Christoph Hochstrasser

PHP Socket Programming, done the Right Way™

When it comes to socket programming with PHP, nearly all articles are about the Socket Extension, despite it’s the unfriendliest and most cumbersome way to work with Sockets in modern PHP. Let me introduce you to something, which apparently is pretty unknown among PHP programmers — Stream Sockets.

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This article is also available in Serbo-Croatian.

What is a Socket?

The IP Address is the identification of a network device within a network, and the Port Number is the identification of a network application within a Host.

These two things uniquely identify a network application on a computer and are called Socket.

So when we send a packet to 127.0.0.1 and port 80, the packet is sent to the device 127.0.0.1 (your local host) and then the operating system looks if an application has itself bound on port 80.

If there’s an application bound on port 80, then the operating system forwards the network packet to the application. The application can then accept the connection. This connects to the IP Address and Port Number the client sent with the initial request.

There’s more than one way to do it

Sadly, there are two ways to do Socket programming with PHP:

  • Socket Extension: despite being not even enabled by default when building PHP, the Socket Extension is referred by most authors when talking about Socket Programming. The manual refers to it as the “low level” Socket API, and the only thing it’s good at, is at providing a C-like API. These are all functions starting with socket_.
  • Stream Sockets: Since version 5.0.0 of PHP, the Stream extension (providing all of PHP’s IO abstraction) is able to bind and connect to network sockets. Socket resources created with the stream extension can be used with almost all stream related functions, like fgets, fread or stream_get_contents, and therefor provide access to streams in a simple and convenient way, which is like working with file handles. These functions all start with stream_socket_ and are the ones you really want to use.

Connecting to a Server

Connecting to a server is done with the function stream_socket_client. The only mandatory argument is the specification of the socket you want to connect to, and it returns a resource on success or false on error.

The socket specification is in the form of $protocol://$host:$port where protocol is one of the following:

  • tcp, for communicating via TCP, which is used by almost all common internet protocols like HTTP, FTP, SMTP where reliability is needed.
  • udp
  • or unix, which connects to a Unix Socket, a special kind of network socket, which is internal to the operating system’s network stack. Slightly more efficient, because no network interface is involved.

You can read more about the supported socket transports for stream_socket_ functions in the Manual.

Here’s a simple example for making an HTTP request:

<?php

$addr = gethostbyname("www.example.com");

$client = stream_socket_client("tcp://$addr:80", $errno, $errorMessage);

if ($client === false) {
    throw new UnexpectedValueException("Failed to connect: $errorMessage");
}

fwrite($client, "GET / HTTP/1.0\r\nHost: www.example.com\r\nAccept: */*\r\n\r\n");
echo stream_get_contents($client);
fclose($client);

Let’s go through this, step by step.

$addr = gethostbyname("www.example.com");

First you need the IP address of the host you want to connect to. This is done with the gethostbyname function.

$client = stream_socket_client("tcp://$addr:80", $errno, $errorMessage);

if ($client === false) {
    throw new UnexpectedValueException("Failed to connect: $errorMessage");
}

Then we create the socket connection with stream_socket_client. When it returns false, it means there was an error — so we throw an exception. stream_socket_client allows to pass references as second and third arguments, which get then set with the error code and the error message when an error occurs.

fwrite($client, "GET / HTTP/1.0\r\nHost: www.example.com\r\nAccept: */*\r\n\r\n");
echo stream_get_contents($client);

Socket connections created by stream_socket_client are streams, just like files opened via fopen. This means we can use fwrite to write bytes to the socket and we can use the convenient stream_get_contents function for reading the whole response.

fclose($client);

Stream sockets can be closed, just like files, by fclose.

Servers

The Stream extension also provides a simple way to make socket servers with the stream_socket_server function.

The function stream_socket_server, again, takes a socket specification as first argument, in the same format as the string passed to stream_socket_client.

Running a server involves at least these things:

  1. Bind on a Socket, tells the operating system that we’re interested in network packages arriving at the given network interface and port (= socket)
  2. Check if an incoming connection is available
  3. “Accept” the incoming connection (with stream_socket_accept).
  4. Send something useful back to the client
  5. Close the connection, or let the client close it
  6. Go to (2)

When writing a server, you first have to do an “Accept” operation on the server socket. This is done with the stream_socket_accept function. This function blocks until a client connects to the server, or the timeout runs out.

Here is a simple echo server:

<?php
# server.php

$server = stream_socket_server("tcp://127.0.0.1:1337", $errno, $errorMessage);

if ($server === false) {
    throw new UnexpectedValueException("Could not bind to socket: $errorMessage");
}

for (;;) {
    $client = @stream_socket_accept($server);

    if ($client) {
        stream_copy_to_stream($client, $client);
        fclose($client);
    }
}

You can try this by first starting your script:

php server.php

Then start another terminal and type this:

% echo "Hello World" | nc 127.0.0.1 1337
Hello World

Windows users: You can open a telnet connection on 127.0.0.1 and port 1337, type something in and press enter. You should see the same text appear.

Lets walk through this, step by step:

$server = stream_socket_server("tcp://127.0.0.1:1337", $errno, $errorMessage);

First bind on the tcp socket on address 127.0.0.1 and port 1337. This is the network socket, which can be used by clients to connect to our server. Just like stream_socket_client, two arguments can be passed by reference, which then get filled with the error number and human readable error message.

if ($server === false) {
    throw new UnexpectedValueException("Could not bind to socket: $errorMessage");
}

If an error occured, the function returns false, so we quit here by throwing an exception. It makes no sense to start waiting for connections when we couldn’t register ourselves for the socket.

for (;;) {

Using for without statements causes it to loop forever. We need this, because the server should run until we decide to kill it.

$client = @stream_socket_accept($server);

stream_socket_accept blocks until a client connects to the socket or the timeout expires. Error suppresssion is intentional here, because this function likes to spit out unnecessary warnings.

if ($client) {

The call to stream_socket_accept either returns a connection or null when the timeout expired. So we want only to do something when a client actually connected, which is when the return value was “truthy”.

stream_copy_to_stream($client, $client);

This gem is very handy for our echo server. It copies bytes from the stream given as first argument, to the stream given as second argument. So it actually sends everything back, what the client sent.

fclose($client);

Last, but not least, we close the connection to the client. This is not always necessary, because in some scenarios you want to let the client close the connection (e.g. FTP).

Further Reading

Manual Pages:

Functions for connecting/binding to sockets:

Want a comprehensive guide to PHP socket programming, all in one handy ebook?

Save a couple of hours, support this site, and get the Socket Programming Handbook now starting at just 29€ (that's probably way less than what you make per the hour — and this will save you plenty of hours!).

Get the book now

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