• Migrating from PHP 5.0.x to PHP
  • Changes in reference handling

  • Changes in reference handling
  • Changes in reference handling

    Changes in reference handling


    From the PHP script writer’s point of view, the
    change most likely to impact legacy code is in the way that
    references are handled in all PHP versions post-dating the PHP
    4.4.0 release.

    Until and including PHP 4.3, it was possible to
    send, assign or return variables by reference that should really be
    returned by value, such as a constant, a temporary value (e.g. the
    result of an expression), or the result of a function that had
    itself been returned by value, as here:


    function return_value() {

    $bar = &return_value();

    Although this code would usually work as expected
    under PHP 4.3, in the general case the result is undefined. The
    Zend Engine could not act correctly on these values as references.
    This bug could and did lead to various hard-to-reproduce memory
    corruption problems, particularly where the code base was

    In PHP 4.4.0, PHP 5.0.4 and all subsequent PHP
    releases, the Engine was fixed to ‘know’ when the reference
    operation is being used on a value that should not be referenced.
    The actual value is now used in such cases, and a warning is
    emitted. The warning takes the form of an
    E_NOTICE in PHP 4.4.0 and up, and
    E_STRICT in PHP 5.0.4 and up.

    Code that could potentially produce memory
    corruption can no longer do so. However, some legacy code might
    work differently as a result.

    Code that worked under PHP 4.3, but now

    function func(&$arraykey) {
    $arraykey// function returns by value!

    $array = array('a''b''c');
    foreach (
    array_keys($array) as $key) {
    $y = &func($array[$key]);
    $z[] =& $y;


    Running the above script under any version of PHP
    that pre-dates the reference fix would produce this output:

    array(3) {
      &string(1) "a"
      &string(1) "b"
      &string(1) "c"

    Following the reference fix, the same code would
    result in:

    array(3) {
      &string(1) "c"
      &string(1) "c"
      &string(1) "c"

    This is because, following the changes,
    func() assigns by value. The value of $y is re-assigned, and
    reference-binding is preserved from $z. Prior to the fix,
    the value was assigned by reference, leading $y to be re-bound on
    each assignment. The attempt to bind to a temporary value by
    reference was the cause of the memory corruption.

    Such code can be made to work identically in both
    the pre-fix and the post-fix PHP versions. The signature of
    func() can be altered to return by reference, or the
    reference assignment can be removed from the result of

    function func() {
    'function return';

    $x 'original value';
    $y =& $x;
    $y = &func();

    In PHP 4.3 $x would be ‘original value’, whereas after
    the changes it would be ‘function return’ – remember that where the
    function does not return by reference, the reference assignment is
    converted to a regular assignment. Again, this can be brought to a
    common base, either by forcing func() to return by
    reference or by eliminating the by-reference assignment.

    Code that worked under PHP 4.3.x, but now throws
    an error

    class Foo {

        function getThis() {

        function destroyThis() {
    $baz =& $this->getThis();

    $bar = new Foo();

    In PHP 5.0.3, $bar evaluated to
    NULL instead of returning an object.
    That happened because getThis() returns by value, but the
    value here is assigned by reference. Although it now works in the
    expected way, this is actually invalid code which will throw an
    E_NOTICE under PHP 4.4 or an
    E_STRICT under PHP 5.0.4 and up.

    Code that failed under PHP 4.3.x, but now

    function &f() {
    $x "foo";

    for ($i 0$i 3$i++) {
    $h = &f();

    In PHP 4.3 the third call to var_dump() produces
    NULL, due to the memory corruption
    caused by returning an uninitialized value by reference. This is
    valid code in PHP 5.0.4 and up, but threw errors in earlier
    releases of PHP.

    = array('a1' => array('alfa' => 'ok'));
    $arr =& $arr['a1'];

    Until PHP 5.0.5, it wasn’t possible to assign an
    array element by reference in this way. It now is.

    Code that should have worked under PHP

    There are a couple of instances of bugs reported
    under PHP 5.0 prior to the reference fixes which now ‘work’.
    However, in both cases errors are thrown by PHP 5.1.x, because the
    code was invalid in the first place. Returning values by reference
    using self:: now works in the general case but throws an
    E_STRICT warning, and although your
    mileage may vary when assigning by reference to an overloaded
    object, you will still see an E_ERROR
    when you try it, even where the assignment itself appears to

    Warnings that came and went

    Nested calls to functions returning by reference
    are valid code under both PHP 4.3.x and PHP 5.1.x, but threw an
    unwarranted E_NOTICE or
    E_STRICT under the intervening PHP

    function & foo() {
    $var 'ok';

    function & bar() {

    $a =& bar();