Facebook’s HipHop optimizes the wrong thing

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Facebook will shortly release a tool called HipHop for enhancing the performance of PHP. My understanding of the tool is that it compiles PHP code into C++ which is then compiled into a system native executable. While I have no doubt that this tool does produce significant speed gains over apache/PHP, I do think one needs to be aware of the trade-offs of this kind of system. After all, this isn’t the first time a trick like this has been used for a dynamic language.

C++ and PHP are very different languages. I’m not talking about syntax, but how source code is handled. In PHP, the source code is turned into op codes that the PHP interpreter understands. The interpreter knows how to the operating system perform these op codes. In C++, source code is compiled into assembler which is then linked into a system executable which can be run from the shell. Compiled code runs faster than interpreted code for a number of reasons, but the most important is that compiled code is closest to native assembler which essentially is the op code system that the host CPU uses to make stuff happen.

The problem with compiling PHP into C++ is that you lose all the wonderful dynamic features of PHP since these cannot be easily or efficiently translated automatically into C++ source code. The very dynamic nature of PHP (or Perl or Ruby or Python, etc) is what makes these languages accelerate programmer productivity. I think facebook will see this performance hit later.

Let’s not forget that Moore’s law of CPU power often solves a great deal of performance issues. Hardware is always cheaper than developer time and less prone to bugs.

I favor architectures that take advantage of Moore’s law and use horizontal scaling and commodity solutions over fancier tricks that require specialized talent (like erlang). I might suggest caching the opcodes that the PHP interpreter generates and simply running those. This is the essence of the Zend server and how apache/mod_perl/Apache::Registry work. Sure, you don’t get quite the performance of compiled code but you’ll still see a noticable boost. I believe PHP does some level of this kind of caching right now.

It’s true that one can do amazing feats by being clever, but clever doesn’t scale (unless you’re Google).