PHP vs. Node.js - The Adoption Debate

Published Sep 28, 2017Last updated Sep 29, 2017
PHP vs. Node.js - The Adoption Debate

Today PHP has become a popular programming language that powers popular CMS like WordPress and social media behemoths like Facebook. It is hence not surprising that attempts have been made to extend other popular languages like JavaScript to be just as workable on the server side as PHP.

Node.js is an important attempt by the JS community to emulate the success of PHP. It is a cross-platform JS runtime environment which allows JS to work server side. In essence, Node.js enables server side execution of JS scripts without invoking the browser. Node.js has revolutionized and revitalized JavaScript as being more just a simple browser scripting language.

However, despite all the benefits of the API and Node Package Manager (npm), Node.js has not been able to attain the same footprint as PHP. The adoption rate remains slow even for projects with JavaScript powered frontend. In my opinion, here are the important reasons why PHP remains the preference of web developers.

Learning Curve

Put simply, PHP has a learning curve that is very dependent upon the learner. In many cases, a complete (and dedicated) newbie is able to get up and running with PHP in a matter of weeks. While this is also true for JavaScript as well, the outcome at the end of the said period.

Another important reason of the ease of learning PHP is the abundance of industry standard frameworks such as Laravel and Symfony. In many cases, a newbie working with a PHP framework is able to create robust applications quite easily.

Remember that Node.js has a steeper learning curve because the developer first need to gain expertise in JavaScript and then learn the ropes of Node.js. In contrast, a developer learning PHP starts with a framework from the very beginning. This way, the PHP developer is ready to be a part of the industry in a shorter period.

Flexibility

PHP could be used to create almost everything from a simple blog to enterprise level ERP. This is one area where PHP has little competition from Node.js.

Since PHP has been around for a long time, the developers could use a huge repository of scripts, frameworks and libraries that add an astonishing range of functionalities into PHP projects. In contrast, Node.js package repository is still in a growing age and would need time to become as huge and versatile as PHP.

An important aspect of the flexibility debate is the ability to adopt the language to requirements of the project. Given the range of tools available to PHP developers, adapting the framework to the project specific could be done without compromising the deadlines. In contrast, Node.js often requires custom code to cater to project requirements. This translates into longer project deadlines and higher project costs.

Error Handling

Errors are an inevitable part of all dev projects. However,the way in which error handling is implemented in a language makes all the difference for the developers and the project.

Error handling has always been a problem area for JavaScript because of the callback throw/catch structure that is rather difficult to get used to. In fact, this is one area where even the expert JavaScript developers face serious challenges. To offset this, Node.js relies upon detailed documentation and keeping the module size small (in order to minimize the chances of issues).

In contrast, error handling in PHP is handled by specialized functions such as die() and trigger_error(). In addition, developers could create their own custom error handler that could handle class and script level errors without any issues.

Available Framework/Libraries

Adoption of a development language is highly dependent upon the available tools. In many cases, developers choose a language that offers the shortest (and easiest) development cycle. For this, the chosen language should have the right tools at the highest level of maturity so that the project could be handed over to the client ASAP.

In this context, Node.js clearly lacks because the range of tools and the maturity level of the said tools. Only a handful of the libraries are mature enough to offer any real-world competition to PHP. In contrast, PHP offers a framework for almost all popular project types. In the rare cases when Laravel and Symfony are not adequate, PHP offers several microframeworks to fill the gap.

Tremendous Community Support

PHP and Node.js have very passionate communities. However, the composition of the two communities is a major advantage for PHP. while the Node.js community comprises almost entirely of developers, PHP community is more “democratic” with a sizeable portion of newbies. This distinction is visible across all dev focused communities including StackOverflow, Meetups and GitHub.

In many cases, new developers feel more welcomed in the PHP community because of the large number of members with similar skill level. They feel more comfortable asking questions and seeking project related advice.

The Final Verdict

The adoption of a particular language for a project is a highly subjective issue. When comparing PHP and Node.js, the issue should be resolved by evaluating the fit of the language’s strengths to the project’s requirements.

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