Is PHP still relevant in 2023?

When Rasmus Lerdorf first introduced Personal Home Page Tools, or PHP as we know it, to the world in 1995, few could have predicted its meteoric rise to dominance. Flash forward to its peak in the 2010s, PHP powered over 80% of the world's websites, including giants like Facebook and Wikipedia.

Yet, the echoing chatter of the digital community in the past decade has increasingly questioned PHP's relevance. Should you learn PHP and become a PHP developer? Is it worth the time?

New languages, paradigms, and technologies, from Rust's promise of memory safety to Node.js’s event-driven non-blocking I/O, have reshaped the contours of the software development landscape.

Now, in 2023, as we stand on the cusp of another era of digital evolution, it's worth revisiting this age-old debate. Has the sun finally set on PHP and PHP developers, or does this resilient scripting language still have some tricks up its sleeve?

PHP in Numbers: Current Statistics

When we talk about programming languages, numbers often tell a compelling story. But to truly appreciate the ongoing saga of modern PHP code and programming language, we need to not only understand the cold hard statistics but also what they signify.

Popular web frameworks on PHP

Usage statistics: How many websites are still powered by PHP in 2023?

According to the latest metrics from W3Techs, PHP, as of 2023, powers 77.3% of websites where the server-side programming language can be discerned. Now, this isn't merely a statistic — it's an affirmation. It speaks to PHP's longevity and adaptability, enduring where many other technologies have faded into obscurity.

Yet, numbers in isolation can be misleading, especially when you're looking to learn PHP.

A significant portion of PHP's presence can be attributed to CMS platforms like WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal. With WordPress alone powering over 43% of the web, popular websites, and a plethora of small blogs, it's evident that PHP's legacy as a programming language is intertwined with the success of these platforms. This symbiotic relationship underscores the importance of having a strong ecosystem for the interpreted language — where the success of one enhances the other whilst fostering a large and active community.

Contribution and community activity: Diving deeper than mere numbers

While statistics from platforms like GitHub show over 500 contributors to PHP's core in the past year, what’s truly remarkable is the nature of these contributions. They aren’t merely bug fixes or minor patches — many are visionary enhancements, propelling PHP into the modern age of web development for PHP developers.

The PHP RFC (Request For Comments) process gives us a window into this evolving vision. JIT compilation has the potential to dramatically boost PHP's performance, making it competitive with traditionally faster programming languages.

PHP's lasting power isn't just about its features, but its dedicated community. A language's strength comes from its active supporters. The lively discussions, many open-source projects, and ongoing innovation keep PHP not just in the game, but often leading it.

What Keeps PHP Alive?

The Legacy Effect

Large-scale enterprises like Facebook, Slack, and Wikipedia had their foundations deeply rooted in PHP. Even if they've since diversified their tech stacks, PHP remains an integral part of their infrastructures. Think of PHP as the keystone in a massive structure to solve problems: even if newer materials and designs emerge, the foundational stone remains critical to the building's stability.

Facebook's HHVM (HipHop Virtual Machine), a JIT compiler originally designed for PHP, represents this idea. While Facebook has now shifted its primary focus from PHP code to Hack for HHVM, this venture underscores how integral PHP was to their growth and how enterprises can spur innovations around a language.

CMS Dominance

It’s challenging to discuss PHP without acknowledging its indomitable association with dominant Content Management Systems. WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal - they are to PHP what the Big Three automakers are to Detroit. Integral, iconic, and foundational.

Given that WordPress alone claims over 65.1% of the global CMS web market, and Joomla and Drupal hold significant portions themselves. These CMS systems act as PHP's advocacy champions, ensuring that the language remains not just in use, but dominant. And it’s not just about numbers; these platforms are communities in their own right, fostering plugin development, themes, and innovative applications that breathe fresh life into PHP.

Continuous Evolution

To merely dub PHP as an "old" language would be doing it a disservice. With the release of PHP 8 and its subsequent iterations, the language has proven its commitment to staying abreast with contemporary demands. The introduction of the JIT compiler is a testament to PHP's dedication to performance, potentially rivalling traditionally "faster" languages.

Furthermore, features such as union types, named arguments, and attributes in PHP 8 show a clear alignment with modern programming paradigms, offering developers a more concise and expressive syntax.

Modern Challenges Facing PHP

PHP holds a strong place in web development, but it faces new challenges. With rising performance expectations and changes in technology and developer tastes, the road ahead is tough. Let's explore these current challenges and what they mean for PHP's future.

Performance Concerns

Today, speed is essential. Languages like Go and Rust set high-performance standards, with Go excelling in handling multiple tasks and Rust being highly efficient in memory use.

PHP 8 has improved speed, but when it comes to tasks like data processing, Go and Rust can be faster. However, PHP is still great for web-related tasks, especially when combined with modern servers and caching. This makes it easier for PHP developers to get their work done.

Emerging Technologies

Technology is always changing, with trends like Serverless, Containerization (like Docker), and Microservices becoming more common. It's important to see where PHP fits in this.

Serverless technology, which adjusts automatically based on web requests, sees languages like JavaScript leading the way. PHP is still trying to adapt to this trend, although platforms like Bref are helping.

PHP works well with Containers and Microservices. Using Docker, PHP apps can be easily packaged, and PHP microservices fit well into larger systems. However, some newer languages designed for these trends might be more efficient in the future.

Developer Mindshare

Web developers are often drawn to the latest technologies. As educational programs emphasize new trends, interest in PHP has slowly decreased. Sites like Stack Overflow show more questions about languages like Python, Rust, and Go, suggesting developers are moving to newer tools.

