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Which Back-End to Choose? Node.js vs. PHP

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In this article, we're going to discuss PHP and Node.js: two popular back-end technologies for web applications. We’ll discuss the key differences between them to help you choose the right back-end technology for your next project.

Introduction

First of all, let’s go through what exactly these two back-end technologies are and what they are used for.

PHP

PHP is a recursive acronym for PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor. It is a recursive acronym, so the first 'P' actually stands for PHP! Originally, though, it meant Personal Home Page tools. It was created by Rasmus Lerdorf in 1994.

According to the official PHP documentation:

PHP is a widely-used open source general-purpose scripting language that is especially suited for web development and can be embedded into HTML.

PHP is a server-side (back-end) scripting language, so the code written in the PHP file is executed on the server. The PHP engine on the web server converts all the code written in PHP to HTML, and the resulting web page contains only HTML code when it’s sent to the client for rendering in the user's browser.

PHP is mostly used to build web-based applications. You could use PHP to build a wide range of web apps that might range from a personal blog to full-fledged enterprise-level applications.

Since its inception, PHP has continuously evolved as a programming language. With every new major version, it has added new features and rewritten existing features to improve the overall performance. As of now, the latest stable version is PHP 7, which brings significant improvements over its predecessors.

Node.js

Node.js is a relatively new kid on the block compared to PHP. Initially written by Ryan Dahl in 2009, Node is a JavaScript-based back-end technology.

According to the official documentation:

Node.js is an open-source, cross-platform, back-end JavaScript runtime environment that runs on the V8 engine and executes JavaScript code outside a web browser.

If you're a traditional back-end developer, you've probably used JavaScript as a client-side language to perform tasks like form validation, AJAX calls, DOM manipulations and the like. However, Node allows you to run JavaScript on the server side, and that opens up a whole lot of opportunities to unleash the power of JavaScript as a programming language.

Node is asynchronous and follows an event-driven, non-blocking model by nature. This makes it more efficient for highly multi-threaded applications like web servers, and it results in significantly faster load times. Also, it’s one of the most significant architectural changes compared to other back-end programming languages that execute code synchronously.

Since its inception, Node has become one of the most popular back-end technologies. When developers work with front-end frameworks and libraries like React, AngularJS, Backbone.js and the like, they prefer Node as their back-end language in most cases. This saves the burden of having the front- and back-end parts of the app coded in separate languages. This way, the front- and back-ends can even use the same modules and libraries. Similar to the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) stack which is popular for building PHP websites, there’s the MEAN (MongoDB, Express, AngularJS, and Node.js) stack, which is used for Node-powered websites.

In the next section, we’ll discuss a couple of key differences between Node.js and PHP.

PHP vs. Node.js

In this section, we’ll compare PHP and Node.js based on different parameters.

1. Concurrency: Synchronous vs. Asynchronous

Generally speaking, PHP is synchronous by nature, so it executes code line by line. When PHP code is executed, it waits for the current line to finish execution before it moves to the next line, and thus, it blocks the request.

On the other hand, Node.js is asynchronous by nature, so code doesn't wait for I/O operations to complete their execution. For handling slow operations like I/O or remote data fetching, Node uses callbacks, promises, or JavaScript's built-in async and await keywords. This makes Node.js pretty fast and makes it easy for a Node server to handle a high number of connections.

2. Runtime Environment: Zend Engine vs. V8 JavaScript Engine

PHP runs on the Zend engine, which is an open-source scripting engine which interprets the PHP code.

Node.js is an open-source, cross-platform, back-end JavaScript runtime environment that runs on Google's V8 JavaScript engine.

3. Package Manager: Composer vs. NPM

Package management is one of the gray areas in PHP and has been a topic for debate over the years. There has never been a standard package manager which PHP developers could use to install reusable PHP libraries and components. PEAR was a widely-used package manager for PHP, but can now be thought to be deprecated. However, with initiatives like PHP-FIG and Composer, the PHP community has finally got a reliable system. Composer can be considered the standard package manager for PHP.

