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PHP vs Node.js—what’s the difference? Both power the backend of dynamic websites, but with distinct differences.

PHP is one of the most mature, ubiquitous server-side scripts on the web. Node.js is not a script but a back-end development environment that’s written in JavaScript—until then, a strictly client-side script. However, Node.js made it possible to use JavaScript programming on the server side when it was introduced in 2009, fueling the rise of sites with entirely JavaScript-powered stacks across the front- and back-ends.

With that, back-end developers were more given the option to weigh PHP vs. JavaScript, a comparison you can read about in this article. Here, we’ll discuss PHP and Node.js, with key similarities and differences between these two technologies.

What is PHP?

PHP (Hypertext Preprocessor) is a general purpose scripting language that quickly became the de facto server-side language of choice for web developers after its initial release in 1995. Today, a majority of sites on the web run on PHP, due in large part to its popularity as the language of choice for content management systems (CMS) like WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla and a number of modern frameworks like Laravel, Symfony, and CakePHP that have accelerated development with this mature language.

What is Node.js?

JavaScript is a scripting language that typically runs in the browser and makes web pages dynamic and interactive, but ever since the release of Node.js in 2009, it became possible to perform asynchronous coding with JavaScript on the back end. Node.js is a development and runtime environment with a multitude of available frameworks that run on top of it.

PHP vs Node.js: Major Similarities

There are some top-level similarities to consider when deciding which back-end technology is best for you.

  • Interpreted languages. Both PHP and JavaScript, the language behind Node.js, are what you call interpreted languages, or “scripts”—the code can be run as-is in their respective runtime environments (browser for JavaScript; server for PHP). Both PHP and JavaScript are great for beginners and veterans alike.

PHP vs Node.js: Major Differences

While both are server-side technologies, there are a few differences between a PHP back-end and a JavaScript-powered back-end via Node.js.

  • Runtime environments. While both JavaScript and PHP can be embedded directly into HTML, they both need an interpreter in order to run. PHP has long been readily straightforward to install and use on the server-side, and is powered by the Zend engine. Node.js is a runtime environment for JavaScript on the server side, powered by Google’s V8 JavaScript engine.
  • PHP is simpler. PHP is conceptually much simpler to use than Node.js. When setting up a server, all you need is a “.php” file with some code wrapped between the tags, enter the URL into your browser, and you’re done. Behind the scenes, a web server with MySQL with PHP installed will be able to interpret the file and display your web page in your browser. Setting up a Node.js-powered server, while not difficult, usually requires more lines of code, and a basic understanding of how closures and callback functions work.
  • Concurrency. PHP, like most server-side languages, uses multi-threaded, blocking I/O to carry out multiple tasks in parallel. JavaScript is unique in that it uses a few tricks (event loop + Node clustering) to achieve an event-driven, non-blocking I/O execution model that uses a single main thread of execution. PHP is a mature language and has found its own way to achieve asynchronous processing—most notably through the HHVM project released by Facebook.
  • JSON. JSON “JavaScript Object Notation” is a lightweight data format that gives Node.js an edge when dealing with JSON. While PHP can work with JSON, it’s more situational.

When Should You Use PHP or Node.js?

Both are back-end technologies, but Node.js can offer an advantage if you’re looking to have a totally JavaScript technology stack across both the front and back ends. If you’re trying to choose between back-end technologies or are building an entire solution stack, it helps to go into a little more detail.

You should consider PHP if your project involves…

  • Software stacks like the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP)
  • CMS’s like WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla etc.
  • Servers like MariaDB, Oracle, Sybase, and Postgresql etc.

You should consider Node.js if your project involves…

  • Software stacks like the MEAN stack (MongoDB, Express.js, AngularJS)
  • Dynamic single page applications (SPAs)
  • Front-end technologies like jQuery, AngularJS, Backbone.js, Ember.js, ReactJS etc.
  • Server-side technologies like, MongoDB, Express.js, etc.

Keep in mind that neither list is extensive. These are only meant as a starting point to help you get a feel for what you can expect and what keywords you can use to assess the best language for your needs.

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