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Open-source Web applications, PHP vs. Java (Part 1 of 2)

04.28.2008
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It is common knowledge that PHP does well in the open-source Web applications space. PHP has numerous representatives for most application categories, and for some it provides a clear leader, like WordPress. On the other hand, most Java counterparts have apparently failed to reach the same popularity.

Below is an overview of the existing open-source PHP and Java implementations for the following categories of applications: forum, blog, wiki and content management systems (CMS). These are among the most commonly used types of on-line software.

Forum Engines

There are lots of PHP forum engines in the open-source software arena, including:

  • phpBB which has 700+ mods and is the winner of the SourceForge.net 2007 Community Choice Awards for the Best Project for Communications category,

  • vBulletin with 1000+ mods,

  • punBB having 300+ projects and 150+ styles.

Notice the large amount of plugins for each of these projects. This denotes a large and healthy user base, devoted to both using and extending the core application.

Java has the JForum and JavaBB projects, but they seem to have very few users by comparison, not to mention plugin contributors.

Blog Engines

In the area of blogging, the PHP based WordPress is extremely well spread. Chances are that virtually any blog you read is powered by WordPress. The project has 2000+ plugins and at least 5 dedicated printed books. No other PHP blog engine comes close to the popularity of WordPress.

For Java, there are two relevant open-source blog applications: Apache Roller and Pebble. Roller is more feature-rich, but that comes at a considerable price: large footprint and difficult configuration. It is an enterprise application focused on very large blogging sites (e.g. the Sun blogs), but it seemingly fails to satisfy small-scale needs. I have yet to find a plugin developer community around it.

Pebble on the other hand is focused on the other end of the spectrum, providing a much simpler configuration and lower footprint. But I still couldn't find plugins.

Wiki Engines

In this category, PHP seems to have an overwhelming advantage. The MediaWiki project powers Wikipedia, the largest wiki by far. The project has lots of available extensions, of which 300+ are stable. There are lots of other PHP wiki engines one can choose from, but I just wanted to point out the most prominent one.

Java does not have too many production-ready wiki projects. In my opinion, JspWiki (with 50+ plugins) and XWiki are the most relevant. I wanted to mention SnipSnap as well, however it's development is officially stopped.

Content Management Systems

Content management systems are a handy way of building dynamic sites instead of starting from scratch. PHP seems to provide everything one needs, including a healthy competition among its foremost projects. These are Joomla (2900+ extensions, 14+ books published) and Drupal (3600+ modules, 9+ books). There are also other CMS projects e.g. Mambo and the ancient PHP-Nuke.

Because in most cases CMSs are deployed on a dedicated server, Java should not be at a disadvantage in this category. There are several open-source Java CMSs to choose from: Apache Jackrabbit, Apache Lenya, Alfresco, Liferay, OpenCms, Nuxeo, Magnolia, Jahia etc. Among these, Alfresco (2 printed books and 20+ stable extensions) and Liferay (portlets based, 1 printed book, 25+ portlet plugins) seem the more popular.

A special note for the Java Content Repository API defined by JSR-170. Both Jackrabbit and Magnolia implement it. This means that third-party tools can access their repositories in a standardized way. It is a very good step towards ensuring that information stored inside a JCR compliant repository can outlive a particular JCR implementation.

For now, the JCR API does not seem enough however. The PHP CMS projects are continuously gaining ground, probably because PHP hosting is cheap and easy to set up, and because the projects themselves are highly usable. Take into account that DZone and implicitly JavaZone (the former JavaLobby) are running on Drupal. And I'm sure that Rick and Matt tried to choose the best option while not easily dismissing the Java CMSs.

In the second part of this article, I will try to explore the reasons for the current state and to figure out a way to change it. Meanwhile feel free to add your input to the above, the list of projects is far from exhaustive.

References
Published at DZone with permission of Robert Enyedi, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)

Comments

David Lee replied on Mon, 2008/04/28 - 8:50am

And the problem is not being helped at all by sites like this not running on java.  Same goes for Spring's and JavaRanch's website.  You nailed the problem in your previous post about the difficulty of hosting java web applications. 

javaBB is 17MB and phpBB 2MB to download.   Make of this what you will but for me it's the first sign that something is wrong.

