PHP, a recursive acronym for “PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor”, is one of open source's great success stories, even if it is one of the least celebrated. Part of the LAMP stack that powers the vast majority of the top Web 2.0 sites, PHP is used on nearly 21 million sites around the Web.
One of the leading PHP experts is the Netherlands-based Ivo Jansch, Technical Director and CTO of the specialist PHP and Zend company Ibuildings. Here he talks here about his initial scepticism when confronted by open source, what he sees as the strengths – and weaknesses – of PHP, and why now might be a good time for enterprises to jump on the PHP bandwagon.
GM: What's your background – when and where did you first come across open source?
IJ: I have a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science. My first encounter with Open Source was during my last year of that study. This was at the time that the open source movement was gaining a lot of momentum. It was during the rise of Linux and the launch of the Open Source Initiative; it was hard to get around back then.
GM: What were your initial reactions to the idea?
IJ: At first I was sceptical. If open source was such a great way of developing software, why wasn't everybody doing it, and why didn't they teach it in universities? But as I read more and more into the subject, I realised how collaborative development, and a 'user driven approach' as opposed to a 'marketing driven approach' lead to software that not only does what the user expects (instead of doing what the manufacturer thinks the user should expect), but also has a quality that matches the quality of closed source software, but developed at a much lower cost.
GM: How did you get involved with PHP?
IJ: PHP, like many open source projects, was developed by someone who had a need, couldn't find a proper tool to meet that need, and created something for himself. Because it might benefit others, he put it on the internet for others to work with and improve upon. By the time I got involved with PHP, it was already at version 3 and very popular. It was rapidly becoming the de facto "If you want to build a website and get it done fast" standard.
GM: What do you think its strengths and weaknesses are?
IJ: The biggest strength of PHP is its flexibility and its time to market. The internet is a fast moving environment. If you have an idea today, you have to put it online tomorrow, or the next day somebody else will have beat you to it. If you talk to potential customers about projects and ask them 'when do you need this delivered' they all say 'yesterday'. This requires a mindset and a set of tools that allow you to meet those needs. When the internet bubble burst a few years ago, we learned an important lesson. Investing millions in the development of a website, only to discover that nobody wants to use your service after months and months of hard work, does simply not work in the internet age. So time to market is everything. And PHP, despite some of its flaws, gets the job done quickly.
Another strength of PHP is that it's easy to learn. So it's easier to find PHP developers, and easier to start a project. However, one of the weaknesses of PHP is that it's easy to learn. Ironic as that may sound, it's true: because it's so easy to learn, there's a lot of poor code out there - a lot of 'script kiddie' work. Java has a natural barrier to entry because you need to have solid software engineering skills to use it properly. To focus on the benefits of PHP and address this weakness, it's important to educate PHP developers, which is where Ibuildings comes in.
PHP's most important weakness, which is also related to the low learning curve, is its image. PHP is still often frowned upon, especially by those using Java or other languages. But, we believe this is changing. The same thing that happened to Linux is now happening to PHP. When Linux was younger, it was also viewed with scepticism and wasn't taken seriously by many companies. Nowadays, Linux is one of the main server platforms, and we find it everywhere, from webservers to business critical applications. We see PHP heading in the same direction.
GM: Why should enterprises consider deploying it over alternative technologies?
IJ: It doesn't have to be an alternative; PHP plays well with alternative technologies. It's possible to combine a Java service with a PHP front-end. That said, PHP should be considered in enterprises, because it has reached a level of maturity that makes it a valid choice for many types of
applications. With companies such as Zend pushing enterprise tools and application servers to professionalise PHP deployments, and companies such as Ibuildings taking PHP development to the next level, it has become a technology to be taken seriously in the enterprise.
GM: What's the background to Ibuildings?
IJ: Ibuildings was established in the Netherlands in 1999 where it has become the leading PHP authority and the official representative of Zend Technologies. We assist organisations that deploy mission-critical LAMP technology. Ibuildings offers a comprehensive range of PHP services including consulting on best practices, Zend PHP training, application audits, and application development. Ibuildings NL recognised the amazing opportunity that the UK market opens for them, and decided to make the UK the first stop on the European tour. Ibuildings in NL today has 50 employees, and the UK currently stands at 10.
GM: What services does it offer in connection with both PHP and Zend?
IJ: Ibuildings offers various services related to PHP and Zend products, such as training, installation and configuration help, application audits (security, performance or architecture). We can help companies take their PHP development to the next level. We run development projects and offer developers if a PHP development team needs some extra hands for a while.
GM: Can you give some examples of the kind of PHP projects you and your company have worked on recently?
We are helping to professionalise PHP in small and large businesses alike – some of the companies we are working with right now include AEA Technology, Ladbrokes, and Dennis Interactive.
GM: Your company has just opened an office in the UK: what are the differences between the UK and your native Holland in terms of PHP use in business, and why do you think they exist?
IJ: PHP usage in the UK is less than in The Netherlands. In The Netherlands we've been able to help PHP enter the enterprise market, by organising conferences and seminars, by helping companies improve their PHP development and by demonstrating that PHP is a valid development language for business critical applications. In the UK, there's much work to be done and we are looking forward to introducing PHP to more UK enterprises as well.
GM: Why do you think now is a good time for British companies to adopt PHP?
IJ: Current PHP versions are very mature, and there are many initiatives to promote and improve PHP usage at companies. Zend offers several very useful tools, and many companies have developed off-the-shelf solutions for PHP. PHP is now at a level that it can seriously compete with languages such as Java, in the web application domain.
GM: More generally, how are enterprise PHP needs changing?
IJ: People need to realise that PHP is 'just a language' and the fact that it's an easier and more flexible language than, say, Java, does not mean that you can throw overboard proper software engineering principles. We are going to show companies that a flexible language like PHP, combined with the right level of software engineering, can be a very powerful tool to build serious web applications. This will combine the advantages of a scripting language such as PHP, with the advantages of true software engineering.
GM: How do you think they will develop in the future, and how would you like PHP to evolve to meet those needs?
IJ: We would like to see more standardisation of development methodologies, and more awareness among developers regarding best practices and software engineering principles when it comes to PHP development. I predict that there will also be a proliferation of tools aimed at PHP development in the enterprise.
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