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The PHP Foundation is a newly established organization that will provide funding to sustain the language’s development. It’s been founded by ten influential companies in response to the departure of long-standing contributor Nikita Popov.

The Foundation was announced in November 2021 shortly before the release of the PHP 8.1 feature update. Popov’s decision to move on from PHP and focus on LLVM development will impact the language as he’s been responsible for many of the most noteworthy changes through the PHP 7 and 8 release series.

Popov created or contributed to improvements including typed properties, readonly properties, constructor property promotion, arrow functions, union types, and named arguments, as well as much more besides. He holds significant knowledge and expertise which means his departure affects the language’s bus factor.

In JetBrains’ words, the loss of Popov is “a blow to the community.” The contributor behind key components of the language’s revitalization and push towards more strongly typed code is stepping away without a direct replacement. The Foundation has been founded to fund new core developers and help increase the project’s bus factor, so the loss of another stakeholder would be less significant.

The Founding Members

The PHP Foundation will be a non-profit organization focused on supporting the PHP language and ensuring its long-term health and prosperity. The initial round of sponsors consists of companies that have either actively contributed to PHP or provide critical services to the developer community. Here’s the list:

  • Automattic
  • Laravel
  • Acquia
  • Zend
  • Private Packagist
  • Symfony
  • Craft CMS
  • Tideways
  • PrestaShop
  • JetBrains

The Foundation will be run by an administration representing sponsors and noted PHP fellows. Nikita Popov and PHP founder Rasmus Lerdorf are both fellows in the initial administration, alongside Dmitry Stogov, Joe Watkins, Sara Goleman, Derick Rethans, and Sebastian Bergmann.

The immediate objective is to quickly get off the ground and provide funding to new PHP Core developers. The makeup of the permanent administration, including its rules and bylaws, will be determined after initial operations have begun.

Funding Core Development

The current sponsors intend to make a combined financial contribution of around $300,000 a year. As a public organization, anyone can provide additional support via the Foundation’s OpenCollective page. Sponsorship will be recognized with a $10,000 contribution but individuals can become “backers” by donating $5/month. One-time custom amounts are accepted too.

The funds will be used to secure the services of full- and part-time developers. Anyone who’s contributed to the PHP source can apply to receive funding. The application period will end in mid-December, after which the temporary administration will decide who to engage. The Foundation expects to pay “market salaries” to successful applicants.

In the future, additional funding may be released to grow non-core projects and community initiatives too. Such an expansion would come after the Foundation’s income has stabilized and it’s been successful in sustaining the needs of the core language. The early focus is intentionally specific: ensure PHP continues to evolve at a healthy rate, without relying too much on specific individuals.

PHP Without Popov – What’s the Difficulty?

While Popov’s departure may be disappointing, the reality of software development is individuals frequently move on and follow their interests. Popov has evolved the PHP language over a 10-year period that began while he was still in high school.

The challenge facing the PHP Core is the lack of an immediate candidate to continue the language’s development. Having one of the most-used programming languages dependent on a small number of volunteer developers, each specialized in a particular area, is a less than ideal situation.

In his “Avoiding Busses” article from May, PHP contributor Joe Watkins anticipated this moment. Watkins concluded that PHP’s bus factor, the number of people who could leave without spelling its death, was just two. Popov moving on makes that one, with the remaining individual in the bus factor being Dmitry Stogov. Stogov has contributed for longer than Popov but has tended to focus on different areas.

Even more ominous was Watkins’ observation that Nikita’s development pace, full-time due to his backing by JetBrains, is also vital to maintain:

What we’ve learned since Nikita was employed, is that this is the pace we need… if he went away now, I doubt if all of the other contributors combined could pick up the slack that would be left.

Although foundations are cropping up to pay salaries all over the industry, PHP is now in genuine need of one.

How Will It Impact PHP?

If the above sounds bleak, you can take consolation that the Foundation is now alive, even if perhaps it’s come a few months too late. There could still be some short-term pain points as new developers get established into their paid roles. The long-term view should be seen more positively though, with PHP set to benefit from having several fully salaried developers working full-time on the project.

Change is no stranger in the PHP world. What started in 1995 as a tiny scripting language for “personal home pages” quickly evolved into PHP: Hypertext Processor, then saw rapidly increased adoption through the 2000s on the back of popular software such as WordPress and Drupal. The language has not stood still since: nowadays, many PHP projects aren’t “hypertext processing” at all, as the shift towards strongly-typed object-oriented code has increased the language’s suitability for complex API and systems development.

Throughout the language’s history, PHP has adapted to new use cases, been led by a constantly evolving cohort of core contributors, and maintained its presence as a top-tier server-side programming language. Today, PHP is used by 78% of websites and community activity is higher than ever. While it’s not so trendy as newer upstarts, PHP has a proven ability to evolve, expand, and power varied real-world workloads.

All this means it’s vital that PHP doesn’t meet a sudden “under the bus” ending, either because of Popov’s departure or a similar event in the future. The Foundation should provide the safety net that’s been lacking, guaranteeing stable long-term development that can withstand occasional bumps and knocks. It can be seen as another step in PHP’s maturity, from Personal Home Pages to flexible multi-discipline programming language powering much of the web.

What’s Next?

The application window for prospective core developers is now open for a period of 28 days. The Foundation will then allocate funding from the initial round of sponsorship before considering how best to structure the administration for the long-term.

It’s important to recognize that the establishment of the Foundation does not affect PHP’s development processes. Decisions regarding features and technical aspects remain in the hands of the PHP Internals community. The RFC voting process is still the way to get changes into the language. The Foundation is focused on funding developers to implement successful RFCs.

With PHP 8.1 only just out the door, it’s as-yet unclear how the introduction of new developers will impact upcoming PHP release schedules. The next feature release, 8.2, would be expected in late 2022 to continue the annual cadence. So far only two RFCs have been implemented that target 8.2, both of them deprecations authored by Popov. A few others are under discussion such as readonly classes and standalone null types.

If you want to contribute to the Foundation, you can make a donation on its OpenCollective page. OpenCollective handles the legal and accounting sides of several open source projects. The PHP Foundation is also planning to accept donations via GitHub Sponsors in the future.

Profile Photo for James Walker James Walker
James Walker is a contributor to How-To Geek DevOps. He is the founder of Heron Web, a UK-based digital agency providing bespoke software development services to SMEs. He has experience managing complete end-to-end web development workflows, using technologies including Linux, GitLab, Docker, and Kubernetes.
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