picture-2.pngZend, a company that supports web development in the PHP open-source programming language for large organizations, is launching a framework of developer tools to help businesses build web services faster.

It’s trying to make PHP as powerful as Java or .NET and as quick and easy as Ruby on Rails.

While Java or .NET power much of the existing “enterprise” web, they are both hard to use and time-consuming in many circumstance, even for many professionals. Zend’s premise is that companies are still figuring out how to grow their businesses online — and PHP is already used by over 20 million domains (graph via), making it the single most popular language for developing web software. Therefore, Zend hopes, large numbers of developers at potential client companies will have experience with the language and will see the company’s offerings as the obvious choice for how to do their next project.

picture-1.pngThere is no doubt money to be had in serving large, paying customers, but the growth of PHP as a programming language of choice for developers appears to have plateaued. At one point a couple years back there were actually more domains in PHP than there are now. It is true that businesses need to cobble applications together on the fly without sacrificing performance when lots of users get on — the sort of usage for which PHP was first developed. But will this be enough keep Zend relevant a few years from now, even for the “enterprise?”

Zend’s business model resembles MySQL, Red Hat and Ubuntu, companies that have built large businesses charging for services that support back-end open source technology. It certifies open source contributions to PHP, offers support, services and training as well as premium services including a development platform and a PHP application server. The company has also worked to put itself at the center of the PHP community by building out a set of best practices for developing with the language. It has developer relationships with Google, Microsoft, IBM and other large technology companies. It claims to have over 20,000 customers, from individual developers to big corporations — what really sets it apart from other PHP frameworks such as Cake and Prado.

The framework includes ways for a company’s developers to create mash-ups that use Google, Amazon and Yahoo API’s for their own company’s applications. Zend plans to further tap into open information on the web within the next several months. It is developing a plugin for the OpenID identity system, so that users can log in through a participating site’s regular registration using an identity that’s shared across the web.

While the company won’t tell us how much its making, co-founder and co-CTO Andi Gutman did say that revenue has been doubling every year since 2003 and is now in the “double-digit” millions, with clients increasingly coming through its big-name partners. He says most money is coming from North America and Europe, with a sizable market in Japan.

An example client is Right Media, an online advertising brokerage service that was purchased by Yahoo in April. It used Zend’s framework to build a way for clients to submit ads and track them over the web.

The framework is a credible PHP rival to hip, newer dynamic languages like Ruby on Rails — as far as enterprise business goes. The latter language has seen widespread adoption among startups in recent years as an even faster, easier way to get a product out of the door; the graph above shows that PHP hit its heyday in 2005 — now the web is getting bigger but the number of PHP domains aren’t increasing. But PHP, unlike Ruby on Rails, has proven to perform fast for sites of all sizes around the web (for example, Facebook was built from the ground up on it, although that site now includes a plethora of code in other languages).

And, using PHP in addition to Java can cause additional headaches at IT firms, which as this observer noted, now need two sets of skills.

Developers refer to PHP code as “spaghetti” — there’s lots of it, its ugly and poorly organized. PHP5 is also not backwards compatible with the previous version, PHP 4.

Zend notes itself as the only company built around a programming language. It would be interesting to see 37 Signals, which developed Rails while working on Basecamp and other business-focused software, try to take a page from Zend and become a central resource for lucrative larger enterprises. That would involve solving its performance problem on larger sites.

We don’t intend to step into the the holy wars that some developers wage over programming languages. Instead, do a Google search for php object model sucks and php object model rules for more.

Zend has received investment from a long list of venture capital firms (and leading software companies), including Azure Capital Partners, Greylock Partners, Index Ventures, Intel Capital, Platinum Neurone Ventures, SAP Ventures and Walden Israel Venture Capital. Its board of directors includes Marc Andreessen.

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