PHP vs. Python: Is One Better Than The Other?
As more and more organizations move and scale up their services online, web applications have been exponentially on the rise. A common question that seems to be making the rounds again is what’s the best stack for a website’s back-end. After all, there are so many languages (and corresponding frameworks) to choose from – PHP, Node.js, Python, Ruby on Rails, ASP.NET, Golang, etc. But based on Stack Overflow trends in the last 10 years, two of the most popular server-side languages out of the above that have been conveniently topping the charts are – Python and PHP.
|Stack Overflow Trends (March 2021)
But given how popular both are, which one should you go with – PHP, or Python? Well, that’s what we’ll be covering in this post.
Spoiler alert: The answer to the title of the post is no! There is no clear winner here, as is the case with most of these language or framework comparison blog posts on the internet. PHP and Python are both winners in their own respect. Both languages were developed at different times, in different contexts, for different purposes, and as a result have grown and evolved to help with different projects, in different conditions. Therefore, what you might choose for your upcoming project depends on your's and your application’s requirements.
Both the languages have their own advantages across a selective criteria of consideration. Here’s an outline of what we’ll be covering so you can easily navigate or skip ahead in the guide:
- An Overview of PHP
- An Overview of Python
- Head to Head: PHP vs. Python
- Speed and Performance
- Installation Process
- Learning to Use
- Virtual Environment Management
- Scaling, Adapting, and Evolving to Market Needs
- Frameworks and Libraries
- Utility and Versatility
- Community Support
- Is PHP Outdated?
- Who Has the Edge?
An Overview of PHP
PHP, short form for Hypertext Preprocessor, was created in 1995 and is one of the oldest server scripting languages. More than 25 years since its launch, it continues to be one of the most widely used programming languages in the world.
PHP serves as a powerful tool for creating dynamic web applications and has been perhaps the most preferred of all other server-side development options. In fact, according to a website usage statistics survey by W3Techs, PHP is used by almost 80% of all the websites on the internet. It is open-sourced, and is easily compatible with almost all major web servers (eg. Apache, Nginx, IIS, etc.), across all major operating systems. Most PHP applications (about 63%) have been using PHP 7, however, interestingly, only last month PHP 8 was launched, with several new features and optimizations!
|79.2% of most known websites made using PHP; Source: W3Techs.com
With a simpler syntax, clean documentation, and a huge community to help you out, not only has PHP been a godsend for beginners, but also continues to be a feature-rich, dependable framework for industry-leading applications – thanks to its robustness, ease of deployment, maintenance, and continual improvements. PHP clearly shows why it deserves to take care of about four-fifths of the internet.
Here are some of the biggest companies/organizations that use PHP for their web applications:
An Overview of Python
Python is a high-level interpreted programming language, written on top of C, and was first released in 1990. It is a strongly, dynamically typed language and offers dynamic binding and several built-in data structures.
While PHP has been one the most popular programming languages in the realms of server scripting and web development, Python has taken the world by storm in the last decade, climbing to become the most popular general-purpose programming language – now competing with other languages across all domains – from web development to data science to game development, and lots more. It also boasts convenient package management, enabling developers to easily search, install, and import libraries into their projects, allowing effective code reuse.
What makes Python so popular apart from its flexibility, is perhaps its emphasis on simplicity and readability. It requires very few lines of code and is therefore a fan-favorite for rapid application prototyping and development – allowing you to get your pseudocode up and running very quickly. This is also what makes Python the most perfect language for teaching programming to beginners. With its easily readable (English-like), intuitive syntax, newcomers find it much easier to latch on to programming and problem-solving concepts.
|Stack Overflow Trends: Python vs Other Most Popular Programming Languages (Source)
Here are some of the biggest companies that use Python for their web applications:
Head to Head: PHP vs. Python
Like we already discussed, there isn’t a winner or a loser here. However, to help you get a better understanding of what suits your project requirements better, let us compare the PHP and Python across specific criteria. This might make it easier to make a choice (if you are here to make one) based on what matters more for your project.
