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Why PHP Is Getting a Foundation and Why That Matters

The PHP Foundation is an effort by 10 key PHP-dependent vendors to assure adequate funding to keep the popular scripting language viable.

PHP developer Nikita Popov
PHP developer Nikita Popov, circa 2018. SOURCE: JetBrains

This week, the world learned of a new foundation centered on an open source project: The PHP Foundation.

While open source foundations are now about as common as open source software titles, this seems to be a long overdue move, needed to assure that the scripting language has a secure future.

The itch to be scratched that caused this move is familiar: a project with too few developers is losing a key dev who’s leaving to work on another project.

Developer Issues

Like many open source projects, PHP development has depended primarily on volunteer developers, a few of whom have over time become central to the project, sometimes individually specializing on particular components, which has in several areas led to a single person being the only one who really understands how a component works.

When one of these developers, Nikita Popov, recently decided to dedicate much less time to PHP in order to work on the compiler and infrastructure project LLVM, an “uh-oh” moment was prompted.

“Maybe as few as two people would have to wake up this morning and decide they want to do something different with their lives in order for the PHP project to lack the expertise and resources to move it forward in its current form, and at current pace,” PHP contributor Joe Watkins wrote in a post on his blog called Avoiding Busses in May.

“Everybody who follows the development of PHP knows who these two people are,” he added. “They are Dmitry Stogov and Nikita Popov.”

According to Watkins, in the wake of the loss of Popov as a major contributor, if the project were to now lose Stogov it could spell serious trouble for PHP. He said that Stogov, a long-time contributor, has by far the deepest understanding of JIT, which allows PHP to compile code directly into machine code without need of an interpretation layer — essential to maintain performance under CPU-intensive loads.

Second in importance to Stogov, he added, would be Popov.

“In May 2021, right after Joe Watkins published his Avoiding Busses blog post, we started discussing the idea of a PHP Foundation,” Roman Pronskiy, product marketing manager of PhpStorm at JetBrains, said Sunday in a blog introducing the new foundation on JetBrains’ website. “It’s not something new and has been floating around for a long time. We talked to Joe and several other members of the PHP community, including Sebastian Bergmann and Stefan Priebsch, who had already attempted to start a similar foundation in 2019.”

Both Pronskiy, who introduced the foundation, and the leaving Popov are coworkers at Czech-based JetBrains, which develops and markets integrated development environments for a host of programming languages including PHP, and also supplies a number of developers to the PHP project.

Abbreviated PHP

The major use of PHP is as a delivery platform.

Odds are that you encounter PHP every time you go online, even if you only visit a single site, as it’s estimated that PHP powers something like 78% of the web. Almost all content management systems are driven by PHP, including the ‘world’s largest,’ WordPress, which powers this site — meaning anyone reading these words is reading from a page generated dynamically by PHP.

To oversimplify, PHP makes it possible for a website to store all of the different components of a website in different places, and then put them all together on the spot when a visitor visits a page. This includes pulling content from from outside sources, such as ads from Google or news headlines from a news feed. This enables a website to not only offer its visitors a richer experience, it makes life much easier for operators.

Another big plus for PHP is that, unlike web technologies such as JavaScript, it does its heavy lifting on the server, without putting any demands on the online user’s computer.

On the minus side, there has been some contention around PHP’s self-named license. Although approved by the Open Source Initiative, it’s not compatible with the GPL, and because of restrictions imposed by the license, almost all other open source licenses are closed to it.

While acknowledging that PHP is an open source licence, it has issues with the license and as policy prescribes, “The PHP license must only be used for PHP and PHP add-ons.”

On an official position page it’s called, “a copyright license that attempts to go beyond the rights afforded by copyright law — it attempts to control the use of the term PHP.”

“Debian packages include PHP and PHP add-ons but we don’t attempt to, nor can we, resolve the impossible quandary that the language of the PHP 3.01 license creates,” it adds.

The PHP Foundation

The PHP Foundation starts life as a non-profit organization with ten corporate founding members and a mission “to ensure the long life and prosperity of the PHP language,” according to Pronskiy.

Like Jetbrains, the nine other founding companies all have skin in PHP space, either because they develop and sell software that utilizes or is dependent on PHP, or because they build tools for people who develop PHP-based products.

It’s no surprise that Automattic, the company behind WordPress is on board; as is Perforce’s Zend, a name almost synonymous with PHP because of the Zend Engine, PHP’s default compiler and runtime environment, which Zend created, develops, and maintains.

Also on board are PrestaShop, marketer of a popular PHP-based e-commerce solution; Acquia, which markets the PHP-based CMS software, Drupal, as Software as a Service; Private Packagist, a commercial package hosting product whose open source static repository generator is built-on PHP; Symfony, which markets a PHP framework and reusable PHP components; Craft CMS, a blank-slate content management system; Tideways, PHP performance tools; and Laravel, marketer of an open source PHP framework.

Funding seems to be a done deal for the new foundation. In his blog, Pronskiy said that JetBrains plans to contribute $100,000 yearly to the new foundation.

“With the projected donations from all the participating companies so far, we expect to raise about $300,000 per year,” he said. “We expect to be able to pay market salaries to PHP core developers. The more we collect, the more developers will be able to work full-time on PHP.”

In order to get the foundation up and running quickly the organization is utilizing Open Collective, a foundation-as-a-service provider that includes legal and accounting services. A temporary administration that includes sponsor representatives and individual PHP members (including Stogov, Popov, and Watkins) will establish the foundation’s rules and bylaws.

“Funds collected by the foundation may be used to engage the services of PHP contributors in order to further advance the development of the language,” Pronskiy said. “The primary task of the foundation will be to fund developers to work on PHP.”

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