When I first meet a prospective client and analyze their website, I look at a few key factors. One of the most important is which company is providing the hosting service, and specifically what does that plan offer?
I work mostly with WordPress-based websites, and that content management system is built on the PHP programming language. So naturally, determining which version of PHP is running on a client’s hosting account is a significant detail. I’m going to do my best to outline just what is so important about PHP, and why using an old version can be so costly.
A Brief History
The PHP Wikipedia page has a great table showing the timeline for the releases of various services of PHP.
Those versions in red are no longer supported in any way. Yellow indicates that it is receiving security fixes, but is no longer under active development. And green shows the current versions, receiving active development with bug and security fixes.
According to the PHP Group:
Every minor release should at least be supported for two years with security and bug fixes, followed by at least one year of only security fixes, for a total of a three-year release process for every minor release. No new features, unless small and self-contained, are to be introduced into a minor release during the three-year release process.
These versions have a finite lifespan that companies are meant to plan for, and upgrade accordingly. However, as with all change, there is a cost involved that many hosting providers are looking to avoid. Many providers run severely out-of-date versions in the hopes that their clients won’t notice, and they won’t lose any business. Unfortunately for those customers, that means a significant security risk on top of poor website performance.
What Changes Across Different Versions of PHP?
To provide some additional context beyond, “being out of date is bad”, there are a few key things that the different versions of PHP mean in practice.
Speed: The newer versions are optimized more intelligently. They make better use of the resources at their disposal. This means websites which load faster for visitors. For example, one client of mine was on a web host that was running PHP 5.4. Their website would sometimes take upwards of 20 seconds to load. We moved to a different host, running PHP 7.0, and I was able to make a serious of optimizations that brought the loading time to under 4 seconds. I couldn’t have done those things without the underlying technology being current.
Efficiency: It also means that processes are more like to run quickly, smoothly, and without errors. For example, one of the most common reasons clients call me with tech support issues relating to their website is due to plugins which fail during an update, and then break the website or start to display error messages to visitors. If an automatic update fails, and someone isn’t there to catch it, then a website might go down or display an error message to visitors for days until someone from the organization notices.
Version-Related Limitations: Every WordPress theme and plugin has a suggested version of PHP. They also have versions that they cannot run on. The older your site’s PHP version, the less likely you are to do anything new because the odds are against you that any new change you desire will be compatible with your platform. So it is really critical that you keep that underlying foundation as current as possible.
Security: The longer any software is out and available to tinker with, the more vulnerabilities will be found. Running a current version that is continuing to receive security and bug fixes is best practice for good reason.
Make a Plan
Moving hosting providers can be a pain, and so it is something that should never be rushed. Your hosting account is connected or related to other services as well, all of which need to be accounted for and protected through any transition. Those include:
- Cloud Storage
- Anything else which piggybacks off of your existing site’s IP address
So there is a lot to consider, but I can help you through this process. Please get in touch if you have any questions or need help to better understand your web hosting.