The motivation for this blog post came from reading an article today touting the meme that cloud computing is coming. That’s the message from Sarah Perez over on Read/Write Web. The “classic geek” (which presumably includes many of the folks reading this on Planet PHP) will no longer be the ones “working with the CEOs to execute the vision and direction via information technology,” according to Sarah.

Presumably because the companies will have gone bust from a lack of good leadership. Something we’ve seen before, and will see again.

The successful IT departments in the sort of larger organisations that can provide food and shelter for your true “classic geek” have been part of the business for the last decade, if not longer. Before we had the sexy CTO and CIO titles, there were IT Managers and Operations Managers who did all this stuff with little fan-fare and trumpet blowing. They did it on a budget, so they had to have financial management skills. They managed staff, so they had to have people skills. They delivered results, so they had to have project management skills. They made sure the business could do its job, so they had to have quality assurance skills. They implemented approaches such as ITIL and more lately CoBIT to ensure that the IT department was aligned to the business and relevant regulation. And they did this whilst still groking computers. In fact, they did this because they groked computers.

I’ve seen this sort of nonsense before when Java came on the scene, and the rise of the Web 2.0 blogger means I’m seeing it again. “Everything is new, everything is different; the old skills and the old lessons no longer apply, so don’t bother learning them” – that is the seductive siren call. Any student of management history can trace this echo back hundreds if not thousands of years. The core skills of good governance – direction, organisation and supervision – have not changed. You can read the works of Confucius from over two thousand years ago, and the principles behind the lessons for the leaders of the time are no different than the principles behind the lessons for the leaders of today. Practices have changed, but not principles.

There are no secrets, no short-cuts for those-in-the-know; not in business, engineering, or the arts. You have to know the basics, and you have to do the basics. Hard work and dedication is always the key, and you won’t find a single leading member of the PHP development team who doesn’t reflect that reality.

So what does this have to do with our favourite punch-bag here on Planet PHP, Ruby on Rails? For me, the rallying call of Rails is different from the Java and Web 2.0 hype/bullshit machines. I cringe every time Terry takes a swipe at it. Whilst I’m as sick of the term ‘agile’ as can be, Rails doesn’t try to claim that the old skills don’t matter. Quite the opposite. What they have done is to take the old skills and put them into one approach that can, and does, really work exceptionally well for a lot of firms and a lot of problems. They’ve worked out what the basics are, and they’ve designed a whole paradigm that ensures the basics are done well. They’ve executed in a way that the PHP community should be in awe of, not taking the piss out of.

They are years ahead of us in so many important areas, and yet PHP is thriving more than ever. They must have done something wrong, because they sure didn’t grow the market for web applications. What did they do wrong?

The fundamental mistake the Rails designers have made, and one that they still haven’t groked en-mass that I can see, is architectural, not philosophical. Rails is a classic application server, with all the deterministic, concurrency and big-iron-needed-here problems that stopped J2EE from squeezing out PHP at the turn of the century. For many of the problems of the web, the PHP execute-again architecture has repeatedly been proven to be superior to the application server architecture.

  • PHP is easier for average-skilled folks to deploy. What’s the point of creating applications if you can’t figure out how to run them anywhere but your bedroom?
  • It is easier to track down and eliminate bugs in PHP applications. No persistent processes mean that PHP applications are deterministic. PHP code is also much simpler to work through and debug.
  • It is easier to scale applications written in PHP. Folks have done it, and other folks have repeated it. The Rails community as yet has not.
  • It may be quicker to create applications in Rails, but the operational costs once the application goes into production quickly erode that advantage. If you’re not in the US, servers cost real money, and application servers need more iron than the equivalent PHP code.

The Agile community likes to talk about “smells”, so how come they don’t see something like mod_rails and gag on the stench of trying to mask architectural failings with such cleverness?

Before I make it onto Terry’s Christmas card list, I should state that I firmly believe that Ruby itself is a programming language that is vastly superior to PHP, especially when you get away from Apache and are creating the behind-the-scenes plumbing required. The OO in Rails continues to leave PHP for dead, and OO brings many advantages to a thriving development community. There are real advantages to being able to share code between both the must-be-real-time web front-end and the non-real time backends, and to be able to easily reuse whatever external open-source libraries save you time and effort. And I believe that solutions such as the Ruby gems are vastly superior to PEAR and PECL. PEAR/PECL should have been our CPAN, or our RubyForge. They deliberately chose not to be, wrongly believing that CPAN was a negative feature of Perl. They believed that one high-quality solution would prove the superior model over time. They failed to execute, and the paradigm was plain wrong in the first place.

My prediction is that a Rails-like framework, but built using a PHP-style mod_ruby and execute-again architecture, would have a real chance at displacing PHP. RoR the application server hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of achieving that. Their market firmly remains the same market that .NET and Java already fight over, and it’s a market they’re very welcome to.

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