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Is the web's love affair with PHP over?

LAMP going limp

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If Evans Data Corp (EDC) is to believed, then some big names in enterprise systems have been rash in their support for open source scripting language PHP.

This last eight months saw Intel, SAP, Oracle and IBM all support PHP, with investments or product backing through partnerships with PHP king Zend Technologies.

However, EDC's survey has found PHP, along with scripting cousins Perl and Python, is seeing drastically reduced adoption among developers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA). Use of PHP has dropped by a quarter in EMEA during the last 12 months to just under 28 per cent while 40 per cent of developers said they have no plans to evaluate or use PHP.

The EMEA numbers are a microcosm of a global trend, according to EDC. Adoption of PHP is slowing in North America and slamming to a stop in Asia Pacific.

EDC believes PHP's recent glorious past is over, as customers spend money on "more important" technologies to build mission critical systems and vendors like Microsoft and Sun Microsystems make more of a concerted marketing push around alternatives such as ASP.NET and JavaServer Pages (JSP).

EDC chief operating officer John Andrew told The Register: "There are some alternatives that are better promoted and packaged, and people are turning to those."

Zend disputes EDC's figures with its own pro-PHP figures and dismisses the view that Intel, SAP, Oracle and IBM placed bets on what is turning into an ephemeral developer strategy. Zend claims the number of monthly downloads of its Zend integrated development environment (IDE) today number 20,000, up from 5,000 in September 2004, with an accompanying 150% growth in the privately held company's revenue. Furthermore, Zend is opening offices worldwide.

As for stats, Zend points to Netcraft who claims 22m internet domains use PHP, making it the internet's most popular scripting language.

"Microsoft is interested in PHP - the next version of IIS is going to support PHP. If there was no interest, or we were seeing a decline of interest in PHP, why would they get their product to support PHP?" asked Zend vice president of marketing Michel Gerin.

Furthermore, while EDC maintains PHP is not seeing "serious" deployment, Zend claims changes to the language like the addition of Object Orientation (OO) in PHP 5.0 mean the language is going beyond pure web site development and into the enterprise as an alternative to Java and C++.

There-in, though, could lay a problem. If Java developers are indeed picking-up PHP because - like almost anything else it seems - it is simpler to use than Java, then it will hit the marketing wall of Sun, BEA Systems, Borland, IBM and Oracle who either deliver serious Java development tools or application servers. On C++, PHP must largely contend with Microsoft's Goliath-like Visual Studio.

Idle curiosity could have accounted for the PHP spike EDC identified two years ago as large numbers of developers planned to evaluate or adopt PHP. When it came to using PHP, though, that's where developers probably turned to their familiar tools.

While adoption may be slowing, PHP is not going away. With an estimated 2.5m PHP developers and web sites going up on a daily basis that have been built using PHP, the language is firmly ensconced in computing's landscape. The only question seems to be: how deep can PHP go in business computing?

The decision by IBM and Oracle to provide native support for PHP in their databases proves they have recognized PHP's ability to harm their core businesses, and their desire to avert any problems by winning over PHP developers. According to Gerin, IBM and Oracle want to ensure PHP developers develop applications and web sites that use their databases and not "PHP-optimized" databases like MySQL. "They want to be part of the game," Gerin said.

Andrew agrees that the big vendors are just keeping their options open. "I don't think PHP is going to go away fast - they have a large share of the market. Most of those suppliers have to remain open to multiple ways to be friendly," he said.

If EDC is right, then the real problem is not for the tier one vendors who have deep pockets and multi-platform support to ride out any tactical snafu, but an emerging class of start-ups betting their business on LAMP. Companies like SpikeSource and SourceLabs plan to provide certification and testing for business software in the Linux, Apache, MySQL and Perl/Python/PHP (LAMP) stack. But, what happens if the "P" part of the stack is losing developers and evaporates?

Andrew is confidant LAMP will adapt, and other open source languages will take the place of PHP. "[LAMP] was intended to be interchangeable - that's the beauty of it. That's the beauty of open standards and open source," he said.®

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