Empathy for PHP + Shared Hosting (Which is Living in the Past, Dude)

By Christopher Allan Webber on Sun 30 March 2014

After I wrote my blogpost yesterday about deployment it generated quite a bit of discussion on the pumpiverse. Mike Linksvayer pointed out (and correctly) that "anti-PHP hate" is a poor excuse for why the rest of us are doing so bad, so I edited that bit out of my text.

After this though, maiki made a great series of posts, first asking "Should a homeless person be able to 'host' MediaGoblin?" and then talking about their own experiences. Go read it and then come back. It's well written and there's lots to think about. (Read the whole thread, in fact!) The sum of it though is that there's a large amount of tech privilege involved in installing a lot of modern web applications, but maiki posts their own experiences about why having access to free software with a lower barrier to entry was key to them making changes in their life, and ends with the phrase "aim lower". (By the way, maiki is actually a MediaGoblin community member and for a long time ran an instance.)

So, let's start out with the following set of assertions, of which I think maiki and I both agree:

  • Tech privilege is a big issue, and that lowering the barrier to entry is critical.
  • PHP + shared hosting is probably the lowest barrier to entry we have, assuming your application falls within certain constraints. This is something PHP does right! (Hence the "empathy for PHP" above.)
  • "Modern" web applications written in Python, Ruby, Node, etc, all require a too much tech privilege to run and maintain, and this is a problem.

So given all that, and given that I "fixed up" my previous post by removing the anti-PHP language, the title I chose for this blogpost probably seems pretty strange, or like it's undoing all that work. And it probably seems strange that given the above, I'll still argue that the choices around MediaGoblin were actively chosen to tackle tech privilege, and that tackling these issues head-on is critical, or free software network services will actually be in a worse place, especially in a tech privilege sense.

That's a lot to unpack, so let's step back.

I think there's an element of my discussion about web technology and even PHP that hasn't been well articulated, and that fault is my own... but it's hard to explain without going into detail. So first of all, apologies; I have been antagonistic towards PHP, and that's unfair to the language that currently powers some of the most important software on earth. That's lame of me, and I apologize.

So that's the empathy part of this title. Then, why would I include that line from my slides, that "PHP is Living in the past, Dude", in this blogpost? It seems to undo everything I'm writing. Well, I want to explain what I meant about the above language. It's not about "PHP sucks". And it does relate to free software's future, and also 5factors into conversations about tech privilege. (It also misleading in that I do not mean that modern web applications can't be written in PHP, or that their communities will be bad for such a choice, but that PHP + shared hosting as a deployment solution assumes constraints insufficient for the network freedom future I think we want.)

Consider the move to GNOME 3, the subject of Bradley's "living in the past" blogpost: during the move to GNOME 3, there were really two tech privilege issues at stake. One is that actually you're requiring newer technology with OpenGL support, and that's a tech privilege issue for people who can't afford that newer technology. (If you volunteered at a FreeGeek center, you'd probably hear this complaint, for example.) But the other one is that GNOME 3 was also trying to make the desktop easier for people, and in a direction of usability that people expect these days. That's also a tech privilege issue, and actually closer to the one we're discussing now: if the barrier to entry is that things are too technical and too foreign to what users know and expect, you're still building a privilege divide. I think GNOME made the right decision on addressing privilege, and I think it was a forward-facing one.

Thus, let me come back around to why, knowing that Python and friends are much harder, I decided to write MediaGoblin in Python anyway.

The first one is functionality. MediaGoblin probably could never be a good video hosting platform on shared hosting + PHP only; the celery component, though it makes it harder to deploy, is the whole reason MediaGoblin can process media in the background without timing out. So in MediaGoblin's case (where media types like video were always viewed as a critical part of the project), Celery does matter. More and more modern web applications are being written in ways that PHP + Shared Hosting just can't provide: they need websockets, they need external daemons which process things, and so on.

And let's not forget that web applications are not the only thing. PHP + shared hosting does not solve the email configuration problem, for example. More and more people are moving to GMail and friends; this is a huge problem for user freedom on the net. And as someone who maintains their own email server, I don't blame them. Configuring and running this stuff is just too hard. And it's not like it's a new technology... email is the oldest stable federated technology we have.

Not to mention that I've argued previously that shared hosting is not user freedom friendly. That's almost a separate conversation, though.

I also disagree that things like encryption certificates, which are also hard, don't matter. I think peoples' privacy does matter immensely, and I think we've only seen more and more reason to believe that this is an area we must work on over the last few years. (You might say that "SSL is doing it wrong" anyway, and I agree, though that's a separate conversation. Proably something that does things right will be just as hard to set up signing-wise if it's actually secure, though.)

Let's also come back to me being a Python programmer. Even given all the above, there are a lot of people out there like me who are just not interested in programming in PHP. This doesn't mean there aren't good PHP communities, clearly there are. But I do think more and more web applications are being written in non-PHP languages, and there's good reason for that. But yes, that means that these web applications are hard to deploy.

What's the answer to that? Assuming that lots of people want to write things in non-PHP languages, and that PHP + shared hosting is insufficient for a growing number of needs anyway, what do we do?

For the most of the non-PHP network services world, it has felt like the answer is to not worry about the end user side of things. Why bother, when you aren't releasing your end web application anyway? And so we've seen the rise of devops coincide with the rise of "release everything but your secret sauce" (and, whether you like it or not, with the decline of PHP + shared hosting).

I was fully aware of all of this when I decided MediaGoblin would be written in Python. Part of it is because I like Python, and well, I'm the one starting the project! But part of it is because the patterns I described above are not going away. In order for us to engage the future of the web, I think we need to tackle this direction head-on.

In the meanwhile, it's hard. It's hard in the way that installing and maintaining a free software desktop was super hard for me back in 2001, when I became involved in free software for the first time. But installers have gotten better, and the desktop has gotten better. The need for the installfest has gone away. I think that we are in a similar state with free network services, but I believe things can be improved. And that's why I wrote that piece yesterday about deployment, because I am trying to think about how to make things better. And I believe we need to, to build web applications that meet the needs of what people expect, to make free network services comparable to the devops-backed modern architected proprietary network services of today.

So, despite what it might appear at the moment, tech privilege has always been on my mind, but it's something that's forward-looking. That's hard to explain though when you're stuck in the present. I hope this blogpost helps.