PHP Solutions: Dynamic Web Design Made Easy, Third Edition (2014)

Chapter 2. Getting Ready to Work with PHP

Now that you’ve decided to use PHP to enrich your webpages, you need to make sure that you have everything you need to get on with the rest of this book. Although you can test everything on your remote server, it’s usually more convenient to test PHP pages on your local computer. Everything you need to install is free. In this chapter, I’ll explain the various options for Windows and Mac OS X. The necessary components are normally installed by default on Linux.

What this chapter covers:

·     Checking if your website supports PHP

·     Why PHP 5.4 should be the minimum version

·     Deciding whether to create a local testing setup

·     Using a ready-made package in Windows and Mac OS X

·     Where to store your PHP files

·     Checking the PHP configuration on your local and remote servers

Checking Whether Your Website Supports PHP

The easiest way to find out whether your website supports PHP is to ask your hosting company. The other way to find out is to upload a PHP page to your website and see if it works. Even if you know that your site supports PHP, do the following test to confirm which version is running:

1.    Open a text editor, such as Notepad or TextEdit, and type the following code into a blank page:

<?php echo phpversion(); ?>

2.    Save the file as phpversion.php. It’s important to make sure that your operating system doesn’t add a .txt filename extension after the .php. Mac users should also make sure that TextEdit doesn’t save the file in Rich Text Format (RTF). If you’re at all unsure, use phpversion.php from the ch02 folder in the files accompanying this book.

3.    Upload phpversion.php to your website in the same way you would an HTML page and then type the URL into a browser. Assuming you upload the file to the top level of your site, the URL will be something like

If you see a three-part number like 5.6.1 displayed onscreen, you’re in business: PHP is enabled. The number tells you which version of PHP is running on your server. You need a minimum of 5.4.0 to use all the code in this book.

4.    If you get a message that says something like “Parse error” Hypertext Preprocessor (PHP)website supportsParse errorit means PHP is supported but that you have made a mistake in typing the code in the file. Use the version in the ch02 folder instead.

5.    If you just see the original code, it means PHP is not supported.

Official support for PHP 5.3 ended in August 2014. If your server is running PHP 5.3 or earlier, contact your host and tell them you want the most recent stable version of PHP. If your host refuses, it’s time to change your hosting company.


As a general principle, PHP tries to preserve backward compatibility between point releases (where only the numbers after the first dot in the version number change). However, a number of outdated features were removed from PHP 5.4. New syntax was also introduced for arrays.

Although most of the code in this book will run correctly on older versions of PHP, you may get unexpected results if you use a server that still relies on those features. The most important changes that affect the code in this book are the removal of safe mode and magic quotes.

Safe mode is often used in shared hosting environments. Among its effects, safe mode restricts where include files can be located and which files can be read from and written to. With the removal of safe mode in PHP 5.4, these restrictions no longer apply.

Magic quotes were a misguided attempt to make PHP safer for inexperienced developers by inserting backslashes before quotes in user-submitted data. The idea was to prevent a malicious attack known as SQL injection. Unfortunately, magic quotes caused more problems than they solved, often leaving text peppered with unwanted backslashes. If you run the code in this book on PHP 5.3 or earlier, you’ll get unwanted backslashes if magic quotes haven’t been disabled.

The code in this book also uses simplified syntax for arrays, which won’t work in older versions of PHP.

The most important reason for not using an old version of PHP is security. When vulnerabilities are discovered, security updates are made only to the current and two previous versions. At the time of this writing, the current version is PHP 5.6. That means PHP 5.4 and 5.5 will benefit from any security updates. But as soon as the next version comes out, PHP 5.4 will cease being patched for security threats. Using an up-to-date version of PHP isn’t simply a matter of gaining access to the latest features; it helps protect your website and valuable data from malicious attacks.

Deciding Where to Test Your Pages

Unlike ordinary webpages, you can’t just double-click PHP pages in Windows File Explorer or Finder on a Mac and view them in your browser. They need to be parsed, or processed, through a web server that supports PHP. If your hosting company supports PHP, you can upload your files to your website and test them there. However, you need to upload the file every time you make a change. In the early days, you’ll probably find you have to do this often because of some minor mistake in your code. As you become more experienced, you’ll still need to upload files frequently because you’ll want to experiment with different ideas.