Speed and Performance
Because PHP is a web development language, it makes more sense to compare the two languages in a web application setting, as opposed to just comparing their bare speed and performance. As we know, web applications are unlike standalone executable programs – they involve a bunch of server-side code hosted on a remote server, communicating with a database, responding to client requests, serving front-end web pages, and much more. As a result, in most cases, more than your back-end code, your application’s performance depends on the operations of other components like – your server CPU, processor, memory, and storage, your databases, the intermediate network components, etc. – that work in synchrony to take your application to the end-user.
Regardless, if you were to compare the speeds of PHP and Python alone, you’ll find the elephant to be much faster than the snake. This wasn’t the case when PHP was in its 5.x versions – Python had been faster until then. However, the core PHP team, commendably, changed things around with PHP 7 and overtook Python. Additionally, with PHP 8 out now, PHP seems to have furthered its lead in the speed department.
Python, even when compared to other languages, is relatively slower – primarily because it is interpreted at runtime. But what makes Python fast, regardless, is how it allows developers and organizations to get prototypes and small-scale applications quickly up and running, with its simple syntax, relatively fewer lines of code, and minimal setup overhead.
Additionally, if it just came down to pure language execution performance, the difference in speeds might not even be noticeable for most small-scale applications – because usually, these operate in the range of milliseconds. Therefore, language speeds might not be the most important factor you’d like to base your decision on. Besides, you are most likely to end up using a Python (or a PHP) framework to build your back-end stack.
As a result, you might want to dive deeper into framework-specific comparisons to get a sense of how they utilize the internals of the languages to provide the best performance.
However, as I mentioned before, most web applications are likely to suffer from other issues (like memory leaks, slow database queries, memory and network bottlenecks, disk operations, etc.) that play a much bigger role in influencing the speed and performance of your application. If you are serious about squeezing the most value out of your application setup and infrastructure, regardless of the underlying language and software stack, consider using an application monitoring tool (APM) like ScoutAPM to get better, more actionable performance insights for your application.
The ease of installation of both languages depends on your operating system. As far as Python is concerned, if you are on Linux, most Linux distributions (like Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, etc.) come pre-installed with Python 3 (and Python 2), which is quite convenient to get started with. Similarly, Mac operating systems also ship with Python 3 and Python 2 pre-installed. To get Python on Windows, you can download the installer from Python’s Windows Downloads page, run it, and follow the installation wizard to set things up quite easily. This post from RealPython.com has covered everything you need to know about installing Python on your system for all operating systems.
PHP (along with Apache) also usually comes pre-installed in Mac operating systems, although it is the older PHP 5 version. However, installing PHP is super easy across all operating systems – Windows, Linux, and MacOS. You can read more about it here. However, with PHP, you also need to check with setting up your Apache or Nginx server and other configurations.
Even though a few blog posts on the internet claim that PHP is easier to install, it seems Python is equally easy (if not easier) to set up. Overall though, over the years, both languages have made installation quite effortless. This, combined with the abundance of Python and PHP resources on the internet has made getting started extremely simple.
Learning to Use
Let’s discuss how the two languages fare when it comes to the ease of getting started with them.
Both Python and PHP are two of the simpler languages when it comes to syntax. This becomes much more evident when you compare them against other languages in their domains – for example when comparing PHP with languages like ASP.net and Java (JSP), and Python with the likes of C and C++.
Even though easy to learn, PHP’s syntax feels slightly clunky, using the ‘$’ symbol before each variable, and the ‘->’ for calling functions from objects. However, Python’s syntax is much more breezy in comparison. It resembles the English language, where most control structures and loop statements can be easily read and understood as regular English sentences. Python also shuns curly braces in favor of mere indentations and therefore makes the overall code less cluttered by removing the need for useless symbols.
