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If PHP is linked with Oracle 10g libraries (e.g. Oracle Instant Client) you can connect to Oracle 8.1 databases. If your database is older, link PHP with Oracle 9.2 libraries.
Since you are starting a new project, use the latest version of PHP and the OCI8 extension. Download PHP 5.2.6. Before building it, replace the oci8 directory with the new OCI8 1.3.4 from PECL. This is similar to the steps "Installing OCI8 with PHP 4" on page 81 of the current version (1.4) of The Underground PHP and Oracle Manual