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8.3. PHP Session Management

With the release of PHP4, session management was introduced as an extension to the PHP language. PHP provides several session-related functions, and developing applications that use PHP sessions is straightforward. The three important features of session management are mostly taken care of by the PHP scripting engine.

In this section, we present how to use PHP sessions, showing how sessions are started and ended and how session variables are used. We list the PHP functions for building session-based web applications. Because not all browsers support cookies, and some users actively disable them, we describe how to use PHP sessions without relying on cookies. Finally, we show how to configure PHP session management with a discussion on the garbage collection used to remove old sessions and other configuration parameters.

8.3.1. Overview

An overview of PHP session management is shown in Figure 8-1. When a user first enters the session-based application by making a request to a page that starts a session, PHP generates a session ID and creates a file that stores the session-related variables. PHP sets a cookie to hold the session ID in the response the script generates. The browser then records the cookie and includes it in subsequent requests. In the example shown in Figure 8-1, the script welcome.php records session variables in the session store, and a request to next.php then has access to those variables because of the session ID.

Figure 8-1

Figure 8-1. The interaction between the browser and the server when initial requests are made to a session-based application

The out-of-the-box configuration of PHP session management uses disk-based files to store session variables. Using files as the session store is adequate for most applications in which the numbers of concurrent sessions are limited. A more scalable solution that uses a MySQL database as a session store is provided in Appendix D.

8.3.2. Starting a Session

PHP provides a session_start( ) function that creates a new session and subsequently identifies and establishes an existing one. Either way, a call to the session_start( ) function initializes a session.

The first time a PHP script calls session_start( ), a session identifier is generated, and, by default, a Set-Cookie header field is included in the response. The response sets up a session cookie in the browser with the name PHPSESSID and the value of the session identifier. The PHP session management automatically includes the cookie without the need to call to the setcookie( ) or header( ) functions.

The session identifier (ID) is a random string of 32 hexadecimal digits, such as fcc17f071bca9bf7f85ca281094390b4. As with other cookies, the value of the session ID is made available to PHP scripts in the $HTTP_COOKIE_VARS associative array and in the $PHPSESSID variable.

When a new session is started, PHP creates a session file. With the default configuration, session files are written in the /tmp directory using the session identifier, prefixed with sess_, for the filename. The filename associated with our example session ID is /tmp/sess_fcc17f071bca9bf7f85ca281094390b4.

If a call is made to session_start( ), and the request contains the PHPSESSID cookie, PHP attempts to find the session file and initialize the associated session variables as discussed in the next section. However, if the identified session file can't be found, session_start( ) creates an empty session file.

8.3.3. Using Session Variables

Variables need to be registered with the session_register( ) function that's used in a session. If a session has not been initialized, the session_register( ) function calls session_start( ) to open the session file. Variables can be registered—added to the session file—with the session_register( ) call as follows:

// Register the variable named "foo"
$foo = "bar";

Note that it is the name of the variable that is passed to the session_register( ) function, not the variable itself. Once registered, session variables are made persistent and are available to scripts that initialize the session. PHP tracks the values of session variables and saves their values to the session file: there is no need to explicitly save a session variable before a script ends. In the previous example, the variable $foo is automatically saved in the session store with its value bar.

Variables can be removed from a session with the session_unregister( ) function call; again, the name of the variable is passed as the argument, not the variable itself. A variable that is unregistered is no longer available to other scripts that initialize the session. However, the variable is still available to the rest of the script immediately after the session_unregister( ) function call.

Scripts that initialize a session have access to the session variables through the associative array $HTTP_SESSION_VARS, and PHP automatically initializes the named session variables if register_globals is enabled.

Example 8-2 shows a simple script that registers two variables: an integer $count, which is incremented each time the script is called, and $start, which is set to the current time from the library function time( ) when the session is first initialized. The script tests if the variable $count has been registered to determine if a new session has been created. If the variable $count has been registered already, the script increments its value.

Do not use the existence of $PHPSESSID as indicative of a new session, or as a method to access the session ID. The first time a script is called and the session is created, the PHPSESSID cookie may not be set. Only subsequent requests are guaranteed to contain the PHPSESSID cookie. PHP provides a session_id( ) function that returns the session ID for the initialized session.

The script shown in Example 8-2 displays both variables: $count shows how many times the script has been called, and time( ) - $start shows how many seconds the session has lasted.

