What Is the Difference Between Front-End and Back-End Development?

Originally published February 9, 2017, updated Feb. 27, 2019.

Front-end developers work on what the user can see while back-end developers build the infrastructure that supports it.

Both are necessary components for a high-functioning application or website.

It’s not uncommon for companies to get tripped up by the “front-end versus back-end” divide when trying to navigate the development of new software.

After all, there are a growing number of tools on the market aimed at helping developers become more “full stack” oriented, so it’s easy for non-technicians to assume there isn’t a big difference between front-end and back-end specialists.

Front-end and back-end developers do work in tandem to create the systems necessary for an application or website to function properly. However, they have opposite concerns.

The term “front-end” refers to the user interface, while “back-end” means the server, application and database that work behind the scenes to deliver information to the user.

The user enters a request through the interface.

It’s then verified and communicated to the server, which pulls the necessary data from the database and sends it back to the user.

Here’s a closer look at the difference between front-end and back-end development.

What is Front-End Development?

The front-end is built using a combination of technologies such as Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), JavaScript and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).

Front-end developers design and construct the user experience elements on the web page or app including buttons, menus, pages, links, graphics and more.

HTML

Hypertext Markup Language is the core of a website, providing the overall design and functionality.

The most recent version was released in late 2017 and is known as HTML5.2.

The updated version includes more tools aimed at web application developers as well as adjustments made to improve interoperability.

CSS

Cascading style sheets give developers a flexible, precise way to create attractive, interactive website designs.

JavaScript

This event-based language is useful for creating dynamic elements on static HTML web pages.

It allows developers to access elements separate from the main HTML page, as well as respond to server-side events.

Front-end frameworks such as Angular, Ember, Backbone, and React are also popular.

These frameworks let developers keep up with the growing demand for enterprise software without sacrificing quality, so they’re earning their place as standard development tools.

One of the main challenges of front-end development – which also goes by the name “client-side development” – is the rapid pace of change in the tools, techniques and technologies used to create the user experience for applications and websites.

The seemingly simple goal of creating a clear, easy-to-follow user interface is difficult due to sometimes widely different mobile device and computer screen resolutions and sizes.

Things get even more complicated when the Internet of Things (IoT) is considered.

Screen size and network connection now have a wider variety, so developers have to balance those concerns when working on their user interfaces.

What is Back-End Development?

The back-end, also called the server side, consists of the server which provides data on request, the application which channels it, and the database which organizes the information.

For example, when a customer browses shoes on a website, they are interacting with the front end.

After they select the item they want, put it in the shopping cart, and authorize the purchase, the information is kept inside the database which resides on the server.

A few days later when the client checks on the status of their delivery, the server pulls the relevant information, updates it with tracking data, and presents it through the front-end.

Back-end Tools

The core concern of back-end developers is creating applications that can find and deliver data to the front end.

Many of them use reliable enterprise-level databases like Oracle, Teradata, Microsoft SQL Server, IBM DB2, EnterpriseDB and SAP Sybase ASE.

There’s also a number of other popular databases including MySQL, NoSQL and PostgreSQL.

There are a wide variety of frameworks and languages used to code the application, such as Ruby on Rails, Java, C++/C/C#, Python and PHP.

Over the last several years Backend-as-a-Service (BaaS) providers have been maturing into a viable alternative.

They’re especially useful when developing mobile apps and working within a tight schedule.

What is Full-Stack Development?

The development of both the back- and front-end systems has become so specialized, it’s most common for a developer to specialize in only one.

As a general rule, full-stack development by a single programmer isn’t a practical solution.

However, at times a custom software development company will have developers who are proficient with both sides, known as a full stack developer.

They powerful team players because they have the breadth of knowledge to see the big picture, letting them suggest ways to optimize the process or remove roadblocks that might be slowing down the system.

To find out which database and framework to use on your next project, read our article “What is the Best Front-End/Back-End Combo for an Enterprise App.”

If you’re ready to see how we can put our knowledge to work for you, set up a free consultation today!

