David Sklar, Essential PHP Tools: Modules, Extensions, and Accelerators

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PHP is a popular web development/deployment platform and you can get even more out of the platform by using the extensions and tools available on the web to extend PHP’s capabilities. I talk to David Sklar, author of Essential PHP, about his new book and PHP development.Why do you use PHP?It’s proven itself to be a flexible and capable solution for building lots of web applications. I’m a big fan of the “use the right tool for the job” philosophy. PHP isn’t the right tool for every job, but when you need to build a dynamic web app, it’s hard to beat.Could you tell me what guided your thoughts on the solutions you feature in the book?They’re solutions to problems I’ve needed to solve. Code reuse is a wonderful thing and PEAR makes it easy. It’s a frustrating waste of time to write code that does boring stuff like populate form fields with appropriately escaped user input when you’re redisplaying a form because of an error. HTML_QuickForm does it for you. The Auth module transparently accomodates many different kinds of data stores for authentication information. One project might require a database, another an LDAP server. With PEAR Auth, the only difference between the two would be one or two lines of configuration for Auth.Do you think PHP provides a richer environment for Web publishing than, say, Perl or Python?I don’t know much about Python, so I can’t compare it with PHP. I know a moderate amount about Perl, so I can (moderately) compare it with Perl. (And if those caveats aren’t enough, I’ll also add that “environment” is a loaded term — I suppose it could encompass not just the functions and libraries in a language, but IDEs, debugging and deployment tools, and so on.)The big difference for me, when it comes to web development, between PHP and Perl is that the PHP interpreter assumes that a given program is going to be generating a web page (unless you tell it otherwise), while the Perl interpreter assumes (again, unless you tell it otherwise) that a given program is going to read a bunch of stuff from standard in, mess with it, and print it to standard out.In PHP, you don’t have to do anything special to access form, cookie, and URL variables — they’re in the auto-global arrays $_POST, $_COOKIE, and $_GET. Similarly, HTTP headers are in $_SERVER. The PHP interpreter emits a Content-Type: text/html header unless to tell it to do something else. In Perl, you have to go through some rigamole (admittedly, just a little bit of rigamarole) to do that web-centric set up.(The flip of this, of course, is that if you want to write a program in PHP to munge files, you have to do more work than in Perl.)Perl is a great programming language and you can use it to solve web programming problems quite capably. So is PHP.You seem to be a fan of Web Services, do you see them as simply a useful tool, or a more serious way of providing services over the web?Like many things, promise_of(“Web Services”) > current_usefulness(“Web Services”). A lot of the neat stuff about SOAP – automatically generating WSDL from classes and encoding and decoding complex data types is more difficult in PHP because of PHP’s loosey-goosey type system. Nevertheless, I think SOAP can be great in situations where you need custom data types and you have sharp separations between the folks who implement and maintain the functionality being exposed by SOAP and the folks who use those functions. When you have control over both ends of the conversation, or don’t need to encapsulate such complicated relationships in your data structure, XMLRPC or just a homegrown RESTful interface is fine.Security is vital part of web programming, particularly when working with forms and other data. Any tips?htmlspecialchars(): encode external input with htmlspecialchars() or htmlentities() before printing it to avoid cross-site scripting and cross-site request forgery attacks. Not doing this is probably the most widely committed PHP (and web application development) security error.Similarly, encode external input before putting it into your database. PEAR DB’s placeholders do this for you automatically, which is a great convenience. Each database extension has its own function for doing this, and there’s the generic addslashes() function as well.In the larger security scheme of things, I would also encourage developers to think of security as a process, not as an end state. The place you want to get to is not that your application is “secure,” but that it is “secure enough.” The specific definition of “secure enough” depends on how much time and money you have, what kind of data your application is dealing with, and what the consequences are if something goes wrong.There are, certainly, some security-related practices that are so easy to implement and so catastrophic if you don’t (like escaping external input before printing it or putting it into the database) that you should always do them. But thinking about security means evaluating tradeoffs.You cover a number of different code caching solutions, how much time can you really save using these systems?The benchmarks in the book indicate about a 280% speedup. The specific speedup you get varies with your applications behavior, so I’d advise anyone considering code caches to test them with an actual application you’re going to use. It’s a really easy way to get a performance boost, though, since you don’t have to edit any of your code – just install the code cache, restart your web server, and you’re all done.Do you have a favourite PHP tool?That’s a tough question. My favorite PHP function is strtotime() but I don’t know if that qualifies as a tool. I like the XDebug extension a lot. I do most of my coding in XEmacs but I’ve started to play around with IDEs like the Zend Studio and Komodo, so one of those might become my favorite tool sometime soon.Your preferred platform for PHP deployment?Apache 1.3 running on Linux. It’s stable, flexible, and you can’t beat the price tag.Any thoughts on PHP5 you’d like to share with our readers?If you’ve never used PHP before, now is the time to start! With PHP5, you get all of the great things about PHP 4 — comprehensive function library, incredibly easy deployment of web applications, connectivity to lots of different database programs. Plus, you get all of the goodies that the new version brings: robust Object Oriented programming support, revamped XML processing that makes it a snap to parse simple XML documents and gives you the full DOM API when you need to do XML heavy lifting, and bells and whistles like exceptions, iterators, and interfaces.What advice would you give to anybody considering PHP as their development platform?Make a personal or hobby project your first PHP application, something like keeping track of your books or CDs, a personal URL bookmark database, or league statistics for your kids’ soccer games. Your first app isn’t going to be perfect. It will have security problems, it won’t be as fast as it could be, the database schema won’t be optimized and so on. But that’s fine. Just get a feel for what PHP can do. Make your second project the one that matters for your job or whomever else is counting on you.What made you start up PX?It was definitely a case of scratching one’s own itch. When I started it, there weren’t a lot of places to look for code that someone else had written in PHP to solve a certain problem. The site gets very steady usage — it’s nice to see folks continuing to turn to it for solutions.It’s nice to see another IT-savvy cook, do you have a particular culinary speciality?I’m flattered that you called me an “IT-savvy cook” instead of a “cooking-savvy programmer”! I recently got a slow cooker, so I’ve been trying lots of new things in that. I also like baking and making desserts: even if something goes wrong so that the results are not cosmetically perfect
, they still taste good.David Sklar BioDavid Sklar is an independent consultant specializing in technical training, software development, and strategic planning. He is the author of Learning PHP 5 (O’Reilly), Essential PHP Tools (Apress), and PHP Cookbook (O’Reilly).After discovering PHP as a solution to his web programming needs in 1996, he created the PX (http://px.sklar.com), which enables PHP users to exchange programs. Since then, he has continued to rely on PHP for personal and professional projects.David is an instructor at the New School University and has spoken at many conferences, including the O’Reilly Open Source Conference, the EGovOS Open Source/Open Standards Conference, and the International PHP Conference.When away from the computer, David eats mini-donuts, plays records, and likes to cook. He lives in New York City and has a degree in Computer Science from Yale University.