We’ll dive into the features of PHP and Python a little later, but before that, let’s discuss a common trait of both languages – dynamic typing. With dynamic typing, languages do not require programmers to specify the data type of a variable when initializing it. This allows variables to change their types over the course of the program, without any restriction. This is the opposite of what happens with static typing, where variables can not switch between different types.
Dynamic typing, therefore, makes these languages more beginner-friendly, allowing newcomers to play around and fiddle with code variables in any way or form. As a result, apart from some of the other advantages of dynamic typing (like concise code, better polymorphism, etc.), it is also much more forgiving of errors – a plus point for beginners.
When it comes to native data type support offered by the two languages, PHP easily falls behind Python. Unlike Python, PHP does not offer many options for collection data types like sequential structures, sets, and dictionaries. The only collection data types it offers are indexed, associative, and multidimensional arrays. Python, on the other hand, includes collections like – lists, tuples, sets, and dictionaries.
As a result, the availability of more advanced focused built-in collection data types gives Python the edge here, allowing it to cater to very many use cases and domains with ease. Even though this might initially increase the difficulty of learning the language, it proves to be much more beneficial in the long run.
Writing server-side code
Eventually, learnability comes down to the ease of writing server-side code in both languages. Because PHP is dedicated to building web applications, you can easily get started with writing PHP code from scratch (without any fancy frameworks) to build a website. Whereas, with Python, you are (for most cases) going to need to learn a third-party backend framework or library (like Flask, Django, etc.) to get started, as opposed to PHP, where you don’t necessarily need a framework. Therefore, when talking in terms of writing backend applications, it would make just as much sense to compare the ease of learning PHP with that of learning a server-side Python framework (and not just the language alone).
PHP also has some amazing frameworks out there. We’ll discuss more on frameworks and libraries in a subsequent section.
Python and PHP are among the most popular programming languages ever, and therefore there are more than sufficient online and offline resources – tutorials, courses, blog posts, forums, books, and whatnot, that you could refer to, to get started with, and eventually master the two languages.
Debugging your code is an essential component of building any software application. Debugger tools have gone a long way in helping developers to track step-by-step code operations and monitor their functioning as well as the impact on computational resources to identify malfunctioning code.
Python offers a standard library package called PDB (Python Debugger) that provides a simple and interactive API for effectively debugging Python code. PHP similarly offers an extension called XDebug that assists with debugging and profiling for PHP code. IDEs like Visual Studio Code, and PyCharm ship with in-built debuggers that integrate quite smoothly with Python code right off the bat. PHP, however, requires some setting up and configuration to get these IDE debuggers up and running. You can read more about debugging in Python here.
Virtual Environment Management
Each web application requires its own set of dependencies and libraries that aid development, building, and deployment. When working on multiple different projects, it becomes extremely important for developers to have virtual boundaries segregate territories of different projects, to avoid their dependencies from intermingling. This practice of isolating your projects by creating multiple virtual environments leads to a much cleaner and organized setup that saves you from code-breaking dependency mismatches and conflicts. As a result, it is important to consider and compare the virtual environment management support available for both languages.
Python, again, leads this category, thanks to the amazing venv package that ships with Python 3. You can use venv to create multiple different virtual environments, with the same or different Python versions for each of them. It boasts an extremely simple and intuitive API to create, activate, and manage these multiple environments. Additionally, like the language itself, the package is open-sourced on Github and actively maintained by the Python community.
PHP, on the other hand, disappoints a bit in this regard. The only decent environment management tool ever made for PHP is virtPHP. As its documentation also puts, it is like virtualenv, but for PHP. Alas, virtPHP has not been updated in the last 7-8 years now and is an archived repository. Word on the street is that its developers too suggest considering containers instead.
That makes sense because, with the world moving rapidly towards containerization, it’s likely that you might not need to worry too much about environment management options with PHP and Python for building and deploying web applications. However, if using containers doesn’t sound to be up your street, Python seems to be a better choice for organizing your projects.
