March 8, 2021
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Using PHP with Files

  • By Elizabeth Fulghum
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The ability to work within the file system is the power to store and retrieve information from the server. Combined with forms, it's the basis for a range of applications like guestbooks, blogs, images galleries and more.

In the next two articles, you will get an in depth look at how to work with files and directories. You will learn how to use text files as databases, perform basic tasks such as renaming and deleting files, and manipulate directories. You will also see how to combine forms and files to accept user input and store it on the server, including how to handle uploads.

Text Files as Databases

Text files are frequently used like databases to store information on the server. In situations where there is no access to a real database like MySql, or when the project is relatively simple and small, this is an idea solution. Text files being utilized in this way are very similar in structure to regular databases, spreadsheets and even arrays. These types of files are often known as comma delimited databases, or flat file databases.

Take a look at the following sample file, file.txt:

John Doe|john@doe.com
Jane Doe|jane@doe.com
Billy Bob Joe|joe@domain.com

Each entry in this file is on a separate row, seperated by an invisible new line character ("\n"). Every row is split into two different columns by the "|" character. Any single or set of characters can be used to delimitate the different columns within a row, as long as the single character or combined set does not appear elsewhere in the text file. For example, John Doe^^**^^^john@doe.com would be perfectly valid, if a little verbose.

Unlike the columns within a spreadsheet or database, the columns within this text file are not physically labeled. However, each column within each row has an implied label. In the above example, the first column represents the name of a person, and the second column represents their email. Every row must follow the same format, creating a grid or array-like structure.

Now that you have a basic understanding of how these types of files look, let's explore how you can write your own data to them. We will be using the same sample file, file.txt, so you can copy and save the file to your own hard drive.

Writing to Files

Adding new information to a file like this is fairly easy. There are three basic steps:

  1. Open the file.
  2. Add the information to the file.
  3. Close the file.

Using file.txt, let's take a look at the process. Assume that you had two variables available representing a new and email:

$name = "The Name";
$email = "blah@blah.com";

Just like on your own computer, the first step in reading or writing to a file is to open the file itself. To do this, the PHP function fopen() is used:

$fp = fopen("file.txt","a");

Let's take a closer look at this line. The first argument of the fopen() function determines what file will be opened, using a relative path (so if your file was in a sub-directory called "files", then you would reference it as "files/file.txt"). The second argument, also required, determines what mode the file should be opened in.

There are half dozen different modes:


Opens the file for reading only, and begin reading at the start of the file
r+ Opens the file for reading and writing, beginning at the start of the file
w Opens the file for writing only, and deletes everything in the file. If the file doesn't exist, PHP will also try to create it.
w+ Opens the file for reading and writing and deletes everything within the file. If the file doesn't exist, PHP will so try to create it.
a Open the file for writing only, beginning at the end of the file
a+ Open the file for reading and writing, beginning at the end of the file.

This function must always be assigned to a variable, as the variable will be used to identify the file when you read or write to it. If the function can't open the file for any reason, it will return FALSE, so you can easily add error checking:

$fp = fopen("file.txt","a");
if(!$fp) {
   print "error! The file could not be opened";

Now that the file it opened, we can write something to it. There are a couple of ways to do this, but the easiest (and clearest) is to create a string with the information you want to write to the file. Remember the format of the previous entries in the sample text file as you look at this string. This is essentially the same format, except that variables are used in place of the actual name and email:


Next, the string is written to the file using fwrite(). Defined earlier, $fp is referenced to identify what file we want to write to:

fwrite($fp, $stringtowrite);

If you wanted to add another line to the same file, you could use another fwrite() statement. This is especially useful if you want to use a loop to add multiple lines of information. You can also append multiple lines at a time by separating them by the new line character, "\n", which moves the "cusor" to the next row in the file. For example: fwrite($fp, $stringtowrite."\n".$stringtowrite2);

Once we've finished writing information to the file, the final step is to close the file. Though not absolutely necessary, closing a file after you have finished using it minimizes any possible chance of corruption from being left open.


from Files

Now that you have seen how to add information to a file, let's take a look at how you can view what you have written. PHP provides several different functions for reading files; some are almost redundant, while others provide radically different ways for extracting information. In this article, we'll be taking at two of the more common ones.

The fastest and easiest way to read a file is to use readfile(). This function opens a file, reads it, and outputs the results all with a single call:


Though quick and dirty, this method obviously does not allow for much control over how the output is displayed. To get that control, the file() function is used. Rather than fetching the entire file and outputting it at the same time, file() grabs the contents of a file and assigns it to an array. Each line of the file is represented by a separate row of the array.

