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Technology old computers

Can my website keep working without any changes?

We want to protect our clients from unnecessary costs but after recently dealing with a 10 year old website, we also feel that we need to also provide some education around certain aspects of web hosting. If you don’t know that websites have a life expectancy or how to find out what it might be, then this is the article for you.

Ultimately a website is just software, almost like a program installed on your computer, and the server it is hosted on is the physical machine where it is installed. Your computer doesn’t just have programs installed on it though, it also needs an underlying architecture which we often refer to as an operating system. Examples of these operating systems are Windows 10, macOS Mojave, Windows 7, etc.

The reason I’m using computers as an example is because if you have a pc running Windows 7 with a program installed, and eventually you log in and Windows 7 has downloaded an update to move it up to Windows 10, your program may no longer run until you instal a Windows 10 compatible version. These updates usually ask you first and allow you to say no to stay on an older version, but sooner or later the update is forced onto your machine.

The same is true for web servers. If we think of PHP as our operating system, and your site was built on version 5, then eventually support for this will be withdrawn and you are forced into upgrading to version 7 (php missed version 6 in the same way that there was never a Windows 9). Now all of this might sound quite technical and confusing but it is something that you need to be aware of.

PHP is used by 78.9% of all the websites whose server-side programming language we know.

W3 Techs

This quote is very important so I’ll say it again. PHP is used by 78.9% of all websites known to be built on a server-side language. This list of sites includes Facebook, Wikipedia, Pinterest, Wordpress, and the list goes on. Most of the sites you use on a daily basis are built on PHP. This is important when you consider that each version of PHP typically has a shelf life of 3-5 years, this is the period in which it is initially released and goes through the stages of being actively supported, down to just having security fixes only, and eventually reaches end of life.

When a version of PHP is considered to be at the end of life stage, hosting companies will still offer it for a period of time. In our recent example we were dealing with a site which was built on PHP 5.2, this was released on 2nd November 2006 and became end of life on 6th January 2011. At the time of writing this it is now December 2018 and a hosting provider we’ve been using have withdrawn support from their servers for PHP 5.2 completely. A number of other hosting companies have already withdrawn support a few years ago also. This has meant that the website no longer works and we will need to replace it with a holding page whilst we build a new one if the client agrees to it.

Whilst this doesn’t happen often for us, we thought we would write about it because PHP isn’t something that everyone is aware of. When we say that the version needs to be upgraded and a new site built as a result, we can be met with a response of “Can’t it stay as it is?” and whilst our answer is yes, it won’t be able to forever, because eventually that version will no longer be supported by the hosting companies. The image below shows the breakdown of PHP version across the internet currently.

Breakdown of PHP versions

Breakdown of PHP Versions

74.9% of PHP sites will be end of life after 1st January 2019. Let me say that again in simple terms, 74.9% of most of the internet is out of date as of next month.

All of the sites we have been building this year have been built on PHP 7.2, and going forwards into 2019 we shall be building on PHP 7.3, but as you can see, these have a typical shelf life of 3 years for security fixes and active support. After this period is exceeded, it is considered end of life and you probably have another 3 to 5 years before hosting providers start to withdraw support for it, unless you’re using a provider who only offers the latest versions. This ultimately means that websites typically have a life expectancy of around 7 years on average.

The currently supported versions are shown on the php.net site and I’ve included a screenshot below of the graph on there at the time of writing this article.

Currently Supported PHP Versions

Currently Supported PHP Versions

What I want you to do now is think of your car, for the first few years it will work very well, but after some time has passed it starts to break down or isn’t capable of connecting with your new phone / satnav because technology has moved on. Eventually it becomes harder to find garages which stock the parts to fix your car and you end up replacing it with a new one. This is a similar process to what happens to websites and the technology which sits behind them.

Cars can also have an MOT which detects an issues and once fixed can make them last longer, and what we’ve done with a number of our sites recently is to give them an MOT. We had a server where a lot of the sites were running on PHP 5.4, sites which we built a few years ago when that was the best technology available to us at that time. After going through them and making some small tweaks to the codebase we’ve been able to upgrade them from 5.4 to 5.6 which means they have been able to benefit from the latest security updates. The step from 5.6 to 7.0 is larger, but once on PHP 7 we can upgrade to 7.2 or 7.3 a lot easier. This will need to be done for 74.9% of the internet after next month at some point in the future.

If we host your site and you would like to know what version of PHP your site is currently running, then please feel free to get in touch and we can give you a life expectancy for your site. By running on an older version of PHP which has reached its end of life state, your site may become vulnerable to being hacked or having the contact form filled up with spam submissions, eventually your site could fail all together. For a lot of companies we work with, a website is now becoming a central part of a business by connecting to other systems, providing internal tools for generating quotes, running off reports, managing stock levels, validating tickets at a till point, and there are many other applications also.

PHP, talk of operating systems, and security updates isn’t exactly the most exciting part of what we do, but it’s critical in keeping everything working correctly. It also has impacts on areas such as pagespeed. So if you would like an MOT, a new site, or even just an indication of how long we feel your site can run before any action needs to be taken, please let us know and we will happily share this information with you. And finally, we hope you have a great end to 2018.

Matt profile

Matt develops custom plugins for Craft CMS to extend the core functionality. He also focusses on pagespeed improvements and server environments.