The 9 Most Popular PHP Frameworks for Developers
Web development before the age of web frameworks is difficult to imagine. Setting up a robust, dependable web app from scratch is a daunting task that requires years of knowledge and experience. Nowadays, however, with the help of effective, easy to use web frameworks, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to get going. All it now takes is a bunch of terminal commands to set up the scaffolding of your project - including a clean folder structure, a flexible API, a development environment with installed dependencies, utility libraries, testing functionalities and so much more.
PHP web frameworks make it significantly easier to develop PHP web applications. Their purpose is to allow developers to lay a solid, functional foundation that their apps can benefit from. Apart from giving devs more power and flexibility in building sustainable applications, these frameworks also significantly speed up the development pipeline of PHP projects.
“Why PHP?”, you may ask. Because regardless of the misinformed popular opinion, PHP is still one of the most widely used web scripting languages on the internet. As of a report from October 2018, PHP websites made up about a whopping 80 percent of the world wide web.
In this post, we will start by talking about what web frameworks are and how important a role they play in developing web applications. We will then look at nine of the most popular PHP frameworks, discuss their features and understand what makes them stand out. Towards the end we will also look at how you can choose one of these for your project setting.
Why Frameworks are Important for Web Development
A web application framework is (as the name suggests) a software framework - a foundational setup - a software-based scaffolding that bolsters the development and deployment of web applications, services, resources, and APIs.
As we discussed above, coding a web application from scratch is cumbersome and ineffective, even more so, if you are just starting out. Therefore, it’s always wiser to start with an appropriate web framework that best suits your project’s requirements.
This is because these frameworks are shaped, driven and maintained by the collective experience and knowledge (of best development practices) of some of the best individuals and organisations in the world. They provide a standard way to build and develop web apps on the internet. So every time you use a popular framework, you can trust it’s efficiency and reliability, and be sure of a strong core that is optimized for maximum performance. All you need to focus on, then, is writing clean code that makes the best use of the underlying architecture.
Reasons for using a framework
Complete setup with dependencies
- Clean Folder Structure
- Speed, efficiency, performance
- No maintenance headache
- Easier to collaborate
- Utility Libraries
Now, on to the list.
The 9 Most Popular PHP Frameworks (and why they’re popular)
There are dozens of PHP frameworks out there, but a handful of them particularly stand out in the features, functionality, and simplicity they offer. Let’s look at the nine most popular PHP frameworks that you can choose from for your upcoming project.
1. LARAVEL - Master of all trades
Despite being less than 10 years old, Laravel is the most popular and most widely used PHP framework of all time, supporting close to one million websites. Laravel is open-sourced, and was released in 2011 by Taylor Otwell, as an attempt to create a more advanced alternative to the Codeigniter framework (discussed later in the post).
Laravel is the gold standard of PHP frameworks. It has everything that a web developer might need to develop a robust PHP application - an MVC architecture, a templating engine, support for authorization and authentication, testing, database migrations, security and so much more. On top of these very many features, Laravel boasts an elegant and simplified syntax that is intuitive and easy to work with.
Let’s look at some of Laravel’s major features that make it so popular in the industry:
An MVC (Model View Controller) architecture is a software design pattern that ensures a clear logical distinction between the data, logic, and presentation components of an application. Laravel uses an MVC pattern to allow developers to benefit from this separation of concerns and ease of maintenance and extensibility.
Blade Templating engine
Laravel comes with the Blade templating engine that is intuitive, light-weight, and powerful. It allows developers to effortlessly create reusable static web templates that are populated by dynamic data entries. Here’s a snippet to show you how easy it is to create these templates.
@if(condition) // html content @else // html content @endif
Artisan CLI tool
Since most of your interaction with the Laravel project environment happens through a command-line interface, it ships with a simple CLI tool called Artisan that makes devs life much easier. It can be used to create data models, configurations, controllers, migrations, and automate many of the mundane, repetitive tasks that otherwise devs need to perform.
Eloquent ORM tool
An ORM is an object-relational mapper that essentially creates a kind of virtual object database that allows you to write database queries using the object-oriented pattern of your preferred language. Laravel comes with the Eloquent ORM tool that is one of the best in the business, thanks to its intuitive and ‘eloquent’ syntax.