Example 8-2. Simple PHP script that uses a session

  // Initialize a session. This call either creates 
  // a new session or re-establishes an existing one.
  session_start( );

  // If this is a new session, then the variable
  // $count will not be registered
  if (!session_is_registered("count")) 

    $count = 0;
    $start = time( );

  $sessionId = session_id( );

   "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN"
   "http://www.w3.org/TR/html4/loose.dtd" >
    <p>This page points at a session 
    <br>count = <?=$count?>.
    <br>start = <?=$start?>.
    <p>This session has lasted 
        $duration = time( ) - $start; 
	echo "$duration"; 

Session variables can be of the type Boolean, integer, double, string, object, or arrays of those variable types. Care must be taken when using object session variables, because PHP needs access to the class definitions of registered objects when initializing an existing session. If objects are to be stored as session variables, you should include class definitions for those objects in all scripts that initialize sessions, whether the scripts use the class or not. Objects and classes are described in Chapter 2.

PHP stores session variables in the session file by serializing the values. The serialized representation of a variable includes the name, the type, and the value as a stream of characters suitable for writing to a file. Here's an example of a file that was created when the script shown in Example 8-2 was run several times:


A PHP developer need not worry how serialization occurs; PHP session management takes care of reading and writing session variables automatically.

8.3.5. Functions for Accessing Sessions in PHP

In this section we list the key functions used to build session-based applications in PHP. Greater control over sessions can be achieved through the configuration of PHP—as we discuss in the Section 8.3.8 section—or by using GET variables to encode the session ID, as discussed in the next section.

Boolean session_start( )
Initializes a session by either creating a new session or using an identified one. Checks for the variable $PHPSESSID in the HTTP request. If a session identifier isn't included in the request, or an identified session isn't found, a new session is created. If a session ID is included in the request, and a session isn't found, a new session is created with the PHPSESSID encoded in the request. When an existing session is found, the session variables are read from the session store and initialized. Using PHP's default settings, a new session is created as a file in the /tmp directory. This function always returns true.

string session_id([string id])
Can be used in two ways: to return the ID of an initialized session and to set the value of a session ID before a session is created. When used to return the session ID, the function must be called without arguments after a session has been initialized. When used to set the value of the session ID, the function must be called with the ID as the parameter before the session has been initialized.

Boolean session_register(mixed name [, mixed ...])
Registers one or more variables in the session store. Each argument is the name of a variable, or an array of variable names, not the variable itself. Once a variable is registered, it becomes available to any script that identifies that session. This function calls the session_start( ) code internally if a session has not been initialized. The session_unregister( ) function is called to remove a variable from the session. Returns true when the variables are successfully registered.

Boolean session_is_registered(string variable_name)
Returns true if the named variable has been registered with the current session and false otherwise. Using this function to test if a variable is registered is a useful way to determine if a script has created a new session or initialized an existing one.

session_unregister(string variable_name)
Unregisters a variable with the initialized session. Like the session_register( ) function, the argument is the name of the variable, not the variable itself. Unlike the session_register( ) function, the session needs to be initialized before calling this function. Once a variable has been removed from a session with this call, it is no longer available to other scripts that initialize the session. However, the variable is still available to the rest of the script that calls session_unregister( ).

session_unset( )
Unsets the values of all session variables. This function doesn't unregister the actual session variables. A call to session_is_registered( ) still returns true for the session variables that have been unset.

Boolean session_destroy( )
Removes the session from the PHP session management. With PHP's default settings, a call to this function removes the session file from the /tmp directory. Returns true if the session is successfully destroyed and false otherwise.

8.3.6. Session Management Without Cookies

A change that can be made to the default PHP session management is to encode the $PHPSESSID value as an attribute in a GET or POST method request and avoid the need to set a cookie.

A simple experiment that illustrates what happens when users disable cookies is to request the script shown in Example 8-2 from a browser that has cookie support turned off. When repeated requests are made, the counter doesn't increment, and the session duration remains at zero seconds. Because a cookie isn't sent from the browser, the variable $PHPSESSID is never set. The other side effect is that each time the page is requested, a session file is created in the /tmp directory. Many users configure their browsers to not accept cookies, and session-based applications won't work unless they are written to handle the missing cookie.

The session identifier that would have been sent as a cookie in this experiment can be transmitted in a GET or POST method request. While the session_start( ) function can use $PHPSESSID set by either a GET or POST method request, it is more practical to use the GET variable. Using the POST variable leads to the reload problem described in Chapter 6. Continuing the experiment, requests that don't contain the cookie can identify an existing session by setting an attribute in a GET method request with the name PHPSESSID and the value of the session ID. For example, an initial request can be made to Example 8-1 with the URL:


This creates a session and an associated file such as:


Subsequent requests can be made that include the PHPSESSID:


The response shows the counter set to 1 and the correct session duration. Repeated requests to this URL behave as expected: the counter increments, and the calculated duration increases.

If you write session-based applications to use the URL to identify sessions, the application doesn't fail for users who don't allow cookies. Applications can use a test cookie to see if cookies are supported by the browser or just not use cookies at all.

