Taking A Fresh Look at PHP

I’ve recently started working on a PHP/Laravel project.

PHP isn’t new to me. Many years ago, I wrote a very simple online catalog and shopping cart, from scratch, for a friend who had his own business as a rare book dealer. He used it with much success for several years. I’d also done a bit of hacking on some Drupal plugins.

Coming back to PHP now, I’m finding myself in a world MUCH different than the one I’d left.

First off, let’s admit that PHP comes with a lot of baggage. For a long time, “real” programmers shunned PHP because it was born as a language cobbled together to do simple web development but not much more. Its ease of use, combined with the fact that it was easy to deploy on commodity web hosting, meant you could find PHP talent for relatively cheap to build your applications. The stereotype was that PHP developers relied on a lot of patchy copy-and-paste solutions to build shoddy and insecure websites.

A LOT has happened since then. Here’s what I’ve encountered so far, diving back into PHP:

Object-orientation: PHP has had objects for a long time, but more recent features like namespaces, traits, and class autoloading have made newer PHP projects very strongly object-oriented. You can even find books on design patterns for PHP.

To me, this is the single most important positive change to the PHP world. The culture has changed from an ad hoc procedural mindset to more sophisticated thinking about coding for large-scale architectures.

Frameworks: Several major MVC frameworks exist, many of them drawing inspiration from Rails.

Performance: As of 5.5, PHP has a built-in opcode cache, making it much more performant. An alternative to core PHP is the HHVM project, backed by Facebook, which is a high-performance PHP implementation. HHVM has had a “rising tide” effect: the forthcoming PHP7 is supposed to be as fast as HHVM. So whatever you use, you can expect good performance at scale.

Tooling: There is sophisticated tooling like composer and a vibrant ecosystem of packages. While you can still deploy PHP applications the old way, using Apache and mod_php, there is a mature FastCGI Process Manager (PHP-FPM) engine that isolates PHP processes from the web server. PHP-FPM allows Apache/nginx/whatever web server to handle static content while a pool of processes handles PHP requests. This results in much more efficient memory usage and better performance.

Success: Many respectable, high-profile products have been built using PHP: WordPress, Drupal, and Facebook, just to name a few.

But all this is just to state a bunch of known facts. To me, the biggest suprise has been in the EXPERIENCE of beginning to write code again in PHP and using Laravel: what does that FEEL like?

In a word, it feels like Java, minus the strong typing. This is an entirely good thing in my opinion, despite criticisms that PHP technologies have become too complex and overdesigned.

The biggest paradigm difference between PHP and other popular web application back-ends is that nothing remains loaded in memory between requests. It’s true that opcode caching means PHP doesn’t have to re-compile PHP source code files to opcodes every time, which speeds things up greatly, but the opcodes still need to be executed for each request, from bootstrapping the application to finishing the HTTP response. In practice, this doesn’t actually matter, but it’s such a significant under-the-hood difference from, say, Django and Rails, that I find myself thinking about it from time to time.

It’s reassuring that when I scour the interwebs researching something PHP-related, I’m finding a lot of informed technical discussions and smart people who have come to PHP from other languages and backgrounds. It bodes well for the strengths and the future of the technology.

comment_notify for Drupal 7

I’ve been doing a little work with Drupal for a personal project. Since I can code and have the time to work with it, I chose to go with the latest and greatest version, instead of the older stable release. Poking around in the innards of Drupal has been an interesting experience, to say the least.

I wish Drupal’s repositories were hosted on github. Sometimes module maintainers can’t keep up with all the patches submitted (I don’t blame them, it’s a ton of work), so fixes are very slow to make it into the source base. github would allow people to fork and send their patches back upstream, instead of having to hunt around on the Drupal bug reporting system.

I’ve been eager to get the comment_notify module working better for Drupal 7. I found fixes for some known issues, and also created, tested, and submitted patches of my own. I decided to make available my own fork of the module on github, for those who want to grab a patched version for their own use:


It’s meant to be a temporary solution until the fixes make it into the official module, but it’s better than nothing!

