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If you've purchased hosting space, or you're shopping around for a new provider, you will probably see ionCube offered as part of many hosting packages. The ionCube application adds a security layer to PHP, making it an essential part of some developers' toolkits. It's provided at every price point, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding a host that offers it.

Granted, ionCube isn't an application that everyone will need in the beginning, nor is it something you'll directly use yourself. But some applications that you install on your web server will need it to be present and working. For example, many payment processing plugins require ionCube for encryption, so you will neet to install and configure it, or ask your host to get involved.

A Brief History of ionCube

ionCube is the property of ionCube Ltd, a software company based in the UK. It specialises in tools and applications for web development and programming, using PHP in particular.

Originally released in 2002, ionCube was originally developed as part of a PHP Accelerator. At first, it was an encryption service that was provided over the web; later, it was redeveloped as a PHP extension. It's now known formally as the ionCube PHP Encoder and ionCube Loader, although it's often referred to (more simply) as 'ionCube' by most hosting providers.

The ionCube Encoder is now available for Linux, FreeBSD, Windows and OS X. The Windows graphical user interface was added to the application in 2004, and this allows users to right-click on files to carry on specific operations. Apple's OS X operating system did not get a user interface until 2014. On Linux, different distributions can use the 32-bit or 64-bit version, depending on your individual set-up. (Ask your host if you're not sure.)

How ionCube Works

The ionCube Encoder can process individual files or entire directories. Initially, the ionCube Encoder compiles the PHP script to bytecode, a format that is used for its efficiency and high performance. (Using extra techniques such as obfuscation, ionCode is able to further disguise the original source code, although the use of these extra methods is optional.) The software then encrypts the resulting data and outputs it in ASCII or binary data. The ionCube documentation recommends binary files for the most efficient decryption, but warns that binary files are more susceptible to corruption while they are being uploaded.

Newer versions of ionCube will also encrypt other file types besides PHP files, such as images.

On the client side, ionCube allows a licensed computer to execute protected code. When the PHP code is executed, an extension - the ionCube Loader - decrypts the file at run time. The Loader is designed to be speedy and efficient so that users experience minimal delays. It's free to download and install.

Some hackers claim to be able to decrypt files that ionCube has encrypted. However, results vary and are normally imperfect due to the way ionCube scrambles the code before it's encrypted.

Licensing Encoded Files

The encryption technique used in ionCube can also be used to license your PHP files prior to distribution. You can add plain text license information to let people know what the file contains and which computers it is locked to. ionCube ensures that this plain text data can't be deleted.

Developers use this method to stop their scripts being pirated.

System Requirements

ionCube support is offered on most shared hosting accounts, as well as more expensive virtual private servers and dedicated server plans. You can find out if it's installed on your server by viewing the phpinfo file (find out how to do that here - the instructions work for any host).

If the Loader is not installed, the company has provided a simple wizard which helps to get it installed fast. You can simply run an executable file on Windows and the Loader will be installed on your server via FTP or SFTP. Some hosts will do this for you.

The main pre-requisite for ionCube on your web hosting account is PHP5. You will also need to know whether your server is 32-bit or 64-bit.

As you check the specs, don't confuse ionCube with its sister product, ionCube PHP Accelerator (PHPA). PHPA is a separate product which is now a decade old, and it is not normally available on shared hosting accounts.

ionCube Loader Frequently Asked Questions

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