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ServerGrove was present at the 2014 edition of PHPBenelux Conference. Not only we sponsored it, but we also had two members of our team attending. Aaron and myself traveled to Antwerp, Belgium for the 5th edition of one the best events of the PHP conference season.

And for this 5th edition, the organizers went all out. The conference is not only famous for the quality of the talks, but they put a lot of emphasis on the networking and social aspects, and it really shows. I have attended numerous conferences, thanks to our commitment with the community, and I can assure you, these guys know how to put together a FUN conference.

The event took place in the Hotel Ter Elst in Edegem, a few miles from Antwerp. This year, they had the talks split in three rooms and for the first time they added an unconference track. It feels that it was very much needed, because all the slots filled up quickly on each day. I was contemplating doing a talk about AngularJS but when I saw the whiteboard to signup it was too late, the slots were filled up, oh well, will try again next time.

The talks were in English with speakers from all over. Several of them came from the US. The first morning featured workshops, then was followed by the main talks. The keynote was presented by Elizabeth Smith, she talked about the importance of mentorship, from both sides: why was important being a mentor for those with more experience and why looking for a mentor is an amazing opportunity for those looking to advance in their careers. The talk was very inspiring and perfect for kickstarting a PHP conference. I hope this talk can be presented at more events in the future, including our home grown SunshinePHP. The crowd then split into different rooms. A big problem when having multiple tracks is deciding which talks to attend. Several times very interesting talks coincided, and I was torn apart because cloning is not available and I was forced to miss very interesting talks. This indeed happened a few times.

We chose Joshua Thijssen‘s talk about the first few milliseconds of HTTPS were he discussed several aspects of SSL, TLS, and encrypted and authenticated connections, and as a proof that you can always learn something even when you think you know quite a bit about a subject, we learned that with HTTPS it is possible to have the browser show a secure connection, without being encrypted, because you could configure the web server to use the cypher TLS_NULL_WITH_NULL_NULL. Quite unexpected!

A quick break followed, with coffee and delicious Belgian sweets all located in the sponsors and social events hall, which included a booth with the Dutch Web Alliance radio station broadcasting live music and interviews with attendees, all conducted by the talented Stefan Skoopmanschap.

The last talk of the day that I attended was about choosing a PHP framework by Rowan Merewood. I consider Rowan one of the best speakers out there and I enjoy all of his talks. He discussed why it’s a bad idea to build your own framework and gave pointers on how to choose one of the millions we have in the PHP world. I really liked one of his quotes that pretty much summarizes it all: “There are the frameworks everybody hates, and there are the frameworks nobody uses”. And it is very true, even the best framework will have lots of people that dislike it and disagree with its philosophy, this is why we have so many options, but then you have those frameworks that nobody uses and there are good reasons why, so stay away from those frameworks that nobody talks about and keep an eye on those that people talk about; even if it is negative. Then he ventured into what everyone was waiting for: which framework is the best, and his opinion on the most popular frameworks. As I was expecting the answer pretty much depends on your needs, preferences, and other various factors, and there is no one single best framework.

Now, on previous years, the after-hours social event included bowling, but the hotel removed this from the venue so the PHPBenelux team was forced to come up with something new. If you don’t believe a PHP conference can sport a track of bumper cars, think again. Yes, attendees ended up with bruises, back pain, and who knows what else. To cure the pain there was a really long line to get a taste of those amazing Belgian fries that is another signature of this event, and be assured, the cold wait outside is very much worth it!

The second day started early at 9am which proved to be quite tough for those of us that socialized until almost midnight. But it was worth the effort. I attended Ross Tuck‘s talk about models and service layers. I’ve heard that Ross was a great speaker and that his talks were very interesting, so I really wanted to see this one. Now, talks about MVC and patterns in general are very popular, you may find one or more of these in every conference. What I found really interesting about this talk is that Ross ventured into more advanced patterns, ones that people are starting to hear, and that solve more advanced problems. I considered this talk the best of the conference and highly recommend everyone to take a look at the slides or hopefully see it at some other conference.

After the morning break, I had to make the tough choice of picking the talk to see out of three really interesting ones: “Ansible: Orchestrate your Infrastructure” by Jeremy Coates from PHP Northwest, “Application monitoring with Heka and statsd” by Jordi Boggiano (coauthor of Composer) and “Docker, contain him, he is fast !” by Joel Wurtz. Since I’ve been hearing a lot about Docker, I wanted to see his take on it. Unfortunately Joel’s english was not very good and was hard to follow.

After a few more talks, which included one by Sara Golemon from Facebook about their project HHVM (something we will be including in ServerGrove soon), everyone came together one more time for the closing remarks and raffles. It was the time for the PHPBenelux team to share some of the insights of what takes to organize a top notch event. They also did a great job mentioning and thanking every one of the sponsors, and there are a lot of them. This highlights the importance of this conference and its quality. Companies want to be associated with an event where developers learn, have fun, make connections and friends. And when companies get involved, amazing things happen! And this is why we are very proud and happy to be part of PHPBenelux and we look forward to the next edition. Finally, all the organizers, volunteers and speakers were called to the front. It was an impressive sight looking at the stage completely full, a confirmation that takes a lot of effort and talent to make this happen.

I left Antwerp quite amazed at the ability of the organizers on bettering themselves year after year. I can’t wait to see what they come up in 2015. I hope to be there again. Until then, I look forward to attend more conferences. Luckily we will be at SunshinePHP in Miami in just 2 weeks. If you have not attended a conference before, you must consider doing it, it most probably change your life in some way. And SunshinePHP is a great opportunity to do so. If you can’t, we keep an ongoing list of PHP conferences on our blog.

Photo credit: Brett Gaasbeek @BrettPXL.