Look at the topics on this site, just about all of the news and posting are about java tools, frameworks and utilities very few are about actual applications built on these tools.  If you wrote a java based phpBB using nothing but JSPs it would get ridiculed by most developers I know, however, this is fine for php.  

What's worst, most developers I know would get stuck on the whole doing it "right" crap and insist on using every framework under the sun, rather than just getting the app out the door when it could all be done with no framework. 

I've met few java developers that admit to knowing hibernate better than sql(not just one or 2 either), this alone, shows how the php world is able to do so much more, with that seems like so much less.  Hibernate is useful,  and I have to use it daily at my 9 to 5, but I regard it as a black hole of productivity.

You would think all of the tools and frameworks would make java developers more productive, but this simply does not seem to be the case.

 

Eddie May replied on Mon, 2008/04/28 - 9:26am

As a Java developer, I consistently look first at PHP based applications when developing smaller scale websites/applications for clients.

Why? Because as mentioned in the first posting, getting reasonably priced Java hosting is very difficult - most UK hosting providers, for example, have shied away from offering shared java hosting. Something similar is happening with Ruby on Rails too - UK hosting companies are slow offering it unless you have a dedicated server.

The second reason I use PHP apps is that there are so many to choose from! You are spoilt for choice with PHP CMSs, for example, but Java has few offerings. The same is true of shopping cart solutions. I think this is because these Java projects fall somewhere between enterprise applications and enthusiasts offerings & PHP has colonised this space very effectively - offering solutions for real world problems.

Another reason why Java is lacking in these areas is that Java has a steep learning curve - all these frameworks owe their origin in part to this fact. Getting started in Java is much harder than it is in PHP (or Ruby on Rails). That's why Java has made the grade in enterprise situations but has not had anything like the same impact in the SME/enthusiasts sectors.

Sun could do Java a favour and develop/fund several core/key open source projects - one CMS, one Shopping Cart (please, not pet store), etc. They would not be pedagogic (look, shinny new EJB3, etc) in intent but real systems built to satisfy real world requirements & designed in such a way to enable easy customisation/extension. These could then be distributed as part of some Java/Netbeans/MySQL bundle. As a solutions provider I could then take one and offer it as the starting point for a client.

A final note is that unless Sun does this soon, then Google will make Java redundant in this sphere - Google apps will one day mean that I can use an OTS hosted solution, built in python or rails, as the basis of my solution. I doubt that anytime soon Goolge will be porting any Java web app onto Google apps - not least since it would need to write it from scratch.

Just my 2ps worth.

Berry Crawford replied on Mon, 2008/04/28 - 10:09am

As mentioned, it comes down to hosting and weight.  Java hosting solutions are never cheap and high quality at the same time.  They may be one or other, but Ive never seen both at the same time.  There are thousands of such options for PHP apps.  The second issue of weight is somewhat the cause of the first issue.  Compared to PHP, Java is big, heavy and complex.  Of coarse the bigness and complexity is the price of the robustness and power that the Java platform provides, but it would have been nice to have had a lighterweight and simplier solution that could have competed against PHP and ASP.

 

Berry Crawford replied on Mon, 2008/04/28 - 10:14am in response to: Eddie May

[quote=freshwebservices]Another reason why Java is lacking in these areas is that Java has a steep learning curve - all these frameworks owe their origin in part to this fact. Getting started in Java is much harder than it is in PHP (or Ruby on Rails). That's why Java has made the grade in enterprise situations but has not had anything like the same impact in the SME/enthusiasts sectors.[/quote]

 This is a key point

Robert Enyedi replied on Mon, 2008/04/28 - 1:19pm in response to: Eddie May

[quote=freshwebservices]

Another reason why Java is lacking in these areas is that Java has a steep learning curve - all these frameworks owe their origin in part to this fact. Getting started in Java is much harder than it is in PHP (or Ruby on Rails).

[/quote]

I don't see this too big of a problem. Basic object-oriented programming knowledge is what you need for using Java because the language is friendly. Most parts of the standard Java API are well-written, but yes, you need to master some skills. I could complain that the API documentation did get very large and the JavaDoc presentation format is kind of aged with few filtering/search options (e.g. why would I need CORBA/Swing for Web development?).

