Web development #4: PHP in the back

Missed me? It’s been a while since I last blogged (about three months). I’ve been busy moving to my own house and getting up-to-speed at a new job. Lots of good stuff, but no blogging. Well today is the day I’m picking this up again and I’m just going to act like it’s three months ago and continue with the series.

  1. Web development #1: Internet and the World Wide Web
  2. Web development #2: Our first website using HTML
  3. Web development #3: Styling our page with CSS 3
  4. Web development #4: PHP in the back
  5. Web development #5: User input with HTML Forms
  6. Web development #6: Getting interactive with JavaScript
  7. Web development #7: Dynamic page updates with AJAX
  8. Web development #8: Where to go from here

So in the previous installments we’ve created a web page using HTML and CSS. We can actually build pretty nice websites using just those, but we still run into some trouble. What if we wanted to add content to our site? We’d have to edit our HTML each time. What if we wanted to display our website in multiple languages? What if we wanted users to be able to add content to the site (such as a blog)? In other words, we want our content to be dynamic. That’s all not possible using just HTML and CSS. We’re going to need a bit more. We’re going to need something creating our HTML on the back-end.

For this blog post I assume you are familiar with HTML and CSS, which you can read about in my previous blog posts, and that you’ve worked with some programming language before, preferably some C-based language such as C# or Java.

Introduction to PHP

So our back-end is just a server listening for requests. Whenever a request comes in we want to handle it and send a response (such as an HTML web page). We can handle these requests with a variety of tools and languages, but for this article I’m using PHP.

Why PHP? First of all it’s free. Second, it’s one of the most popular web languages that has been around for a good long while. It has a huge community and lots of documentation and tutorials. Third, virtually all web hosts, even the free ones, have support for PHP. Other languages, such as C#, are not always supported. Last, but not least, PHP is quite easy to learn because it can be pretty lightweight. Actually I’m simply going to write my PHP in Notepad++.

So PHP was created twenty years ago, in 1995, by Rasmus Lerdorf. Back then the PHP stood for Personal Home Page. They changed it to PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor, making it a recursive acronym (because the first P stands for PHP, of which the first P stands for PHP, of which the first P…). Clever, huh? Anyway, PHP is a scripting language, meaning it is interpreted rather than compiled. It’s also procedural, object oriented, weakly typed and it has C-based syntax. Enough talking, let’s code!

Setting up your environment

Unfortunately we can’t code just yet. Remember that your browser renders HTML and CSS. It can also run JavaScript (which I will discuss in another blog post), but it can’t execute PHP files. Usually your server handles PHP execution. Chances are you don’t have a web server laying around. Luckily you can configure your own PC to act as a web server.

To do this simply install web server software. You have a few choices, but I’m going for XAMPP. You can download XAMPP here and then simply install it (choose all default options, or change them if you know what you’re doing). When the installation is done XAMPP will ask you to start the XAMPP Control Panel. Start it and you’ll see a list of options. We’ll need Apache, so just start it. Now start your favourite browser and navigate to http://localhost. You should see a XAMPP page. Congratulations, you have just installed a (local) web server and you can now run PHP files!

To check if it really works create a new text file and name it “hello.php”. Inside the file place the following text:

    echo "Hello, PHP!";

Now go to the installation folder of XAMPP (you can go there quickly by using the ‘Explorer’ button in the XAMPP Control Panel), find the htdocs folder and place your hello.php file there. Now, in your browser, navigate to http://localhost/hello.php. You should see the text “Hello, PHP!” And now that we’ve got the mandatory Hello world example out of the way let’s start writing some real PHP.

Learning the syntax

So let’s first look at some basic PHP syntax. Basically you’re going to write an HTML page with some PHP in it. The PHP is going to create some text representing more HTML. To indicate that you’re going to use PHP use the <?php open tag and to indicate that you’re done with PHP use the ?> closing tag. You’ve seen this in the example earlier.

