PHP: One Year On

January 28, 2012

I try to learn a new programming language each year. In recent years, my bias has been towards a more functional nature with Erlang and Clojure being two very enjoyable and intellectually satisfying choices. I didn’t make much fanfare of my new language for 2011, mainly because it was born of necessity rather than a way to challenge myself. Attendees to the London Python Code Dojo will probably have heard a few things from me, not always in a flattering light.

It’s roughly a year on from when I first started doing serious things with PHP and I thought it might be an excellent time for a quick bit of reflection. One problem with Erlang and Clojure has been that I’ve not directly had to use either in a production environment, or deal with a legacy codebase written in said languages. I say directly, because I’ve been working with RabbitMQ, which is written in Erlang… but that doesn’t really count.

So, first a disclaimer and some background. It’ll seem very negative, so any fans of PHP please bear with me…

I’m not sure when I first encountered PHP, but it was still called Personal Home Page at the time. Wikipedia tells me it was called Personal Home Page Tools, but anyway. I was writing Perl at the time and it didn’t appeal to me. I rediscovered it in 2000 when I spent a day updating someone’s website that was using PHP 3. At the time I was writing Python and Zope code, and it felt horribly backward and just plain wrong. (I said this would seem very negative, bear with me…)

From then on, PHP didn’t really register with me much. Generally, my encounters with PHP were via poorly written and insecure websites, written by people who really didn’t know how to program. This tainted my view of PHP and the associated community quite considerably.

So, with that background in mind, I joined a new company at the end of 2010 which had a very complex legacy web application written in… PHP. I was thrilled, obviously. But the good news was that I was recruited to help rewrite the application from scratch, replacing the considerable backend functionality with Python and using PHP and JavaScript for the front-end. For various reasons, I ended up taking over maintenance of the existing website for a few months, which gave me a rather urgent requirement to get down and dirty with PHP.

Now, working with the legacy code base, and given my prejudice already, this didn’t initially endear me to PHP. There seemed to be a lot of workarounds and convoluted functions to replicate what comes for free in Python. The old bracing wars of C were back, with different past developers having their own unique style of formatting – and not always lining things up nicely, which makes Pythonistas like me cry. Don’t even get me started on all the includes being pulled in causing all kinds of chaos, the warnings, the functions with lines of the code measured in four digits (I wish I was joking). A true maintenance nightmare.

But nestled amongst the mess were signs of a language that had changed radically from PHP 3, and was actually quite nice once you got to know it. Ever since I discovered Perl, I’ve always preferred dynamic languages because they don’t get in the way of solving problems. They’re quicker to write, easier to test, more adaptable to change, and very powerful. You lose a minor few things in the process, but gain a heck of a lot more. I still feel PHP has a little way to go, but on the whole it doesn’t get in my way too much these days – a little quirky in places, but people find Python and Clojure quirky too. And many people are totally freaked out when they see Erlang.

The PHPUnit testing framework is pretty good. Easy to convert to from Python’s unittest (they’re both part of the xUnit family), and comes with things like mocking and database testing tools as standard. Pretty cool. Reflection was a little clumsy to deal with at first, a little inelegant, but it works fine once you understand it. TDD wasn’t initially part of the company’s workflow but PHPUnit made it very easy to introduce, which was great.

There are three web frameworks that I’ve used/experienced. Symfony is being moved away from at work and I must admit I’m not overly fond of it – but this could just be down to the way it’s been used by bits of the legacy code base. Zend Framework is the main one we’re adopting, and it’s proving pretty good. We’ve had a a few niggles and frustrations, but nothing major except that the documentation seems to be great for introductions, but not very good for the detail. There have been moments when something that should be easy to figure out wasn’t because of the docs – but the great thing about open source is that you can always wade through the code to find the information you need. I think I’ve been spoilt by Django.

Finally, honourable mention goes to the third framework, which we use for some smaller client sites: Kohana. It’s an elegant, lightweight framework, although the documentation could do with some improvements (I feel a little guilty because I was going to find time to contribute some but never did). Worth a look, so giving it some free PR.

Although Python will remain my main language of choice, and I’ll be sticking to Django and Flask for my own projects, I can’t be too dismissive of PHP and PHP developers these days (although seriously guys, who thought adding goto to PHP 5.3 was a good idea?*). The language has matured into a respectable dynamic language, and frameworks like Kohana and Zend deserve particular mention. There seems to be a lot of support and encouragement within the community for good practices like automated testing and better structuring of code which is great to see.

* Although the docs do warn you of Velociraptors: (scroll down a bit)

So there you go: PHP ain’t that bad after all.

As for my language for 2012, I was trying to decide between ones like Lua, Squeak, Haskell, Java and er… something else (must’ve been good!). In the end, I decided not to decide and see what happens this year. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep working on improving my PHP skills, update my JavaScript knowledge (part of a general “things have changed on the client-side since 2004″ approach) and continue learning Clojure.

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One Response to “PHP: One Year On”

  1. nryoung Says:

    I like your idea of learning one language a year.I have very extensive knowledge of C++ but when I first saw Python, I fell in love. I am now doing something similar where I am blocking off 12 weeks to focus on becoming very proficient with Django + Python.

    I still cringe a little whenever I look at PHP but that will probably be my next language to look in to.

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