Is PHP losing to Node.js as a backend solution?

PHP is a venerable scripting language that has served as the backbone of the internet for years. Can Node.js be a threat to its reign?
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PHP and Node.js are 2 of the biggest technologies powering the backend of web applications. PHP is the oldest of the 2 and has been a market leader for the last couple of decades. Node.js, on the other hand, is the newcomer but it’s quickly becoming one of the most loved technologies for developers around the world.

Back in the 90s and early 2000s, PHP and JavaScript were envisioned as radically different technologies. The former would handle the “brains”, while the latter would be used to manipulate the DOM and create dynamic and aesthetically pleasing web pages.

But at some point, developers started looking at JavaScript as a general-purpose language. Its syntax and versatility made it a good starting point for new developers, and a great tool for people to quickly develop applications and scripts. That’s how Node.js was born and, suddenly, the language meant to be used for frontend became a one-stop solution for web development. 

What is PHP?

PHP is a recursive acronym for PHP Hypertext Preprocessor. PHP is an open-source server-side scripting language designed specifically for web development. While it was originally intended purely as a server-side scripting language, many developers adopted it as an all-purpose scripting language. 

Let’s put it like this. Imagine that a webpage is like a human being: when we interact with someone and that person talks with us, millions of instructions are being sent from the brain to the mouth. In this analogy, the brain is the server and PHP is the set of instructions that tells the brain what it has to do. 

Facebook, Wikipedia, Slack, and Tumblr are just some of the most well-known web pages that rely on PHP as their main backend solution. Considering their stability and widespread use, it’s easy to see why PHP has withstood the test of time.

It’s not that the language isn’t without detractors. As history goes, PHP began as a tool to make coding in C easier, but it just kept growing and growing until it became its own thing. Yet, writing a tool for personal use is very different from writing a programming language, which is why PHP suffers from inconsistency and bad design choices. 

But, how can it be so popular and have such a bad rep at the same time? Well, PHP does what it set out to do: at the end of the day, PHP was extremely friendly in comparison to other options at the time it was first released. However, it still has many intricacies and it’s difficult to get the most out of it, especially when compared with newer languages.

All in all, PHP still runs 80% of the internet. Frameworks like Laravel are extremely popular, and with each revision, PHP seems to be getting friendlier to use. What’s more – knowing PHP is one of the core skills of a full-time backend developer. 

Why Node.js?

Node.js is an open-source server-side JavaScript runtime environment built on Chrome’s JavaScript Engine(V8). Usually, JavaScript only runs inside your web browser but you can run them independently with Node.js, which opens the door to build JavaScript-only applications.

Node.js was created as an alternative to the client/server model, where the server only reacts in response to the client’s request to then close the connection. Node.js creates a two-way bridge that can establish interactive communication between the server and the client, achieving low latency and high throughput.

Node.js is used for building fast and scalable applications and is an event-driven, non-blocking I/O model. What this all translates to is one of Node.js biggest strengths when compared to PHP: its asynchronous nature. What does that mean?

Imagine a restaurant where once a waiter takes an order they can’t do anything else until they deliver it to the table. That’s not how it works, right? Usually, a waiter handles several tables at once, and they can clean tables, serve drinks, and do other time-consuming tasks while an order is being prepared.

Synchronous solutions like PHP are the kind of restaurant where the waiter can’t do anything until the order is served. Basically, each line of code is run in order, no matter how long it takes to resolve.

Node.js, on the other hand, doesn’t have to wait for a resolution: it can keep going down the script while it waits for a function to return something. So, for example, if the server has to access a database it can do other stuff not related to the data while it waits for the data.

What does it all mean? A huge performance boost, sometimes as huge as a 50% increase in application performance.

Is PHP on its way out?

No, Node.js isn’t killing PHP. It’s undeniable that PHP is old by modern standards, as some of its logic is based on how the web worked 25 years ago, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

For example, PHP’s built-in database support is almost seamless, in great part because SQL database technology has remained relatively stable since the last century. In contrast, Node.js follows a modern trend of being modular and relying on libraries to connect with databases. 

PHP is being actively worked on, and millions of web pages rely on this scripting language to this day. Many of them won’t be changing their backend anytime soon, since the work and effort involved far outstrip the possible gains, at least in the short term. The world still needs and has a lot to gain from PHP.

On the other hand, if there is a technology out there worthy of going against the two-decade-old institution is Node.js. It’s a robust backend solution that is rapidly evolving, one of the many perks of having such a huge community and being based on one of the most popular programming languages on the planet.

To put it simply, Node.js is closer to the demands of the modern industry, as it’s easier to scale, more lightweight, and more friendly in cloud-computing environments. Sans very specific cases, it’s hard not to recommend Node.js to a new business or a new project.

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