Why PHP Versions Matter

An image of hardware tools with the words "Are your web host's tools outdated?"

What is PHP, and why does your server’s version of PHP matter?  

PHP is the primary language WordPress is built upon and the more efficiently it allows your server to interact with your readers’ browser, the better their experience. Advancements in technology bring down costs. Streamlined PHP 7 means more money for you, because you build more quickly with fewer costs.

For starters: How Do I Know Which Version of PHP I’m using?

If you use the Give plugin, we’ve made it staggeringly easy to determine which version of PHP you are using. Navigate to Donations → Tools → System Info (tab) and scroll down to the “Webserver configuration” section. There you’ll see which version of PHP you are using.

A Bit of Philosophy

Imagine I handed you a hammer and 17 nails and told you to build a shed out of a pile of wood. It’s possible, right? You’ll just need to be creative.

Now, imagine I gave you the same assignment with the same pile of wood, but I gave you 57 nails, a nail gun, 15 galvanized lag bolts with nuts, washers, and 13 pieces of steel angle-iron with pre-drilled holes. Sitting on top of the pile of wood is now a hydraulic air wrench and a drill. The job just got a lot easier, right?

Advances in technology bring down production costs. This principle carries across many fields, from assembly lines for automobiles to large agricultural machinery designed to harvest crops more efficiently.

The same thing has happened for web technology with the benefit of a much higher rate of advancement. Advances which took the automobile assembly line many years to streamline because they are changing physical products take web developers a matter of months to change the digital landscape.

PHP is the programming language underscoring WordPress. Without going too terribly far into geek-speak to explain it, simply thinking of it as a language telling computers what to do is helpful.

Languages can be modified, adapted over time for efficiency. The very word “blog” is an example of language adapting to be more efficient: a portmanteau of “web log” which itself is a phrase that makes vastly more efficient the explanation of the process of digital publishing.

A more efficient language is a better language, because you can communicate the same thing in less time.

A Bit of Web History

Version 5.2 of PHP shipped in January of 2011. It was a phenomenally stable release of PHP which served to advance technology and stabilize not only WordPress, but the many other platforms which relied upon it.

Coincidental with the release of PHP 5.2 was a surge in the number of websites in the world, from just over 200,000,000 websites at the end of 2010, the number more than tripled by the end of 2012, to almost 700,000,000 according to Internet Live Stats.

That confluence of maturing web infrastructure and the release of a stable PHP release meant that every web host on the scene quickly began supporting it. Web commerce was still very much a wild west. The same web hosts that began providing “one click” WordPress installs were now burying PHP version update responsibility in their terms and conditions — passing the buck to the site owner.

So, how long does a release last?

Here’s a quote from PHP.net, the official site of all things PHP:

Each release branch of PHP is fully supported for two years from its initial stable release. During this period, bugs and security issues that have been reported are fixed and are released in regular point releases. After this two year period of active support, each branch is then supported for an additional year for critical security issues only. Releases during this period are made on an as-needed basis: there may be multiple point releases, or none, depending on the number of reports. Once the three years of support are completed, the branch reaches its end of life and is no longer supported. A table of end of life branches is available.

Have you seen the perfect storm brewing yet?

A small ship on a rocky sea
Don’t get caught in the Perfect PHP Storm! (pun not intended)

A technology that goes completely stale after three years, installed on web hosts where the onus for updating that technology is placed on users who have neither the understanding of why nor the skills how to update it.

That brings us to 2016, where some web hosts are still chugging along with PHP 5.2 running on their servers. To be clear and fair: lots of hosts have stepped up and updated their users to more recent versions, and they did make it clear in the terms and conditions whose job is was to update it, in the first place.

Since then, 5.3, 5.4, 5.5, and 5.6 were released. Finally, just this year, PHP 7 was released. To use our analogy from above, this release was the nail gun and galvanized bolts for the web operation.

Besides the “it’s no longer supported” argument, are there other reasons to update to PHP 7?

Yes: that brings us back to the pile of wood that is your WordPress site.

Benchmarks are not infallible guides, but early tests are showing that PHP 7 is significantly faster than even it’s most recent older sibling. Fast is good. If you are accepting donations on your WordPress website, fast is the difference between a donation, and no donation.

Fast also means more efficient use of server resources. That means the ability to welcome more concurrent visitors which means, again, more money.

Advancements in technology bring down costs. Streamlined PHP 7 means more money for you, because you can build a better shed, which lasts longer, and you can build it more quickly, which costs less, too.

We could go into all of the specific highly geeky enhancements of PHP 7, but that is better handled here

Learn about PHP and stay informed.

The simple decision to pay attention. Be aware of which version of PHP you are running, and update to PHP 7 with the help of your web host. This could mean dozens of saved man-hours of support for your staff, a better experience for potential donors, and thousands of dollars in donations. When someone hands you a power drill, you might as well plug it in and build a better shed.

Many Give users (myself included) have migrated over to PHP 7.1 or 7.2 and can say, from experience, that Give works great over here! Contact your webhost today to get guidance on switching to a free version of PHP.


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