PHP Error Handling and Debugging – Part 1

This article describes the process of testing PHP code.  Using the tips that I will explain can help to decrease the code/test cycle time.

The first thing that you must know in order to plan your code/test process is the environment in which your code will run.

If you have full control of the system, less configuration is required. In this case you can rely on the default settings, and simply need to know where the logs are kept by default. On a typical LAMP (apache) system you can find the log files in /var/log/httpd. Check the documentation for the operating system that you use as some operating systems use a different directory (i.e. one version of Ubuntu uses /var/log/apache2). By default error messages from php will be kept in this directory.

If you are developing on a server where you don’t have access to the default logs, you can configure where your log messages are sent by putting a php.ini file containing the directive

error_log: path_to_log

in the root of the domain.

With this information in mind, we can begin to find code errors.

There are two error types to look for:

  1. parse
  2. runtime

A parse error is the first thing to look for when testing new or modified code. This can be something like a missing semicolon or other grammatical mistake. If a parse error occurs, it will be sent to PHP’s error_log. A simple way to find this kind of error is to load the file directly in a browser (i.e. an AJAX script that would not normally run in a browser could be tested this way for parse errors). With a default PHP installation the parse error will shown on the screen.

Most errors that are encountered are runtime errors. There are two kinds of runtime errors:

  1. exception
  2. functional

The first kind of runtime error happens when a statement or function call that is grammatically correct encounters a unexpected circumstance such as an invalid parameter (i.e. fopen(file_that_doesnt_exist,’r’)). This kind of error can only be seen during an actual run of the code with valid inputs. Opening the file in the browser directly usually will not find it as the inputs will not be those that would typically be encountered. For example opening an AJAX script that relys on the _POST variable for its input will typically not run many of the branches because of the missing _POST variables. To find this error, run the script as it would typically be run and check the error log for errors.

A functional runtime error is when the code runs, doesn’t generate an error, but doesn’t produce the expected outputs. To find this error use one or more of the following techniques:

  • echo/printf
  • error_log
  • try/catch

The simplest way to find errors is by adding echo statements to the code. This method can be somewhat tedious and slower to use than others, but a few well placed echo statements that use print_r to show the value of key return data structures can sometimes quickly illuminate the source of the malfunctioning code. The problem with this method is that because it outputs directly to stdout (the web browser) it is only available if the script can be run in the web browser directly with typical inputs. Many times this is not possible (i.e. for AJAX or cron code).

A more general way of debugging is to use the error_log function instead of echo. With the error_log function you can direct the messages to a file of your choosing with


or to the configured error_log mentioned earlier via


A bonus when using the error_log() function is that you also get a timestamp for each error logged.

If a runtime error is expected, a try/catch statement should be placed to ignore it or otherwise handle it in a way that doesn’t cause the script to stop abruptly.  This way the script will continue to run and an error will be logged.  This is better because you will know at what section of code the error occurred.  If the blocking error had gone uncaught (in the case of AJAX responder script errors), the calling application might have received a malformed response (parse error).  A try/catch statement is only helpful when a blocking exception occurs, and will not help to debug functional runtime errors.  The structure of this type of code testing is as follows:

try {
 //your new code
 } catch(Exception $E) {

In this article we have discussed simple code/test cycle techniques for PHP.  Tune in next time for part 2 where we will review using a debugger such as XDebug.

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