PHP at 20: From pet project to powerhouse

The one-time ‘silly little project’ has transformed into a Web powerhouse, thanks to flexibility, pragmatism, and a vibrant community of Web devs

Become An Insider

Sign up now and get FREE access to hundreds of Insider articles, guides, reviews, interviews, blogs, and other premium content. Learn more.

When Rasmus Lerdorf released “a set of small tight CGI binaries written in C,” he had no idea how much his creation would impact Web development. Delivering the opening keynote at this year’s SunshinePHP conference in Miami, Lerdorf quipped, “In 1995, I thought I had unleashed a C API upon the Web. Obviously, that’s not what happened, or we’d all be C programmers.”

In fact, when Lerdorf released version 1.0 of Personal Home Page Tools -- as PHP was then known -- the Web was very young. HTML 2.0 would not be published until November of that year, and HTTP/1.0 not until May the following year. NCSA HTTPd was the most widely deployed Web server, and Netscape Navigator was the most popular Web browser, with Internet Explorer 1.0 to arrive in August. In other words, PHP’s beginnings coincided with the eve of the browser wars.

Those early days speak volumes about PHP’s impact on Web development. Back then, our options were limited when it came to server-side processing for Web apps. PHP stepped in to fill our need for a tool that would enable us to do dynamic things on the Web. That practical flexibility captured our imaginations, and PHP has since grown up with the Web. Now powering more than 80 percent of the Web, PHP has matured into a scripting language that is especially suited to solve the Web problem. Its unique pedigree tells a story of pragmatism over theory and problem solving over purity.

The Web glue we got hooked on

PHP didn’t start out as a language, and this is clear from its design -- or lack thereof, as detractors point out. It began as an API to help Web developers access lower-level C libraries. The first version was a small CGI binary that provided form-processing functionality with access to request parameters and the mSQL database. And its facility with a Web app’s database would prove key in sparking our interest in PHP and PHP’s subsequent ascendancy.

By version 2 -- aka PHP/FI -- database support had expanded to include PostgreSQL, MySQL, Oracle, Sybase, and more. It supported these databases by wrapping their C libraries, making them a part of the PHP binary. PHP/FI could also wrap the GD library to create and manipulate GIF images. It could be run as an Apache module or compiled with FastCGI support, and it introduced the PHP script language with support for variables, arrays, language constructs, and functions. For many of us working on the Web at that time, PHP was the kind of glue we'd been looking for.

To continue reading this article register now

Shop Tech Products at Amazon