If you want to get working with PHP straight away, by all means use your own website as a test bed. However, you’ll soon discover the need for a local PHP test environment. The rest of this chapter is devoted to showing you how to do this, with instructions for both Windows and Mac OS X.

What You Need for a Local Test Environment

To test PHP pages on your local computer, you need to install the following:

·     A web server: this is a piece of software that displays webpages, not a separate computer

·     PHP

·     MySQL and a web-based front end for MySQL called phpMyAdmin, which are required in order to work with a database

Image Tip  Some Linux distributions install MariaDB ( as a drop-in replacement for MySQL. The code in this book is fully compatible with MariaDB.

All the software you need is free. The only cost to you is the time it takes to download the necessary files, plus, of course, the time to make sure everything is set up correctly. In most cases, you should be up and running in less than an hour, probably considerably less. As long as you have at least 1GB of free disk space, you should be able to install all the software on your computer—even one with modest specifications.

Image Tip  If you already have a PHP test environment on your local computer, there’s no need to reinstall. Just check the section at the end of this chapter titled “Checking Your PHP Settings”.

Individual Programs or an All-in-one Package?

For many years, I advocated installing each component of a PHP testing environment separately, rather than using a package that installs Apache, PHP, MySQL, and phpMyAdmin in a single operation. My advice was based on the dubious quality of some early all-in-one packages, which installed easily but were next to impossible to uninstall or upgrade. However, the all-in-one packages currently available are excellent, and I have no hesitation in now recommending them.

On my computers, I use XAMPP for Windows ( and MAMP for Mac OS X ( Other packages are available; it doesn’t matter which you choose.

Image Tip  Setting up a PHP testing environment with an all-in-one package is normally trouble free. The main cause of difficulty is a conflict with another program using port 80, which the web server uses to listen for page requests. If Skype is installed, go to Tools image Options image Advanced imageConnection and make sure that port 80 is not being used for incoming connections. Try port 33087 instead.

Setting Up on Windows

Make sure that you’re logged on as an administrator before proceeding.

Getting Windows to Display Filename Extensions

By default, most Windows computers hide the three- or four-letter filename extension, such as .doc or .html, so all you see in dialog boxes and Windows File Explorer is thisfile instead of thisfile.doc or thisfile.html. Windows 8 does display the filename extension for PHP files, but it’s useful to turn on the display of filename extension for all files. In Windows 7, it’s essential for working with PHP.

Use these instructions to enable the display of filename extensions in Windows 8:

1.    Open File Explorer.

2.    Select View to expand the ribbon at the top of the File Explorer windowHypertext Preprocessor (PHP)File Explorer window.

3.    Select the “Filename extensions” check box.

Use these instructions in Windows 7:

4.    Open Start image Computer.

5.    Select Organize image Folder and then Search Options.

6.    In the dialog box that opens, select the View tab.

7.    In the Advanced Settings section, uncheck the box marked “Hide extensions for known file types.”

8.    Click OK.

Displaying filename extensions is more secure—you can tell if a virus writer has attached an .exe or .scr executable file to an innocent-looking document.

Choosing a Web Server

Most PHP installations run on the Apache web server. Both are open source and work well together. However, Windows has its own web server, Internet Information Services (IIS), which also supports PHP. Microsoft has worked closely with the PHP development team to improve the performance of PHP on IIS to roughly the same level as Apache. So, which should you choose?

The answer depends on whether you develop webpages using ASP or ASP.NET, or intend to do so. ASP and ASP.NET require IIS. You can install Apache on the same computer as IIS, but they both listen for requests on port 80. You can’t run both servers simultaneously on the same port.