[quote=freshwebservices]

Sun could do Java a favour and develop/fund several core/key open source projects - one CMS, one Shopping Cart (please, not pet store), etc. They would not be pedagogic (look, shinny new EJB3, etc) in intent but real systems built to satisfy real world requirements & designed in such a way to enable easy customisation/extension. These could then be distributed as part of some Java/Netbeans/MySQL bundle. As a solutions provider I could then take one and offer it as the starting point for a client.

[/quote]

Limited help in this area could come from Sun, but such projects without user and developer communities would be doomed. In the second part of the article (soon to be out) I also focus on this topic.

Ray Kelm replied on Mon, 2008/04/28 - 2:15pm

Is it possible that Java's focus on J2EE as a solution for web applications has pushed it out of reach for "simple" applications. Perhaps that's why PHP is so much more popular in this space.

On the other hand, some of the more advanced PHP CMS system aren't really a good fit for shared hosting either, since their memory and CPU requirements are more than is available on a $6/mo host. Perhaps it's more of an issue of scaling down rather than up. If you are starting with a cheap hosting account, and something like wordpress, and eventually want to add more function, you are already familiar with PHP, so you will be likely to keep using it.

Perhaps Java just needs a good low-end solution that is easy to get started.

 

Berry Crawford replied on Mon, 2008/04/28 - 2:35pm in response to: Robert Enyedi

[quote=sky_HALud][quote=freshwebservices] Another reason why Java is lacking in these areas is that Java has a steep learning curve - all these frameworks owe their origin in part to this fact. Getting started in Java is much harder than it is in PHP (or Ruby on Rails). [/quote]

I don't see this too big of a problem. Basic object-oriented programming knowledge is what you need for using Java because the language is friendly. Most parts of the standard Java API are well-written, but yes, you need to master some skills. [/quote]

I think what you are missing is that the standard APIs are not enough to create an end-to-end web apps in todays Java world.  At the very lowest end, you can use just JSP and thats pretty simple, but people who are doing that type of web-development 1) would find Java more difficult than PHP 2) go with the cheaper and more ubiquous option (PHP).  If you move up the complexity ladder, the next step would be Struts, JSF and Spring MVC as widespead options.  None of those are rocket science but they are hardly beginner friendly or suitable for the hobbiest programmer.  If you go up a step from there we are looking at Enterprise Spring, EJBS, Seam, SOAP, Hibernate/JPA.  When we hire people for those technologies I like to get developers with 3-5+ years development experience because otherwise Im just handholding the entire time unless Im lucky and get a fast learner.

So all in all, what it takes practically to get up to speed with widely adopted Java technologies is not that suitable for the beginner IMO.  And where it is (pure JSP) there are better options for people in that space.

 

Eric Galluzzo replied on Mon, 2008/04/28 - 3:21pm

Another Java CMS, e-commerce, and blog/forum solution that is gaining popularity is OpenEdit. It's very easy to set up and does not require a database; it can be dropped into an app server without any extra configuration and launches a short wizard-style web configuration process when it first starts.

Disclaimer: I worked for OpenEdit for a while some years ago, so apologies if the above sounds a bit like an ad. :)

Ashish Jain replied on Tue, 2008/04/29 - 12:05am

Well, is there any framework available where all other java products can added as module or plugins.

hint: OSGI based.

There are couple of things I see using j2ee based web products.

1. I will have to minimum 256+ MB free java heap size I need if I have to run 2+ webapps on application server

2. What single sign on? if i got user logged on, i want him to be logged on to forums, wiki and blog application.

But if we have single web app container for all these, above two problems can be minimized. I hope SUN realized this and take initiative.

 

 

Konstantin Chikarev replied on Tue, 2008/04/29 - 5:02am

I don't see Liferay in the list of CMS. I think it's the best of its kind.

Will Ezell replied on Tue, 2008/04/29 - 6:27am

While I am obviously biased, I would argue that dotCMS (www.dotcms.org) is by far the best open source Java WEB content management solution available. It is really feature complete. And while documentation has been scarce - we are working on that - there is an active and engaged community behind it.

