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What is PHP?
Unless you have a static HTML site, you'll need to use scripts and applications to serve up your website content. PHP stands for PHP Hypertext Processor, and it's designed to make dynamic websites easier to create. It's primarily available on Linux hosting plans.
If your blog or business website relies on a content management system (CMS) (like WordPress), or if you need to protect your site’s code and customer information behind a robust line of defense, you want a hosting provider that supports PHP. Its open-source code and versatility make it a popular offering for most providers. PHP installation and configuration can usually be found in the website control panel application provided by your host (such as cPanel), and should not add any additional cost to your hosting fees, but it’s always a good idea to confirm support for this (or any other) application with your host when choosing a plan.
How PHP Changed the Web
In the early days of the web, content was created in text editors using raw HTML. Occasionally, a page creator would throw in a bitmap image to liven things up. With the advent of PHP, websites became more dynamic, more responsive and faster to create.
PHP was originally rolled out in 1995, and the most important subsequent release was arguably version 5. In total, it took five years for PHP to become a common feature on hosting accounts. In PHP 5, there was a more sophisticated approach to object oriented programming, marking a leap forward in functionality and ease of use. Although some hosts do offer PHP 4 for legacy sites, it is no longer supported officially, and it's advisable to transition older websites to the newer version 5 or above.
At the time of writing, we're on version 5.x of PHP. The next version of PHP is likely to be number 7. Version 6 was abandoned due to various resource problems.
Why Use PHP?
PHP connects HTML pages to dynamic content from databases and multimedia applications, making it easy to create interactive content.
There are lots of reasons to use PHP to develop your site:
- It's favoured by beginners because it can be incorporated into HTML documents. The PHP interpreter will only read the items enclosed within delimiters. Everything else is processed as regular HTML. This makes it easy to add small dynamic chunks of code to an existing site
- It's a lightweight option that can be run on all kinds of hosting accounts
- PHP is free, so most hosts included it in their hosting plans
- It allows you to pull content from a database, meaning that one page template can be populated with different content
- PHP can't be read by the visitor, to it's ideal for secure applications, such as authorization and payment processing
- If it's not installed, you may be able to install it yourself through your control panel
- You need PHP for WordPress and many similar applications
Most hosting packages come with PHP support at no extra cost, plus a range of PHP scripts that you can install to enhance your website.
Learning PHP is simple; there are lots of little tutorials that will help you get started.
Linux vs Windows For PHP
PHP was originally written for Linux web servers, but it can now be installed on most operating systems and platforms. It's possible to run PHP version 5.3 and above on Windows servers offered via your hosting provider. However, there are a few secondary reasons why you might not choose Windows for PHP scripts:
- Historically, Linux and PHP are closely linked. Finding support for scripts running on Windows can be difficult
- There's more work involved for the hosting company, so they might not be so keen to support it
- Windows hosting usually costs more, so it's better not to choose it unless you have a particular reason
Linux powers the majority of sites on the web. Don't choose Windows if you don't need it for any other purpose, since Linux and PHP are a great combination.
PHP Terminology and Acronyms
When buying a hosting account for PHP support, you may come across some of the following terms and abbreviations:
- PHP is a recursive acronym. It stands for PHP Hypertext Processor. Originally, it stood for Personal Home Page
- Foo is a term used as a placeholder or wildcard. You'll see it on PHP forums, in working code and in examples online
- PEAR is the PHP Extension and Application Repository, a code library that simplifies and speeds up development
- LAMP, a common hosting set-up: Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. LAMP is sometimes referred to as a stack, or a solution stack
- Zend is a software company that develops PHP applications. Its products include the Zend Engine, the driving force behind the execution of PHP code
PHP Frequently Asked Questions
What is PHP?
PHP is a scripting language used for creating dynamic online applications.
What does it mean that PHP is a scripting language?
Some languages are compiled before they are run. The source code is compiled into an executable application that can be run on its own. A scripting language doesn’t work this way. A program written in a scripting language isn’t compiled. Rather, it is interpreted directly from the source files at the time it is run.
Does that mean that PHP is less powerful than other programming languages like C?
