Node.js vs. PHP: Which Environment to Choose for Your Next Project?

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The choice between PHP and Node.js is sometimes characterized as a battle, even a war. But the situation is more complicated than a simple either-or. The two technologies have different advantages and disadvantages, depending on the project, and do not necessarily need to be thought of as rivals. Below, we will look at some of the reasons you might choose one over the other. We’ll begin with a general idea of what each one is and does.

What are PHP and Node.js?

PHP, a language created in 1994 by Rasmus Lerdorf, is the older, more established technology. In the Web 1.0 era, the acronym stood for Personal Home Page. It now stands for Hypertext Processor. In its 25 years of development, PHP has become increasingly refined, stable, and reliable. As a trusted server-side scripting language PHP has been integrated into over 80% of web servers and most popular content managements systems like WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal.

Launched in 2009 by Ryan Dahl, the newcomer Node.js is one of four open-source JavaScript software stacks described by the acronym MEAN (MongoDB, Expres.js, Angjular.js, and Node.js). It is a JavaScript runtime environment rather than a language. Using event-driven programming, Node.js offers a fast, nimble solution for non-blocking I/O (input/output) applications. Node.js and other MEAN stacks have taken the once-front-end only-strengths of JavaScript—including speed and multitasking—and applied them at the back end, making applications that field multiple concurrent requests run far more efficiently.

Comparing the Strengths and Weaknesses of PHP and Node.js

PHP

PHP code can be imbedded into HTML or HTML5, a flexibility that has contributed to its popularity. Its relative simplicity allows for the integration of code and content. This can, however, lead to a messy code base that is hard to maintain. Nonetheless, PHP retains an advantage in that its code is portable and can run on nearly any server and platform (Windows, Linux).

Not only is there widespread hosting support for PHP, but its knowledge base is wide and deep given its history. PHP is relatively easy to learn—new developers can pick it up quickly from thousands of open source files. Now in its seventh version, it has become faster. In previous versions of benchmark tests PHP cannot compete with Node.js. In the latest tests, PHP7 outperforms Node.js in several categories. Its code is everywhere on the web and most developers are very familiar with it. PHP can access over 20 different databases, including MySQL, Oracle, and MS Access. It can also generate unique session IDs—useful for ecommerce sites and user tracking—and its code can be written more securely since, unlike JavaScript, users do not see the source code.

On the downside, PHP applications with a large code base can be difficult to manage because the language typically does not maintain a clear Separation of Concerns (SOC) between logic and representation. It is typically more efficient to build structures that separate these layers, an approach known as Model-View-Controller (MVC), which enables easy maintenance, readability, and scalability of applications. Node.js maintains SOC far better.

Node.js

Node.js may be a current developer favorite for a number of reasons. For one, it integrates the server and client side, using the same code for both, where PHP retains a more cumbersome, and slower, client-server model. In a sense, Node.js has jumped the tracks and taken over the back-end tasks PHP used to handle, using the same language for both front and back-end development of a web application. This enables better communication between different members of a development team and faster, more efficient development and coordination overall.

Node.js is more flexible since several languages can be cross-compiled for JavaScript. This includes not only Java but C, Ruby, Erlang, and Python, as well as new languages like Hack, which contains many modern features. Not all of these languages are optimized for web applications, however, and can cause glitches if improperly deployed in the client app. PHP, on the other hand, was built specifically for the web, and can operate with pure HTML and no need for JavaScript. However, because Node.js runs on Google’s V8 JS engine, which powers the Chrome browser, it does not require a separate web server in a JS runtime environment.

The ability to handle multiple requests and a heavy I/O workload makes Node.js work very well with Single-Page Applications (SPAs), which typically use JavaScript frameworks on the client side. Unlike the ease of PHP, however, Node.js has a steep learning curve and may be harder to maintain for this reason.

Which One Should You Choose?

One of PHP’s strengths, its ease of integration into HTML, is also a weakness that can make for disorganized code. This drawback makes PHP better suited for smaller applications with less coding, and for blogs, news sites, and other such sites easily maintained on content managements systems like WordPress. PHP is also better at taking on such CPU-heavy operations as creating and editing audio, video, and graphics, tasks that tend to slow down Node.js applications since the environment is single-threaded. Therefore, graphics and other media-intensive apps may perform better with PHP.

Node.js, on the other hand, is ideal for applications fielding multiple concurrent requests from thousands, or millions, of connected devices, which is why SPAs like Netflix and Medium have decided to use it. Node.js also excels in applications with heavy client-side processing, such as IoT (Internet of Things) networks and real-time collaborations apps. Its native Stream API makes it an excellent choice for streaming apps. It may lack the deep knowledge base and history of PHP, but it makes up for its comparative youth with speed, both in development and running of applications.

Whether you choose PHP or Node.js will depend largely on the nature of the project and the speed of development required. E-commerce sites, blogs, news sites, and applications with CPU-heavy graphics processing or the need for a relational database will perform better with PHP, which is a more standardized, proven solution with a wide base of hosting support. Newer real-time and single-page applications and those fielding multiple concurrent requests, however, will tend to function better with Node.js given its multiple strengths in these areas.

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