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Introducing PHP Classes


Working with classes in PHP is a great way to streamline your code, and make it awesome. Classes or object oriented (OO) programming are sometimes seen as behemoths of satan, but actually they're easy. Once you understand all the various levels of privacy, extensions and more recently magic methods. For the sake of simplification we'll be using PHP, and modelling a man and a woman as classes, with a few basic attributes of varying privacy levels.

Man + Woman = Person

Men and women are pretty similar - a lot more similar than people think, but there are some crucial differences. Some of the shared attributes are things like eye colour, hair colour, height and weight. But there are a couple of glaring differences between the two such as reproductive organs, gender and chromosomes.

The way that inheritance works in classes is that you put as many common items within one class and then extend that parent class for each sub-class. Sound complicated? Let me clarify, we have a class of Person that will be extended to create Man and Woman. There will be some specifics that we set by default when we create a new Man or Woman.

To run an action on initialisation of a class, we look to add a constructor, this means that when you create a new man using new Man() the constructor will run and we can set the gender specific attributes:

class Person {
    private $alive = true;

    protected $gender = '';
    protected $genitalOrgan = ''; 

class Man extends Person {
    public function __construct(){
        $this->gender = 'male';
        $this->genitalOrgan = 'penis';

As you can see, we have used the word extends to show that Man is an extension of the Person class. You can imagine this as the variables within Person being copied to a new class called Man so they are available to use if their privacy allows.


What you'll see in the above code is words such as protected, public and private, these are varying levels of privacy and dictate where these attributes can be altered, or functions called:

$this, parent, self, static

Above, you'll see reference to $this, this just refers to the current instance of the object that you're in, $this can and does creep up the chain, so I can access inherited variables using $this as above.

If I have overwritten a method within a child class, I can call the parent method by using parent::method(), so for example if we had a constructor within the Person class we would call that from our Man class by using parent::__construct()

static methods of classes can cause some complications. A static method is one that you can call without having to instantiate an instance of the object that you're using. For example if we had a class, Site, which has a helpful static function, relativeTime, we could call that function by using the code Site::relativeTime(). Some things are clearer with examples:

class Site {
    public static function relativeTime(){
        return 'Yesterday';

    If we had to instantiate the class we'd do 
    $site = new Site;

When within a static function we can't use the $this notation, as that refers to instantiated objects only, so we will want to use the keyword self, this works very much the same as the parent keyword that is mentioned above. One thing to note is, if you're attempting to modify a static variable, you will have to use a $ as well before the variable name - see the differences below:

// Set static variable 'name' of 'Person':
Person::$name = 'bob';
// Set variable of instance of 'Person':
$person = new Person();
$person->name = 'bob';

Magic Methods

Sometimes referred to as Overloading, this is the instance by where you can have a generic function that is called if you try to get or set a variable that doesn't exist, or try to call a function that doesn't exist. There are 4 that I'll run through, and they're all very similar they are __get(), __set(), __call() and __callStatic(). Make sure that you declare all of these as public.

Set and get

If we try to set or get a variable that doesn't exist, inherently PHP will throw an error, here we can gracefully handle that by actually using a method to handle that. This is very useful if - as with active record methodology - variabes are stored within an array called data in the class:

class Demo {
    private $data = array();

    public function __set($variable, $value){
        echo 'Setting ' . $variable . ' to ' . $value;
        $this->data[$variable] = $value;

    public function __get($variable){
            return $this->data[$variable];
            die('Unknown variable.');

$d = new Demo;
// Set a non-existent variable
$d->test = 'Test Variable';
// Get what we just stored
echo $d->test;
// Get a non-existant variable
echo $d->testFail;

Overloading will not overload on a variable that already exists. So for example if we had a variable defined called $test, our code before would use that variable instead of storing in the $data array. Also, if you try to use a set or get on a variable that you don't have access to, ie: accessing a private variable outside the object, it will call the overloading methods.

Call and callStatic

These two do the same thing, except that one is for static methods, and the other not. You can use these to call special functions that don't actually exist in the class, for example we could use a class to set or get instead of using the earlier methods:

class Demo {
    private $data = array();

    public function __call($name, $arguments){
        switch(substr($name, 0, 3)){
            case 'get':
                if(isset($this->data[substr($name, 3)])){
                    return $this->data[substr($name, 3)];
                    die('Unknown variable.');
            case 'set':
                $this->data[substr($name, 3)] = $arguments[0];
                return $this;
                die('Unknown method.');

$d = new Demo;
// Set a non-existent variable
$d->settest('Test Variable');
// Get what we just stored
echo $d->gettest();
// Get a non-existant variable
echo $d->gettestFail();

The logic is exactly the same for __callStatic(). One thing to note is that I have included the line return $this; within the set case, this will mean that you can chain your sets: $d->settest('test')->settest2('test2')->settest3('test3');


A singleton class is a class that should only be instantiated once and never instantiated again, for example if you had a class for database interfacing you would only want that instantiated once. This is normally achieved by having a static variable within the class sometimes named instance, and a static method called getInstance - this will check if and instance exists, if it doesn't, it will create one, then return the instance:

class DemoSingleton {
    private static $instance = NULL;

    public static function getInstance(){
            self::$instance = new self();
        return self::$instance;

$class = DemoSingleton::getInstance();


Autoloading is very nifty, and is used in a lot of large frameworks - it allows you to load the file that a class is written in automatically when you try to instantiate it. The advantage of this is that only classes that you want to instantiate & use will be included in your page and will keep memory usage down.

The best way to autoload a class is to use a global function called spl_autoload_register(), there are two ways to use it - my favourite is using an anonymous function, but this is only possible in PHP 5.3.0+. The other way is a named function, both below do the same thing:

// Using a named function
function autoload_class($class){
    include_once('includes/' . $class . '.class.php');

// Using an anonymous function
    include_once('includes/' . $class . '.class.php')

These will both look in a directory called includes for a file with the same name of the class you're trying to instantiate. So trying to instantiate a class called Person would look to include a file called Person.class.php.

Final Thoughts

Object oriented programming is an amazing feature and is definitely something that you should use, whether exploiting extensions and magic methods or not. OO can go so much further than what I have explained here, such as the use of Factories and abstract functions - which I've only ever had the need to use once. For further reading take a browse through the PHP Classes & Objects Manual.

Tag: PHP