Laravel provides a bunch of other features, some of which are:
- High speed, performance (runs async tasks in background)
- Native authorization and authentication support
- Security (hashing, encryption of passwords, and protection against SQL injection attacks)
- Testing support (unit tests and more)
- Ecosystem of services
Thanks to well-curated documentation and awesome, high-quality Laracasts video tutorials, learning Laravel is a cakewalk, and makes it significantly stand out against the alternatives. Laravel also has a huge community of active developers on its subreddit as well as other platforms, which means finding related help on the internet is quite easy.
Final thoughts: There is a reason why Laravel is the most popular PHP framework and why a million websites depend on it. With all the features a developer might need, and a stable ecosystem of services, Laravel is arguably the best PHP framework out there. If you are just starting out as a PHP developer and looking for a framework to get started with, close your eyes and go with Laravel. You will not regret it.
2. SYMFONY - Flexibility and modularity
Symfony was released in 2005. It is not only a full-fledged PHP framework for web apps but also (and perhaps more importantly) a collection of reusable PHP components for your web project. Being one of the older frameworks, having been downloaded millions of times, it has developed a reputation for reliability.
Symfony is primarily known for the flexibility and modularity that it’s stand-alone, reusable components offer. This means that developers can use whichever Symfony assets their project requires independent of the complete framework. It also offers in-built testing functionality and provides support for most databases, as compared to other PHP frameworks. Let’s look at some of these features in more detail -
Modular Component System
The best thing about Symfony is its modular component system - it allows you to cherry-pick the components that you need for your project. These components serve as decoupled, reusable pieces that developers can simply plug and play in their web apps. With Composer, the famous PHP dependency manager, installing Symfony components is as easy as:
$ composer require symfony/asset
Here is a complete list of all the Symfony components. For people who might have a difficult time choosing which assets they need, or who might need most of these assets, there is also the option to use the whole framework.
Database integration: Doctrine ORM
As mentioned before, Symfony supports the most number of databases, including relational databases like MySQL and PostgreSQL and also NoSQL ones like MongoDB. Thanks to the Doctrine ORM, it ships with all the tools one might need to work with databases. Doctrine allows developers to program their database operations using an object-oriented SQL format called Doctrine Query Language (DQL), which proves to be a much more flexible alternative as compared to the default SQL.
- Built-in testing functionality
- Twig templating engine (fast, secure, flexible, and easy to learn)
- Easy integration with other services (eg. Drupal, Amazon SES, Mailgun, etc.)
However, here are a couple of caveats - (i) Because of the flexibility and independence it offers to PHP developers, in terms of the plug and play web components, Symfony projects are known to suffer from performance issues. (ii) Also, despite the clean documentation, it has a relatively steeper learning curve, as a result of which, it might seem more advanced to some users, especially the ones who are just starting out.
Regardless, Symfony developers are backed by a community of over 600,000 active developers, from over 120 countries. On top of that, unlike with other PHP frameworks, there is also professional support available, by SensioLabs, the company behind Symfony.
Here are some of the famous websites that are built using Symfony - Spotify, Trivago, DailyMotion, Drupal, etc.
Final thoughts: Symfony provides a huge collection of decoupled web components that are easy to include in your project and work with. It stands out in this list of frameworks for its modularity, and the flexibility and independence it provides to PHP developers. It integrates well with other services and offers rich database support. However, if you are just starting out, it may be more advisable to go for a more beginner-friendly framework, like Laravel or CodeIgniter.
3. CodeIgniter - Lightweight and fast
CodeIgniter was launched in 2006. It is the most lightweight PHP framework there is and is the simplest in terms of setup and configuration. The latest version, CodeIgniter 4.0.4 is less than a 1 MB download and provides a simple and elegant toolkit to develop PHP web applications quickly. It is super-fast, provides excellent documentation, and outperforms most other frameworks, therefore ticking all the right boxes to be considered as a strong candidate on this list. Let’s look at its features in more detail.
Small footprint and high performance
CodeIgniter boasts an extremely tiny download size, making it the most light-weight PHP framework out there. With a small size, you might think that it misses out on features and performance. However, it is rich in features and has been built keeping performance and scalability in mind.
The fact that it is light-weight and fast makes it the best alternative for server setups with low compute, for example in personal pet projects.