 

 

Dmitry Namiot replied on Tue, 2008/04/29 - 6:30am

>you can use just JSP and thats pretty simple, but people who are doing that type of web-development

>1) would find Java more difficult than PHP

 

Why? What is the difference betwwen the plain JSP and PHP? Take existing taglibs for JSP - JSTL, Coldtags ( http://www.servletsuite.com/jsp.htm of course :) etc. and you can develop even faster than in JSP. Just see for example the Coldfusion world. They are more than alive with their simple approach

Robert Enyedi replied on Tue, 2008/04/29 - 7:48am in response to: Konstantin Chikarev

[quote=maddcast]I don't see Liferay in the list of CMS. I think it's the best of its kind.[/quote]

Konstantin, thanks for pointing this out. I updated the original post with some info about Liferay.

Robert Enyedi replied on Tue, 2008/04/29 - 7:58am in response to: Dmitry Namiot

[quote=dn68495]

>you can use just JSP and thats pretty simple, but people who are doing that type of web-development

>1) would find Java more difficult than PHP

 

Why? What is the difference betwwen the plain JSP and PHP? Take existing taglibs for JSP - JSTL, Coldtags ( http://www.servletsuite.com/jsp.htm of course :) etc. and you can develop even faster than in JSP. Just see for example the Coldfusion world. They are more than alive with their simple approach

[/quote]

In my experience, even plain JSP pages are simpler to develop and maintain (without using an IDE) than those PHP based. If you add taglibs to your JSPs, you already get a far superior combination.

PHP does also have its fair share of Web frameworks. One should rather compare Struts and Spring MVC against those.

David Lee replied on Tue, 2008/04/29 - 8:03am in response to: Will Ezell

Not bad, some of your links aren't working, but it's not bad. I know it's good since it's 100MB to download. I'm going to download this and see if I can start a new javalobby that runs on java - seriously.

Berry Crawford replied on Tue, 2008/04/29 - 8:43am in response to: Robert Enyedi

[quote=sky_HALud][quote=dn68495]

>you can use just JSP and thats pretty simple, but people who are doing that type of web-development

>1) would find Java more difficult than PHP

Why? What is the difference betwwen the plain JSP and PHP? Take existing taglibs for JSP - JSTL, Coldtags ( http://www.servletsuite.com/jsp.htm of course :) etc. and you can develop even faster than in JSP. Just see for example the Coldfusion world. They are more than alive with their simple approach

[/quote]

In my experience, even plain JSP pages are simpler to develop and maintain (without using an IDE) than those PHP based. If you add taglibs to your JSPs, you already get a far superior combination.

[/quote]

 I agree that the taglibs are a much cleaner approach, but in the JSP-only model, any business logic will be implemented in Java itself and its just been my experience that hobbiest programmers feel more comfortable with PHP because it has so many accessible utility methods and you dont need to learn OO concepts.  And thats not even talking about deployment.  With PHP you just upload your files into a directory, with Java you have to know about WAR files, web.xml and JDBC and the like.  For use who know this stuff inside and out, it seems simple, but for the non-proffessional hobbiest coder or someone who is more a "designer" than programmer, that stuff is a barrier to entry.

[quote=sky_HALud]

PHP does also have its fair share of Web frameworks. One should rather compare Struts and Spring MVC against those.

[/quote]

Most PHP developement isnt MVC so the best apples to apples comparison is probabbly raw JSP to raw PHP.

 

roger hyam replied on Tue, 2008/04/29 - 2:25pm


99% of everything I do amounts to get data out of a database (MySQL typically) and displaying it to the user and occasionally taking it from the user and putting it in the database. Just about any decent scripting language would suite. PHP + MySQL meets the write once run anywhere promise that Java made.  I have a fair amount of experience with Java and love it as a language but most people I know working with it now are over engineering products. It is a mind set thing really. The wonderful thing about webservices and websites is no one knows whether you are a few hundred lines of PHP script or several meg of Java libraries - and guess what - nobody cares :)

 

 

Jay Bee replied on Tue, 2008/04/29 - 4:40pm

The elephant in the middle of the room that everyone want to pretend isn't there is .NET.

I'm not a Microsoft shill; hear me out.

Useable .NET hosting is about as cheap (under about $10/month) as useable PHP hosting. There are arguably more open-source forum, blog, wiki and CMS options in the .NET space than there are in the Java space (look around on codeplex.com and csharp-source.net and see for yourself). If someone wants to build new and interesting functionality on an existing stable, object-oriented, type-safe, managed-code, scalable platform with civilized code syntax and easy-to-manage, cost-effective hosting, then they might turn to .NET before they turn to Java. And that would be a loss for the Java platform.

