With a faltering economy forcing companies to cut spending whenever possible, less expensive and freely available Open Source software solutions may be gaining in popularity. Those wanting proof can look no further to PHP taking the top server-side scripting spot in a recent Internet host survey.
In April 2002, Netcraft's monthly Web server survey revealed that 24 percent, or around 9 million of the 37 million sites it surveyed, were using Hypertext Preprocessor (PHP) for a server side scripting language. For the first time, an Open Source scripting solution had passed Microsoft's proprietary Active Server Pages scripting to claim the top spot on the Netcraft survey.
For both the April and May Netcraft surveys, PHP and ASP were almost too close to call, with Microsoft's product offering coming in just a hair under 24 percent of all hosts running a server-side scripting language. With PHP having a fairly consistent growth rate of 6.5% per month since the summer of 2000, many Web professionals expect the gap to grow wider -- to Microsoft's detriment -- in the coming months.
"There was a resistance [to Open Source products] a couple years ago; that isn't the case now," says Tom Weirick, a Web designer based in San Jose, Calif. "In 2000 we had clients who wouldn't believe that something free could work as well, they would look at Microsoft charging a couple hundred or thousand for something doing the same thing and in their minds the Open Source stuff was inferior ... because it wasn't expensive."
"The message back then was 'spare no cost, just get us online' and now it's 'get us online, and save us money while you're at it.' So that's a chance for me to bring Open Source into the conversation and in the process give the client a good deal."
Jeremy Conn believes that the technical merits of Open Source software like PHP are far superior to any bottom-line appeal: "It wouldn't matter one bit if it didn't do the job it was designed to do," said Conn, who's worked on projects for companies including long-distance carrier AT&T, toothbrush maker Oral B, and Zap.com, a fisheries' failed attempt to become a Web portal.
Both Conn and Weirick said they present most new customers with a technology package called LAMP: Linux for an operating system, Apache for serving Web pages, MySQL for a database, and PHP for server-side scripting.
PHP, an Apache Software Foundation project, has been around since 1995, first taking form under the name Personal Home Page Forms Interpreter (PHP/FI) a series of public domain Perl scripts cobbled together to help its creator Rasmus Lerdof track hits to his online resume. Public feedback led to additional features being added, eventually resulting in the public release of a larger and more full-featured C implementation.
Around 1997, PHP/FI received a makeover including a new recursive moniker, Hypertext Preprocessor (PHP). One of the most significant additions made to this version of PHP was allowing programmers to write extension modules customizing PHP for their own needs.
The current major version of PHP is called PHP 4, with the first 4 version released in May 2000 (version 4.2.1 was announced last month). Considered by many to be the first version of PHP ready for enterprise deployment, PHP 4 features support for a wide variety of cross-platform Web servers, the ability to track user sessions, and a basic scripting driver, the Zend Engine.
"That appearance of a level playing field has a huge appeal for companies," said Weirick. "The dry cleaner down the street or the kid in the family computing room has access to the same tools that multinationals have, and not only that, they can have a say in how future versions are developed. That makes a huge difference from Microsoft, who says it's their way or the highway."
"It's fun to bash Microsoft," adds Conn, "but the bottom line, I think, is that PHP is popular because it does what I need, what other people need it to do. As long as it stays fresh and relevant to what everyone is doing on the 'Net, then it will probably stay number one."