PHP vs. Node.js: Are We About To See Arch-Rivalry Between Old Buddies?

PHP and JavaScript have been the poster kids of friendship in the virtual scape for decades. JavaScript took care of minor details on browser and PHP handled all server-side tasks in between MySQL and port 80. A happy camaraderie, the union of PHP + JavaScript has always supported multiple crucial aspects of the world wide web. Every thing was hunky dory until Node.js forayed into the scene and probably turned things slightly sour for the “P & J” friendship goals.

Initially released in 2009, Node.js had its stable release in 2021. Its introduction to the virtual scene was a welcome move for the Java connoisseurs as finally they got a tool that could help to run JavaScript on server- something that was the niche specialty of PHP. Put simply, the launch of Node.js emphasized on the fact that one might not need PHP to build next-gen server stacks and Java can handle the job pretty well from now on. It’s like “one” language and you have the solution for every thing. No wonder, “JavaScript everywhere” has become the latest buzz of the programming town these days.

JavaScript has naturally been on an exponential high ever since launch of Node.js. Well, Node.js developers now have a wide berth to choose from an ever-evolving gallery exquisite scaffolding and frameworks- Vue, Express, React, Meteor, Angular and so on. You have quite an expanding list here and you are going to be spoilt for choices.

Is it the current Node.js boom that has kept JavaScript ahead in the game? Well, there are mammoth raw data that can prove that JavaScript seems to be winning. As per a report published by the esteemed GitHub, JavaScript holds the #1 position in the present list of top popular languages. In fact, JavaScript is the pick of a multitude of cool projects currently and the language even holds a solid presence in the hashtag world. Moreover, TypeScript, JavaScript’s cousin, also shows proliferating growth of late. On the other hand, PHP has plunged down to the 4th place from its previous 3rd position.

However, that doesn’t mean the world is suddenly too grim for PHP  of late. A huge share of code base of PHP is not migrating anywhere and still serves up a good bulk of text that we read every day. Around 40% of pages you view starts with PHP. A major reason behind this is continuous evolution of PHP. Recently, guts of PHP-run systems have been rewritten completely; the PHP code you find today isn’t the same as the ones used in the 90’s websites.

PHP’s just-in-time, zippy compiler is able to deliver answers way faster than ever before, courtesy the very same techniques which have powered Node.js. In that light, at present, HHVM and PHP 7.2 offer a good lot of the very same smart on-the-fly optimizations which V8 has introduced to Node.js and Chrome. Besides, HHVM has got the clever PHP dialect Hack which extends complete support for cutting-edge programming features, like generics, lambdas as well as collections.

Now, nobody knows what the future holds. While one part of the coding world is ga-ga over the youth and purity of Node.js as well as the classic simplicity of Java- there are others who hail the long-term stability and deep coding base of PHP. So, would the new kid in the block topple down PHP’s long-established stronghold? Or, is it that our good old PHP will continue to hold strong footing like the yesteryears?

Let’s have a comparison study on the strengths of both PHP and Node.js to have better clarity on the scenario.

Where does PHP score Brownie Points?

1. Code mixing with content

Let’s draw in a hypothetical situation. You are typing content for your site and suddenly you feel like adding some if-then statement (based on certain URL parameter) to leverage the appeal of the content. Or, it could also be that you wish to add in some data or text from a specific database. Now, all these modifications with content is always a breeze with PHP. The language giant enables one to write code in just seconds and that too without the hassle of detailed architectures or extra files.

2. Omnipresent code base

The web world is packed with projects on PHP code. To start with, the popular most website building platforms- Drupal. WordPress, Joomla- all have been written in good old PHP. These platforms are open-source which implies they are open to modifications and upgradations easily. Not just that, a fair share of their very plugins are open-source too. In other words, you will find PHP code just everywhere which you would be able to download or modify as per your specific needs.

3. Simplicity wins the vote

At its core, PHP upholds a simplistic structure and simplicity always has its own appeal in this confusing complex world. With this good old classic, there are only some basic functions and few variables to work on the numbers and strings. You have a fine layer here which simply shifts data from the port 80 right to database and vice-versa. It’s just this only. In other words, PHP comes with the ideal level of complexity you need for task that’s not meant to be overtly complex.

Again, let’s say you are a programmer and need to do something more than just interacting with database and formatting the results. Well, PHP allows that in full glory. Mention must be made of Facebook’s HHVM here which offers support for the Hack language- a powerful language packed with advanced features such as generics, annotation type as well as lambda expressions. The coolest part is, it is extremely fast.

