Who pays for PHP?

Last updated 166 days ago by Sebastian Bergmann

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One of the main differences between an Open Source project and commercial software is that the latter, at least within reasonable boundaries, is guaranteed funding. When it comes to Open Source projects, there is a broad spectrum that ranges from projects that are being backed by a full-fledged, non-profit organisation such as the Mozilla Foundation, to projects that are merely comprised of a community of collaborating enthusiasts, with neither a formal body behind it, nor a reliable source of money.

It often comes as a surprise to people that PHP, despite its pervasiveness, has no formal body supporting it. Granted, in the PHP ecosystem many such organisations exist, for example the Drupal Association, Joomla Foundation, NEOS Foundation, TYPO3 Association, or the WordPress Foundation, to name just a few.

The PHP project itself has always been special because it never had any formal representation. Instead it has always been driven by people that either worked on PHP in their spare time, or were allowed to work on PHP as part of their job. This has been popularized quite a few years ago by Google, when they allowed developers to spend twenty percent of their work time on Open Source projects. But even before the rising popularity of those so-called Twenty Percent projects, companies such as Yahoo allowed employees to engage in Open Source software, specifically PHP. This is not surprising, given the fact that Yahoo was running on PHP. Helping to build an Open Source project that powers your business will invite other contributors that give back to the project, so you get work done "for free". Effectively, this means investing developer time rather than paying money to a commercial vendor. Compared to buying a commercial software licence, you even have a greater degree of control over the project.

This model has worked very well for the PHP project. When IBM was working on what was then called Project Zero, an alternative PHP runtime that was able to execute PHP code on the Java Virtual Machine (JVM), some of their engineers, led by Zoe Slattery, significantly contributed to the quality assurance of PHP itself. They did so in order to document the status quo and prove that their implementation of PHP worked exactly like the official implementation developed by the PHP project. Facebook, even while they were developing the alternative PHP runtime environments HipHop and HHVM, employed a number of PHP core developers that made contributions to PHP 7. The founding father of PHP, Rasmus Lerdorf, currently works at Etsy, another enterprise which realized that contributing to the Open Source platform your business is built on makes perfect sense, especially from an economic point of view.

For the PHP core, there was a company, Zend, that has at least claimed to be the company behind PHP. Given the fact that its two founders, Zeev Suraski and Andi Gutmans, were the original developers of the Zend Engine, PHP's compiling and executing kernel since version 3, there was definitely some truth to this claim. Zend's actual role in the PHP project, however, has often been disputed. But they have paid a core developer, Dmitry Stogov, to work on PHP at least part-time. Recently Rogue Wave, the company that owns Zend since 2015, has announced that they want to cease supporting any Open Source development efforts related to PHP. Rogue Wave has clearly not understood the economics of Open Source.

One very active core contributor of PHP, in fact one of the main driving forces behind PHP 7, is Berlin-based developer extraordinaire Nikita Popov. When we saw his first contributions to PHP show up, he was still a minor, which did not keep him from already studying at university.

A few weeks ago, Nikita announced that he had gradudated. While from a qualification standpoint, this certainly did not come as a surprise to us, it certainly raised some questions about the future relationship between Nikita and the PHP project. Would he be able to continue to contribute to PHP?

Earlier this month, JetBrains, the company behind PhpStorm, the IDE that is considered market-leading by a large number of PHP developers, announced that Nikita had joined their team. This is great news, because it clearly demonstrates not only that JetBrains is willing to support the PHP project itself, but also that earning credibility by contributing to an Open Source project does indeed help you get a good job. Congratulations to Nikita and JetBrains! To quote Garrick Ollivander: "It is clear that we can expect great things from you".

PHP will continue to thrive, even without a foundation behind it. However, we have realized that it is not easy for companies, especially in Germany, to give back to PHP. Therefore, together with Interessengemeinschaft PHP e.V. and some key members of the PHP project, we have worked out something to address this problem. Official announcements will be made soon. We will keep you posted.

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