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Using PHP

PHP is a scripting language you can use to make your web sites interactive. PHP can do things that regular HTML web pages can not. You will need to learn how to create web pages in HTML first before you can learn how to use PHP. To learn more about creating HTML web pages, please see Create A Web Page.

To use PHP, you need to first have a CGI account set up. You can not use .php pages on your normal web server. For information, please see How To Request A CGI Account.

Creating and Uploading a .php page

To create a PHP page, you simply type the code into a plain text document. Then you save it as filename.php to your hard drive. Replace filename with any name you wish. In order to actually use the php page and see what it will do, you need to upload it to your CGI server. Please see Upload A Web Page for information (you will just replace with and use your CGI Password instead of your FTP Password). After the file is on your CGI server, you can access it with your web browser to see it work. The address to the new file would be something similar to:

Where you replace with your actual domain name and filename with the name of the php file you uploaded.

The Basics

Let's get started! First, it is important to realize that PHP code can be embedded in with HTML code. This means you can have a mixture of HTML and PHP code in the same page. You can also embed HTML code within PHP code. Because of this versatility, you can create just about any type of interactive web page you can dream of. Let's look at a simple PHP page:

<title>Hello World</title>

  $hello_variable = "Hello World!<br>";
  echo $hello_variable;
  echo "This completes the test.";


Notice the highlighted area. The first line is a <?php which tells Active Web Hosting's server to parse this information through the php scripting parser before sending it to the visitor's web browser. The php parser then runs the code in the block until it sees a ?> in which it stops and let's the web browser finish the rest. The resulting code will be send to the web browser and will look like this:

<title>Hello World</title>

Hello World!<br>This completes the test.


So the server substitutes the result of the PHP code before it gets sent to the visitor's web browser.

Looking back at the code example, you'll see the next line as $hello_variable = "Hello World!<br>"; This is called a variable. Variables store text or numbers so you can use them in other areas of your script. A variable name can be any group of letters and numbers, as long as the variable name does not start with a number or include special characters such as punctuation. All variables usually start with a $ though there are some exceptions in more technical code which is beyond the scope of this tutorial.

In the quotation marks you put a string, which is another fancy word for text. Variables can also store numbers, but instead of being enclosed in quotation marks, they are enclosed in single quotes, such as $hello_variable = '3'; You'll also notice that every statement ends with a semi-colon.

Next we use the echo statement in two different ways. The first way, we tell echo to print out in the browser page the words "Hello World<br>". Notice we also used HTML code in this to create a line break. You can embed HTML code in an echo statement. The second way you just put whatever text you want to print in quotation marks.

The result of this will be the browser showing the following text:

Hello World!
This completes the test.

Using PHP to Read Forms

Believe it or not, that's about all you need to know about PHP to create a simple, form! Let's take a look at the code. This may seem a little complicated at first, but we'll go through it step-by-step and you'll see it's acutally quite easy.

<title>Color Chooser</title>

As you can see, we start off just like we do any other HTML page. Notice that some lines start with a // and a description. These are called comments and they can appear anywhere in your php code. If you want to put comments in any HTML section of the page, you still must use <!-- and --> to enclose the comment. Be careful to know which section you are in and use the appropriate comment type.

// No input yet, please fill in form.
if ($HTTP_POST_VARS['done']){
  // Read the form data into variables
  $name  = $HTTP_POST_VARS['visitor_name'];
  $color = $HTTP_POST_VARS['color'];

Here we are using an if statement to start a block of code. We can put anything we want within an if block. The if statement usually goes like this:

if (test) {
  Things to do if the test is true.
} else {
  Things to do if the test is false.

The else part of the statement can be omitted if needed. In the above example, we test the form's hidden variable done to be sure that the form was actually submitted. This was in the form code below as:

<input type="hidden" value="done">

You'll see we refer to form variables as $HTTP_POST_VARS['value'] due to the fact we used the method="post" in the <form> tag below. This is the preferred way to get data from a form.

If the form is filled out, then we store the value from the name="visitor_name" or Name: field in the form into the $name variable. We also do this for the $color variable.

    printf ("Your name is %s and your color choice was %s.", $name, $color);
    echo "You must at least fill in your name.";
    echo 'Try again&nbsp;<a href="">here</a>';

Here we insert another test. You can insert tests and loops inside other if test statements if you want. The above code makes sure someone filled in their name. This is good for double-checking form input. If their name was filled out then the printf function prints out their name and color choice, otherwise the script tells the user to try again and gives them a place to return to.

Note that in a printf function, you enclose the parameters, meaning the format string, and variables in that order within parenthesis. This is the normal way to send data to a function. The %s means to print whatever is in the next encountered variable. The first %s means to insert in that space the contents of the varialbe $name and the second %s means to insert in that space the contents of the variable $color.

// Here is the form visitors fill out.
} else {
    <form method="post" action="<?php echo $_SERVER['PHP_SELF']?>">
      <input type="hidden" value="done">
      <table border="0">
      <tr><td align="right" valign="top">Name:</td>
      <td><input type="text" name="visitor_name" size="50"></td></tr>
      <tr><td align="right" valign="top">Color Choice:</td>
      <td><select name="color">
      <td align="center" colspan="2">
        <input type="submit" value="Send">
        <input type="reset">

Now you see we end the php code after an else. This does two things. The } else { means that if the form wasn't filled out yet, then to display the form. Then the ?> says that the following code will be in normal HTML.

Look at the following line after that:

<form method="post" action="<?php echo $_SERVER['PHP_SELF']?>

This line again mixes PHP and HTML and even within and HTML tag! This part <?php echo $_SERVER['PHP_SELF']?> says to use this very same page to look at the form data. This means that this page can be used for two things. Remember we were testing for the eventuality of the form actually being filled out. After the form's Send button is pressed, then this .php page will be run again but with the data from the form sent to it. If the data is encountered, then that is when the first part of our first if statement will be used.

} ?>

Naturally, once we are done with the code, we end it. The above may seem a bit confusing, but remember, we were using HTML for the form in an if statement. So we have to go back to PHP mode, end the if statement with the } and then we go back to HTML mode to close the body and html tags.

So, in summary, what this page does does is:

if data from a form on this page has been detected, then
  if the name has been filled in, then
    print out the user's name and their color choice.
    Tell the user to fill in their name and give a link back to this page.
  End of second if to test name.
  Print out the form and let the user make their choices.
End of first if to test whether there was form data sent or not.

As you can see, we can use one PHP page to process form data and not need a web page and a separate CGI script to do it. The entire source code is provided below:

For another very useful example, please see Using PHP To Send Email From A Form. For more information and other tutorials and resources, please see More Information About CGI, Perl, and Other Scripting Languages.


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