Unless you need IIS for ASP or ASP.NET, I recommend that you install Apache, using XAMPP or one of the other all-in-one packages, as described in the next section. If you need to use IIS, the most convenient way to install PHP is to use the Microsoft Web Platform Installer (Web PI), which you can download from

Installing an All-in-one Package on Windows

There are three popular packages for Windows that install Apache, PHP, MySQL, phpMyAdmin, and several other tools on your computer in a single operation: XAMPP (, WampServer (, and EasyPHP ( The installation process normally takes only a few minutes. Once the package has been installed, you might need to change a few settings, as explained later in this chapter.

Versions are liable to change over the lifetime of a printed book, so I won’t describe the installation process. Each package has instructions on its website. There are also helpful videos for setting up WampServer and XAMPP in David Gassner’s Installing Apache, MySQL, and PHPcourse on Although is a subscription service, at the time of this writing all the videos in that course can be viewed free of charge even if you’re not a subscriber (

Setting Up on Mac OS X

The Apache web server and PHP are preinstalled on Mac OS X, but they’re not enabled by default. Rather than using the preinstalled versions, I recommend that you use MAMP, which installs Apache, PHP, MySQL, phpMyAdmin, and several other tools in a single operation.

To avoid conflicts with the preinstalled versions of Apache and PHP, MAMP locates all the applications in a dedicated folder on your hard disk. This makes it easier to uninstall everything by simply dragging the MAMP folder to the Trash if you decide you no longer want MAMP on your computer.

Installing MAMP

Before you begin, make sure you’re logged in to your computer with administrative privileges.

1.    Go to and select the link for MAMP & MAMP PRO. This downloads a disk image that contains both the free and paid-for versions of MAMP.

2.    When the download completes, launch the disk image. You’ll be presented with a license agreement. You must click Agree to continue with mounting the disk image.

3.    Follow the onscreen instructions.

4.    Verify that MAMP has been installed in your Applications folder.

Image Note  MAMP automatically installs both the free and paid-for versions in separate folders called MAMP and MAMP PRO. The paid-for version makes it easier to configure PHP and to work with virtual hosts, but the free version is perfectly adequate, especially for beginners. If you want to remove the MAMP PRO folder, don’t drag it to the Trash. Open the folder and double-click the MAMP PRO uninstall icon. The paid-for version requires both folders.

Testing and configuring MAMP

By default, MAMP uses nonstandard ports for Apache and MySQL. Unless you’re using multiple installations of Apache and MySQL, you should change the port settings.

1.    Double-click the MAMP icon in Applications/MAMP. Your default browser should launch and present you with the MAMP welcome page. Note that the URL in the browser address bar begins with localhost:8888. The :8888 indicates that Apache is listening for requests on the nonstandard port 8888.

2.    Minimize the browser and locate the MAMP control panel (see Figure 2-1), which should be running on your desktop. The tiny green lights to the right of Apache Server and MySQL Server indicate that both servers are running.


Figure 2-1. The MAMP control panel

3.    Click the Preferences icon and select Ports at the top of the panel that opens. It shows that Apache and MySQL are running on ports 8888 and 8889 (see Figure 2-2).


Figure 2-2. Changing the Apache and MySQL ports

4.    Click “Set Web & MySQL ports to 80 & 3306”as shown in Figure 2-2. The numbers change to the standard ports: 80 for Apache and 3306 for MySQL.

Image Note  MAMP now supports Nginx as an alternative web server. When I clicked “Set Web & MySQL ports to 80 & 3306,” both Apache Port and Nginx Port changed to 80, which prevented the settings from being accepted. If this happens, manually reset Nginx Port to 7888.

5.    Click OK and enter your Mac password when prompted. MAMP restarts both servers.

Image Tip  If any other program is using port 80, Apache won't restart. If you can't find what's preventing Apache from using port 80, open the MAMP preferences panel and click “Set MAMP ports to default.”

6.    When both lights are green again, click “Open start page” in the MAMP Control Panel. This reloads the MAMP welcome page into your browser. This time, the URL shouldn’t have a colon followed by a number appearing after localhost because Apache is now listening on the default port.

