Extension Possibilities

Extension Possibilities

As shown in Figure 46-1 above, PHP can be extended primarily at three points: external modules, built-in modules, and the Zend engine. The following sections discuss these options.

External Modules

External modules can be loaded at script runtime using the function dl(). This function loads a shared object from disk and makes its functionality available to the script to which it's being bound. After the script is terminated, the external module is discarded from memory. This method has both advantages and disadvantages, as described in the following table:

AdvantagesDisadvantages
External modules don't require recompiling of PHP. The shared objects need to be loaded every time a script is being executed (every hit), which is very slow.
The size of PHP remains small by "outsourcing" certain functionality. External additional files clutter up the disk.
  Every script that wants to use an external module's functionality has to specifically include a call to dl(), or the extension tag in php.ini needs to be modified (which is not always a suitable solution).

To sum up, external modules are great for third-party products, small additions to PHP that are rarely used, or just for testing purposes. To develop additional functionality quickly, external modules provide the best results. For frequent usage, larger implementations, and complex code, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.

Third parties might consider using the extension tag in php.ini to create additional external modules to PHP. These external modules are completely detached from the main package, which is a very handy feature in commercial environments. Commercial distributors can simply ship disks or archives containing only their additional modules, without the need to create fixed and solid PHP binaries that don't allow other modules to be bound to them.

Built-in Modules

Built-in modules are compiled directly into PHP and carried around with every PHP process; their functionality is instantly available to every script that's being run. Like external modules, built-in modules have advantages and disadvantages, as described in the following table:

AdvantagesDisadvantages
No need to load the module specifically; the functionality is instantly available. Changes to built-in modules require recompiling of PHP.
No external files clutter up the disk; everything resides in the PHP binary. The PHP binary grows and consumes more memory.

Built-in modules are best when you have a solid library of functions that remains relatively unchanged, requires better than poor-to-average performance, or is used frequently by many scripts on your site. The need to recompile PHP is quickly compensated by the benefit in speed and ease of use. However, built-in modules are not ideal when rapid development of small additions is required.

The Zend Engine

Of course, extensions can also be implemented directly in the Zend engine. This strategy is good if you need a change in the language behavior or require special functions to be built directly into the language core. In general, however, modifications to the Zend engine should be avoided. Changes here result in incompatibilities with the rest of the world, and hardly anyone will ever adapt to specially patched Zend engines. Modifications can't be detached from the main PHP sources and are overridden with the next update using the "official" source repositories. Therefore, this method is generally considered bad practice and, due to its rarity, is not covered in this book.

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