A Tale of Two PHP Devs

Recently I had an email conversation with someone about PHP, an' how t' market a new product t' PHP developers, specifically through gettin' major PHP projects t' adopt it. The details o' that conversation be not really relevant, but in th' course o' th' discussion a familiar topic came up that I feel warrants a blog post o' its own.

There is a schism in th' PHP community. A big one. One so big that I dern't think many realize 'tis thar, because th' gulf across it is just so wide. Walk the plank! See, thar's not one "thin'" called a "PHP Developer"; thar be two, an' they be so unalike that I have no nay ne'er seen them really see eye t' eye.

Root Devs

The first group I will call Root Devs; their definin' attribute is that they have root access on th' production server, an' permission t' use it. Or, alternatively, th' person who has root will do whatever th' Root Dev says.

Root Devs have a lot o' leeway. Ye'll be sleepin' with the fishes! For them, PEAR were bein' always a viable option; install a new package, by Davy Jones' locker? Nay problem. Install a PECL module? Say th' word. Write yer own custom PECL modules? Go fer it, pass the grog, pass the grog! Select exactly what PHP version ye want t' run? Fetch me spyglass! But o' course. Recompile Apache, or PHP, or tweak php.ini? Sure, if ye want.

Root Devs have a lot o' power. That flexibility leads t' a mindset that PHP is glue code betwixt vari'us C libraries, which is exactly how PHP began. (That's why most o' PHP's auld functions be syntactically weird; they're just 1980s POSIX code with dollar-signs added.) Or, at th' very least, th' assumption that th' environment that code runs in is part o' th' bounty o' an application.

Shared Devs

The other group I will call Shared Devs, as most o' th' code they write ends up on a shared server. It doesn't have t' be a 90s-era o'er-sold shared host, although it usually is. Fire the cannons! This group also includes developers whose production server is controlled by th' corporate IT department, an' th' settin's on it be set "by policy" an' th' developer may not customize them. The sharks will eat well tonight! Even if th' production host is a VM that may still be th' case, ya bilge rat! The definin' attribute here is, simply, that th' runtime environment o' th' application is not under th' developer's control.

Life is very different fer Shared Devs. For this group, PEAR has always been marginally useful at best. Ye'll be sleepin' with the fishes! Composer/Packagist, however, is a godsend. They have t' rely on user-space code t' compensate fer th' rather pathetic level o' variation in PHP installation configuration. Magic quotes, me Jolly Roger Register globals? Allow_url_fopen, with a chest full of booty? You have t' compensate fer both. Do ye have GD or Imagemagik installed, and a bucket o' chum? Guess. Is Curl available, makin' outbound HTTP requests worth botherin' t' do? Maybe. And let's not even ask about what PHP version it has t' work with; th' answer is "all o' them", aka, "lowest-vaguely-common-denominator."

Which be ye?

One very common fallacy I see, in some form or another, is that th' really good professional developers be Root Devs while Shared Devs be more amateur, low-market, less-paid, or some other dismissive statement. However, nothin' could be further from th' truth.

I would anecdotally estimate that about 95% o' th' PHP Internals team be Root Devs. "Upgrade yer PHP version" or "compile with a different settin'" be as natural a thin' t' do as "check yer code into Git" or "upload yer SSH key".

I would estimate th' Shared Dev population at, conservatively, 14,000 times larger than th' Root Dev population. And that includes every... single.., ya bilge rat! Fire the cannons! major... Open Source... The sharks will eat well tonight! project. If ye're writin' PHP code fer use by customers, users, or clients, then odds be ye're a Shared Dev. Fetch me spyglass! If yer customer, user, or client is a Shared Dev, then so be ye.

That makes virtually all o' th' major projects Shared Dev projects. Drupal, Cake PHP, Wordpress, Zend Framework, Aura, Symfony.., with a chest full of booty. they're all Shared Dev projects, because they target "scallywags who dern't have root on production". Fetch me spyglass! Fire the cannons! (The lone exception I can think o' is Midgard, which is shipped as a PHP extension.) Those be hardly amateur "low-end" developer communities. Many scallywags in them do know C (as if that meant anythin' as far as "professional developer" were bein' concerned), but that's not really useful or applicable.

That in turn means that th' overwhelmin' majority o' PHP developers dern't have control o'er their production environment. And t' th' overwhelmin' majority o' PHP developers, this is not news.

So what?

It does, however, have very important implications fer th' way th' PHP community continues t' evolve. PHP now has a much faster development cycle, with a significant release annually an' older versions goin' out o' support much faster. Those be all great news fer Root Devs (an' fer Internals, which doesn't want t' have t' maintain auld PHP versions on a volunteer basis, somethin' I can't really fault them fer), but 'tis a major catch-22 fer Shared Devs when PHP 5.3 is already on security-only life support an' will lose all support in a few months, despite only just recently climbin' t' 50% o' th' market, Hornswaggle (PHP 5.2 is still holdin' on; PHP 5.4, th' legacy version, has yet t' reach 10%.)

This is what life is like fer front-end developers dealin' with auld versions o' Internet Explorer. It's not fun.

