PHP maintains a lead for developing websites, because of enterprise features, says Andi Gutmans of Zend
Some people believe that web scripting language PHP has had its day. Andi Gutmans doesn’t see it that way.
PHP exploded onto the early Web scene in the late 1990s, offering an easily-understandable language in which to create websites. It rapidly displaced earlier Web production methods such as Adobe ColdFusion, and was one of the four pillars of the “LAMP” (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) stack, around which open source advocates rallied in the mid-2000s.
But if you ask developers now, they are just as likely to mention newer languages and environments like Ruby on Rails. Many will tell you that PHP is on the decline. Gutmans, who co-developed the successful versions of PHP, and is now CEO of PHP firm Zend, doesn’t see any decline – and told TechWeekEyrope why not on a visit to London.
Zend it like Gutmans
He’s been at the heart of PHP, the Personal Home Page, server-side language that Danish-Canadian programmer Rasmus Lerdorf had created for his own site in 1994. Gutmans and Zeev Suraski, a fellow student at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, helped re-write subsequent versions to reach a wider audience.
“In 1997 Zeev and myself thought that PHP was a great idea but could be done a lot better,” he told us. “We set up a university project to rewrite it.”
Within 12 to 18 months, PHP 3 was running a million and half websites, taking over from the first generation of HTML editors, such as Cold Fusion.
But Gutmans and Suraski reckoned they could do better. “Our second rewrite of the language produced PHP 4 and the Zend engine,” he said.
Zend was the engine that executed PHP on the server – its name stands for Zeev and Andi. At around this time PHP gained in self importance, took on a recursive acronym, and became PHP Hypertext Pre-processor.
The Zend engine remains at the heart of PHP, and executes PHP instructions: “It is to PHP, as the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) is to Java,” says Gutmans.
PHP 4 consolidated the language’s success. Yahoo standardised on it in 2001 (and employed Lerdorf).
The original Zend is now maintained by the PHP community, at PHP.net, while Gutmans and Suraski founded a commercial company (also called Zend) which extends what the Zend engine does: “You can build tools on the Zend engine – and we have added performance enhancements. We developed the enterprise ability of PHP,” he explains, adding tools and frameworks. “The PHP you see now is not what you saw then”.
Around 2005, Zend made partnerships with IBM and Oracle, and in 2006 with Microsoft. “Ten years ago we were pretty SMB focused,” he says. “Today 70 percent of our revenue is coming from mid-market companies.”
That’s good, but small scale developers don’t necessarily appreciate the effort to go up market. “The only development tool I need is VI (the Unix text editor),” one IT professional told us, before we spoke to Gutmans.
Somewhat surprisingly, Gutmans sympathises – “I was a VI user when I was a C developer” – but he says medium-to-large organisations and big projects need tools: “The reality is the mainstream developer absolutely has to use IDEs.”
In fact, he’s cool about developers rejecting Zend’s tools: “That’s not the main thing we sell, so I don’t mind if he uses VI,” he generously allows. “Development tools will be a commodity – they aren’t our monetisation strategy.”
Zend makes its money on Zend Server, a secure, reliable and high-performance PHP executor. “The real focus for us is in application platforms. We do a combination of a Red Hat like model, which is certified binaries with support, and a proprietary model, selling Zend Server on a subscription basis.” Zend Server can also be bought on a per server basis, or rented by the hour on the Amazon cloud.
He describes this as filling a “maturity gap”, making sure that business critical workloads have fault tolerance and security.
It’s up to date and designed for mobile apps – the latest version adds in support for Nginx, an open source web server tuned for mobile apps, with high concurrency and low memory requirements.
Decline of PHP?
What about the apparent decline of PHP, against more fashionable competitors such as Ruby on Rails? Gutmans doesn’t see any reduction in PHP usage – he notes the arrival of other approaches and says they have simply legitimised the “dynamic language” approach.
“According to a Netcraft survey, 39 percent of the web is PHP,” he says. “Dynamic languages are growing, and PHP is growing within that.” He quotes Evans Data, saying that PHP has 75 percent of the dynamic language segment.
Five years ago, it was possible for “Java bigots” to deplore the idea of dynamic languages, he says, but now their advantages are proven: “Dynamic languages are not statically typed, so we don’t have to define what types your variables are. That’s a big advantage on the web, when you are mashing up a lot of text and a lot of data. It makes you much more productive.”
The arrival of Ruby and the rest helped convince enterprises about dynamic language, he says, but didn’t add a huge amount of competition because there was a lot of hype around them: “In 2005, Ruby [and the Rails framework] had a lot of hype. After that, the advantage went away, and today Rails is far away from the hype.”
PHP has consistently grown, he says, because of the enterprise features available in Zend Server: “We are the only company to connect out of the box to SQL Server, DB2, and databases like Mongo.”
Another plus has been Oracle’s mishandling of Java, which ended the perception that Java is more secure: “Oracle has been so slow to respond to security issues in Java. The PHP community gives a faster response. Oracle has been dragging its feet, but the PHP community works with the vendors – and we have security fixes out within 24 to 48 hours.”
Any performance gap has also gone away, because the language is no longer the bottleneck: “With the move to services in the cloud, it’s no longer about how fast your language is, but how fast your services respond.”
To Gutmans, Java looks like a legacy system running on mainframes. But PHP is even winning out on older systems, and becoming a front end for them – it is shipped on IBM’s venerable iSeries servers (the former AS/400).
Gutmans sees a High PHP and a Low PHP audience. Some, like Fox, do everything in PHP, while others like DHL and Prada, use it to interface to legacy platforms running J2EE.
Zend in the DevOps troops
PHP gets a bad press, because it has never been an academic language, he says. “Even in the early days in 2000, it has always been a pragmatic language, like Visual Basic. It’s known as the English of the Web.”
Despite this, it’s strong on current trends, like DevOps, the re-working of the relationship between developers and operations people: “We’ve been very successful mainly because we have embraced DevOps. We help Development and Operations to collaborate.”
DevOps pushes elements of development (including testing) into the operations phase, and can produce code quickly without sacrificing quality.
“The real benefit is in shared visibility for Development and Operations,” he says, stressing that developers don’t have unlimited access to the code when it is in operation: “We don’t think you should let developers do whatever they like in the cycle. It is more of a read only mode.” It also helps operations people to be proactive in an earlier stage: “Ops people are sick of being seen as blockers, they want to be seen as enablers.
“When there is a bug, they can jointly look at the code together. There is less blame-storming.”
In future Zend will become even more embeddable – and consistent across all environments. It’s already available as a package on Amazon, and is also on IBM’s Smart Cloud and Red Hat’s Open Shift. It’s more about APIs now, says Gutmans, while in 2005, there was a lot of XML and Web services. There’s a strong focus on databases, and PHP now uses JSON as a native format.
Is PHP really declining? Gutmans has me convinced it is booming.
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