Yahoo shifts to open-source scripting

Systems architects for the portal giant plot to put their proprietary scripting language out to pasture with the adoption of an open-source alternative.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
3 min read
With an eye toward its bottom line, Yahoo has decided to jettison its own proprietary scripting language in favor of the open-source alternative PHP.

The scripting switch will affect the way Yahoo creates a wide array of features and functions, from serving advertisements to designing applications like its calendar and e-mail applications.

While Yahoo won't rewrite pages that currently use the proprietary language, the shift will ultimately affect virtually every Yahoo page and reflects a broader development philosophy toward open-source technologies.

People reading Yahoo's pages and using its applications are unlikely to notice a difference between proprietary scripts and those written in PHP, a project of the Apache Software Foundation. Apache's open-source software leads the market, serving just more than half of the world's Web sites, according to Netcraft.

But Yahoo's rationale for making the switch to the open-source PHP provides both a technical look behind the scenes of one of the Web's largest and most trafficked Web sites and a clearer picture of its ongoing adherence to the open-source ideology.

Since Yahoo started relying heavily on scripted Web page features six years ago, it has used its own homegrown scripting language, yScript. Similarly, the company started out with company co-founder David Filo's own Web server, before switching to Apache in 1996.

But as the cost and effort of maintaining the proprietary scripting language rose,

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and as the quality of the open-source alternative improved, Yahoo saw that its homegrown scripting method was becoming more trouble than it was worth.

While programming languages inspire heated allegiances among developers, Yahoo insists its primary motivation is the bottom line.

The cost challenge
Yahoo "is a cheap company," Yahoo engineer Michael Radwin wrote in his presentation notes for PHPCon 2002 last week. Citing the general economic downturn of the past two years, he added that Yahoo "can't afford to waste engineering resources."

Radwin pointed to both the costs of maintaining a proprietary language like yScript and the challenge of keeping a site of Yahoo's size and traffic running.

yScript is a "pain in the neck to maintain and use," Radwin wrote. Like any language specific to one company or site, yScript incurs additional training costs for engineers and designers and additional costs for the language's ongoing maintenance, and it poses difficulties in integrating the language with third-party software, authoring tools, and content management systems.

"(Yahoo) is a cheap company. (It) can't afford to waste engineering resources."
--Michael Radwin, Yahoo engineer

Yahoo declined to comment on its use of PHP beyond its released statement. "With recent advances in PHP, we have decided to adopt it for some of our new developments, in preference to some of our internally developed technologies," the company said in the statement.

One analyst lauded the move, saying that for a company of Yahoo's age and size, the switch from proprietary to open source makes sense.

"Many of the larger organizations, the Yahoos of the world, were around before a lot of the open-source technologies emerged and standards were in place," said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst with Illuminata. "The best thing to do was to invent their own. But that presents problems down the road in terms of training, in terms of maintenance, and in terms of keeping up with newer trends. Open source evolves to meet customer needs."