By only catering to deep-pocketed, big enterprise-with-a-capital-E organizations that can afford to host their own servers, the Java community is missing out on a huge opportunity to serve an important, growing, enthusiastic user base. I can just hear all the zealots shaking their heads, thumping their chests and pontificating about the technical superiority of their favorite platform, and how evil and misguided the Microsoft platform is. I'm not going to get into that debate, because it doesn't matter. I just have two words to say about it: Sony BetaMax.

I love the Java platform. But it scares me to think that it's Balkanizing itself by creating too many choices for developers, without producing complete end-to-end solutions that are economical to implement (that includes the hosting story).

I find two recent developments in the Java space encouraging. First, OSGI might allow application servers to be better managed in cost-effective virtualized and shared hosting environments. Second, the full open-sourcing of Java should allow it to be bundled more consistently in most Linux distributions, allowing it to achieve the ubiquity that PHP now enjoys.

It may be that the Java community has been optimizing the wrong things. Platform choice has to be a matter of superior cost-benefit, not just superior technology. 'Better' isn't better if it's cost-prohibitive, or so complicated that it's risky.

Peter Kirn replied on Tue, 2008/04/29 - 4:49pm

Yeah, I'm with some other commenters here ... look, I love Java to death, but it's just not the right platform for *everything* -- it shouldn't be. I don't think hosting alone is the answer here. I've found with heavily-trafficked PHP sites, you really need a dedicated server; those cheap hosting solutions aren't all they're cracked up to be for PHP any more than Java. PHP just happens to be a good choice for these particular kinds of projects, and there's a community around them, and a long history of development there. I don't see anything wrong with that.

Where I'm really looking at Java is RIA and client, in which case it can complement these solutions; that's why JavaFX is so important.

Berry Crawford replied on Tue, 2008/04/29 - 6:46pm in response to: Peter Kirn

[quote=peterkirn] Yeah, I'm with some other commenters here ... look, I love Java to death, but it's just not the right platform for *everything* -- it shouldn't be. I don't think hosting alone is the answer here. I've found with heavily-trafficked PHP sites, you really need a dedicated server; those cheap hosting solutions aren't all they're cracked up to be for PHP any more than Java.[/quote]

 There is no question in my mind that PHP needs less server resourses to run than Java.  Ive seen too much evidence to the contrary.  Its because of the very different architectures.  Im not saying PHP is faster or a better technology, simply that he can handle more concurrent traffic than Java can on a comprable system.

I really believe the world needs a JSP-like techology that runs like PHP.  It would basically be be a mod_java type thing that invokes a VM with garbage collection and JIT technolgy turned off for each process.  It shouldnt be based on servlets or anything.  I dont think it would be that hard. 

 

Tomi Panula-Ontto replied on Wed, 2008/04/30 - 4:41am

10 years ago I was developing applications with ColdFusion and ActiveServerPages. ASP was full of crap at that time, mysterious database errors etc. However, I have never been so productive as I was when I did CF. There arised few problems though. The problems were targeted with a light gun and I felt I needed a better tool, so I switched to Java.

After 10 years of Java programming - have I gotten a heavier gun? Yes. What about productivity? Down in the rabbit hole. It's like.. every project went on to search a better method of doing things because of problems met with earlier approaches. Tried JSTL here, mvc XML/XSLT there and pure JSP at somewhere else. The Magical API just isn't there. The problem is that for some very odd reason every Java project try to become bigger than they really should be. Practically every opensource java library adds gazillion JARs and when you do that, your memory requirement goes up like a rocket. So there you are, screaming "I WANTED SOMETHING LIGHTWEIGHT" and your application has a number of libraries some of them causing odd Exceptions you have no clue about.

Meanwhile in the PHP world.. The PHP has had some very serious issues.  They have been modifying the core api quite a many times which has broken the older code and caused me some mistrust with that technology. Some years ago I had to write a few PHP projects, so I spent few days and wrote a form, validation, database, session classes myself - on top of the standard PHP code, simply because I wanted to isolate myself from the possible changes in the underlying technology. These were well spent few days. Productivity went up the roof. I used Smarty on the presentation layer and I organized all my other code to produce stuff that Smarty can swallow. I even did few nice templates that can print out a basic form simply by configuring it easily. I still hate the PHP, but love the productivity with it.