WARNING: When register_globals is enabled, and both a cookie and GET or POST are used to set the $PHPSESSID, the cookie wins. A GET or POST attribute value is overwritten by the value associated with the cookie because of the default order in which PHP initializes those variables.

The safe way to read cookies and GET and POST attributes that have name conflicts is to use the $HTTP_COOKIE_VARS, $HTTP_GET_VARS, and $HTTP_POST_VARS arrays.

Another advantage of avoiding cookies is that some browsers, such as Netscape and Internet Explorer, share cookies across all instances of the program running for a particular user on the same machine. This behavior prevents a user from having multiple sessions with a web database application. Encoding the session ID as a GET variable

Scripts that generate embedded links to pages that use session variables need to include a GET attribute named PHPSESSID in the URL. This can be done using the basic PHP string support and calls to session_id( ). For example:

  // Initialize the session
  session_start( );

  // Generate the embedded URL to link to
  // a page that processes an order
  $orderUrl = "/order.php?PHPSESSID=" . session_id( );

<a href="<?=$orderUrl ?>">Create Order</a>

To aid the creation of URLs that link to session-based scripts, PHP sets the constant SID that contains the session ID in the form suitable to use as a URL query string. If there is no session initialized, PHP sets the value of SID to be a blank string. If a session is initialized, it sets the SID to a string containing the session ID in the form:


By including the value of SID when URLs are constructed, the hypertext links correctly identify the session. A link that points to a script that expects a session ID can be encoded like this:

  // Initialize the session
  session_start( );

<a href="/order.php?<?=SID?>">Create Order</a>

As an alternative to writing code to formulate the session ID into the URL, PHP includes a URL rewrite feature that automatically modifies reference URLs to include the session ID as a GET attribute. To activate this feature, PHP needs to be configured with - -enable-trans-id and then recompiled. Once URL rewrite is activated, PHP parses the HTML generated by scripts and automatically alters the embedded URLs to include the PHPSESSID query string. The URL rewrite feature has the disadvantage that extra processing is required to parse every generated page.

8.3.7. Garbage Collection

While it is good practice to build applications that provide a way to end a session—with a script that makes a call to session_destroy( )—there is no guarantee that a user will log out by requesting the appropriate PHP script. PHP session management has a built-in garbage collection mechanism that ensures unused session files are eventually cleaned up. This is important for two reasons: it prevents the directory from filling up with session files that can cause performance to degrade and, more importantly, it reduces the risk of someone guessing session IDs and hijacking an old unused session.

There are two parameters that control garbage collection: session.gc_maxlifetime and session.gc_probability, both defined in the php.ini file. A garbage collection process is run when a session is initialized, for example, when session_start( ) is called. Each session is examined by the garbage collection process, and any sessions that have not been accessed for a specified period of time are removed. This period is specified as seconds of inactivity in the gc_maxlifetime parameter—the default value being 1,440 seconds. The file-based session management uses the update time of the file to determine the last access. To prevent the garbage collection process from removing active session files, PHP must modify the update time of the file when session variables are read, not just when they are written.

The garbage collection process can become expensive to run, especially in sites with high numbers of users, because the last-modified date of every session file must be examined. The second parameter gc_probability sets the percentage probability that the garbage collection process will be activated. A setting of 100% ensures that sessions are examined for garbage collection with every session initialization. The default value of 1% means that garbage collection occurs with a probability of 1 in 100.[10] Depending on the requirements, some figure between these two extremes balances the needs of the application and performance. Unless a site is receiving less that 1,000 hits per day, the probability should be set quite low. For example, an application that receives 1,000 hits in a 10-hour period with a gc_probability setting of 10% runs the garbage collection function, on average, once every 6 minutes. Setting the gc_probability too high adds unnecessary processing load on the server.

[10]Perhaps the gc_maxlifetime parameter should have been called gc_minlifetime, because the value represents the minimum time garbage collection permits an inactive session to exist. Remember that garbage collection is performed only when a request that initializes a session is made, and then only with the probability set by gc_probability.

When it is important to prevent users from accessing old sessions, the gc_probability should be increased. For example, the default session configuration sets up a cookie in the browser to be deleted when the browser program is terminated. This prevents a user from accidentally reconnecting to an old session. However, if the session ID is encoded into a URL, a bookmarked page can find an old session if it still exists. If session IDs are passed using the GET method, you should increase the probability of running garbage collection.

8.3.8. Configuration of PHP Session Management

There are several parameters that can be manipulated to change the behavior of the PHP session management. These parameters are set in the php.ini file in the section headed [Session].

This parameter specifies the method used by PHP to store and retrieve session variables. The default value is files, to indicate the use of session files, as described in the previous sections. The other values that this parameter can have are: mm to store and retrieve variables from shared memory, and user to store and retrieve variables with user-defined handlers. In Appendix D we describe how to create user-defined handlers to store session variables in a MySQL database.

