. This trend is a further multiplier for PHP and open source: Applying security fixes or feature enhancements to the base framework will immediately benefit every tool built on top of it.
Fast Forward to the Present
The past decade has seen PHP become a feature rich, robust, secure and – most of all – a worthy alternative for building all kinds of applications. Nowadays, everyone uses the Internet for almost everything, from social interactions of every kind to managing financial, medical, and business accounts. We see old-fashioned PLC (programmable logic controller) systems being managed remotely by web interfaces. Hospitals collect health data of patients and make it available to doctors on their mobile devices. Education has become so much richer with online, interactive training, “Moocs” (massive open online courses) and rich media. The list continues with new possibilities appearing and existing ones being improved, enriched, and made possible because of PHP. Over the past decade, PHP has proven not only to be able to get the job done, but also to fill in the gaps where existing technologies were failing.
It's a Bright Future
Everyone agrees that mobile platforms will outgrow laptop and desktop computers as the Internet access devices of choice. Mobile applications still need to talk to something to exchange and integrate their data in a secure, fast, and lightweight way. With all the technological choices that exist, PHP is still the "Swiss army knife" of technologies that's up for the task, today more than ever.
In today's job market, there's a huge demand for PHP developers, too. They are among the most sought-after candidates by recruiting agencies and organizations of every size and purpose. If you're a software developer, wrap your head around PHP. PHP’s future is bright and getting brighter all the time.