There are a huge amount of different programming languages available. In fact, sometimes it can be a real challenge to decide which language is best suited for your company or for a project. This is especially true, given how quickly technology is evolving. One second a language is being used for X and the next it’s being implemented for Y.
This never-ending shift can be quite dizzying, especially for those in charge of making the decisions that will not only affect the end results of a project but those charged with bringing the project to life. Fortunately, development teams already know which languages are better suited for certain types of projects.
Thus, if your project is related to server-side or web app development, there are two languages that you have probably looked at PHP and Node.js. These two languages are both open-source and have become competitors in a very crowded market. So when you’re faced with choosing between two giants, which route do you go?
Let’s see if we can make that choice a bit easier for you.
What is PHP?
PHP scripts are executed on the server-side and the results are then returned to a user’s web browser as plain HTML, images, PDF files, and even audio and video. All PHP files use a .php file extension and can be served up with most all popular web servers (such as Apache and NGINX).
PHP can do the following:
- Generate dynamic page content.
- Create, open, read, write, delete, and close files on the server.
- Collect and act on form data.
- Send and receive cookies.
- Add, delete, modify data in your database.
- Be used to control user-access.
- Encrypt data.
The benefits of using PHP include:
- Cross-platform (can be run on nearly all operating systems).
- Supports a large number of databases.
- It’s free.
- It’s very easy to learn.
What is Node.js?
Node.JS can do the following:
- Generate dynamic page content.
- Create, open, read, write, delete, and close files on a server.
- Collect form data.
- Add, delete, modify data in a database.
Clearly, there is some overlap between Node.js and PHP.
The benefits of using Node.js include:
- Very efficient language.
- Code sharing and reusability.
- Speed and performance.
- Includes the NPM package manager.
- Large number of available (and free) tools.
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous
Of all the reasons why you might use PHP or Node.js, the difference between synchronous vs asynchronous might be the most important. These two concepts differ in something quite simple:
- Synchronous code is executed in sequence, line by line. Only once a line of code successfully executes, will it then proceed to the next line.
- Asynchronous code is executed all at the same time, so a program doesn’t have to wait for the previous line to execute before it runs.
There are two very good analogies to help explain synchronous (often referred to as sync) and asynchronous (often referred to as async) execution:
- sync execution is when you’re in line for a movie ticket and you can’t get your ticket until the person ahead of you gets theirs.
- async execution is when you’re at a restaurant and multiple servers are serving multiple diners simultaneously.
The advantages and disadvantages of these become quite clear now. With sync, every action must first wait until the previous action completes before it can run. In large, complex applications, this can cause a bottleneck (a slowdown) of the process as a whole. In contrast, with async, once the first action is kicked off, all other actions can happen at once until the whole is completed. That can increase the speed (but only if a program is written well)
But the disadvantages lie in the same concept. What happens if there’s a problem with an action? In sync execution, the problem action would stop the whole (possibly avoiding bigger problems), whereas in async if one action has a problem, it might affect the completion of the other tasks.
So, on one hand, you have speed, and on the other hand, you have reliability. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that, because there are many other factors that affect speed and reliability. But which type of execution is applied to our languages at hand?
PHP uses sync execution, whereas Node.js uses async. However, there are some PHP APIs and Libraries (such as ReactPHP) that do behave asynchronously.
Modules vs Packages
Another difference between the two is how they work with other tools.
PHP can work with different components, PEAR, and Composer. PEAR works with reusable components, whereas Composer deals with dependency management. Node.js, on the other hand, includes a single tool, called NPM, which serves as an all-in-one package management system, where you can install any Node.js component you need.
This means for PHP you might have to work with multiple tools to get everything installed to complete a project, whereas with Node.js there is only one tool to use.
Which to use?
Now that you have an understanding of the benefits of each, why would you choose one over the other? Let’s try to make that easy for you.
- Choose PHP when you want a predictable general-purpose programming language for portable web development and will not be scaling applications across multiple servers or software stacks.
PHP and Node.js are very different languages that both serve to create web-based applications. Both have advantages and disadvantages and, in the end, which language you choose will depend on your need for sync or async execution and how far your application will need to scale.