Simplicity, easy to set up
When I start learning or using a new framework, one of the most important criteria for me is the simplicity of the installation setup and the configuration required to get started. An easy installation process lets developers focus on the more important aspects of the project - writing quality code for their application. CodeIgniter is one of the best in this regard. It is extremely simple to set up and allows developers to quickly build apps with minimal configuration.
- MVC architecture (built-in and encouraged, but optional)
- Built-in security tools (protection against CSRF and XSS attacks; context-sensitive escaping and CSP)
- Scalability (lightweight and no overhead)
- Web Page Caching (for maximum performance)
CodeIgniter provides fantastic documentation that is renowned for being clean and effective. A simple learning curve, combined with its very efficient documentation, makes it a perfect framework choice for beginners.
The only caveat with CodeIgniter has been that its releases are not very consistent. As a result, potential security updates can be slow in being rolled out. Their regularity in releases has however seemed to improve over the last few months.
Final thoughts: CodeIgniter is a solid framework in all the aspects that matter - it is lightweight, fast, scalable, offers excellent documentation along with an easy installation setup and simple learning curve. Isn’t it the best? That’s why it’s on this list.
4. Zend Framework / Laminas Project - Modular, Enterprise-friendly
The Zend Framework was launched in 2006 and has been a good fit for enterprise-level projects. The fact that it is a completely object-oriented framework has attracted lots of developers to use Zend and it’s many OOPS structures to make their code extendable and reusable. It has been developed in a way that supports the Agile application development methodology and therefore enables enterprises to ramp up development.
Zend also provides a component-based structure that allows developers to pick up the components they need for their projects. This makes it easy for them to tie these modules into their project with minimal modification. The Zend Framework has now transitioned into the Laminas Project, which is a more enterprise-friendly continuation of the Zend Framework. It is strongly recommended to start with (or migrate to) Laminas as Zend is no longer maintained or updated.
Laminas has divided its services into a bunch of different projects:
Components - plug and play
Laminas offers a set of 63 components that can either be used in a stand-alone way or as a group of components under the complete MVC framework. In terms of these components’ collection, this is similar to the Symfony framework that we looked at above, and therefore offers a lot of flexibility to developers to load only the modules they need as individual libraries. These tools include most assets that developers might need to build their PHP apps - from dependency injection to event dispatchers to input validation to database support and so much more. Here is the list of all the components that Laminas offers, along with the documentation for the same.
Laminas is targeted towards catering to enterprises. Therefore security is one of their topmost priorities. They provide secure authentication support, cryptography tools, ReCaptcha wrappers, and many more as a part of their set of components (complete list).
- MVC architecture
- Object-oriented principles
- RESTful API tools
Final thoughts: The Laminas Project (previously Zend Framework) targets to be the most enterprise-friendly solution out there. Like Symfony, it’s not just a monolithic framework that forces you to use the entire stack but also offers a set of individual components that can be used by themselves in isolation and easily integrated into your project. If being in control of the assets you include in your project is important to you, definitely check out the Laminas Project.
5. CakePHP - Minimal, no config required
CakePHP started in 2005 and was the first MVC framework for PHP. It is heavily inspired by Ruby on Rails; so if you have experience with Rails, you should find baking with CakePHP quite familiar. It is most commonly known for being easy to start with and having minimal configuration, thanks to its preference for convention over configuration principles.
Over the years, CakePHP has added a lot of components and significantly improved performance over the years. It boasts an MVC framework, a built-in ORM (object-relational mapping), great security features, clean documentation, active community support, and even premium, professional help through Cake Development Corporation. Let’s look at some of the major features that make it so popular -
CakePHP doesn’t require you to set up any configuration parameters through XML or YAML files. All you need to do is set up your database and get started. This clears up a lot of clutter for the developers and makes it easier for them to quickly get started with writing code for their projects.
Specialized in dealing with relational databases, CakePHP’s built-in ORM can also be extended to work with other data sources. The ORM is based on a hybrid between concepts of ActiveRecord and Datamapper that is fast and easy to work with.