4. No bells and whistles (read client app) required

It’s really cool if you have to use just one language for both server and browser. But, won’t it be far easier if you do not have to use any sort of language at all on browser? Now, what if one has to shop data in the HTML format? Then, what if he is developing a static Spartan site that wants to deliver just the essentials sans the bling and flash? The browser simply pops that up- there is no glitch or headache caused due to misfire of JavaScript threads which attempts to develop page on browser from myriad website service calls.

Pure HTML (without unnecessary bling) works just fine in majority of cases. And the PHP language is equipped to build that for you. So, why bother with having JavaScript on your browser? With PHP, you can build everything right on server as well as bypass jamming your browser on your tiny phone.

5. The SQL edge

PHP has been developed to co-exist happily with MySQL as well as its several variants, such as MariaDB. In case, MySQL is not ideally right, one can opt for other amazing SQL databases housed at Microsoft or Oracle. You can easily switch your code with just a few alterations to the queries. And yes, the SQL world is really broad and big which means you will never run out of options. A great bunch of well-developed and stable codes would interface with SQL database which implies all that mighty power could be infused into PHP projects easily. Besides, the database space is getting even bigger these days as developers are finding avenues to add on more intelligence into database which ultimately would make things more convenient for you.

6. Jet-speed coding

A lot of developers vouch for PHP for its unrivalled coding speed. There is no issue of deployment or compliers or preprocessors or JAR files- it’s really quick to write PHP for the web apps. All you would require here is a share of PHP files and your preferred editor. The mileage might vary but if we are talking about mugging a project fast, PHP is your tool.

7. Commanding the competition

The PHP world has always been extremely focused on maintaining competitive excellence and such ethos are still intact even with the launch of new players like Node.js. The Zend and HHVM teams are putting great efforts to come up with fast code to make things easier for everyone- as per the latest market demands. You will find independent benchmarks emerging of late and everybody is nudging node bases right to limit. And, that only signifies better performance.

8. Basic apps

Ask any developer who has started building web apps about the hassles and s/he is most likely to point out the sloth behaviour of the apps in the first place. The very JavaScript which drives all these moving pieces could be hundreds and thousands bytes, if not more. Now, when all these packets, there is a lot of tasks to do- parsing, compiling and finally execution. Phew! Such an elaborate routine just to deliver a handful of bytes such as forecast and temperature. People are running out of patience man!

This crazy insanity is no doubt a mammoth burden for teams that are building the static website generators (around 463 at present) as well as stripped-down website pages in AMP format.  No wonder, PHP is the first choice for any programming team that focuses mostly on server intelligence to ensure clients don’t get overburdened. 

Where does Node.js score brownie points?

1. Makes separation easier

Mixing of code with website content with PHP might be cool initially, say for 2-3 times. But, once it becomes a frequent affair, you might end up with an extremely complicated code base with messy logic. Pro programmers prefer to keep the logical and cosmetic layer separate and this is where Node.js comes to the rescue. Node.js-based frameworks are far more convenient to comprehend and maintain. 

2. More contemporary features

We have already discussed about the all-encompassing aspect of PHP codes above. But, then, PHP is an old player and hence it’s not uncommon to find decade-old WP plug-ins that no one prefers to download. A basic difficulty of working with PHP of late is that there is a huge library of PHP applications which have not been updated in years.

Now, of course nobody would prefer to waste time on codes that haven’t been updated or modified in years. That might be a fool’s errand to some extent. On the other hand, Node.js plug-ins and platforms are newer in comparison to PHP and you can work with them immediately. In fact, these new plug-ins have been built on modern infrastructure which makes them complementary to changing demands in the modern coding and web world.

You might point out about the little idiosyncrasies of JavaScript which can drive developers crazy at times. But then, end of the day, JavaScript comes as a more of a contemporary language (in most parts) in comparison to PHP. JavaScript boasts a contemporary syntax as well as a bunch of modern functional features such as closures. With Java, extension and reconfiguration is a breeze and this very feature contributes to highly powerful libraries such as jQuery. One would be able to pass the functions around just like objects. You certainly don’t want to limit yourself to PHP’s outdated applications, do you?

3. A full platter of languages

PHP users might be excited to cash in on Hack but Node.js users seem to have an upper hand here. More precisely, Node.js is bustling with a versatile range of prime languages which could be cross-compiled easily to operate in JavaScript. These include major options such as, Lisp, C#, Java, Haskell. OCaml, Scala and so on. Moreover, the Pascal or BASIC lovers who would love a hint of nostalgia, there is an extensive roster of languages which can be compiled to JavaScript right from the famous Jeremy Ashkenas. And yes, we must mention here the popular cousins of JavaScript, CoffeeScript and TypeScript, who also contribute in their own functional ways to the game.