On the other hand, Node.js already provides NPM (Node Package Manager), a package management system. It is easy to use NPM to manage Node packages in your application. In fact, NPM has become the de facto standard for sharing reusable JavaScript components.

4. Supported Frameworks

Since PHP is one of the most popular programming languages for building websites for more than two decades, it’s no surprise that you can find a lot of ready-made frameworks and systems that you could use to build applications quickly and effortlessly.

Laravel, CodeIgniter, and Symfony are a few examples of popular PHP web application frameworks, with Laravel probably being the most popular today. You can also find open-source PHP CMS systems like WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla, and eCommerce systems like Magento and WooCommerce that allow you to build and launch web applications in no time.

In the case of Node.js, there are an incredible number of libraries and frameworks. The JavaScript ecosystem is famous for spinning up frameworks at a dizzying pace. Express is one of the most popular frameworks for Node—it can do anything, but it doesn't come with training wheels. Hapi is similar to Express in its approach—it's a flexible, do-anything framework that doesn't come with a lot of default functionality out of the box.

Sails.js takes a different approach. Its philosophy is like Ruby on Rails—a lot of default behavior that makes it easy to build an MVC app. Like Sails, Meteor makes it easy to set up an MVC app back end. However, Meteor goes a step further and integrates a lot of front-end functionality as well, making it a true full-stack framework.

Finally, Next.js is an up-and-coming framework that is specifically designed to work with React apps. Next makes it easy to create a React app with server-side rendering and other optimizations. And NuxtJS is like Next... but for Vue apps.

5. Databases

Traditionally, PHP has been paired with relational database systems (RDBMS) like MySQL, PostgreSQL, MS SQL, and the like. Among them, MySQL is the most popular database for building PHP websites. As we discussed earlier, it’s a part of the popular open-source stack LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP). Having said that, it’s also possible to use NoSQL databases like MongoDB with PHP.

Node.js is best suited to work with NoSQL databases like MongoDB and CouchDB. It can also work with SQL databases, but most developers prefer NoSQL databases with Node.js. With built-in JSON support, Node.js works exceedingly well with NoSQL databases. MongoDB is the most common choice—that's the M in MEAN.

6. Performance

As we discussed earlier, Node.js is asynchronous by nature, and thus, it has superior performance on tasks with a lot of connections or a lot of time-consuming I/O or network operations. However, it’s important to note that Node.js is single-threaded by default, so a CPU-intensive operation in one request will block all connections to the server until it is complete. 

What Should You Choose for Your Next Project?

After briefly discussing PHP and Node.js basics and their differences, there’s a tricky question ahead of you. What are you going to choose for your next project? It’s not straightforward to answer, since it really depends on a number of different parameters.

Over the years, we’ve seen that PHP is used to build a wide range of applications that may range from a personal blog website to full-fledged enterprise-level applications. Generally, we would use PHP to build applications that don't interact much with other servers and don't use a client-side JavaScript framework. One of the main things that might dictate the use of PHP is if you want to use a CMS or framework that is built with PHP: for example WordPress or Laravel.

On the other hand, Node.js is really useful for building applications that deal with real-time data and must be faster and scalable. Use cases like chat applications, real-time statistics display applications, and logging applications are ideal candidates to implement with Node.js. Apart from that, if you are building SPAs (Single Page Applications) that are highly interactive with a server and fetch the majority of their data via APIs, Node.js should be your first choice.

Also, if you’re going to use front-end technologies like React, AngularJS, or Vue.js, it’s preferred to use Node.js as your back-end. It’s really useful to be able to work with the same language on the front-end and back-end. The JavaScript and Node ecosystem is set up to support using the same language across the whole stack.

So it’s really up to you to go through the requirements of your application and decide whether PHP or Node is the best fit for you!

Conclusion

PHP and Node.js are two popular back-end technologies that are used to power a lot of applications on the web. In this article, we discussed their basics along with the key differences. I hope that this article can help you to decide on the back-end technology for your next project!

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