Yes and no. PHP is a complete programming language. From the standpoint of building application features, you can do pretty much anything with PHP. However, PHP is not sufficiently “low-level” to manipulate the machine that it is running on. This is why you’ll (probably) never see an operating system built on PHP. However, for web applications, PHP is more than adequate.
What does PHP stand for?
It originally was an acronym for Personal Home Page tools. Later, it has come to be used as a recursive acronym meaning “PHP Hypertext Preprocessor.”
What is unique or special about PHP?
PHP was written to be “mixed into” HTML documents. In a PHP script, you can jump in and out of normal HTML, instead of having to use commands like “echo” and “printf” to write to the HTML output. This makes it much easier than other languages for creating dynamic web pages and web applications.
What do I need to know about PHP and web hosting?
Many modern web applications — such as content management systems and blogging platforms — run on PHP. If you’re running one of these applications, it is important that your web hosting account include a PHP interpreter as part of the feature set. Additionally, there are a number of PHP modules that might be needed by any particular program. You should know what is needed by the programs you intend to run, and check if your web host supports those modules. (Sometimes, certain PHP modules are available from the host and simply need to be enabled for your account.)
What applications use PHP?
PHP is very widespread, and a complete list of popular PHP apps would be quite long. Many popular content management systems are written in PHP, including WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal. Other popular PHP-based applications include MediaWiki (the wiki platform that runs Wikipedia) and SugarCRM.
What’s the difference between PHP 4 and PHP 5?
PHP 4 was released in 2000, and PHP 5 in 2004. As of 2008, PHP 4 is no longer under development. PHP 5 introduced a number of features into the language, such as more complete support for Object Oriented Programming, database abstraction, and (in 5.3) late static binding. These improvements have led some people to say that PHP 5 marks the beginning of PHP as a full-fledged programming language.
So I need PHP 5 on my web hosting account?
Probably. Most major PHP applications are now written to be run in a PHP 5 environment. If you are using an application that was written in PHP 4, there is a strong chance that it is too old, no longer under active development, and therefore a security risk. Likewise, PHP 5 is so common, and PHP 4 so old, that if a web hosting company is still running PHP 4 for its normal customers there is probably something problematic going on. (Keep in mind that PHP is Free and Open Source, so it doesn’t cost anything to upgrade to the proper version.)
Is PHP a good language to learn for writing new web applications?
Yes. For one thing, it is relatively straightforward as a language. Many people have found it very easy to learn. Additionally, there are a lot of good examples and opportunities to learn because of the number of applications written in PHP. For example, a lot of developers get their start working on WordPress or Drupal. It’s a natural progression to go from tinkering with a WordPress theme, to customizing a plugin, to writing your own features. Finally, the community is huge, so there are a lot of resources for someone learning a new language.
Are there any application development frameworks for PHP?
Yes, several. The most popular PHP framework is Zend, which is developed by the same company that underwrites the development of PHP. Two other popular frameworks are Laravel and CodeIgniter. There are many more besides these three.
What languages are good alternatives to PHP?
In theory, a wide number of languages can be used to write web applications. The two most common Open Source alternatives to PHP are Ruby and Python.
PHP vs. Ruby. Which is better?
Well that depends on what you want to do, really. If you are a web designer with experience in HTML and CSS, and you want to be able to write plugins and themes for existing applications, PHP is almost certainly the better choice. Almost all of the popular content management systems are written in PHP.
PHP vs. Python. Which is better?
Again, that depends on what you want to do. Many people find Python (and Ruby, also) to be cleaner, more “elegant” languages, with more power and more high-level programming abstraction. On the other hand, some people have found Python harder to use. PHP is built for the internet, and Python requires some additional modules to make it work as a web application framework.
What language should I use for writing a new web application?
One that you know. Beyond that, it depends. One thing to keep in mind, though, is where this application will be deployed. If you are planning to build a SaaS (software as a service) app that you run on your own server, you can use almost any language you want. However, if user are going to install and run it on their own hosting plan, PHP is likely the best option. There is much wider support for PHP on shared hosting plans than there is for other languages.