What is PHP, and why should you care? If you’re in the Web development business, PHP may soon become an integral part of your tool kit.

PHP’s place in Web programming history
PHP is a programming language born for the Web. Its competitors include Microsoft Active Server Pages (ASP), Allaire’s Cold Fusion, and the ubiquitous PERL (Practical Extraction and Reporting Language). While all of these other Web scripting languages claim to be the language of choice, only PHP was made specifically for the task of programming for the Web.

Microsoft’s ASP, to put it bluntly, is the stepchild of VisualBasic Script, which is the stepchild of VisualBasic, which is the stepchild of BASIC (Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), a tool for initiating would-be programmers. ASP is supported on Windows NT with the Internet Information Server (IIS) from Microsoft. (There are places where you can find UNIX versions of ASP, although you’ll be challenged to find anyone who is using them.)

Allaire’s Cold Fusion was born for a life on the Web. With its tag-oriented grammar, it was created to help HTML jockeys create dynamic Web pages. Unfortunately, seasoned programmers find its grammar cumbersome and its usefulness limited. It’s a good choice for layout junkies, but serious developers will stray from this choice.

PERL is definitely a mainstay of the Web world. Everyone knows what it is, how it works, and has used at least one PERL script for a CGI program. Most PERL scripts are simply CGIs, however, and that doesn’t cut it for high-performance Web sites.

What’s different about PHP
So, what does PHP have that these other programming languages lack? Let’s start with the notion of programming specifically for a wired world. PHP provides the developer with a high-performance Apache module (and ISAPI with the forthcoming PHP 4.0). The in-process engine gives Web programmers a tool that has every feature they need. Full native support for popular databases such as Oracle and Informix means fast access. And ODBC support means access to all data sources. In addition, PHP 4.0 offers support for COM on Windows and native Java classes on all platforms. This wide range of compatibility places PHP firmly in the multi-tier application server arena.

More important, PHP provides developers with a solid open-source tool that allows them to create any Web application they can dream up. C programmers will appreciate the dynamic API, allowing them to add their own custom modules written in C (or PHP).

You will have to look hard to find a better support system than that offered by PHP. When you surf over to PHP.net , you’ll find a list of knowledgeable developers who answer questions. If you are stumped by a feature in PHP, expect an answer in minutes. If you discover a bug in PHP, expect a fix within just a few days. None of the other tools offers anything close to this kind of support.

Web server support
According to the latest Netcraft surveys, Apache is still the top Web server in use. And according to E-Soft Inc., PHP is the top Apache module. So, it may not come as a huge surprise that NASA’s Mars Polar Lander site and the Lycos MP3 site utilize PHP.

PHP is making its way onto Web servers the same way that Linux made it into corporate offices. Most people start by simply installing PHP and tinkering with it. Then they find out how useful it is and what it can do, and before they know it, they’re running essential systems with it.

Be a beta tester
Interested in trying out PHP? Go to the PHP site or Zend.com and download the latest PHP 4.0 beta. If you’d like to share your experiences using PHP, please post a comment below.

Books on PHP available from fatbrain.com

Core PHP Programming by Leon Atkinson

Professional PHP Programming by Castagnetto et al.

PHP3: Programming Browser-Based Applications by Dave Medinets