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PHP 101 (part 1): Down the Rabbit Hole

The Only Acronym You’ll Ever Need
The Right Environment
Start Me Up
A Case of Identity
An Equal Music
Not My Type
Market Value
Stringing Things Along

The Only Acronym You’ll Ever Need

If you’re new to Web development, you could be forgiven for thinking that it
consists of no more than a mass of acronyms, each one more indecipherable than
the last. ASP, CGI, SOAP, XML, HTTP – the list seems never-ending, and
the sheer volume of information on each of these can discourage the most avid
programmer. But before you put on your running shoes and flee, there’s a little
secret you should know. To put together a cutting-edge Web site, chock full of
all the latest bells and whistles, there’s only one acronym you really
need to know:


Now, while you have almost certainly heard of PHP, you may not be
aware of just how powerful the language is, and how much it can do for you.
Today, PHP has the enviable position of being the only open-source server-side
scripting language that’s both fun and easy to learn. This is not just
advertising: recent surveys show that more than 16,000,000 Web sites use PHP
as a server side scripting language, and the language also tops the list of
most popular Apache modules.

Why, you ask? The short answer: it’s powerful, it’s easy to use, and
it’s free. Extremely robust and scalable, PHP can be used for the most
demanding of applications, and delivers excellent performance even at
high loads. Built-in database support means that you can begin creating
data-driven applications immediately, XML support makes it suitable for
the new generation of XML-enabled applications, and the extensible architecture
makes it easy for developers to use it as a framework to build their own
custom modules. Toss in a great manual, a knowledgeable developer community
and a really low price (can you spell f-r-e-e?) and you’ve got the makings
of a winner!

My goal in this series of tutorials is very simple: I’ll be
teaching you the basics of using PHP, and showing you why I think it’s
the best possible tool for Web application development today.
I’ll be making no assumptions about your level of knowledge,
other than that you can understand basic HTML and have a sense of
humor. And before you ask… Yes, this series covers both PHP 4 and
PHP 5, with new PHP 5 features flagged for easy reference.

Let’s get going!

The Right Environment

PHP is typically used in combination with a Web server like Apache.
Requests for PHP scripts are received by the Web server, and are handled
by the PHP interpreter. The results obtained after execution are returned
to the Web server, which takes care of transmitting them to the client
browser. Within the PHP script itself, the sky’s the limit – your
script can perform calculations, process user input, interact with a
database, read and write files… Basically, anything you can do with a
regular programming language, you can do inside your PHP scripts.

From the above, it is clear that in order to begin using PHP, you
need to have a proper development environment set up.

This series will focus on using PHP with the Apache Web server on
Linux, but you can just as easily use PHP with Apache on Windows, UNIX
and Mac OS. Detailed instructions on how to set up this development
environment on each platform are available in the online manual, at – or you can just download a copy of PHP 5 from and read the
installation instructions.

Go do that now, and come back when you’ve successfully installed and tested PHP.

Start Me Up

There’s one essential concept that you need to get your mind around
before we proceed further. Unlike CGI scripts, which require you to
write code to output HTML, PHP lets you embed PHP code in regular HTML
pages, and execute the embedded PHP code when the page is requested.

These embedded PHP commands are enclosed within special start and
end tags, like this:

... PHP code ...


Here’s a simple example that demonstrates how PHP and HTML can be

Agent: So who do you think you are, anyhow?

// print output

echo 'Neo: I am Neo, but my people call me The One.';


Not quite your traditional “Hello, World” program… but then
again, I always thought tradition was over-rated.

Save the above script to a location under your Web server document root, with a
.php extension, and browse to it. You’ll see something like this:


Look at the HTML source:

Agent: So who do you think you are, anyhow?

Neo: I am Neo, but my people call me The One.

What just happened? When you requested the script above, Apache intercepted
your request and handed it off to PHP. PHP then parsed the script,
executing the code between the marks and
replacing it with the output of the code run. The result was then handed
back to the server and transmitted to the client. Since the output contained
valid HTML, the browser was able to render it for display to the user.

A close look at the script will reveal the basic syntactical rules of PHP.
Every PHP statement ends in a semi-colon. This convention is identical to
that used in Perl, and omitting the semi-colon is one of the most common
mistakes newbies make. That said, it is interesting to note that a semi-colon
is not needed to terminate the last line of a PHP block. The
PHP closing tag includes a semi-colon, therefore the following is perfectly
valid PHP code:

// print output

echo 'Neo: I am Neo, but my people call me The One.'


It’s also possible to add comments to your PHP code, as I’ve done in
the example above. PHP supports both single-line and multi-line comment

// this is a single-line comment

/* and this is a


comment */


Blank lines within the PHP tags are ignored by the parser.
Everything outside the tags is also ignored by the parser, and returned
as-is. Only the code between the tags is read and executed.

A Case of Identity

Variables are the bread and butter of every programming language…
and PHP has them too. A variable can be
thought of as a programming construct used to store both numeric and
non-numeric data; the contents of a variable can be altered during
program execution. Finally, variables can be compared with each other,
and you – the programmer – can write code that performs
specific actions on the basis of this comparison.

PHP supports a number of different variable types: integers, floating
point numbers, strings and arrays. In many languages, it’s essential to
specify the variable type before using it: for example, a variable may
need to be specified as type integer or type array.
Give PHP credit for a little intelligence, though: it automagically
determines variable type by the context in which it is being used!

