system() is just like the C version of the function in that it executes the given command and outputs the result.
The system() call also tries to automatically flush the web server's output buffer after each line of output if PHP is running as a server module.
If you need to execute a command and have all the data from the command passed directly back without any interference, use the passthru() function.
The command that will be executed.
If the return_var argument is present, then the return status of the executed command will be written to this variable.
// Outputs all the result of shellcommand "ls", and returns
// the last output line into $last_line. Stores the return value
// of the shell command in $retval.
$last_line = system('ls', $retval);
// Printing additional info
<hr />Last line of the output: ' . $last_line . '
<hr />Return value: ' . $retval;
If you are going to allow data coming from user input to be passed to this function, then you should be using escapeshellarg() or escapeshellcmd() to make sure that users cannot trick the system into executing arbitrary commands.
If you start a program using this function and want to leave it running in the background, you have to make sure that the output of that program is redirected to a file or some other output stream or else PHP will hang until the execution of the program ends.