The state of YAML in PHP

Fabien Potencier

December 21, 2009

My first exposure to YAML was in 2001, back in the days when I was mainly working with Perl. Well, I was not using YAML per se at that time, but rather Data::Denter, a Perl library that provides data serialization/deserialization. I used this library mainly for debugging purposes. From its documentation:

"It formats nested data structures in an indented fashion. It is optimized for human readability/editability, safe deserialization, and (eventually) speed."

At the end of the year 2002, the module was deprecated in favor of a new serialization language, YAML, with the added bonus of being programming language independent. I promptly switched to use the Perl YAML module, and I never looked back. I used YAML as a mean to debug my Perl programs, but I also started to use it more and more to store configuration data.

When I started to use PHP at the end of 2004, one of the first thing that quickly bothered me was the poor support for YAML in the PHP world.

By the way, if symfony uses YAML a lot, it has nothing to do with Ruby on Rails ;) It just happens that Ruby also has some Perl heritage!

But first, what is YAML?#

According to the official YAML website, YAML (YAML Ain't Markup Language), is a human friendly data serialization standard for all programming languages.

YAML can be used to describe both simple and complex data structures. It's an easy to learn language that describes data. As PHP, it has a syntax for simple types like strings, booleans, floats, integers, arrays, and even more complex ones like objects.

Nowadays, YAML is a heavily used format for configuration files, mainly because even non programmers are able to understand and modify YAML files easily.

To sum up the benefits of YAML, I often say that YAML files are as expressive as XML files and as readable as INI files.

Since the creation of YAML, another lightweight data-interchange format has come to life: JSON. JSON is quite similar to YAML (and as a matter of fact, JSON is a subset of YAML); but even if it is easy for humans to read and write, I think it is not as readable as YAML, and a bit too verbose.


If you already know what is YAML and how to use it to describe your data structures, just skip this section.

Besides strings, Booleans, and numbers, let's have a look at one of the simplest configuration structure you can describe with YAML:

key: value
foo: bar

The above snippet is the simplest way to express key/value pairs in YAML. The foo key has a bar value. The equivalent PHP code would be:

array('key' => 'value', 'foo' => 'bar')

And that's pretty much covers what you can do with ini files. Speaking of ini files, you can also group key/values under "sections". Here is how this is possible with YAML:

  foo: bar

  bar: foo

The equivalent PHP code reads as follows:

  'section1' => array('foo' => 'bar'),
  'section2' => array('bar' => 'foo'),

That does the trick because there is several ways to describe key/value pairs. The short notation (foo: bar), and the expanded one, where you use indentation to describe nested structures as above.

The same data structure can also be described as follows:

section1: { foo: bar }
section2: { bar: foo }

The {} is how you enclose a hash. That's one of the greatest benefit of YAML as a description format: you can visually organize your data by using one of the three possible notations.

Unlike PHP, YAML makes a difference between hashes (mappings) and arrays (sequences):

[1, 'a string', "another string"]

The above snippet, a YAML sequence, is the equivalent of the following PHP code:

array(1, 'a string', "another string")

If you mix and match mappings and sequences, short and verbose notations, you can describe very complex data structures:

  foo: { bar: foo }
  bar: [1, 2]
    - 'a string'
    - 'another one'

This section has barely scratched the surface of what you can express with YAML. If you want to learn more, you will find plenty of documentation on the Internet.


YAML is human-friendly, but not so developer-friendly for someone willing to write a parser for it. The YAML specification is really huge. If you read it carefully, you can easily imagine that writing a YAML parser is not an easy task. As I mainly use YAML as a configuration format like many other developers, I'm more looking for a fast, incomplete but correct library, instead of a fat, spec-compliant one.

Back in 2005, I was looking for such a YAML parser and dumper for PHP. Chris Wanstrath, who will eventually create Github some years later, wrote one such limited parser and dumper, Spyc, specifically to be used as a simple configuration library.

I used it for symfony 1.0. I fixed some bugs from time to time, but as time passed, I found many limitations and became more and more frustrated about it. One day, I eventually decided to write a more robust and stable YAML parser and dumper for symfony.

Since then, Alexey Zakhlestin created a PECL extension that wraps the Syck library.

At the beginning of 2009, I decided to release this library as a standalone library, with no dependency whatsoever. It means that you can start using it today.

The YAML Symfony Component#

Released under the MIT license, the YAML Symfony Component can be used in any application, even commercial ones.

When I created this YAML library for PHP, I had several goals in mind:

  • Ease of use: Installation should be easy and fast. Install it via PEAR, download an archive, or checkout the SVN or Git repository, and you are ready to go. No configuration. Drop the files in a directory and start using it right away.

  • Fast: One of the main goal of Symfony YAML was to find the right balance between speed and features.

  • Unit tested: The library is unit-tested (with more than 400 unit tests as of today).

  • "Real" Parser: To correctly handle a large subset of the YAML specification, a dedicated and hand-written parser has been written. The parser is robust, easy to understand, and simple enough to extend.

  • Clear error messages: Whenever you have a syntax problem with your YAML files, the library should output helpful messages with the filename and the line number where the problem occurred. It eases debugging a lot.

And of course, YAML being not so well-known in the PHP world, the YAML component also comes with a full documentation.

The easiest way to install the Symfony YAML Component is probably to use the PEAR installer:

$ pear channel-discover
$ pear install symfony/YAML

Using YAML in your Projects#

The Symfony YAML library consists of two main classes: one to parse YAML strings, and the other to dump a PHP variable to a YAML string. On top of these two core classes, the main sfYaml class acts as a thin wrapper and simplifies common uses:

// loading a YAML file or a YAML string
$var = sfYaml::load('/path/to/file.yml');

// Dumping a PHP variable to YAML
$yaml = sfYaml::dump($var, $inline);

YAML for PHP 5.3#

The previous sections use the PHP 5.2 compatible version of the library. If you have already switched to use PHP 5.3, the good news is that the YAML Component is already available for that version too. For now, it is only available on the Symfony 2 Subversion repository:

$ svn co YAML


use Symfony\Components\YAML\YAML;

// loading a YAML file or a YAML string
$var = YAML::load('/path/to/file.yml');

// Dumping a PHP variable to YAML
$yaml = YAML::dump($var, $inline);

This version can be autoloaded with any autoloader that follows the standards discussed by some PHP developers. Symfony 2 provides such an autoloader:

require_once __DIR__.'/lib/Symfony/Foundation/ClassLoader.php';

use Symfony\Foundation\ClassLoader;

$loader = new ClassLoader('Symfony', __DIR__.'/lib');

The YAML Symfony Component is already used by and bundled with many popular Open-Source PHP software like symfony, Doctrine, and PHPUnit. Other frameworks like the upcoming Okapi2 framework and the mootools plugins repository, announced some days ago, make a heavy use of YAML and also use the YAML Symfony Component.

Next time you look for a flexible mean to store or share data, consider using YAML!