Tuesday 17 August 2010

In Praise of Robust Tools and of The Future™

One of the best points about doing Web development in PHP is that it's so widely used; several respectable estimates by organizations that get paid to find these things out say that some varying number north of 50% of all sites on the World Wide Web use PHP as their implementation language. This includes numerous content management systems, or CMS, such as WordPress, Joomla! and Drupal.

One of the far-less-good points about doing Web development in PHP is that it's so widely used; the (evolving) "standard" set of tools, in true open-source fashion, are assembled and maintained by an ad-hoc band of individual and small-corporate luminaries, on infrastructure that worked just fine back when any given server was hit a couple of thousand times a year; by continuing to rely on (what to the outside Net appear to be) individual servers without terribly huge pipes connecting them to the larger Internet, the infrastructure completely fails when that's scaled up by a factor of a thousand or ten.

Web developers using PHP are highly dependent on an extension architecture/platform called PEAR, the "PHP Extension and Application Repository." Singular. Well, for any given extension or application, it's singular. So, as the user base scales upwards, popular tools that go through a vigorous release cycle, the servers they're hosted on (and network choke points between large subsets of users and those servers) start having reliability problems; transfers slow to a crawl, or fizzle out entirely. (One such transfer this evening proceeded at a sedate 600 bytes per second. Not kilobytes: bytes. That's 1980s dial-up speed.)

Developers in other languages have similar tools; Rubyists have gems available from sites like rubygems.org; Pythonistas have eggs. But somehow I hear a lot less grumbling, and do less of my own, when the subjects of gems or eggs come up; they seem to Just Work™ – which indicates that the network infrastructure is a lot more robust; either larger "pipes" and/or more, distributed servers such as with a CDN.

Trying to access servers like this from Second World cities like Singapore that apparently devote more resources to content filtering/monitoring than easing congestion doesn't help either. Hey, SingNet and M"D"A, how come it takes ten hops to get off an island that's barely that many miles across? If we want to plug Singapore into the "new global economy," having grotesquely under-resourced connections is not helpful.

But back to the main subject: If PHP is going to continue its phenomenally successful growth, then the infrastructure is going to have to decentralise, aggressively. Having essential tools like PEAR and the PHPUnit repository available only from a single point ensures that single points of failure will continue to seriously compromise the PHP ecosystem. No access to servers, no access to tools. No access to tools, then development of PHP artifacts with reasonable efficiency and economy is severely degraded.

In other words, the status quo is a limiting factor on future growth and success. However, as many will be quick to point out, building infrastructure costs money – for hardware, for connectivity, for the paid labour of skilled craftspeople and professionals to create, install, operate and maintain this enhanced infrastructure. No explicit means of funding such an endeavour presently exists, at least not to my knowledge.

So where do we go from here, PHP community?>

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