Now let’s discuss the documentation provided by both languages. When starting with a new language, its documentation website is something you’ll find yourself coming back to every now and then – to figure out features of the language, available functions, and classes, how they can be used, required parameters, etc. Therefore, it’s a factor worth considering before starting with any language, library, or framework.
PHP and Python, being among the best in their business, have done a really great job in providing neat and effective documentation for their developers. It would be fair to say that they have even set documentation standards for other programming languages and frameworks to adopt. However, there are a few nuances and design decisions that are worth discussing.
For example, PHP is one of the very few languages that also provides a comments (or notes) section below the docs for developers to share further relevant insights, examples, or comments. Though this sounds like a helpful way to engage developers and promote discussions, it hasn’t really lived up to its potential. This is because many of those comments date back to several (as many as 16-17) years ago, without any option to sort or filter them. However, this takes away nothing from the quality of documentation that PHP provides – the minimal, yet effective descriptions, with helpful examples, and a clean user interface more than makes up for any limitations of an additional feature. Likewise, Python’s documentation is also quite informative and covers everything of importance in great detail. However, you will notice that Python documentation sometimes lacks examples of several API functions and classes, though seeming to make up for it through the verbosity of its textual descriptions.
If I were to choose between the two, I would perhaps prefer PHP’s documentation because of its more minimal, targeted, and focused documentation pages. Additionally, the first result of Google searches for PHP functions’ docs almost always directs to PHP’s official documentation, as opposed to Python, which often leads to third-party documentation of Python topics.
As dynamic web applications become more and more data-intensive, constantly tracking user preferences, data security is becoming more essential than ever. However, it is important to understand that even though programming languages can take care of making some aspects of your application secure, most of its security depends on the developers – the code they write, and the level of secure approaches. If not programmed carefully, raw PHP and raw Python both are equally vulnerable to security threats. Application security is, therefore, one of the reasons why web frameworks were developed in the first place. Web frameworks ensure that common vulnerabilities in server-side code are looked after and provided protection for. For example, frameworks like Django (Python) and Laravel (PHP) can protect your applications from SQL injection attacks and Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) through secure middlewares.
PHP, during its early developmental years, was known to have several security issues. However, the community stepped up and made all necessary amends to make it a language as “secure” as any. This is why large-scale web applications like Facebook, Tumblr, and Slack depend on it.
Therefore, when it comes to security, both languages do well in the bare minimum that is expected of them. Ultimately though, your application’s security relies much more on the code you write and the frameworks you use.
Scaling, Adapting, and Evolving to Market Needs
Web applications, along with customer and market demands are evolving. With Machine Learning (ML), AI, Data Analytics, and IoT (Internet of Things) technologies knocking at the doorstep, organizations need to consider quickly jumping on the bandwagon.
Python has been leading the data science revolution for academia as well as the tech industry. With an abundance of data science libraries and frameworks to help with advanced mathematical computations, graphics processing, and machine learning, at the moment, Python is perhaps the only player in town that can effectively cater to the development of intelligent applications – you can’t consider building an ML feature without using a Python service.
However, the other side to that picture is that not all applications need to utilize fancy analytics for serving their purpose. For those cases, web developers might be equally well equipped with PHP as they are with Python, and can therefore choose the former for simpler, more utilitarian, and serviceable applications. Therefore, consider thinking over your application’s current and future requirements before you make a decision.
Web frameworks play a significant role in facilitating the scalability of these applications. We dive into framework and library support for the two languages in the next section.
Frameworks and Libraries
Web frameworks aid application development by providing developers with easy-to-use, flexible APIs that can take care of several underlying implementations to rapidly build and deploy robust, secure, and scalable web applications. Additionally, different web frameworks leverage different architectures and coding practices, allowing organizations the flexibility to choose paradigms that best suit their applications.