The echo, or alternatively the print, statement outputs your code to HTML. In the above example it creates the HTML “Hello, PHP!”, which is just some text. But we could make that echo “<h1>Hello, PHP!</h1>” and we would get a header on our page.

So as I mentioned PHP is weakly, or loosely, typed. That doesn’t mean PHP doesn’t have types, it means a variable can change its type while the code executes. It also means you can add 3 to “3” and the result might be 6 or “33”, so a bit of caution is required when working with weakly typed languages (and in fact PHP always converts text to numeric when adding).
So what are the types in PHP? First we have the int for numerics without fractional components (so 1, 8, 42 and 986 are valid integers, 1.12 is not). Second there is float, or double, for numerics with fractional components. Then we’ve got the boolean or bool for a simple true or false. Next is the string for text (or an array of characters). Then we’ve got the array, or a 0-based indexed collection of stuff. There’s the object type, which encapsulates state and behaviour. And last, and actually pretty literal least, there’s NULL indicating the absence of any value.
Nothing special if you’ve worked with other languages before.

So how do we go about and use these types? Usually we’d want to store them in variables. So how do we declare variables? We actually don’t… Just assign a value to some variable and all of a sudden it’ll be there. It’s a kind of magic! And a variable always start with the $ sign. The typical variable declaration then looks like this:

$intVar = 42;
$floatVar = 3.142;
$boolVar = true;
$stringVar = "Some string"; // Double quotes.
$stringVarAltern = 'Alternative string'; // Single quotes.
$arrayVar = array('Pulp Fiction', 'Fight Club', 'Star Wars');

class person
    public $name = NULL;
    public $age = NULL;

$objectVar = new person();
$objectVar->name = 'Sander';
$objectVar->age = 27;

$nullVar = NULL;

Now aside from the class and objectVar that looks pretty straightforward right? But beware, the following is completely legal (PHP is weakly typed, remember?):

$stringVar = 'Some string';
$stringVar = 42;

Now that’s something you do want to look out for.
There’s something else about strings too. See how you can declare a string using single or double quotes? Well, the double quote strings are interpreted strings, meaning that any variable name you place in there will be evaluated before the string prints. If you ever need to concatenate string you can use the . operator.

$hello = 'Hello';
echo '$hello world!'; // Outputs $hello world!
echo "$hello world!"; // Outputs Hello world!
echo "$helloish world!"; // Error, $helloish is undefined!
echo "{$hello}ish world!"; // Outputs Helloish world!
echo 'Conc' . 'aten' . 'ate!'; // Outputs Concatenate!

Another thing that might surprise you is that PHP can treat anything as a boolean! Any non-default value will be true while all default values will be false, also called truthy and falsey. The next example uses an if/else statement to illustrate this. Try playing around with it.

if ("Hello") // Try 0, '', '0', 0.1, NULL and array().
    echo "Yep...";
    echo "Nope!";

So I’ve also shown you an if/else statement. Let’s look at some loops too.

$movies = array('Pulp Fiction', 'Fight Club', 'Star Wars');

for ($i = 0; $i < count($movies); $i++)
    echo "$movies[$i] <br>";

foreach ($movies as $movie)
    echo "$movie <br>";

Now there’s actually quite something going on there! First we initialize an array, which we’ve seen before. Now in the first for loop we start by declaring our counter variable $i, then we do a boolean test to check if we need to loop once more and finally we do an update (increment $i) after each iteration. In the boolean check we also use the count(array) function to check if we still have more elements in the array. Ideally you would perform this count outside of the statement so it only gets performed once.
The second loop is a bit more readable. I’m basically saying “for each element, which I will call $movie, in the array $movies do this…”. Now in the loop’s body you can freely use the current element using the $movie variable.
There are also do– and while loops, but I won’t discuss them here. For a programmer this shouldn’t be anything new!

Writing a page

Now let’s write an entire page. Usually you’d have a database, such as MySQL, running, but that’s a bit overkill for this post. So we’re going to read lines of text from a text file and show them on the page. You’ll see that you can update your page without actually modifying your HTML or PHP file.

