What is PHP?

Before you start working with PHP, check out this essential information.

By David Sklar and Adam Trachtenberg

PHP is a server-side scripting language for creating dynamic Web pages. You create pages with PHP and HTML. When a visitor opens the page, the server processes the PHP commands and then sends the results to the visitor's browser, just as with ASP or ColdFusion. Unlike ASP or ColdFusion, however, PHP is Open Source and cross-platform. PHP runs on Windows NT and many Unix versions, and it can be built as an Apache module and as a binary that can run as a CGI. When built as an Apache module, PHP is especially lightweight and speedy. Without any process creation overhead, it can return results quickly, but it doesn't require the tuning of mod_perl to keep your server's memory image small.

In addition to manipulating the content of your pages, PHP can also send HTTP headers. You can set cookies, manage authentication, and redirect users. It offers excellent connectivity to many databases (and ODBC), and integration with various external libraries that let you do everything from generating PDF documents to parsing XML.

PHP goes right into your Web pages, so there's no need for a special development environment or IDE. You start a block of PHP code with <?php and end it with ?>. (You can also configure PHP to use ASP-style <% %> tags or even <SCRIPT LANGUAGE="php"></SCRIPT>.) The PHP engine processes everything between those tags.

PHP's language syntax is similar to C's and Perl's. You don't have to declare variables before you use them, and it's easy to create arrays and hashes (associative arrays). PHP even has some rudimentary object-oriented features, providing a helpful way to organize and encapsulate your code.

Although PHP runs fastest embedded in Apache, there are instructions on the PHP Web site for seamless setup with Microsoft IIS and Netscape Enterprise Server. If you don't already have a copy of PHP, you can download it at the official Web site. You'll also find a manual that documents all of PHP's functions and features.

Create Your Own Commands

Because PHP scripts sit inside HTML documents, you don't need a special editor to create pages. You do need to be running on a server that supports PHP, however. If you run your own server, this is easy enough to do. If an ISP serves your pages, contact your ISP's support team and ask that they install PHP for you.

For Unix systems, you'll need basic Unix skills, such as using make and a C compiler, an ANSI C compiler on your system, and a Web server.

For Windows 95/NT, you'll need one of the following servers: Microsoft Personal Web Server, Microsoft Internet Information Server 3 or 4, Apache 1.3.x, or Omni HTTPd 2.0b1.

You can find all the information you need to install and configure PHP on the PHP Web site.

David Sklar is the CTO of Student.Net Publishing.

Adam Trachtenberg is the Vice President for Production of Student.Net Publishing.