However, it's important to separate trends from real-world needs. While languages like Python are popular, the large PHP ecosystem, with many CMS platforms and big systems, means PHP skills are still in high demand in jobs.

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PHP in 2023 for the Web Development Landscape

As the web continues to evolve, the narrative of PHP's relevance takes intriguing turns. Not just a language, PHP’s ecosystem, supported by robust frameworks and innovative patterns, is painting a vivid picture in the web development canvas. But how does this fit into the current web landscape?

Frameworks: The Vanguard of PHP's Evolution

There's no denying that PHP's continued relevance owes a lot to its powerful frameworks. They epitomize the language's adaptability and drive its narrative forward in an ever-evolving tech domain.

Take Laravel, for instance. Laravel's expressive syntax, combined with features like an ORM (Eloquent), a powerful queue system, and built-in security measures, makes it a darling among developers. The recent adoption of the Swoole and RoadRunner engines, allowing for high-performance asynchronous task handling, is a testament to its commitment to evolution.

Symfony, another behemoth in the PHP framework ecosystem, continues to be the backbone for platforms like Drupal. Its modular component system and the Symfony Flex approach ensure that developers have the freedom to build both micro and monolithic applications seamlessly.

These frameworks aren't just responding to the times - they're often setting the pace, pushing PHP into realms previously uncharted and ensuring it isn't left behind.

Headless CMS & API-Driven Development

The decoupled, or "headless", approach to content management has been gaining traction. Here, the content management back-end is decoupled from the front-end, allowing for more flexible content delivery via APIs. PHP, with its deep roots in the CMS world, has had an interesting journey in this space.

Platforms like Drupal have embraced the headless approach, providing robust API layers that can seamlessly integrate with modern frontend technologies like React or Vue.js. Similarly, WordPress, through its REST API, offers a headless experience, proving that the old dog indeed has some new tricks.

These strides in API-driven development not only underline PHP’s adaptability but also bolster its position in a web that's becoming more decoupled and modular by the day.

The JavaScript Ecosystem

JJavaScript, especially through Node.js, has grown rapidly. Frameworks like Next.js provide comprehensive solutions for various web tasks. So, where does PHP stand in this JS-led environment? It's more about collaboration than rivalry. Tools like headless WordPress and Drupal let developers combine PHP's content management with modern JS frontends. With PHP, we also get mixed solutions like Laravel Livewire, blending server-side strength with client-side responsiveness. Despite JavaScript's widespread use, especially upfront, PHP has adapted to work well with it.

Advantages That Still Make PHP Relevant

In a time of fast-changing tech, it's impressive that PHP, almost 30 years old, remains popular. Despite emerging languages and tools, PHP has unique strengths that keep it central in web development.

Ease of Deployment: Simplicity in a Complicated World

In a time where deployment pipelines can sometimes be overwhelmingly complex, PHP looks back to simpler times. No need for convoluted container orchestration or intricate CI/CD setups. Often, it's as straightforward as uploading your files to a server and, voilà, your site is live!

<?php
 echo "Hello, World!";
 ?>

Drop the above in an index.php file, upload, and your message greets the world. This simplicity, often taken for granted, can be a breath of fresh air, especially for those looking to bring their ideas online without diving deep into the intricacies of modern deployment strategies.

Strong Standard Library: PHP's Swiss Army Knife

Over the years, PHP has amassed an impressive standard library, replete with functions and extensions covering a vast array of functionalities. From manipulating arrays and strings to handling dates, images, and even communicating with databases, PHP’s built-in toolset is both comprehensive and robust.

The convenience of having such a versatile toolkit readily available means developers can be productive right off the bat, without the constant need for third-party libraries or tools.

The Learning Curve: The Gentle Ascent of PHP

Despite its age and sometimes maligned quirks, PHP continues to be an excellent entry point for budding developers. Its syntax is forgiving, its errors (mostly) comprehensible, and the instant feedback loop of writing code and seeing immediate results is invaluable to those taking their first steps in programming.

Resources like PHP: The Right Way and the expansive official documentation further smoothen this learning journey, offering guidance and best practices. In an age where tech stacks can be intimidatingly vast, PHP's gentle learning curve remains a compelling reason for its continued relevance.

So...is PHP still relevant?

The tech world is always changing, with some tools rising and others fading. Amid these changes, PHP has been a constant, much like an old tree among new sprouts. It's a nod to web development's past while still being part of its future. But where does PHP stand today?

Calling PHP outdated is an oversimplification.

Sure, PHP has challenges, especially when compared to newer languages and technologies. However, its widespread use in hosting, easy deployment, rich features, and beginner-friendly approach balances out these challenges. These are not just past achievements but current strengths that many rely on.

PHP's transformation from a basic online tool to a powerful language that supports large platforms shows its adaptability. With ongoing updates, like PHP 8, it's evident that PHP isn't slowing down.

Technology isn't just about being new; it's about solving problems. PHP might not be the latest, like Python, but as long as it addresses needs, it has a secure spot in web development and PHP community. Many projects were built in PHP long ago, this is something that cannot be easily changed, and frankly, sometimes staying with PHP is the best solution. Accesto thrives on such cases, and that already speaks volumes about the state of PHP.

While we should welcome new tech innovations, we shouldn't forget the lasting impact and adaptability of PHP. Its long history is a testament to its flexibility, community support, and constant relevance in an ever-evolving industry.

One thing I can say for sure — if your app is written in PHP — there is no reason to be afraid for the future of its technical development. And there is a plethora of good reasons someone can decide to build a new project on PHP. If you are looking for someone to refactor, maintain or create your project with — don’t hesitate and contact us, you’ll hardly find someone more experienced in the matter.

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