So let’s first take the example with my favourite movies. We’re going to put our favourite movies in a text file and print them on our page. So create a new PHP file, call it movies.php and put it in the hpdocs folder (which is in your XAMPP folder). Now create a text file called movies.txt and put it in your htdocs folder with your PHP file. You can put some movie names in your text file. Each name goes on a seperate line (I’m calling it movies, but any value would suffice, of course).

For this example I’m going to use an unordered list. I haven’t shown this yet, but the HTML is as follows:

<ul> <!-- Unordered List -->
    <li>Some item</li> <!-- List item -->
    <li>Another item</li>
    <li>Third item</li>

You could also use an ordered list, in which case you’d use <ol> tags instead of <ul> tags.

So your PHP file could look like this (excluding the !DOCTYPE, html, header and body tags):

<h1>My favourite movies!</h1>
        if (file_exists('movies.txt'))
            echo '<ul>';
            $lines = file('movies.txt');
            foreach ($lines as $line)
                echo "<li>$line</li>";
            echo '</ul>';
            echo 'No favourite movies found!';

So using the PHP function file_exists(string) we’re first checking if the movies.txt file exists at all. If it doesn’t we’ll simply show “No favourite movies found!”, but if it does we’re going to create an unordered list and read the files contents using the file(string) function. The file(string) function reads all lines of a file and puts them in an array. There’s more functions for file manipulation, but I won’t discuss them here. Next we’re looping through the lines we just got from the file. For each line we’re appending a list item element to our HTML. When all the lines are processed we close our unordered list.
And that’s our page! You can view it by navigating to http://localhost/movies.php. You can use some CSS to make it look a bit prettier and you’ll probably want to add some content too.

Now imagine you’d get that out of a database? Pretty neat, huh!


Now there are times when you have certain code that you want to reuse. Let’s say we want to create another unordered list based on another file. The same rules apply, except maybe we don’t have movies, but songs that we’d like to display. We can create function for this and have the filename passed in as a parameter. So let’s look at how we can put the code above in a function. At the top of your page put the following:

    function fileAsUnorderedList($fileName, $notFoundMessage)
        if (file_exists($fileName))
            echo "<ul>";
            $lines = file($fileName);
            foreach ($lines as $line)
                 echo "<li>$line</li>";
            echo "</ul>";
            echo $notFoundMessage;

As you can see we’ve defined a function that does the same as our previous code, except the filename and the message when the file is not found are passed in as parameters. Now how can we call this?

<h1>My favourite movies!</h1>
        fileAsUnorderedList('movies.txt', 'No favourite movies found!');
<h1>My favourite music!</h1>
        fileAsUnorderedList('music.txt', 'No favourite music found!');

And look at that! You can now add a second text file to your htdocs folder and your favourite music will be displayed the same as your movies. You still see almost identical code here, so we could change our function and make it do a bit more or we could create a second function that creates the header and paragraph for us.

And what if you wanted to use this function on other pages? Simply put the function in a seperate file and include the following line of code in the PHP file where you want to use the function.

<?php include("MyFunctions.php"); ?>

If you want to further organize your code, and you’ll want that, you’ll have to use objects and namespaces. You’ve already seen a little example of an object earlier and I’m leaving it at that. Be careful with putting functions directly in your files though. What if two files you want to include contain the same functions (or variables)!? You’d have a problem. Using objects and namespaces help toward preventing this.

So that was a very short introduction to PHP. Probably shorter than it deserves. PHP has lots of functions, libraries, third party tooling and a large and active community. If you want to learn more about PHP I suggest you start by Googling for tutorials or perhaps read a book about it. For now you’ve created your first website with dynamic content using a server-side language though! In my next post (which won’t take me another three months) we’ll look at sending data from our website to the server so we can use our page to add movies or music to the text files.

Stay tuned!


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