This parameter specifies the directory in which session files are saved when the session.save_handler is set to files. The default value is /tmp. When implementing user-defined save_handler methods, the value of this parameter is passed as an argument to the function that opens a session. User-defined handlers are discussed in Appendix D.

This parameter determines if PHP sets a cookie to hold the session ID. Setting this parameter to 0 stops PHP from setting cookies and may be considered for the reasons discussed in the previous section. The default value is 1, meaning that a cookie stores the session ID.

This parameter controls the name of the cookie, GET attribute, or POST attribute that is used to hold the session ID. The default is PHPSESSID, and there is no reason to change this setting unless there is a name collision with another variable.

With the default value of 0 for this setting, PHP initializes a session only when a session call such as session_start( ) or session_register( ) is made. If this parameter is set to 1, sessions are automatically initialized if a session ID is found in the request. Allowing sessions to autostart adds unnecessary overhead if session values aren't required for all scripts.

This parameter holds the life of a session cookie in seconds and is used by PHP when setting the expiry date and time of a cookie. The default value of 0 sets up a session cookie that lasts only while the browser program is running. Setting this value to a number of seconds other than 0 sets up the cookie with an expiry date and time. The expiry date and time of the cookie is set as an absolute date and time, calculated by adding the cookie_lifetime value to the current date and time on the server machine.[11]

[11]The actual expiry of the cookie is performed by the browser, which compares the expiry date and time of the cookie with the client machine's date and time. If the date and time are incorrectly set on the client, a cookie might expire immediately or persist longer than expected.

This parameter sets the valid path for a cookie. The default value is /, which means that browsers include the session cookie in requests for resources in all paths for the cookie's domain. Setting this value to the path of the session-based scripts can reduce the number of requests that need to include the cookie. For example, setting the parameter to /winestore instructs the browser to include the session cookie only with requests that start with http://www.webdatabasebook.com/winestore/.

This parameter can override the domain for which the cookie is valid. The default is a blank string, meaning that the cookie is set with the domain of the machine running the web server, and the browser includes the cookie only in requests sent to that domain.

This parameter sets the secure flag of a cookie, which prevents a browser from sending the session cookie over nonencrypted connections. When this setting is 1, the browser sends the session cookie over a network connection that is protected using the Secure Sockets Layer, SSL. We discuss SSL in the next chapter and provide installation instructions in Appendix A. The default value of 0 allows a browser to send the session cookie over encrypted and nonencrypted services.

This parameter sets up the method by which variables are serialized, that is, how they are converted into a stream of bytes suitable for the chosen session store. The default value is php, which indicates use of the standard PHP serialization functions. An alternative is wddx, which uses the WDDX libraries that encode variables as XML.

This parameter determines the probability that the garbage collection process will be performed when a session is initialized. The default value of 1 sets a 1% chance of garbage collection. See the discussion in the previous section for a full explanation of garbage collection.

This parameter sets the life of a session in number of seconds. The default value is 1440, or 24 minutes. Garbage collection destroys a session that has been inactive for this period. See the discussion in the previous section for a full explanation of garbage collection.

This parameter can restrict the creation of sessions to requests that have the HTTP Referer: header field set. This is a useful feature if access to an application is allowed only by following a hypertext link from a particular page such as a welcome page. If the HTTP Referer header field doesn't match the value of this parameter, PHP creates a session, but the session is marked as invalid and unusable. The default value of a blank string applies no restriction.

PHP generates the session IDs from a random number seeded by the system date and time. Because the algorithm is known—it can be looked up in the PHP source code—it makes guessing session IDs a little easier. If this parameter is set to the name of a file, the first n bytes from that file (where n is specified by the session.entropy_length parameter) make the ID less predictable. The default value is left blank, meaning the default seeding method is used. One alternative is to use /dev/urandom, a special Unix device that produces a pseudorandom number.

This parameter is the number of bytes to use when generating a session ID from the file specified by session.entropy_file. The default value is 0, the required value when no entropy file is set.

This parameter controls how responses can be cached by the browser. The default is nocache, meaning that PHP sets up the HTTP response to avoid browser caching. PHP sets the HTTP/1.1-defined header field Cache-Control to no-cache, the HTTP/1.0 header field Pragma to no-cache, and—for good measure—the Expires header field to Thu, 19 Nov 1981 08:52:00 GMT. Applications that use sessions—and even stateless web database applications—can be adversely affected when browsers cache pages. The other values allowed, private and public, allow responses to be cached. The distinction between private and public is apparent when a proxy server caches responses. See Appendix B for more details about HTTP caching.

This parameter is used when caching is allowed; it sets the expiry date and time of the response to be the current system time plus the parameter value in minutes. The default value is 180.

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