Where to Locate Your PHP Files (Windows & Mac)

You need to create your files in a location where the web server can process them. Normally, this means that the files should be in the server’s document root or in a subfolder of the document root. The default location of the document root for the most common setups is as follows:

·     XAMPP: C:\xampp\htdocs

·     WampServer: C:\wamp\www

·     EasyPHP: C:\EasyPHP\www

·     IIS: C:\inetpub\wwwroot

·     MAMP: Macintosh HD:Applications:MAMP:htdocs

To view a PHP page, you need to load it in a browser using a URL. The URL for the web server’s document root in your local testing environment is http://localhost/.

Image Caution  If you needed to reset MAMP back to its default ports, you will need to use http://localhost:8888 instead of http://localhost.

If you store the files for this book in a subfolder of the document root called phpsols, the URL is http://localhost/phpsols/ followed by the name of the folder (if any) and file.

Image Tip  Use if you have problems with http://localhost/. is the loopback IP address all computers use to refer to the local machine.

Using Virtual Hosts

The alternative to storing your PHP files in the web server’s document root is to use a virtual host. A virtual host creates a unique address for each site and is how hosting companies manage shared hosting. MAMP PRO simplifies setting up virtual hosts through its control panel. EasyPHP also has a plug-in module for administering virtual hosts.

Manually setting up virtual hosts involves editing one of your computer’s system files to register the host name on your local machine. You also need to tell the web server in your local testing environment where the files are located. The process isn’t difficult, but it needs to be done each time you set up a new virtual host.

The advantage of setting up each site in a virtual host is that it matches more accurately the structure of a live website. However, when learning PHP, it’s probably more convenient to use a subfolder of your testing server’s document root. Once you have gained experience with PHP, you can advance to using virtual hosts. Instructions for manually setting up virtual hosts in Apache are on my website at the following addresses:

·     Windows:

·     MAMP:

Image Tip  Remember to start the web server in your testing environment to view PHP pages.

Checking Your PHP Settings

After installing PHP, it’s a good idea to check its configuration settings. In addition to the core features, PHP has a large number of optional extensions. Both the all-in-one packages and the Microsoft Web PI install all the extensions that you need for this book. However, some of the basic configuration settings might be slightly different. To avoid unexpected problems, adjust your PHP configuration to match the settings recommended in the following pages.

Displaying the Server Configuration with phpinfo()

PHP has a built-in command, phpinfo(), that displays details of how PHP is configured on the server. The amount of detail produced by phpinfo() can feel like massive information overload, but it’s invaluable for determining why something works perfectly on your local computer yet not on your live website. The problem usually lies in the remote server having disabled a feature or not having installed an optional extension.

The all-in-one packages make it easy to run phpinfo():

·     XAMPP: Click the phpinfo link in the menu on the left of the XAMPP welcome screen.

·     MAMP: Click phpinfo in the main menu at the top of the MAMP start page.

·     WampServer: Open the WampServer menu and click Localhost. The link for phpinfo() is under Tools.

Alternatively, create a simple test file and load it in your browser using the following instructions:

1.    Make sure that Apache or IIS is running on your local computer.

2.    Type the following in a script editor:

<?php phpinfo(); ?>

There should be nothing else in the file.

3.    Save the file as phpinfo.php in the server’s document root (see “Where to Locate Your PHP Files (Windows and Mac)” earlier in this chapter).

Image Caution  Make sure your editor doesn’t add a .txt or .rtf extension after .php.

4.    Type http://localhost/phpinfo.php in your browser address bar and press Enter.

5.    You should see a page similar to that in Figure 2-3 displaying the version of PHP followed by extensive details of your PHP configuration.


Figure 2-3. Running the phpinfo() command displays full details of your PHP configuration

6.    Make a note of the value for the Loaded Configuration File item. This tells you where to find php.ini, the text file that you need to edit in order to change most settings in PHP.

7.    Scroll down to the section labeled Core and compare the settings with those recommended in Table 2-1. Make a note of any differences so you can change them as described later in this chapter.

Table 2-1. Recommended PHP configuration settings


Local value




Essential for debugging mistakes in your scripts. If set to Off, errors result in a completely blank screen, leaving you clueless as to the possible cause.



This sets error reporting to the highest level.



Allows you to use PHP to upload files to a website.



With display_errors set on, you don’t need to fill your hard disk with an error log.

