According to a recent report by SiteLock, on average, websites are attacked 94 times a day, and are visited by bots 372 times a day.

While many of these bots are nothing to worry about, a percentage of them will be malicious, hunting out vulnerabilities, which is why it’s vital to remain vigilant where your website’s security is concerned, and in particular, we’re focusing today on PHP security.

The role of PHP, a widely embraced server-side scripting language, continues to become even more pronounced in shaping the robustness and reliability of web applications.

It’s worth noting that PHP isn’t just another player in this arena – it’s a formidable leader, accounting for a staggering 76.8% of all websites. Since PHP plays a critical role in web development, ensuring the safety and integrity of your web applications has never been more crucial.

According to the PHP introduction manual, PHP is designed specifically to be a more secure language for writing CGI programs than Perl or C, and with the correct selection of compile-time and runtime configuration options, and proper coding practices, it can give you exactly the combination of freedom and security you need.

In this article, you’ll discover the essential strategies and tactics to better protect your PHP web applications.

Let’s get started!

PHP Version Management

Always Use the Latest Version of PHP

Using a secure PHP version is vital in safeguarding your web application. The latest PHP releases offer not only a technological leap, but also security upgrades to protect against evolving security challenges. As a result, older versions of PHP are outdated – check the PHP docs to see if your PHP version has reached end of life

You should occasionally check the PHP Supported Versions page to ensure that your PHP installation remains in sync with the latest offerings. By doing so, you’ll be taking a proactive stance against security breaches, and enhancing the overall resilience of your web application.

Use RunCloud Docker to Isolate Your Web Applications

If, for any valid reason, upgrading to the latest PHP version is not feasible, an alternative approach to bolster your web application’s security is to use RunCloud Docker. By isolating your older PHP application within a separate container, you effectively create an additional layer of security for your entire system.

This strategy ensures that your older application runs independently from the rest of your web applications. Even if the older PHP version may have certain vulnerabilities, confining it within a distinct container minimizes the risk of those vulnerabilities spreading to other applications in your environment. It essentially creates a protective barrier, allowing you to run legacy software without compromising the security of your newer, more up-to-date applications.

Refer to our in-depth post on containerization to learn more about how you can leverage Docker to manage your servers.

PHP Configuration for Security

Turn Off PHP Execution

One of the quickest ways to enhance the security of your PHP web application is by disabling PHP execution in directories where it serves no functional purpose. This proactive measure prevents unauthorized access and uncontrolled code execution within your web application.

By restricting PHP execution in non-essential directories, you reduce the attack surface for potential threats. Hackers often seek out vulnerabilities that allow them to execute malicious PHP scripts on your server. By turning off PHP execution where unnecessary, you not only deny them the opportunity, but also ensure that your application functions securely.

Properly Configure the PHP.ini File and Other Requisites

When you are running a PHP application, you should properly configure your php.ini file. In this file, you have the power to fine-tune various PHP settings to align with your application’s security requirements.

For instance, you can disable features that are not needed, reducing the potential attack vectors. Additionally, setting appropriate values for variables such as max_execution_time and memory_limit ensures that your application operates within secure constraints.

RunCloud simplifies this process by allowing you to manage these settings directly from its user-friendly dashboard, making it convenient to maintain the security and performance of your PHP web application.

Disabling PHP functions for PHP security

Leveraging PHP Libraries

When it comes to protecting your web application, one effective strategy is to use established PHP libraries. These libraries serve as valuable resources for implementing common security functions such as authentication, authorization, and encryption. They have undergone rigorous testing and have proven their reliability over time.

By using these well-vetted libraries, you significantly reduce the likelihood of implementation errors in your application’s security measures. This approach not only streamlines the development process, but also enhances the overall security of your web application. It allows you to benefit from the collective knowledge and experience of the PHP community, providing robust solutions to common security challenges.

Dependency and Component Security

While it is recommended to use third party components, sometimes they can have security vulnerabilities that are addressed in newer versions. To ensure the security of your web application, it’s necessary to track the security of your code dependencies and third-party components.

Using outdated libraries and third-party components can leave your application vulnerable to exploits and security breaches. Cyber threats continually evolve, and older dependencies may not receive updates or patches to address newly discovered vulnerabilities.

By keeping your code dependencies up to date, you reduce the likelihood of attackers exploiting vulnerabilities in outdated components. Regular updates not only bolster your application’s security, but also contribute to its stability and performance, providing a safer and more reliable experience for your users.

Do Not Store Passwords 

We cannot stress this point enough – when it comes to the security of user data in your web application, a fundamental principle is to store passwords securely.

Do not store passwords in plain text – ever! 

It is essential to use strong, one-way hashing algorithms such as bcrypt.

Hashing is a process that transforms a user’s password into a unique string of characters, making it extremely difficult for anyone, including system administrators, to reverse the process and obtain the original password. This is crucial because it adds a layer of protection to user credentials, preventing unauthorized access even if your database is compromised.

On the other hand, storing passwords in plain text, or using reversible encryption techniques, poses a significant security risk. In these cases, if an attacker gains access to your database or security measures are breached, they can easily obtain and misuse user passwords, potentially causing significant harm to your users and your application’s reputation.

We recommend reading this article by Okta to understand bcrypt in more detail, and learn how to implement it securely.

Enhancing Application Security

Don’t Rely on Cookies for Security

While cookies play an integral role in session management and user experience on web applications, it’s essential to understand that they should not be the sole means of securing your application. Cookies, by themselves, are not foolproof safeguards against security threats. Instead, they should be viewed as just one layer of your security strategy.

To make a robust application, it’s crucial to implement additional security measures. This includes, but is not limited to, robust input validation and proper authentication mechanisms. These measures not only complement cookie-based session management, but also provide an extra layer of protection against various vulnerabilities and threats.

Validate User Input

When developing an application, you should never trust user input implicitly. User input can be a potential method for attacks such as SQL injection and cross-site scripting (XSS). To safeguard against these common vulnerabilities, you should always validate and sanitize user input.

By validating user input, you ensure that the data entered by users sticks to predefined criteria, and you can reject or sanitize any input that doesn’t meet these criteria. This is a fairly complex topic and if you don’t understand it fully then it can lead to security vulnerabilities. It’s advisable to use input validation libraries and functions that have been designed for this purpose. 

Regular Security Checks

Safeguarding your web application is not a one-time effort but an ongoing commitment. Regular security audits are an essential part of maintaining a robust security application. Automated security scanners can be valuable in identifying potential vulnerabilities within your application.

However, for larger websites, it is advisable to take an extra step. It’s recommended to hire a team of white hat hackers who can perform thorough security testing. These ethical hackers simulate real-world attacks to find vulnerabilities and, if they succeed, they provide guidance on how to remedy these issues. 

Final Thoughts

By following the best practices outlined in this guide, you are taking a significant step toward bolstering the security of your PHP web application. However, it’s crucial to recognize that security is not a one-time task – it’s a continuous commitment that requires vigilance.

If you’re unsure about where to start or want to simplify the process of securing your web applications, consider using RunCloud.

When you deploy & manage your servers using RunCloud – they’re equipped with sensible and secure default settings, but you retain complete access and control of your infrastructure.

RunCloud empowers you to implement these best practices effortlessly, ensuring that your PHP web application operates within a secure environment. So, why wait? Take the proactive step towards enhanced security – sign up for RunCloud today!