The CakePHP Bake console makes getting started with a project super easy! It allows developers to automatically generate the application’s skeleton along with any boilerplate code that it entails using just a few commands. It can generate your controllers, model objects, view templates, and a basic CRUD application without writing any code. Isn’t that amazing? Here are example commands for the same -
$ cake bake db_config $ cake bake model $ cake bake view $ cake bake controller $ cake bake project $ cake bake fixture $ cake bake test $ cake bake plugin plugin_name $ cake bake all
- Comprehensive collection of libraries and components
- Clean MVC conventions (for guiding development)
- Security features (input validation, encryption, hashing, prevention from CSRF, form tampering, SQL injection, etc.)
CakePHP has got an excellent set of docs and tutorials in the form of a cookbook that you can find here. You can find any help regarding the framework on popular platforms like StackOverflow. For premium support, you can check out Cake Development Corporation.
Final thoughts: CakePHP is a gem of a PHP framework that provides a thorough bunch of effective libraries and components, is secure, and comes with an in-built ORM. On top of that, it is easy to learn, easy (no need) to configure, easy to code, and easy to develop convention-following MVC applications with. You could say getting started with CakePHP is a cakewalk.
6. Yii - Simple and evolutionary
Yii (Chinese for “simple and evolutionary”) stands for “Yes, it is!” and was launched in 2006. It started out as version 1.0 (currently 1.1) and some years back also launched Yii 2.0 as a complete rewrite of its predecessor, with the latest features. Today, both versions are available but Yii 2.0 has almost completely taken over and represents the current generation of the framework.
Yii is also a component-based framework, like many of the ones we have seen so far. It is extremely secure, offers high speed and performance, is easy to set up, and offers a wide range of components that you can use to develop modern web applications. The Yii community is quite active and supportive and encourages its members and developers by rewarding them with badges and entries in a Hall of Fame.
Gii Code Generator Tool
Gii code generator is one of the most important tools offered by Yii. It provides a web-based interface for creating skeleton code for your web app. It lets you choose from a bunch of different generators - Model Generator, CRUD Generator, Controller Generator, Form Generator. Tools like these save a lot of time and energy that goes into writing mundane boilerplate code.
Yii is quite renowned for its security support. Apart from features like authentication, authorization, bcrypt password hashing, and encryption, it’s documentation also provides a set of best practices to follow about how to avoid cross-site scripting (XSS), request-forgery (CSRF), SQL injections, and much more.
- Easy installation
- Caching support (data caching, fragment caching, page caching, and HTTP caching)
- MVC Design Pattern
- Extensible and easy to customize
Even though Yii provides some solid documentation, it can be slightly challenging for a beginner who is starting with it as their first PHP framework. Yii has a huge community that is quite active over Slack and IRC. You can find more information about their forums and communication channels here.
Final thoughts: Yii is a universal PHP framework that is high performing, secure, and provides an awesome Gii code generator tool, that saves everyone a bunch of time. It has a slightly steeper learning curve for newcomers but is a strong candidate for experienced developers and enterprises.
7. Phalcon - Super-fast with low overhead
Phalcon was released in 2012 and is arguably the fastest PHP framework. It is an MVC-based framework that even though is delivered as a C-extension, does not require any prior knowledge of C programming. It differs considerably in its architecture compared to other frameworks, in a good way - a Phalcon project has almost no files to start with, as opposed to thousands of files for a framework like Laravel.
Because it is written in C and compiled to a PHP extension, it is lightweight, has low overhead, and therefore consumes fewer resources. Also, since it is compiled, instead of being interpreted, it results in faster performance. It provides good security features along with a templating engine, called Volt, which is fast and provides a bunch of helpers for creating view templates easily.
Laravel is well beyond other frameworks in terms of its speed benchmarks. It gets its speed from the C/Zephir based underlying code, due to the fact that the code only needs to be compiled (and not interpreted), and because of its extremely efficient under-the-hood memory utilization capabilities.
Zero framework files’ baggage
The thing that developers love the most about Phalcon is how it does not clutter your project folder with library files. This can make it so much easier to port your code from one server to another, without having to worry about carrying the many framework files, and also keeping your project light-weight and easy to maintain.
- Low-level architecture
- Dependency Injection
- Universal autoloader and Volt templating engine
- Security and Caching
Phalcon provides decent documentation that is said to have significantly improved over time. It also has an active forum and a Discord group where one can connect with other Phalcon developers and get support. The only caveat with Phalcon is that the team is a little slow in rolling out bug fixes and updates, which can occasionally raise security concerns.
