Running PHP Scripts with Cron

Lots of programmers like PHP for its ability to code and develop web applications fast. Well, this programming language was built for web. We have recently did post on caching with php to make your web sites faster. Today we want to cover another topic many developers are puzzled about, “How to run PHP Scripts with crontab?”

Cron is normally available on all Unix and Linux distributions; if you cannot access it, contact your root or server administrator. It is a daemon which allows you to schedule a program or script for a specific time of execution. If you want to learn more about cron, click here or type “man crontab” at your command prompt.

I have found myself in the need to run PHP scripts at specific times. For example, to update the content of a website, to remove expired articles, to send out e-mails on a given date and a lot more. While some may think that this is were PHP is doomed, I will show you how it’s done.

A Manual crontab?

The first solution that came to my mind was to run the script directly from my browser (e.g. entering into the web browser).

Since I need to run my script on a regular basis, I squashed that idea. My goodness, all the extra hassle is ridiculous.

An include?

Another possible solution is to include the script in one of the pages of the site, for example the very first index.php file.

<? include "cron.php"; ?>

The drawbacks to this solution are, that it works but when someone accesses the index.php. This could cause a lot of extra overhead produced by the script. If you get a lot of traffic, the script is executed 1000 times a day and adds a lot of usage on the database and the server.

On the other hand, if you do not get a lot of traffic, or people tend to access your site over another file, this will not work out as well. If you need to run the script on a regular intervals, this is not a solution.


Let’s suppose you either know what cron is or have read about it using the link above. We want to run our script once a minute. So where do we go from here? Here is how you can accomplish this task.

Your PHP setup

You will need to find out the answer to the following question, Is my PHP installed as CGI or as an Apache module?
To find out do the following: Create a new file, name it info.php (just an example), and put in the following code:

<? phpinfo(); ?>

Upload to your web server and go to it with your browser. Now check for Server API (4th item from the top), if it says CGI, you have PHP compiled as CGI, if it reads Apache, you have it running as an Apache module. These days most PHP installations are done as a Apache web server modules.

Compiled CGI

If the answer to the question above is “CGI” then you need to add a line to your PHP script. It has to be the first line of your script and must contain your server’s PHP executable location:

#!/usr/local/bin/php -q

That looks a lot like PERL now, doesn’t it? After that let’s add the necessary command to our crontab. Edit /etc/crontab and add the following line:

* * * * * php /path/to/your/cron.php

Execute the following from the command line:

Shell> crontab crontab

Be sure your script.php has the necessary permissions to be executable. If not, the shell command to do it is:

Shell> chmod 755 script.php

Now you are all set!

Apache module

If your PHP is installed using the Apache module, the approach is a little different. First, you need access to Lynx (Lynx Browser for more information). Lynx is a small web browser, generally available on Unix and Linux.

Running your PHP script will not require you to add any additional lines. You simply have to edit your /etc/crontab file and add the following line:

* * * * * lynx -dump

Please note that in general, you have to specify the entire URL (with “http://” and so on). But depending on your Lynx’s configuration, the URL might be relative; I suggest always using the absolute reference as in my example above – it always works.

Again execute the following from the command line:

Shell> crontab crontab

That all it takes to get a cron job setup using PHP. Hope you have learned something new and will use it to save overhead time on the server and on the developer.

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