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:
- Tokens are built and defined using a lexer configuration, and an interpreter parses the script.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.