PHP lifecycle management at Combell

How do we at Combell go from a release by the PHP maintainers to a deploy on production machines? How involved is such an update and can we go fast if it is really needed.

Our structure

For every PHP version we support on our platform, we have a packages group in gitlab. There there is a repo for the PHP source and the extensions we support for customers or use internally.

php 8.1 packages group

When a new version of PHP is on the horizon, like now with PHP 8.1, we start building fairly early Alpha versions to see if something is changed we need to address. Only when the RC’s start popping up we start to verify if the extensions we want to offer work with this new version. We usually find some things in the extensions, but it is amazing how many people already have worked to make patches available for these extensions to make them build/work with the upcoming PHP release.

Our platform is based on Debian and so we have debian repositories to distribute our custom packages easily. The building process works with the dev repo. Once everything is ok and built in dev we can also make packages available in testing and eventually in production repo. So if there is something wrong somewhere in the line we can’t accidentally install broken packages on production systems. The release to testing and production are manual jobs after some verification.

php pipeline

On the shared hosting platform we have a distinct difference between ‘web’ nodes and ‘ssh’ nodes. The web nodes get their updates via apt updates and the php-fpm processes are reloaded after the update. This makes sure there is no visible service interruption during updates. The ssh nodes get their updates via a container image, so long running processes need to be restarted, but regular ssh sessions just get the latest versions available on a new login.

The update flow

For PHP releases usually we use the moment tags are set in the php-src repo as the moment to fetch the updated sources and start building. Depending on other factors the news item causes me to update the PHP package repo’s somewhere on wednesday before the official release announcement.

php feed item

There is a system in place that will automatically update the sources after the release announcements on in case the tag was missed, but usually I do the updates manually the day before.

php 7.3.33 update

When the updates are pushed those are built automatically and all extensions get triggered to make sure everything is fine there.

php 7.3.33 build

When the builds are ok and verified, the update of the container images for the ‘ssh’ nodes is triggered, so normally our customers get the new released on thursday morning, which is normally the day PHP versions are released to the public with an announcement on The updates of the web nodes is triggered on AWX (Ansible Tower) and there the update jobs are executed on the target machines.

awx \
    job_templates \
    launch 123 \
    --job_tags "php-init,php,php-upgrade" \
    --extra_vars '{"apt_state": "latest","reload_httpd_and_phpfpm": true}' \
    --limit 'web'

In case of emergency

PHP has a very stable release flow and is super reliable on that front. But if there is a serious issue where we really need to patch fast it is important to know how quickly we can go from source update to production.

All together we could if needed do an emergency update in around 2 hours if needed. For normal updates it will be longer since the update runs are spread out over a longer time period.


In general our flow gives us the possibility to deliver PHP updates on release date for our customers. We have been able to deliver this promise for over 2 years now. We also have been able to provide test versions of the upcoming major PHP releases since 8.0. There we offered 8.0 alpha 1 without extensions for customers, now for the PHP 8.1 release we have been offering 8.1 since RC1 with all extensions we usually provide available for testing.

Personally I’m very happy that we can easily keep up. We also must thank all PHP contributors and extension creators for all their hard work to make PHP awesome. A special shout out should go to Remi Collet and Ondřej Surý who are providing PHP packages and an insane number of extensions for users of the larger linux distributions out there. We don’t use the packages they provide, but their work makes it easier for everyone.