8.    The rest of the configuration page shows you which PHP extensions are enabled. Although the page seems to go on forever, the extensions are all listed in alphabetical order after Core. To work with this book, make sure the following extensions are enabled:

·        gd: Enables PHP to generate and modify images and fonts.

·        mysqli: Connects to MySQL (note the “i,” which stands for “improved” and distinguishes this extension from the older mysql one, which should no longer be used).

·        PDO: Provides software-neutral support for databases (optional).

·        pdo_mysql: Alternative method of connecting to MySQL (optional).

·        session: Sessions maintain information associated with a user and are used, among other things, for user authentication.

You should also run phpinfo() on your remote server to check which features are enabled. If the listed extensions aren’t supported, some of the code in this book won’t work when you upload your files to your website. PDO and pdo_mysql aren’t always enabled on shared hosting, but you can use mysqli instead. The advantage of PDO is that it’s software-neutral, so you can adapt scripts to work with a database other than MySQL by changing only one or two lines of code. Using mysqli ties you to MySQL.

If any of the Core settings in your setup are different from the recommendations in Table 2-1, you will need to edit the PHP configuration file, php.ini, as described in the next section.

Editing php.ini

The PHP configuration file, php.ini, is a very long file, which tends to unnerve newcomers to programming, but there’s nothing to worry about. It’s written in plain text, and one reason for its length is that it contains copious comments explaining the various options. That said, it’s a good idea to make a backup copy before editing php.ini in case you make a mistake.

How you open php.ini depends on your operating system and how you installed PHP:

·     If you used an all-in-one package, such as XAMPP, on Windows, double-click php.ini in Windows Explorer. The file opens automatically in Notepad.

·     If you installed PHP using the Microsoft Web PI, php.ini is normally located in a subfolder of Program Files. Although you can open php.ini by double-clicking it, you won’t be able to save any changes you make. Instead, right-click Notepad and select Run as Administrator. (In Windows 7, you need to access Notepad from the Start menu. It’s in the Accessories folder.) Inside Notepad, select File image Open and set the option to display All Files (*.*) . Navigate to the folder where php.ini is located, select the file, and clickOpen.

·     On Mac OS X, php.ini is displayed in Finder as an executable file. Use a text editor, such as BBEdit or TextWrangler (both available from, to open php.ini.

Lines that begin with a semicolon (;) are comments. The lines you need to edit do not begin with a semicolon.

Use your text editor’s Find functionality to locate the directives you need in order to change your settings to match the recommendations in Table 2-1. Most directives are preceded by one or more examples of how they should be set. Make sure you don’t edit one of the commented examples by mistake.

For directives that use On or Off, just change the value to the recommended one. For example, if you need to turn on the display of error messages, edit this line:

display_errors = Off

by changing it to this:

display_errors = On

To set the level of error reporting, you need to use PHP constants, which are written in uppercase and are case-sensitive. The directive should look like this:

error_reporting = E_ALL

After editing php.ini, save the file and then restart Apache or IIS so that the changes take effect. If the web server won’t start, check the server’s error log file. It can be found in the following locations:

·     XAMPP: In the XAMPP Control Panel, click the Logs button alongside Apache and then select Apache (error.log).

·     MAMP: In Applications:MAMP:logs, double-click apache_error.log to open it in Console.

·     WampServer: In the WampServer menu, select Apache image Apache error log.

·     EasyPHP: Right-click the EasyPHP icon in the system tray and select Log Files image Apache.

·     IIS: The default location of log files is C:\inetpub\logs.

The most recent entry in the error log should give you an indication of what prevented the server from restarting. Use that information to correct the changes you made to php.ini. If that doesn’t work, be thankful you made a backup of php.ini before editing it. Start again with a fresh copy and check your edits carefully.

What’s Next?

Now that you’ve got a working test bed for PHP, you’re no doubt raring to go. The last thing I want to do is dampen any enthusiasm, but before using PHP in a live website, you should have a basic understanding of the rules of the language. So, before jumping into the cool stuff, read the next chapter, which explains how to write PHP scripts. Don’t skip it—it’s really important.