$array = file("test.txt");

Once the file is contained in an array, it is easy to print the contents of the file with formatting. Remember that in our sample file each line of the file contains multiple values separated by a "|". To print out the file, we need to loop through the array using foreach, and during each itineration, split the row apart to grab each value. To split the row apart, explode() is used, which "explodes" a variable into separate parts on the occurrence of another value. Each new part is assigned as an element in a new, scalar, array:

foreach($array as $row) {
   $line = explode($row, "|");
   print "Name: $line[0], Email: $line[1]<br>";

Since there's nothing special about this loop, you can also use if statements to include conditions for whether or not a row is printed.

With the file contained inside of an array, you can also utilize other array functions to work with the data. For example, you can easily find out how many entries you have in the file:

print count($array);

or check to see if a certain string is inside of the file:

if (in_array("John Doe",$array)) {
   print "The name John Doe is in this file<br>";

or choose and print a random line from the file after seeding the function with the srand() function:

srand ((float) microtime() * 10000000);
$line = explode($array[$random_key], "|");

print "This is a random name and email: $line[0] : $line[1]<br>";

Error handling with files

When reading and writing to files, there's always potential for the operation to fail because the file doesn't exist, or because the server doesn't have read/write access to the file. This possiblity increases exponentially if you accept file names based on user input. If such a situation occurs, the user will see an unsightly PHP error, and the script will likely terminate.

You can handle any errors more gracefully though, by simply including a few error handling lines before you attempt to read or write from a file.

First, you should always check to make sure the file actually exists. If it does, you can continue executing the script, but if it doesn't, you can exit and display a formatted error message, or even execute a different block of code instead:

if (!file_exists("test.txt")) {
   print "oops, this file doesn't exist.";

//if we've gotten to this point, we know the file does exist

Next, depending on whether you plan to read or write to the file, you can also check to make sure the file is readable and writeable. This is not so much an issue on windows servers where permissions don't come into play, but becomes more practical on unix-based servers.

if (!is_readable("test.txt")) {
   print "This file is not readable!";

//if we've gotten to this point, we know the file is readable

if (!is_writeable("test.txt")) {
   print "This file is not writeable!";

//if we've gotten to this point, we know the file is writeable.

This kind of error handling could easily be combined into a single function that could be called any time you need to open a file.

Remote Files

In addition to opening files stored on your own server, many of the file handling functions also allow you to open remote URLs. For example, a script with the following:


would output the PHP homepage at the URL of your script. Any images referenced relatively on the page would not, however, be displayed.

Besides the "cool" factor, the ability to read remote files this has some very practical applications. If there was a file on a remote server that displayed stock listings, or sports scores and was dynamically updated, you could include that content trasparently within your own page.

In addition to readfile(), you can also open remote files with fopen(), though you cannot write to them using fwrite().

File Management

In addition to reading and writing to text files, PHP includes the ability to perform common tasks relating to the management of files. Most of these tasks can be performed in a line or two with PHP's built in functions. Here are a few of the more common ones:


Usage Sample
rename() Renames a given file rename("oldname.txt","newname.txt");
unlink() Deletes a file unlink("file.txt");
filesize() Returns the file size of a file print file("file.txt");
copy() Copys a file from location to another copy("olddir/oldname.txt","newdir/newname.txt");

You can find the complete list of file functions at the PHP website.

Working with Directories

There may be some instances when you need to perform tasks involving directories. For example, if you were running an image gallery, you might want to have a directory of thumbnails and be able to display them all for the user to browse. Or, if your server has disabled the ability to list the contents of a directory, you may want to create a script performs the same function.

To read a directory, you need to open it first, just as you would a file:


Once its open, you can use readdir to loop through all of the files and sub directories listed within it:

   print $file<br>";

When you try this snippet in an actual script, you'll see that the "." and ".." remain in the file listing. You can easily strip them out like this:

   if ($file!="." and $file!="..") {
      print "$file<br>";

You could refine the script even more to denote which entries are directories:

   if ($file!="." and $file!="..") {
      if (is_dir($file)) {

         print "$file (directory)<br>";
      } else {
         print "$file<br>";

When you are finished working with a directory, you should remember to close it:



In this article, you have seen how PHP can be used to work with files and directories. Many of these tasks rely heavily on the use of arrays. Arrays can be used to store the entire contents of a file, or an entire list of files and subdirectories within a given directory. Exploring the wealth of built-in PHP array functions will help you learn how to work with both files and directories better and allow you to perform more complex tasks.

In the next article, we will return to the topic of forms to see how to collect and store user submitted information on the server, rather than emailing it. You'll also learn how to accept uploads from the user, and how to validate the files before storing them on the server.

Stay Tuned!

Liz Fulghum currently lives in Annapolis, MD where she works as a web designer for a custom shirt retailer. Liz was convinced to try PHP as an alternative to Perl; she has been a fan ever since and frequently works as a freelance developer.

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This article was originally published on May 29, 2002

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