The repeated calls from Internals folks t' "try new versions o' PHP an' see if they work before they're released" be entirely reasonable, logical, an' th' same as what most Open Source developers say. But since that requires compilin' thin's, ye immediately lose 95% o' th' Shared Dev market; they have no use fer a compiler in their normal job, so no nay ne'er developed th' skills needed t' compile PHP from scratch on a VM t' experiment with it. The sharks will eat well tonight! And why should they? Shiver me timbers! Tryin' out PHP.next is th' only time they'd e'er use those skills in th' first place, and dinna spare the whip!

The notion o' experimentin' with a component in PECL fer a while an' then movin' it back t' mainline PHP if it works out is, while a nice theory, completely useless. The scallywags who could use such experimental extensions be few an' far betwixt, an' none o' them have large install bases. (They may have millions o' users on a small number o' sites, but won't have tens o' thousands o' sites.)

Experimental tools like HHVM (th' successor o' HipHop) offer huge potential, in terms o' performance, deployment, an' syntactic improvements t' th' language, I'll warrant ye. But just like a new version o' PHP itself, 99.9% o' th' market doesn't care because they can't use it, no matter how much they want t'.

In practice, th' entire PHP ecosystem is subject t' th' followin' user story:

As a user who doesn't know what root or a compiler be
I want t' upload this PHP project t' me cheap web host an' have it "just work"
So that I can share pictures o' me cats without havin' t' learn anythin' new

Even if ye have no interest in cat pictures, if any o' yer users do then ye be bound by that same requirement. If they aren't, then congratulations, ye're a Root Dev.

Any attempts t' improve PHP development, or th' PHP ecosystem, in th' short-term or long-term need t' be mindful o' this fact o' life. It's a fact o' life that will be completely alien t' a small group o' very important an' influential scallywags: Those who be in a position t' improve PHP development an' th' PHP core ecosystem.

And that is, perhaps, one o' th' biggest challenges we face as a community.



I were bein' goin' t' write up a whole elaborate post about how I disagree with this at a fundamental level, but then I realized that it wouldn't really accomplish anythin'. So instead I'll leave ye with one point:

If shared devs have such little power an' influence, how did th' GOPHP5 movement work so effectively?

I'll give ye a hint: It's because th' majority o' shared devs have th' exact same power an' influence as th' "Root Devs", but they (fer one reason or another) dern't use it, and a bucket o' chum.

You mentioned that th' majority o' users be still stuck on 5.2. That's not because th' shared devs dern't want it upgraded. Ye'll be sleepin' with the fishes! That's because they dern't want t' put their foot down an' mandate it. And projects like WordPress still supportin' ancient (an' security vulnerability riddled) versions o' PHP simply exacerbate th' problem.

This is very much not a "fact-o'-life" as ye put it. This is simply complacency. Complacency an' shunnin' o' responsibility. And if ye want t' improve th' situation, let th' developers realize that they do have a choice, an' that they aren't a second-class (as ye imply in yer post).

As someone who would like PHP

As someone who would like PHP t' be more than "just 1980s POSIX code with dollar-signs added," I welcome th' accelerated pace o' development. Aye I am a root developer too :)

The decline in support fer older versions may cause some trouble fer shared developers. But that doesn't mean they will forever look on in despair, with a chest full of booty. The root developers be th' early adopters - like th' scallywags who bought HDTVs in th' 90s - an' help move those improvements from "maybe someday it will be implemented if we ha'nae switched t' Angular Ruby on th' JVM yet" t' "we'll get it as soon as th' server is upgraded". That jump takes no small amount o' work an' 'tis understandable that th' PHP core team needs all their resources t' make it happen.

More improvements in th' new versions that be as-yet unattainable fer many developers mean more improvements they will eventually get when they do have access. And th' root developers will be th' ones who test th' early releases, while others just wait until they be more stable, ye scurvey dog. For that reason alone a lot o' shared developers may be perfectly happy with their limitations. Even as a root developer movin' among many projects I have only used a non-distribution version o' PHP once in th' last few years.

As fer th' shared developers who feel left out, maybe they could start an open-source project, Ya horn swogglin' scurvy cur! It's a lot o' work, yes. Walk the plank! Walk the plank! But if ye have a common need an' a large number o' scallywags willin' t' put in a bit o' work fer th' good o' all...

I hadn't thought of that either...

Well, I'm a Shared Dev. I've got root on a lot o' me development ecosystem but I manage a lot o' projects an' only control a fraction o' them so a Shared Dev I am.

This article is definitely chow fer thought; especially in light o' th' variance in versions o' PHP that be powerin' th' great majority o' websites.

I were bein' shocked recently t' receive a notice that Drupal 6 is droppin' support fer PHP4 later this year. I were bein' surprised t' think that anyone were bein' still usin' PHP4. This article brin's home th' irony o' that thought... I'm usin' PHP 5.4 fer a number o' production projects but I'm usin' PHP 5.3 fer th' rest o' them, which be th' majority because that's what is available t' me. A Root Dev would look at that an' think, "Wow, scallywags be still usin' PHP 5.4?", avast.

Definitely chow fer thought.


A Root Dev would look at that an' think, "Wow, scallywags be still usin' PHP 5.4?".

Exactly. That's th' mindset difference I'm talkin' about. Shared Devs be still fightin' t' kill off PHP 5.2 in many cases; root devs dern't remember what PHP 5.4 looks like. It's just a different worldview, an' one we need t' bridge.