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Interview with Rasmus Lerdorf

by Lori Houston
02/01/2000

PHP is a free scripting language running on over 700,000 Web sites, and PHP's rapid ascent is reflected in its steadfast presence at the top of oreilly.com's search logs over the past year. An open-source, cross-platform alternative to Microsoft's Active Server Pages (ASP) technology, PHP scripts are embedded within a Web page along with HTML.

Who better to talk to about PHP than its creator, Rasmus Lerdorf? oreilly.com recently checked in with Lerdorf for the latest word on PHP.

Houston:

How exactly do you describe PHP?

Lerdorf:

It is a server-side HTML-embedded scripting language. It competes with Microsoft's ASP, and Allaire's ColdFusion, but PHP is completely free and backed by a large open-source community.

Houston:

How is it being used currently?

Lerdorf:

It is being used to create dynamic Web pages. One very popular use is with the Apache Web server as an Apache module and also with various databases. PHP lets you build Web front-ends to data stored in database back-ends without needing to learn a lot of complex programming. [Editor's note: PHP came in as the top choice on E-Soft's February Apache Module Report survey.

Houston:

What's the story behind PHP's creation?

Lerdorf:

Back in 1995 I created a number of simple scripts to spruce up my personal Web page a bit. I packaged these tools into a package I called the Personal Home Page Tools. They were based on a simple cgi wrapper that did custom-logging and some simple macro replacements in the pages it served up.

I was then hired by the University of Toronto to help build a dialup system for the school. They needed a system that would be completely Web-managed and tie together a student database, Cisco terminal servers, and a number of other components. I looked around for a good tool to help me do this and was unable to find one I liked. Instead, I went ahead and rewrote my PHP Tools package to be a much more general-purpose parsing language with a set of extensions to make it communicate with a database and other external resources.

And from there is has grown significantly. Another complete rewrite lead to PHP version 3.0, which was based around a parser rewrite by Zeev Suraski and Andi Gutmans. We are undergoing a complete rewrite for PHP version 4.0, and we see no signs of slowdown in the growth of PHP.

Houston:

Exactly which version of PHP does this pocket reference cover?

Lerdorf:

The new features added up to version 3.0.13 are covered in the PHP Pocket Reference. The chapter I wrote on PHP in O'Reilly's Webmaster in a Nutshell covered up to version 3.0.8. A complete list of changes can be seen at http://www.php.net/.

Houston:

What new things will PHP 4 address?

Lerdorf:

PHP 4 includes a complete rewrite of the underlying scripting engine based on the Zend engine from Zend Technologies. It also includes major enhancements to most of the extensions. PHP 4 will be completely threadsafe and will include support for embedding PHP into more Web servers. A full list of changes will be available when PHP 4 is released later this year. Beta versions are currently available. I'm also working on a book that will cover PHP 4.

Houston:

A recent E-Soft survey indicates that PHP is now the most popular Apache module. Why is PHP generating so much interest?

Lerdorf:

I think it is mostly because the barrier of entry to PHP development is low. It doesn't take a lot of prior experience to create interesting dynamic Web pages with PHP. It is also free and bundled with all the popular free Unix distributions, so a lot of people have access to it. People tend to try what they have at hand before looking for alternatives. PHP's success is that once people try it they tend to keep using it. Because it works.

Another really important factor to PHP's success has been the dynamic community that has been built up behind the language. There are support Web sites, mailing lists, and user groups around the world, working to help each other with problems common to Web development. People like being part of a community, and given the open-source nature of PHP, this community is driven by personal pride and motivation, not financial benefit. This gives it a friendly and supportive feel that people like.




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