I first used PHP in 1996 (it was called PHP/FI at the time) -- it offered a very innovative alternative to Perl and CGI generated content by making the execution flow out UI embedded logic. I liked it. The language was easy; very Perl-ish. But over the years, other frameworks have emerged that, despite the many improvements PHP has enjoyed, easily eclipse PHP.
PHP's primary strength is its enablement of rapid development of database backended web applications. For prototyping and providing "functional mockups", that's all well and good. But what I'm seeing is that as soon as you want to scale the application along some axis (runtime traffic, i18l, collaborative development, multiple presentation formats), it's difficult to justify sticking with PHP. From what I reckon, a J2EE web tier (servlet container, JSP w/jstl taglibs, MVC i.e. struts, etc) offers a lot of high level infrastructure and, when contrasted with PHP, is a clear winner:
|Content format scaling||If you want to co-brand a PHP site, plan on having conditional logic scattered and tangled all over the UI code. This quickly degrades down into a maintenance nightmare.||A J2EE MVC framework such as Jakarta Struts (with tiles) provides a centralized mechanism to declaritively and programmatically control how content is assembled for presentation.|
|Locale scaling||PHP allow you to extend the runtime with the GNU gettext framework. IMO, this is a difficult to use system; you have to manage PO files that have a peculiar file format.||The standard Java library has ResourceBundle support built-in with a simple file format (properties files) and, again, web tier infrastructure such as the servlet container, JSTL and Struts provides easy-to-use tools to access ResourceBundles.|
|Collaborative scaling||The distinction between UI code and business logic is fuzzy and requires lots of developer discipline to keep it cleanly separated; there's little support in the framework itself. This pretty guarantees closely mingling formatting and display code with lots of logic. Yuck.||While it's certainly possible to write horrible applications with J2EE web infrastructure (i.e. the the fact that you can embed Java code, er, scriptlets, directly into a JSP is a terrible fact of life), the wealth of framework support (JSTL, Struts, etc) makes it easy to follow practices that keep the separation of concerns clean.|
There are other little things in the pro's and con's. PHP can support URL rewriting session tracking without doing anything special in the markup code -- nice that it can do that unintrusively but icky on other counts
All of these points of contrast lay atop the basic structural differences between the PHP and Java languages: Java has Object Oriented Programming (OOP) as a core part of it's design, PHP has OOP as an odd afterthought. Java has real exception handling, PHP awkwardly provides function calls to register error handlers and function to trigger an error. OO is a core element of code modularization, reuse and extension.
Additionally, while I have my misgivings about EJB's and their misuse, EJB's are an established framework for separating the business and persistence tiers from that of the UI. Service oriented architecture (SOA) patterns are also well established amongst the J2EE development community -- this also better enables collaborative development and clean separations of concern, ergo, long term maintainability.
A final point of comparison and contrast is how closely bound PHP is to the web server in a typical architecture. It's nice to have the ability to scale the HTTP interface independently from the application layer. With PHP, the only option there is to run another webserver; a reverse proxy to offload all of the HTTP servicing. With a servlet container there are various options to connect the HTTP interface to the Java engine via a connector. For example with Apache and Tomcat, you can use mod_jk to connect them, and just to sweeten the deal a bit, mod_jk provides a bit of scaffolding to support load balancing.
It's not my intention to sweepingly indict PHP. For the simple stuff, I like it. And I know it's extremely popular ("50 Million Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong!"). But when you get beyond needing "Server Side Includes On Steroids" and have to deploy a scaled up database backended application, PHP's weaknesses come to the foreground. Yea, yea... I know that Yahoo! uses PHP and I bet there's a lot to learn from their experiences with it -- I expect PHP creator Rasmus Lerdorf's employment with Yahoo! to drive a lot of innovation in PHP's future. But at this point in time, for the web application requirements I'm looking at, I gotta give it to J2EE.
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