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What is PHP doing?

Note: This article was originally published at Planet PHP on 13 July 2012.
Planet PHP

What is PHP doing?

London, UK Friday, July 13th 2012, 09:42 BST

Sometimes when you have a long running PHP script, you might wonder what the hell it is doing at the moment. There are a few tools that can help you to find out, without having to stop the script. Some of these work only on Linux.


The first tool that you can use is strace. strace is a tool that traces system calls. System calls are made by PHP for reading/writing from/to the network and/or files; this also includes reading and writing to databases over the network or Unix domain sockets. strace will also show other system calls such as time. You can use strace by running something like:

strace -p

The processid you can figure out by running ps aux | grep php and then guessing the correct one from the list - probably the one that uses 100% CPU time. It is also possible to run strace directly with your program's arguments:

strace php yourscript.php

You can even restrict the output to only show certain system calls. With the following command it will only show the open and close system calls:

strace -e open,close php yourscript.php

The output of that last call, with the yourscript.php file not existing, has the following bits in it:

... open("/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/", O_RDONLY) = 3 close(3) = 0 open("/etc/services", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3 close(3) = 0 open("/sys/devices/system/cpu", O_RDONLY|O_NONBLOCK|O_DIRECTORY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3 close(3) = 0 open("yourscript.php", O_RDONLY) = -1 ENOENT (No such file or directory) Could not open input file: yourscript.php

It is also very useful to find out which php.ini files PHP is trying to load:

strace -e open php yourscript.php 2&1 | grep php.ini

Grepping needs to be done for the stderr file descriptor, hence the slightly cryptic 2&1 | grep php.ini.

In my case, running this shows:

derick@whisky:/tmp$ strace -e open php yourscript.php 2&1 | grep php.ini open("/usr/local/php/5.3dev/bin/php.ini", O_RDONLY) = -1 ENOENT (No such file or directory) open("/usr/local/php/5.3dev/lib/php.ini", O_RDONLY) = 3


The ltrace tool can be run and used in the same way as strace, and will tell you which intra-library functions are being called. It produces a lot more information than strace but it should give a good hint of all the C-library functions that are being called. Not as useful as strace though.


If neither strace or ltrace produce any output, it's likely that your script or extension is doing lots of computing. To then figure out in which PHP function your script currently is, you can use the gdb tool.

gdb-the GNU debugger-is a general purpose debugger for C/C++ applications and provides the same functions as Xdebug provides for PHP script debugging. Again, you can either run gdb with new arguments, and then type on the (gdb) prompt run:

gdb --args php yourscript.php (gdb) run

Or with an already running process and then running cont on the prompt:

gdb -p (gdb) cont

Once the script gets to a state in which you are interested to see what it is doing, you can press Ctrl-C. At that moment you come back at the (gdb) prompt where you can run bt to get a list of all the C-level functions that PHP has been calling. For example:

^C Program received signal SIGINT, Interrupt. xdebug_execute (op_array=0x1f03b00) at /home/derick/dev/php/xdebug/xdebug.c:1409 1409 zval_ptr_dtor(EG(return_value_ptr_ptr)); (gdb) bt #0 xdebug_execute (op_array=0x1f03b00) at /home/derick/dev/php/xdebug/xdebug.c:1409 #1 0x000000000099d9a2 in zend_do_fcall_common_helper_SPEC (execute_data=0x7f3dec906090) at /home/derick/dev/php/php-src-git/branches/PHP_5_3/Zend/zend_vm_execute.h:344 #2 0x00000000009a1cb7 in ZEND_DO_FCALL_SPEC_CONST_HANDLER (execute_data=0x7f3dec906090)

Truncated by Planet PHP, read more at the original (another 2631 bytes)