How sessions work in PHP

HTTP is a stateless protocol. Which means that every request the browser makes to the server cant be identified by the server as a subsequent request of that user/IP/browser or a brand new request.

HTTP doesn’t understand who is requesting. So how do sessions manage to make HTTP look intelligent? The Answer lies in the request-response model with data.

When a normal request is made, eg my website, the minimalistic data passed by the client/browser is this

GET / HTTP/1.1

The server responds by giving the output. But when a developer does a session_start();, What actually happens is, the PHP engine sets a PHPSESSID cookie. This data is sent from the Server as Set-Cookie header. So the response goes somewhat like this

HTTP/1.x 200 OK
Date: xxxx
Set-Cookie: PHPSESSID=<32charhexvalue>; expires=xxxx

Now considering the browser does accept the cookies, it saves the PHPSESSID cookie. Consequently the server also creates a file in the specified directory (by default on Linux as /tmp) as /tmp/sess_32charid.

Now when another request is made by the user/browser, the Cookie header is passed through the GET request back to the server, something like this…

GET /session2.php HTTP/1.1
Cookie: PHPSESSID=<32charid>; othercookies=othervalues;

The session2.php, for example, is setting a value of name in session, by this

$_SESSION['name'] = $name_obtained_from_somewhere;

Now as the script finishes, the script flushes all the $_SESSION data into the /tmp/sess_32charid file associated to that session id. It saves all the data in the serialized format

Consider the browser makes another request to session3.php where $_SESSION['name'] is echoed. Now when the request is made, just like previous case, the PHPSESSID is passed in the cookie.

Now as mandated by, that every page where sessions should be needed, a session_start(); is required. So as soon this function is invoked, PHP checks if the browser’s request had any PHPSESSID cookie sent in the header, as it was sent in our case, PHP Engine will open /tmp/sess_32charid file (with the same session id) and unserialize the contents of the file. It then assigns the values of the unserialized data structures to the $_SESSION variable.

The simple echo $_SESSION['name']; will now be able to output the name!! Sessions working…

On a session_destroy();, PHP sends a destructive, previous timestamp cookie for PHPSESSID and unlinks or deletes the /tmp/sess_32charid file. This ensures that no reference of that session is left.



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