How Do PHP Updates By Your Web Host Impact Your Website?

With the rise of the internet, the number of websites being developed for everything, from leisure, education to business, ecommerce and all kinds of industries, are increasing. PHP, the server-side scripting language has made it so much easier for web developers/owners to build dynamic websites that are able to handle databases and also be customized for unique visitors. PHP stands out among similar scripting languages such as CGI, ASP, JSP and ColdFusion because of its tested technology that has been used for two decades by millions across the world, for the development of high class websites with implementation of dynamic features, content or images.

What is PHP?

PHP, short for “Hypertext Preprocessor” is free, being offered under an open source license by Apache Software Foundation. This general purpose scripting language and interpreter is not just used to create dynamic web pages but it can also collect form data for presentation on web pages, or send and receive cookies. PHP is particularly good at disk access, networking, and text manipulation too. PHP works well on both Linux and Windows, and most web servers have support for it so it is easy to find hosting with PHP pre-installed.

This open source programming language has also been used to build large traffic websites such as Facebook, Wikipedia, and others. OpenCart, osCommerce are also some of the open source shopping cart scripts using PHP language. Even popular content management systems (CMS) such as WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal are PHP powered. But even the most powerful and secure CMS on the planet cannot protect your site, if you are running old versions of PHP. When a site gets hacked, people are quick to criticize the CMS without realizing that it could be the fault of their server stack. Remember that as a site owner, it is ultimately your responsibility to look after and nurture your website to maximize the benefits from it. If you are wondering how updates to the version of PHP will affect your website or blog, keep reading.

Why Do You Need To Perform PHP updates On Your Server?

Websites get hacked regularly. Weaknesses in sites are exploited for spamming or mal-advertising or even for spreading malware. If you suffer from it won’t happen to me syndrome, it most probably will. There are new security loopholes being discovered daily, which need to be taken care of promptly and your website coding needs to be looked after well. Websites need regular maintenance and TLC, including website updates and rebuilds. Updating PHP and the scripts you use is important for the future of your website.

The PHP version that your website runs on does affect the security, speed and performance of your website. Newer PHP versions fix security holes of old ones and optimize delivery of web content. You can check out the impact and severity of security vulnerabilities of previous PHP versions on CVEDETAILS. In order to secure your website, it is important to update your webhosting package to the latest version, which is PHP 7.1. PHP is also constantly being updated to bring a greater jump in speed and additional features for developers to help improve performance.

It may also be necessary to update the version of PHP on your server because the installed plugins and scripts are no longer compatible with the version you’re using. You may find conflicts with the version you are using and the plugins, themes or scripts installed. It may even be that the minimum requirements to run the CMS you are using have been bumped up.

A PHP updates may also be needed in order to switch to a stable version or even if you want to test a different version on a staging site.

Your website will load faster, and run more efficiently if you are using the current PHP version to power your site so PHP updates are highly recommended.

New Features In PHP 7

PHP version 7 has been a significant version update in terms of new features, general changes and improvements and it is recommended that you use the latest software versions whenever possible. PHP 7 is twice as fast as PHP 5.6 and definitely more stable than previous PHP versions because of the way errors are handled. Take a look at the official PHP update documentation.

The new version of PHP is based on the PHPNG project (PHP Next-Gen), to maximize the performance of real-world apps and it even performs faster than HHVM, built by Facebook.

PHP 7 uses a new version of Zend Engine to execute your code faster than all previous versions and the significant drop in memory usage ensures fewer servers are required to handle the same amount of requests per second.

There are two new operators- Spaceship (Combined Comparison) and Null Coalescing- that have been introduced to accomplish tasks in all conditions. The Spaceship operator makes chained comparison more concise, whereas the Null Coalescing operator is used to check if something exists.

In the new PHP version, developers are allowed to use Return & Scalar type declarations for functions to prevent them passing and returning wrong types which can lead to unpredictable behavior in code.

Many fatal errors are converted to exceptions in the brand new Zend engine to facilitate error handling in your application so that developers can take appropriate action immediately.

Version 7 features consistent 64-bit integer support so that you can run PHP on Windows powered system.

A new syntax, called Group Use Declarations, has been introduced to enable importing multiple classes from the same PHP namespace. It helps make your code shorter and readable.

The new version of PHP also allows anonymous classes in your code, just like in Java to speed up execution time.

Abstract Syntax Tree (AST) can now be used as an intermediary stage in the language compilation process for better optimizations, to implement tools like static code analyzers and improve code quality.

PHP 7 is now even faster because it has removed deprecated functionalities, unsupported Server APIs and extensions, such as PHP4 style constructors, ASP style tags, ereg and MySQL extensions etc.

Best Practices To Follow When Updating PHP

There are certain drawbacks to upgrading PHP versions too that you should carefully consider and plan for. Many PHP versions include improvements that can make certain parts of older versions obsolete. And in some cases, older versions, such as PHP 4, are no longer supported. Here are some best practices to prevent any issues before, during and after updating PHP

If your site relies on plugins, themes or scripts dependent on outdated PHP code and you upgrade to a newer version of PHP, it can result in compatibility issues. Any compatibility issues with the latest version of PHP can partially or completely break your site. Before performing a PHP version update on their servers, most of the hosting providers send a notification to site owners. To ensure you benefit from the performance improvements in PHP, you must ensure that your website scripts (WordPress, Joomla and Drupal) are up to date and enabling PHP 7. Before migrating to a new PHP version, you should update all themes and plugins related to your site. There are plugins available to automatically scan your site to determine whether your site would be compatible with PHP updates.

Even if known PHP updates will not break your website, it is good practice to always have a fallback backup of your website and scripts. Even though most hosting services offer daily backups, you should always have a saved copy of your site, PHP scripts and database on multiple locations. This allows you to do a quick rollback, in case of any unforeseen disaster on your site during the upgrade.

Contact Your Hosting Provider

While it is important to have the option to update to the latest PHP version, your web host should offer multiple PHP versions so that you can run scripts that support older versions of PHP as well. This gives you the option to decide which one to use on your account.

All web hosts offer a number of PHP extensions. If your website requires a specific PHP extension to run, you have to make sure that your host has it installed. If you cannot find information on a certain PHP extension, get in touch with your web host’s technical support team. Your web host should offer online support to help you install new extensions or new PHO versions. You need to watch for notifications from your web host and inform your hosting provider immediately if you find anything going wrong.