In and Out

I’ve taken a hiatus from programming work the last few months in order to do some other things, both paying and non-paying. I did some teaching, spent a lot of time at the bicycle co-op, published some articles in a local periodical, and started a few side projects. It has felt very gratifying and healthy.

My erratic life nowadays makes me think back to the starry-eyed aspirations to be a professional programmer that I had, say, ten years ago. I have a much more casual relationship to computers these days. Gone is the anxiety of having to prove, both to myself and to the world (including employers), that I am skilled and capable. I don’t care much anymore for the company of obsessive coders who enjoy religious debates about languages, tools, and best practices. They don’t seem to realize that in their pursuit of mastery and professionalism, technology is actually controlling them, and not the other way around.

Technology has become truly “technical” for me, in the fundamental sense of being a means to an end. I’ve been writing and tweaking Javascript and PHP recently. I don’t like them much, but they are decent tools for the specific tasks I am trying to accomplish. And so it goes. Getting back into code has been a Zen-like experience: when I am doing it, I am fully engaged in all the particularities. But when I’m finished with it, that’s it. Programming, and software more generally, is instrumental. I dive into it; then I come out. And there is nothing more to it than that.

It is silly to fetishize a hammer when you should be focusing on building the house, but that’s exactly what a lot of the culture of coding often feels like on blogs, message forums, mailing lists, conference agendas, etc. How silly and ridiculous. One should, of course, be thoughtful about tools, when and how to best use them, and how they can be improved. I do appreciate and value that. But at the end of the day, code is simply code. There is just so much more to life. Remembering that helps us keep sight of the things that code is for in the first place.

Lessons Learned

After about 5 months, I’ve decided that it’s time to move on to another gig. I’ve learned a few things, and I’m posting them here in the hopes that the lessons might be helpful to other programmers and techies-at-large.

Working in a small business as the sole do-it-all technology person has its unique challenges. It can be very fulfilling to be the sole expert and “enabler,” if that turns you on. But the flip side is that management might not really understand or care that much about their technology. Is there a reasonable budget for what they’re trying to accomplish? Do they understand, at a high level, your projects and how they contribute to the mission? Are technology projects considered a burdensome mystery or something valuable and embraced by the company? Question the reasons why there’s only one tech guy/girl and whether that seems right.

Another thing to assess is whether you can deal with taking over the existing codebase. I’ve taken over other code before with success, retaining what was good and doing clean up as necessary. At this past gig, things looked reasonably tidy at a first glance, but as time progressed, I realized a ton of abstractions weren’t in place, and those that did exist didn’t make sense. Some refactoring might have been interesting to do, but this endeavor wasn’t valued when I proposed it as a project.

Lastly, I think it’s important to be wary of promises about the future. Even with the best of intentions, things change quickly at small businesses. The projects I was initially excited about got perpetually deferred for various reasons, and I found myself preoccupied with doing maintenance code fixes, making cosmetic tweaks, performing server administration, and providing support for third party software (which I really don’t like to do). The company needed these things done, so I did them with as much cheer as I could muster, hoping we’d eventually get to a place where some solid new development could occur (and I could sneak in some refactoring)—that’s what floats my boat. But it became to clear to me that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

So that’s that. It’s a shame it didn’t work out, especially since I actually liked everyone I worked with. At least it’s an amicable departure, and I hope to be involved in hiring a replacement who might be a better fit for their current needs than I am.

The new gig? Java. Been catching up on it, since it’s been a few years. Oh, it feels so nice to have package namespaces, real data types, full-featured APIs, and real object-orientedness again. Like coming home.

A Quick Observation

For some potential upcoming work, I’ve been catching up on the changes made to Java over the last few years, and exploring the popular frameworks and libraries now in use.

Folks on reddit.com harshly criticize the bloat, unnecessary complexity, and huge runtime requirements for Java. They have their points. But I have to say, having worked on perl and PHP lately, where good code organization is the exception and not the norm, looking at Java again is a very welcome change.

The APIs for stuff like Servlets, Faces, EJBs, and Hibernate may be difficult to learn and remember, but at the very least, I find I always know where to look for something, and it’s usually where I expect to find it. In my book, over-abstraction is the lesser evil compared to not enough.