Every variable has a name. In PHP, a variable name is preceded by a
dollar ($) symbol and must begin with a letter or underscore, optionally
followed by more letters, numbers and/or underscores. For example, $popeye, $one and $INCOME are all valid PHP variable names, while $123 and $48hrs are invalid.

Note that variable names in PHP are case sensitive, so $me is
different from $Me or $ME.

Here’s a simple example that demonstrates PHP’s variables:

Agent: So who do you think you are, anyhow?

// define variables

$name = 'Neo';

$rank = 'Anomaly';

$serialNumber = 1;

// print output

echo "Neo: I am $name, the $rank. You can call me by my serial number, $serialNumber.";


Here, the variables $name, $rank and
$serialNumber are first defined with string and numeric
values, and then substituted in the echo() function call.
The echo() function, along with the print() function,
is commonly used to print data to the standard output device (here, the
browser). Notice that I’ve included HTML tags within the call to echo(),
and those have been rendered by the browser in its output. You can do this too. Really.

An Equal Music

To assign a value to a variable, you use the assignment
operator: the = symbol. This is used to assign a value
(the right side of the equation) to a variable (the left side). The
value being assigned need not always be fixed; it could also be another
variable, an expression, or even an expression involving other
variables, as below:

$age = $dob + 15;


Interestingly, you can also perform more than one assignment at a
time. Consider the following example, which assigns three variables the
same value simultaneously:

$angle1 = $angle2 = $angle3 = 60;


Not My Type

Every language has different types of variable – and PHP is no
exception. The language supports a wide variety of data types,
including simple numeric, character, string and Boolean types, and more
complex arrays and objects. Here’s a quick list of the basic ones, with

  • Boolean: The simplest variable type in PHP, a Boolean
    variable, simply specifies a true or false value.

    $auth = true;


  • Integer: An integer is a plain-vanilla whole number like 75, -95, 2000 or 1.

    $age = 99;


  • Floating-point: A floating-point number is typically a fractional
    number such as 12.5 or 3.141592653589. Floating point numbers may be
    specified using either decimal or scientific notation.

    $temperature = 56.89;


  • String: A string is a sequence of characters, like “hello” or
    “abracadabra”. String values may be enclosed in either double quotes
    (“”) or single quotes(”). (Quotation marks within the string itself can
    be “escaped” with a backslash () character.) String values enclosed in
    double quotes are automatically parsed for special characters and variable
    names; if these are found, they are replaced with the appropriate value.
    Here’s an example:

    $identity = 'James Bond';

    $car = 'BMW';

    // this would contain the string "James Bond drives a BMW"

    $sentence = "$identity drives a $car";

    echo $sentence;


To learn more about PHP’s data types, visit

Market Value

If variables are the building blocks of a programming language,
operators are the glue that let you build something useful with
them. You’ve already seen one example of an operator – the
assignment operator -, which lets you assign a value to a
variable. Since PHP believes in spoiling you, it also comes with
operators for arithmetic, string, comparison and logical operations.

A good way to get familiar with operators is to use them to perform
arithmetic operations on variables, as in the following example:

// set quantity

$quantity = 1000;

// set original and current unit price

$origPrice = 100;

$currPrice = 25;

// calculate difference in price

$diffPrice = $currPrice - $origPrice;

// calculate percentage change in price

$diffPricePercent = (($currPrice - $origPrice) * 100)/$origPrice


Quantity Cost price Current price Absolute change in price Percent change in price
echo $quantity ?> echo $origPrice ?> echo $currPrice ?> echo $diffPrice ?> echo $diffPricePercent ?>%

Looks complex? Don’t be afraid – it’s actually pretty simple. The
meat of the script is at the top, where I’ve set up variables for the
unit cost and the quantity. Next, I’ve performed a bunch of calculations
using PHP’s various mathematical operators, and stored the results of
those calculations in different variables. The rest of the script is
related to the display of the resulting calculations in a neat table.

If you’d like, you can even perform an arithmetic operation
simultaneously with an assignment, by using the two operators together.
The two code snippets below are equivalent:

// this...

$a = 5;

$a = $a + 10;

// ... is the same as this

$a = 5;

$a += 10;


If you don’t believe me, try echoing them both.

Stringing Things Along

Why stop with numbers? PHP also allows you to add strings with the string
concatenation operator, represented by a period (.). Take a look:

// set up some string variables

$a = 'the';

$b = 'games';

$c = 'begin';

$d = 'now';

// combine them using the concatenation operator

// this returns 'the games begin now

$statement = $a.' '.$b.' '.$c.' '.$d.'

print $statement;

// and this returns 'begin the games now!'

$command = $c.' '.$a.' '.$b.' '.$d.'!';

print $command;


As before, you can concatenate and assign simultaneously, as

// define string

$str = 'the';

// add and assign

$str .= 'n';

// str now contains "then"

echo $str;


To learn more about PHP’s arithmetic and string operators, visit

That’s about it for this tutorial. You now know all about the basic
building blocks and glue of PHP – its variables and operators. In
Part Two of this series, I’ll be using these
fundamental concepts to demonstrate PHP’s powerful form processing capabilities.

Copyright Melonfire, 2004 (
All rights reserved.

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