Back in the Java world. Searching for the Magic bullet, which isn't there. I have now quit searching for new APIs even though they seem simple at first glance. Most of them are simply new gimmicks which looks good and then hit you hard with sledgehammer and I have to start looking at just another new API. These are not the solution to the productivity and at the end of the day it's what counts.

What I did? I started writing my own lightweight APIs that work for me. If something goes wrong I can only blame myself, but if that happens - I can fix it myself. The only bigger problem, so far, is the lack of template engine that offers at least the same capabilities as smarty but writing a one by myself is simply too much. Many Java template engines boast how they can produce html, sql, xml, pdf .. but can't accomplish simple thing: template must be so easy that a HTML designer/graphician can learn it very quickly. Take a look at http://smarty.php.net/ and compare that documentation to Java template engines. You decide what you like, but I do like Smarty approach.

Quercus (Caucho's PHP5 implementation in Java) just might do the trick in mixing Java and PHP. Getting the best of two worlds could be the new path for Java on the server? Same happened to ColdFusion already. When guys at LiveSoftware added ColdFusion support to the JRun Server - the manufacturer of Cold Fusion - Allaire bought them. I don't know what's the current status but I think at least some version of the official Cold Fusion was written in Java. Allaire then went on and was merged to Macromedia and which was then again merged to Adobe.

Maybe something similar happens with the Java and PHP, too?

 

nitin pai replied on Fri, 2008/05/02 - 2:26am

Reading this article one would be bound to feel that PHP scores over Java. But I have a different opinion. The comparison done above are majorly related to the web application used for common usages. Like Blogs, Wiki's CMS which have become a norm for any organization lately. Yes, Java may not be a major contendor in these spaces but it was never meant to be. It started out with applications which utilized remoting services. After establishing in that space it tried to make its mark in the web application development since nowadays the web rules.

 Having said that, it would not be justifiable to compare the "web based" approach of PHP and Java. With PHP you can make web applications, fine. But can you make an entire application for an Enterprise. Okay I have bought in the big "E" but the fact is, huge applications need robustness and scalability. Can it be done using PHP. Will an organization be able to build a banking application using PHP? Such applications are complex and contain enormous critical features which include transactions, security, messaging etc. And moreover having done the application it should be scalable as industries scale up the volume of business quite quickly especially in the finance domain.  I have seen applications which have the utmost complexity built into them and so many different product of J2EE utilized in them. And the J2EE stack does quite well in bridging the components. 

 The J2EE stack has been maturing from the past and it has been changing drastically with the advent of EJB3, Annotations, Grails, OSGI, etc. It is trying to tame a mammoth just for making the work of developers less, which will definitely take time. But can PHP scale up to the same level as J2EE (its now Java EE) in the future.

If you ask me what would I choose to develop a blog application, my answer would be definitely PHP or Ruby. But if I ask you to build a full fledged financial application would your answer be PHP?  The comparison does not come on similar terms in my opinion. As far as hosting is concerned, once again it has been mentioned PHP is the better one. But it is only limited to hosting your blogs, wiki's and CMS. Coming back to financial institutions, they have their own servers to host the applications. Why would any big organization go for 3rd party hosting? It violates their security as well.

I did not find a mention of Atalssian Confluence in this entire article. Major organizations prefer it for their online knowledge management and what about bug tracking systems like JIRA. Obviously PHP cannot scale up to the size as them. Confluence too has the plugin system as Wordpress.

 So all in all, both the technologies have their fare share in the things they are doing the best. It only depends on where they are compared to vizualise the potential benefits.

 

 

Robert Enyedi replied on Fri, 2008/05/02 - 2:41am in response to: nitin pai

As the title suggests, the scope of the comparison was open-source Web applications outside the enterprise. Nobody is questioning the unsuitability of PHP for the enterprise. Atlassian does have some high quality products in the areas analyzed, but they are neither open-source nor lightweight.

nitin pai replied on Sat, 2008/05/03 - 10:22am

It won't be justifiable to compare a horse with a dolphin, right? I am not providing an analogy but wanted to make my view clear. I am sure that in future Java would definitely come neck to neck with what PHP and Ruby have achieved in the "open source web applications scope".

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