Both PHP and Python provide ample powerful web framework options that their communities can utilize. Some of the most popular PHP frameworks include – Laravel, Symfony, CodeIgniter, Zend, CakePHP, etc. Some of the most popular Python frameworks are – Django, Flask, Pyramid, Web2Py, Sanic, etc. These frameworks are used by some of the top organizations and websites all over the world, for example – Instagram (using Django), Spotify (Symfony), GitLab (Laravel), Netflix (Flask), etc. If you are interested in learning more about the top PHP and Python web frameworks, make sure to check out the following posts on our blog:
If we talk outside of web development, (as expected) Python offers many more libraries and frameworks – primarily because Python is a more versatile, general-purpose programming language that does much more than just web dev. To give you some context, PyPi (Python’s Package Index) now hosts more than 290,000 packages catering to hundreds of different application categories.
A good package/dependency management system can boost developer productivity and go a long way in simplifying development workflows. It allows developers to easily install libraries with a single command, instead of having to worry about manually downloading, executing, and configuring the installation.
Python’s Pip (short form for “Pip Installs Python”) is one of the easiest to use package managers among the likes of Node’s NPM and Ruby Gems. It makes it super easy to manage your project’s dependencies – searching Python packages hosted on PyPI, downloading and installing them, building wheel files, uninstalling packages, etc. Additionally, with venv, package management is much more organized thanks to separate virtual environments.
PHP’s package management option is called Composer and is equally adored by the community. Composer fetches packages and their dependencies from Packagist, PHP’s public package repository, and offers a useful set of functionalities for updating all project dependencies, working with auto-load information, platform packages, and more.
All in all, both languages’ package managers do a good job at allowing developers to focus on programming and development, instead of having to worry about managing dependencies.
Utility and Versatility
What makes PHP and Python the most different is the primary purpose they were developed for (or have evolved to serve) – Python has been more versatile, as well as utilitarian – helping with everything from data science to game development to desktop and web applications, web scraping, robot programming, automation, and so much more, whereas PHP has been dedicatedly leading the web development space.
Therefore, it seems safe to say that for individuals starting with programming, software development, and computer science, in general, learning Python will perhaps reap more benefits. A good command of Python prepares them well for applying their learnings across multiple domains. However, if someone wants to master all aspects of building web applications before trying out other fields, it might be better to start with PHP to get a broader understanding of how 80% of the websites on the internet have been made.
Community and Support
After a programming language or framework is launched and accepted by a fair share of the developers, it is the community that usually carries the torch forward. It is the community that helps in maintaining the language, fixing bugs, adding new features, developing third-party helper tools, helping other developers with code issues, and more.
In this regard, both languages have gained a huge community slash fan-following that can’t really be compared with each other. Through platforms like IRC channels, Slack, Discord, developer forums, etc., and newsletters and mailing lists, these communities allow their developers to engage, share insights, seek help, and collaborate.
If you are interested in connecting with either of these language’s communities, you can find more information in the following links:
Before we close, there is a common misconception on the street that is worth discussing – “Is PHP outdated?”.
Is PHP Outdated?
A possible explanation for this misconception is the fact that PHP hasn’t expanded or felt the need to expand its expertise to other domains, and continues to focus on web development. Even though our discussions in the head to head comparisons above should have helped you undermine the validity of such claims, here is a list of points that portrays how PHP continues to rise and shine –
- PHP 8, just launched with major updates and optimizations, is better than ever.
- Stackoverflow trends show how PHP continues to lead.
- PHP (version 7 and 8) is faster than Python, and other alternatives.
- PHP is still actively maintained, updated, and used for large-scale web applications like Facebook and Slack.
“Is PHP outdated?” You tell me.
Who Has the Edge?
As you must have noticed, neither language has an edge over the other. As I mentioned before, both are winners in their own respect – both have their own idiosyncrasies that make them suitable for different conditions. Having read this post, it is you, the reader, who has an edge over others – in considering all comparison factors and making an informed decision about which language suits your requirements better.