A monitor displays the logos for PHP and Node.js, comparing the two technologies
June 13, 2024

PHP vs. Node.JS: What's Best for Your Web App?

PHP Development

When building a web application, you may find yourself considering PHP and Node.js as back-end options. Both provide powerful results, but it's important to evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, and use cases of each technology before making your decision.

In this blog, I compare PHP vs. Node.js, looking at performance, security, and other features. I discuss their key similarities and differences while providing expert insight, assisting you as you decide which option is your web app's best choice.

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PHP vs. Node.js: Overview

Before we jump into comparing PHP vs. Node.js, it’s important to understand the history and functionalities of each. While they are both server-side back-end technologies, each comes with different features, benefits, and use cases. Let’s break down the basics.

What Is PHP?

PHP is one of the most widely used scripting languages in web application development. It delivers server-side programming and comes with well-established community support.

PHP started in 1994, and it is well-known for its ease of learning and quick adoption. It offers flexibility and compatibility with a variety of content management systems, web servers, and other environments. 

PHP runs on almost any platform, including Linux, Microsoft Windows, and proprietary platforms like IBM i. It’s versatility of use means that developers can use PHP to write in both procedural and object-oriented styles.

What Is Node.js?

Node.js is not a language, and it is not a framework, which makes it quite an interesting beast. It is a cross-platform JavaScript runtime environment.

Node.js was created by Ryan Dahl around 2009, and it runs on Google’s Open Source V8 JavaScript Engine, which is embedded in many browsers. In a nutshell, Node.js is all about running JavaScript on the server or, as we like to position it, the back end. It was created initially to address the limitations of the Apache handler.

Like many open source languages, Node.js does not travel alone, as one of its keys to success is the Node Package Manager — or NPM. We’ll get into a lengthy discussion about that in a bit, but if you like OPC (Other People’s Code), you’ll love Node.js and NPM.

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PHP vs. Node.js: Key Similarities

We begin our comparison of PHP vs. Node.js by examining the key similarities between the two technologies.

Node.js and PHP are both back-end web technologies, meaning their primary purpose is to do the same things, such as retrieving data, accessing business logs, scaling for workload, and more. They are both cross-platform technologies that are well-represented in cloud infrastructure such as AWS and Azure. PHP and Node.js both enjoy large ecosystems with active community support that ensures frequent changes and rapid response to CVEs.

PHP and Node.js also share similar future outlooks. Stewardship is provided for each technology through their respective open source licensing and foundations working to cement a path forward, including funding core development and addressing issues and fixes.

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PHP vs. Node.js: Key Differences

Now that we’ve established the similarities of PHP vs Node.js, let’s look at some of the critical differences that may impact your web application’s overall performance, security, and function.

Performance and Release Cycles

While both PHP and Node.js have annual release cycles, a few key differences quickly become apparent when comparing the two technologies, particularly looking at PHP vs Node.js performance in relation to release cycles.

Node.js uses an even and odd number system. Each odd-numbered release is more of a public beta for the following even-numbered release, which is usually around April. Therefore, you should never go into production with an odd-numbered Node.js release.

Each November, the PHP community produces its latest release, which has already been through a beta cycle. This means there’s no need to worry about the release number. PHP as a language itself is written C with some C++ components, while the JavaScript engines are written in C++, ensuring good performance of the actual code itself.

The PHP Community Support Lifecycle Is Changing

In 2024, the PHP feature release cycle will change for the first time since 2011. Zend Product Manager Matthew Weier O’Phinney discusses what’s new, what’s the same, and what it all means for your team.

PHP Release Cycle Updates

Frameworks and More

It is difficult to discern where the line begins and ends on a framework over a runtime. Many in the community insist that Node.js is a framework, while several will indicate it is a runtime. I would argue that it is both, with the secret sauce again being the implementation of the V8 engine on the server. With that said, PHP is clearly a language, and the runtime of PHP might be considered to be the stack of extensions that make it extremely useful.

With that said, there are many frameworks in both spaces maintained by very loyal community members.

NPM vs. Packagist

I would like to take a minute to address the elePHPant in the room, however, which is the modules of each of these communities. With any open source technology, the key is reuse of OPC. Scaffolding a solution on the shoulders of giants — or maybe just some really good developers — has been critical to many companies’ successes in the last twenty years, with both PHP (Packagist) and Node.js (NPM) drafted into their architectures for many reasons.

However, the package management of Node.js does give me pause, given its length and breadth. Having options can be an attractive feature, but too many can incapacitate a team via analysis paralysis. While one could argue that the sheer number of packages at NPM for Node.js is more attractive than the number at Packagist for PHP, but I would offer another allegory: you can use any boat to fish in a pond, a lake, or an ocean, but your choice of boat will determine your success in your environment.

A chart showing the module counts for PHP and Node.js over the past year
Source: www.modulecounts.com

NPM and Node.js can be a bit of an ocean, and with that ocean can come calm or chaos. By comparison, Packagist and PHP are closer to a lake or a pond, offering more stability in an ecosystem. This is not to say that Node.js and NPM are inherently bad. I am offering that the PHP ecosystem, with its oft maligned maturity, brings about a reliable stability that is very attractive to organizations that prefer predictability.