4. Thinner service calls compared to HTML-loaded PHP calls

The AJAX-loaded HTML 5 apps have several moving parts an undoubtedly they are extremely efficient. However, once JavaScript code comes to browser cache, it’s just new data which can meander along wires. You won’t find a huge library of the HTML markup not there could be repeated trips for downloading the whole page. Just the data would have changed.

It’s to stress here, there would a huge payoff if one wants to invest time to build a smooth browser-side website application. Important thing is, Node.js has been optimized to extend the data only via webs services. In other words, if your application is data-rich and complex, you can certainly expect a mighty good delivery.

5. The JSON card

If one needs to work with SQL, well, Node.js has got libraries for that. Additionally, Node.js is also compatible with JSON, the very language for interaction with most of the recent NoSQL databases. Now, yes, nobody is saying that one would not have JSON language libraries for his PHP stack. However, when you use JSON with JavaScript, things are way smoother than with PHP. It’s just one single syntax, be it your browser or serve or database. Besides, the curly brackets and colons too work in similar fashion everywhere. And that makes things more streamlined and hassle-free.

6. Application speed steals the show

It might seem to be tad hard to write JavaScript code when it comes to parentheses and curly brackets. However, once it’s done, the Node.js code will leave you in awe with its powerful application speed. The very callback system is simply marvellous and it would eliminate the hassles of juggling with the threads. Good thing, the core comes extremely well-built and is designed to perform all these for you. What else can we want?

7. United we stand, divided we fall

Two distinct code bases might sound cool for competition but if you look at the larger picture you will realize the division soon leads to fragmentation. Now, what if the code you chose/need runs on just one among the two? Well, competition won’t be really handy when one has to waste months in rewriting of the code. This is where Node.js gets an upper hand.

Yes, Node.js had its own division a while back but things have been unified now with the release of io.js. The unification empowers it with much needed solidarity which PHP developers suffer from.

8. Living it King-Size

Modern smartphones are more feature-rich and more powerful compared to multiple Cray computers. On the other hand, desktops house video cards carrying sets of fans for a cool house, especially during processing. It boils down to this basic question- Why would one have to pump down his code as if he is in some bygone Depression era? There is no need for such bare minimal stance when you can actually live it big. Large slick sites packed with JavaScript code look extremely attractive, dynamic and of course are super fun. You might mention wastage of bandwidth but bandwidth is plain cheap these days. So, it’s time to jazz up in full glory.

Are both winning in any aspect? Probably Yes

Well, it’s not always a tug-of-war between PHP and the new soldier Node.js. Interestingly, despite the myriad differences mention above, there are sectors where both the languages show an upper edge. Have a sneak-peek below to know more on this.

Headless

“Headless” implies to PHP code operating on server. Lately, a pack of major PHP applications such as Drupal have peeped across aisle and been awestruck by the uber cool interfaces featured by sophisticated JavaScript frameworks such as Angular, Vue or React. But, the coolest part is, these PHP applications aren’t competing with the JavaScript counterparts. Rather, they are ceding client control and focusing on delivering a state-of-the-art job with back-end on server.

In case one is tad more invested in the PHP codes operating on server, this would probably be a fantastic way to relish the best both the approaches have to offer. Our good old PHP code works as front door for database, double-checking requests, cleaning the data as well as extending the entire business logic. It’s to stress here, client side refers to a highly progressive website app which has been written with cutting-edge JavaScript framework. If it needs data, it sends AJAX request right to PHP code.

It might not be easily comprehensible for somebody who is beginning from scratch- however, in case one has banked on PHP for long and aspires to march forward gradually, it would make a wise compromise.

Serverless and Microservices

The emerging serverless and Microservices paradigms do extend a peaceful and healthy space for PHP and JavaScript codes to co-exist on server. Both the solutions work to divide the whole task into several small functions and services which are able to run independently- whilst staying firmly on their own path.

Some of the parts, especially the most stable and older parts of app, would be able to run PHP. On the other hand, the newer options would be programmed in Node.js. To conclude, the very language of GET or POST would be the language to unite both of them.

Hexadesigns is a web design company in Kolkata. We design and develop websites, custom software, ecommerce, mobile apps and do search engine optimization. This is our own blog where we provide potential tips for the common people just from our experience.

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