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cURL is a well-established Linux utility that's often advertised by web hosts. cURL allows users to quickly access the contents of a file, obtained via a URL, from within a PHP script. This sounds simple, yet cURL is extremely powerful. It's indispensable for developers, and, due to its multi-purpose nature, it's often a prerequisite demanded by other applications and scripts.

cURL's History

cURL was originally developed in 1997, with its name being coined the following year. It stands for Client URL Request Library, or Curl URL Request Library, and it's distributed as part of the operating system on a huge range of devices.

The project, which also includes libcurl, is lead by Swedish developer Daniel Stenberg and run by a large team of volunteers. Stenberg started off developing for the Commodore 64 and is now part of the Mozilla project, employed to work on the Firefox browser.

The team behind cURL says that it's impossible to say how many people are using their tool. At the last count, in mid-2012, Stenberg estimated that it's being used by more than 550 million people. This figure includes users of Debian, users of iOS devices, people who have purchased certain TVs and DVD players, and players of games like Second Life.

What cURL Does

cURL is essentially a file transfer tool with a very simple, clear purpose: to access HTTP content from a PHP script or the command line. The former is arguably the more common usage of cURL, since it lets a script pull in content or evaluate the content of another file on the web.

cURL downloads or sends data using a URL. It is a command line only tool, and its developers clearly state that it will never get a graphical user interface. If used properly, cURL is a very powerful way to pull data into a PHP script.

If you've transferred files using the command line, you've probably come across wget. While wget is designed to transfer large numbers of files, cURL is really good at transferring one at a time. Note that cURL has no recursive mode, which backs up that statement.

cURL can also connect to data sources and transfer files using FTP, connect via SSL and send a username and password to gain access to a file that requires a login. Support is included for OpenSSL, PolarSSL, axTLS, yassl and more.

About libcurl

While the cURL application does the actual copying, libcurl is the bundle of instructions that helps it to connect to the data source.

Written in C, libcurl is essentially a protocol library that includes:

  • FTP, FTPS and SFTP
  • HTTP and HTTPS
  • LDAP and LDAPS
  • Gopher
  • IMAP,POP3 and SMTP

There are many other protocols besides these, facilitating practically any type of file transfer. Read more about libcurl here.

The libcurl library is cross platform compatible, so it can be transplanted into any cURL installation on practically any device. What's more, libcurl is free and can be used as part of other applications, even if those applications are not open source.

Working in combination, cURL and libcurl give developers a fast and simple way to pull content into PHP pages.

Hosting Requirements

If you want to install a script like Zen Cart, you will need to ensure your host is running cURL. Some applications need it to check for updates, and some WordPress plugins need cURL support to function correctly.

  • On Linux, cURL is installed in two parts; as a module within Apache and an extension for PHP. Your host should be able to install both parts quickly if it's not already present. To check, view your php.ini file and look for a line that says cURL support enabled.
  • On Windows, the cURL extension is automatically installed with the rest of the WAMP stack, so your host should not need to do anything more.

If you're stuck with a host that doesn't have cURL enabled, ask them - it never hurts to try. There are alternative ways to achieve the same results, but it may rule out many of your options when you're developing and expanding your website.

cURL Frequently Asked Questions

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