PHP 5 - Sort by Folder

June 26, 2011

Recently, I needed to display a list of files with PHP. My only caveat was that I wanted to do so using newer methods of PHP 5 where possible.

I was delighted to find scandir. Problem was, scandir returns files mixed with folders and that would upset my flock of easily frightened Windows users.

So a quick... er medium... ok fine, an exasperating search on Google and only outdated, complex and inefficient samples were to be found. PUFF!

Listed below is the version I came up with.


How it works

The most crucial part of all the code you will see inside the demo is the PHP getObjects() function. Without this everything else would be moot so lets go over it in a bit more detail.

function getObjects($path) {
    $path .= '/';
    $array = scandir($path); // returns an array of files and folders sorted alphabetically
    $array = array_diff($array, array('.', '..', '.DS_Store', 'Thumbs.db')); // filter out things we don't want
    $return_array = array();
    foreach($array as $item) {
        if(is_dir($path . $item)) {
            $return_array[$item] = getObjects($path . '/' . $item);
    $count = 0;
    foreach($array as $item) {
        if(!is_dir($path . $item)) {
            $return_array[$item] = $item;
    if($count == 0) {
        $return_array[''] = '';
    return $return_array;

Line 3
Scandir returns an array of mixed folders and files for the path requested. This does not include sub directories.

Line 4
Filter out any undesirables. That means the current '.' and parent directory '..' although we don't want any Mac '.DS_Store' or Windows 'Thumbs.db' files either.

Line 6
We create a new array called $return_array which will be built up with all the folders and files in the order we want them. Folders first, then files. Both alphabetically.

Line 8-12
Here we loop through each item in our filtered results from scandir. If the item is a directory we set the results of $return_array[$item] to a recursive call of the very same function we are already in. Traveling deeper each recursive call, that means we can handle seemingly infinite directory structures. Neat.

This first loop through only cares about directories which is exactly what puts them first in our $return_array. Files will come next.

Line 14
We set a variable $count to 0 to keep track of how many files we find in the next foreach loop.

Line 15-19
In this second loop we check to make sure the items are not directories and if so return those items while incrementing the $count variable.

Line 21-23
Now that we are finished looping for files we can check our $count variable. If 0 then set $return_array to ''. This can useful later in case we want to do something special for directories without files.

Line 25
Finally, we return whatever we have found. In most cases this means returning an $array to another instance of the function although ultimately the original one will return a completed array to the PHP call outside our function that started it all.

In the demo we can now loop through this nicely ordered array and write out some HTML and CSS, add a sprinkle of JavaScript and we have a real working web app.


Once you get your head around recursive loops things become much simpler. Plus you get to worry more about optimizing your code since each loop can be run so many times. It's a good problem to have, really.

Anyway, I certainly hope this helps you in your next endeavor. I know I certainly would be lost without all the wonderful code and tutorials shared by others.