I found one example on ycombinator.com that illustrated the construction of a simple webapp with barely 1,000 lines of code and three packages. The node modules folder had over 1,000 items in it and took up 350 MB of space. I firmly believe that OPC is a good thing, but maybe too much of a good thing could lead to projects that are difficult to implement or maintain. 

PHP vs. Node.js: Security and Event-Driven Architecture

I believe good architecture from the start is a key to success, and having a good architect from the beginning will help in any technology. In the early days of PHP, there were a lot of folks who adopted the technology because of its ease of use and quick prototyping. This led to a serious issue in the community where inexperienced folks were doing a terrible job securing their sites, giving PHP a bit of a black eye.

Like Node.js, PHP is not inherently bad. But as PHP has added guard rails to the language in the last several releases, Node.js appears to be struggling to administer such a form. For Node.js, investing in a serious architect is essential in the early phases of development. In comparison, adopting a solid PHP framework can stay investment in that for a bit.

Asynchronous I/O Loop

The idea of non-blocking I/O is a foundation of Node.js, and it is a brass ring that many in the Node.js community will reach for. Node.js provides a mechanism in that all the I/O methods in the standard library provide asynchronous versions. 

The idea is that parallelism at the server level can be achieved quite easily. When a request needs to be run before anything else, the “blocking” version of the method can be used. But if the I/O can be run while other processes continue, the asynchronous version is called. From the Event Loop, the asynchronous version is nearly always employed, ensuring that a process will never stop or time out.

This feature is what really made Node.js popular and differentiated it as a solution. However, other languages have since implemented this kind of behavior. For example, in PHP 8.1, Fibers were added so PHP can behave in a similar asynchronous fashion

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I mentioned that PHP has added guard rails in recent releases. There is also the Framework Interop Group, or PHP-Fig, that has added value to the maturity of the language. This group of volunteers from the PHP community have established coding standards for PHP, which is a good trend we are seeing in many open source technologies. It brings about a greater consistency in how the language is used and facilitates code interoperability between projects. While nothing is a panacea, the PHP-Fig has enabled components between Laravel, Laminas, and Symfony frameworks to be blended much more easily than in the past.

Node.js does not have as great an advantage. It does, however, offer a style guide that is slowly being adopted by the community around this. I expect as the community grows and matures, the NPM chaos we are living through today will abate.

Learning Curve

The speed for adopting a development tool is an essential element of its success. There is a great deal of truth and myth associated with this when exploring PHP vs. Node.js. I will attempt to broach these misconceptions with a careful eye toward reality, but your mileage may vary.

JavaScript Myth #1: Front End Developers Make Good Back End Developers

One reason to consider Node.js for the back end lies in the idea that a company may already have an investment in JavaScript talent for the front end. Why not do the back end in JavaScript too?

Certainly, a full stack developer could be a tremendous benefit in stratifying over a single technology. However, the overwhelming number of folks in Enterprise applications seem to specialize more in back-end or front-end development with only occasional crossover. While the language of JavaScript might be similar, the libraries used to implement the front and back end are usually quite different. Front end tends to focus on the UI/UX paradigm, and back end tends to focus on database and business logic.

JavaScript Myth #2: It Is Easy For Front End Developers to Learn the Back End

I highly recommend asking your front-end developers if they’re interested in learning the back end. This may sound heretical, but someone may not be interested in learning the back end as they simply prefer or enjoy working with front-end technology. While good front-end developers are constantly evolving their skills, back end is an entirely different paradigm.

Some of the things that back-end developers take for granted is the knowledge of a database, something many front-end development jobs do not require. Also, how is the back end constructed? Is it API centric or monolithic? Is it an ORM accessing multiple disparate data sources or MySQL calls directly from the code? Each of these considerations contain its own Node.js learning curve, impacting if Node.js is the best choice for your web application.

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PHP vs. Node.js: At-A-Glance Comparison




Language Type Server-side scripting language Server-side JavaScript runtime 
Syntax C-like syntax JavaScript syntax 
Platform Cross-platform (Windows, Linux, macOS) Cross-platform (Windows, Linux, macOS) 
Performance Generally slower compared to Node.js Generally faster compared to PHP 
Scalability Limited scalability due to synchronous nature High scalability due to asynchronous, non-blocking I/O 
Frameworks Laravel, Symfony, CodeIgniter, etc. Express.js, Meteor.js, Sails.js, etc. 
Community Large community support Rapidly growing community 
Asynchronous I/O Achievable but requires additional libraries or extensions Built-in support for asynchronous I/O 
Real-time Apps Requires additional setup for real-time applications Well-suited for real-time applications with WebSocket support 
Learning Curve Moderate Moderate to steep depending on familiarity with JavaScript 
Hosting Options Widely supported by most web hosting services Widely supported by most web hosting services 
License and stewardshipPHP Licenses based on BSD, PHP FoundationPermissive MIT license, OpenJS Foundation
Popularity Widely used in traditional web development Increasingly popular for modern web development, particularly for IoT style applications 
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Final Thoughts

Both PHP and Node.js are able to be leveraged effectively in a web development environment. Companies worldwide have implemented either or both as the need arises. It is hard to state which one is best for which use case since they both provide many similar behaviors and can match each other in features, performance, and scale.

While both have staunch defenders, the winner of the back-end PHP vs. Node.js battle will depend on your project requirements, developer team proficiency, and other factors unique to your business. There is no right or wrong answer — only the best fit for your exact goals.

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Additional Resources

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