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PHP 8 features that prove it's for more than just web

Looking to keep up with the demand for increasingly sophisticated development capabilities, PHP 8 brings interesting new integrations that transcend the realm of web development.

PHP is a commonly recognized programming language that many developers rely on for web development. Since its initial launch, PHP evolved through version changes and upgrades with additional features designed to streamline the programming process -- such as with the release of PHP 8.

In this article, we'll review some of the basics of PHP and how the language operates. Then, we'll explore some standout PHP 8 features and integrations, as well as the opportunities this version provides developers who are interested in moving beyond web development. Finally, we'll take a quick look at how languages such as WebAssembly are accelerating the need for server-side web languages like PHP to add new levels of sophistication to the development capabilities they offer.

Basics of PHP programming

The launch of PHP in 1995 opened up a new world of possibilities for webpage development and design, all with unprecedented levels of scalability, security and customization. To this day, PHP offers developers a versatile staging environment to perform server-side scripting, command-line scripting and desktop applications builds.

PHP provides the backbone for a wide range of mostly web-centric application functions, such as dynamic content management, remote database integration and user session tracking. Programmers can also use PHP to request elements directly from a server or database, and then easily make that content accessible to web users.

Application builds in PHP typically follow a four-stage execution process:

  1. Tokens are built and defined using a lexer configuration, and an interpreter parses the script.
  2. Using those tokens, the parser function creates a hierarchy known as an abstract syntax tree (AST), which analyzes syntax within source code and creates a structural model for the program.
  3. The compiler translates the AST into code that dictates the compile and execution actions performed by the Zend Virtual Machine (Zend VM), a component found in PHP's unique Zend Engine scripting environment.
  4. The Zend VM processes the opcode and executes the operations within the application.

PHP developers also have the option of using inversion of control techniques to call a specific function from PHP libraries. For example, the Laravel framework employs a model-view-controller design pattern and offers a feature-packed platform for building web applications. Another library example is the Symfony framework, which provides a set of reusable components that can help accelerate modular development. 

The power of scripting languages

Scripting languages automate webpage processes to make them more dynamic and initiate website activity locally on end-user devices. Without scripting languages such as PHP, JavaScript, Ruby and Perl, applications would need to execute processes manually -- and incrementally -- every time a client requests a function. 

Standout PHP 8 features

While PHP 7 offered performance and security enhancements, PHP 8 represents a major release with substantial new features. These features include the just-in-time (JIT) compiler, a named arguments method, static return types, inheritance and OPcache extensions.

The addition of JIT imbues PHP 8 with a particularly alluring advantage over previous versions. JIT compiles a script into machine code before execution to economize performance and memory usage. This improves the capability of PHP in high-compute environments, and expands the possibilities for using PHP beyond just web development, from IoT deployments to machine learning models

For example, using shared memory storage for bytecode means that PHP's four-stage execution process only needs to run once. Meanwhile, that bytecode is immediately available for execution by the Zend VM. The combination of the JIT compiler and the OPcache extension also eliminates the need to load and parse scripts on every request. 

Finally, named arguments represent another PHP 8 feature that looks to add support for higher levels of development complexity. Named arguments is a method that allows arguments to act in an order-independent manner. The arguments are then passed to functions based on their identity, rather than their position within the workflow, enabling a more sophisticated level of asynchronous behavior.

Competition with WebAssembly

WebAssembly (Wasm) functions primarily as a language-based tool for execution in web applications, and offers a textual assembly language and the interfaces necessary to interact with host systems. Since Wasm's code acts as an accessible multi-language target for a compiler, programmers can convert their preferred language to Wasm and run the new code in the browser.

A major feature of Wasm is that it provides developers flexibility with language, framework and tooling choices. Since it ensures that what runs on one browser will function on all browsers, developers can also turn their attention to more demanding tasks, such as API support responsibilities. Furthermore, developers can reuse existing JavaScript sources and libraries, as well as use a variety of other languages to initiate modular development and build independent application components.

Because of these benefits, Wasm is somewhat of a disruptor in the arena of web programming approaches. Server-side languages such as JavaScript and PHP are well entrenched, particularly since they are often a language of choice for burgeoning web developers looking to improve their skills. While that's unlikely to change anytime soon, new versions of PHP will need to make sure they keep pace with the competitive capabilities introduced by languages like Wasm.

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