To get a better idea of what was in store for a heavily loaded PHP application, I set up an interview with Owen Byrne, cofounder and Senior Software Engineer at digg.com. From talking with Owen I learned digg.com gets on the order of 200 million page views per month, and they’re able to handle it with only 3 web servers and 8 small database servers (I’ll discuss the reason for so many database servers in the next section). Even better news was that they were able to handle their first year’s worth of growth on a single hosted server like the one I was using. My hardware worries were relieved. The hardware requirements to run high-traffic PHP applications didn’t seem to be more costly than for Java.
Digg is in the process of preparing to scale to 10 times current load. I asked Owen Byrne if that meant an increase in headcount and he said that wasn’t necessary. The only real change they identified was a switch to a different database platform. There doesn’t seem to be any additional manpower cost to PHP scalability either. It turns out that it really is fast and cheap to develop applications in PHP. Most scaling and performance challenges are almost always related to the data layer, and are common across all language platforms. Even as a self-proclaimed PHP evangelist, I was very startled to find out that all of the theories I was subscribing to were true. There is simply no truth to the idea that Java is better than scripting languages at writing scalable web applications. I won’t go as far as to say that PHP is better than Java, because it is never that simple. However it just isn’t true to say that PHP doesn’t scale, and with the rise of Web 2.0, sites like Digg, Flickr, and even Jobby are proving that large scale applications can be rapidly built and maintained on-the-cheap, by one or two developers.