Final thoughts: Phalcon is a well-designed framework and is ridiculously fast - the fastest among its competitors. If you’re looking for a minimal project setup that is fast, high performing, has low overhead, and is not bogged down by thousands of framework files, go for Phalcon.
8. FuelPHP - HMVC support
FuelPHP was released in 2011 with the goal of amalgamating the best ideas and concepts of all the various frameworks into one. It is one of the few frameworks that implement a Hierarchical Model View Controller (HMVC) setup, apart from the regular MVC pattern. Thanks to this, developers can create highly modular applications with easily reusable components.
It provides a lot of security features along with an ORM that is lightweight and flexible. It also has its own command-line utility tool, called Oil, which allows you to run tasks, debug and test your code, and generate common components.
HMVC (Hierarchical Model View Controller)
HMVC is a design pattern that creates a logical distinction between your logic and routes, and allows developers to reuse controller logic in multiple places. Using this, one can request an action inside the same application using the Request class. This is what is called an HMVC request. This can be useful in a setting where you might want to return multiple widget components on a single web page, as opposed to returning the complete page at once (as in conventional MVC setups).
Oil Command-line Utility Tool
Oil is a command-line utility tool that ships with FuelPHP and facilitates quick development. It enables developers to leverage the power of the command-line as a platform for testing, debugging (through the console), generating MVC components, performing migrations, running servers, installing packages, and much more.
- High security (input filtering, URI filtering, XSS filtering, output encoding CSRF token protection, and much more)
- RESTful API development support
- Lightweight ORM
Another good thing about FuelPHP is that its new versions are backward-compatible with it’s older versions because of it’s flexible API. The framework provides neat documentation that is thorough and easy to read. It also provides a forum for raising issues and queries, and connecting with the developers.
Final thoughts: FuelPHP stands out because of its HMVC implementation and the resultant reusability, modularity, and flexibility. It is secure, provides support for RESTful API development, and has an effective command-line partner, Oil, that makes life quite easy for web developers.
9. Slim - Lean and simple
Slim is a micro-framework for PHP that focuses on the bare essentials of what it takes to build powerful web applications and APIs. Instead of trying to provide it all in terms of features and components (like any full-stack PHP framework does), Slim offers a cute little package that focuses on serving HTTP requests and invoking corresponding callbacks before returning a response.
It has no third-party dependencies and therefore is lean and extremely fast. It is easy to learn and is the best choice for developers who want to build small-scale projects or quick prototypes.
Minimal set of tools that matter
Full-fledged frameworks like Laravel and Symfony with their excessive features can sometimes be overkill for many web apps. Slim, on the other hand, focuses on providing the most essential tools (and nothing more) required for creating a simple, yet powerful website. As a result, it has zero third-party dependencies. This is what makes Slim light-weight and gives it an edge over its competitors in terms of speed and performance.
- Dependency Injection
- Powerful routing
- Simplicity, easy to learn
Slim also offers additional first-party components such as Slim-Csrf, Slim-HttpCache, and Slim-Flash that can be easily registered and integrated into your project. As far as documentation is concerned, it offers a really nice user guide that is clean, effective, and pretty helpful. It also has an active community on its public forum and Slack and IRC channels. For professional support, you can check out Tidelift.
Final thoughts: Slim is a micro PHP framework that aims to deliver the most essential tools in a developer’s toolkit, and nothing more. It is light-weight and fast, easy to learn, and a great tool for developing rapid prototypes and robust small-scale applications. If you’re looking for a minimal framework for getting started with a personal project, Slim is the perfect choice for you.
How to Choose One for your Project
All of the above frameworks are exceptional in one quality or another and vary in some small aspects. However, there’s no one framework that works for all. Beginners might prefer a framework with minimal setup and the ability to run on devices with less compute capabilities, even if it comes at the cost of some advanced features. However, an enterprise-level project will look at factors like scalability, security, and advanced functionality even if it comes at the cost of being less beginner-friendly. You should choose what works best for your use case - based on your skill set, your project’s requirements, its scale, functionality, maintainability, and compute resources.
Experiment for Yourself
Now that you know so much about the most popular PHP frameworks, their idiosyncrasies, and what makes them stand out, go ahead and choose one for a project of yours. Or play around with a bunch of these, figure out which one works best for you, build an application with it, and make the internet a better place! Good luck!
Cheers! Happy coding!