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Reusable JavaScript Ushers In A New Era of Full-Stack Development

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Reusable JavaScript helps developers create innovative, high-quality software without sacrificing time or budget. Better yet, it makes full-stack development easier than ever. JavaScript is the most commonly used coding language around, and its popularity grows every day. More important than popularity, though, is innovation. The JavaScript ecosystem is constantly evolving. So far the most transformative development has been “reusable JavaScript”. Shared repositories of pre-made components create a shortcut through repetitive tasks without sacrificing quality, and they’re sparking a change in the way developers innovate.

The Value of JavaScript

In 2017 JavaScript was ranked the most popular programming language for the sixth year in a row, and for good reason. It’s a powerful language which plays well with other languages, so developers can use it in any webpage. Being able to run natively in a browser makes it fast and lowers the server load. Through JavaScript frameworks and tools like React Native it can be used to build hybrid or cross-platform apps. On top of that, JavaScript has a low barrier to entry. It’s easy to learn and easy to read. There’s a hugely active community behind it, with representation both in online repositories like GitHub and in local developer groups.

How Does Reusable JavaScript Work?

The flexibility and accessibility of JavaScript means developers have created and shared a lot of useful components with the community at large. However, for a while it was incredibly hard to find and use these tools on their own. Developers had to follow a complex integration process for each component they borrowed, and maintaining them was a hassle. That’s where packages and package managers came into play. A package is a reusable piece of software that serves as a shortcut to a specific task. Rather than recreating the component from scratch, developers can simply download the package and copy it into their project. The package might or might not have dependencies required for it to work. Dependencies are complex to manage. Sometimes when a package is updated some dependencies are no longer compatible and require the old version, creating a situation known to developers as “dependency hell”. This can’t be avoided by skipping updates, though; packages have to be updated to maintain performance and close security vulnerabilities. The solution to this problem is package managers: tools that automate and simplify the use of packages. They automatically handle dependencies, configuring updates, installing new packages, and other tedious yet essential tasks. Package managers are what makes using so many different components possible, reducing the overall time spent on maintenance and installation. Another reusable code trend gaining traction is the idea of a “starter kit”. This is a developer or organization-specific foundation for building apps that has all the basic opinions and configurations built in. When beginning a new project, the team uses the starter kit as a jumping-off point. They don’t have to worry about skipping a step that might cause trouble down the road because the foundation work is already done. This approach has several advantages. It eliminates the time spent on less productive discussions like arguments about syntax. Instead, the team jumps straight into the project at hand. Starter kits also streamline the quality control process by ensures the entire team is working to the same settings.

Why Not Start From Scratch?

Working with reusable JavaScript helps developers work at a higher layer of abstraction. They can separate concerns by functional components, not languages or tools, which lays the groundwork for new ways of looking at architecture. The layer of abstraction necessary for reusable code does make it a little slower than pure JavaScript. However, that slight hit to speed comes with some valuable advantages over vanilla JavaScript.

Time

Enterprise technology moves fast. Businesses need to get their software finished and working towards ROI as soon as possible. Starting with a blank project every time is a much, much slower process than using reusable JavaScript. It eats up too much of the development schedule without a balancing increase in quality.

Quality

There are dozens of decisions to make when configuring a new project. It’s easy to forget a step or take shortcuts to compensate for the longer development timeline. When this happens the product could reach the market with avoidable flaws or weaknesses. Reusable JavaScript starter kits serve as solid foundations for quality software with no skipped steps. Plus, the time saved can be redirected towards user experience, leading to a better final product.

Practicality

It makes no sense to reinvent the wheel every time every time someone needs to go to the grocery store. JavaScript has been around long enough that there are plenty of solid, reliable packages that will take care of basic software functions while still holding to a high standard of quality. The performance gap between vanilla JavaScript and reusable code isn’t large enough to offset the risks of slower development.

Innovation

Time spent recreating components which have been built many times before is time that isn’t spent trying new things. It doesn’t push technology forward. Developers need to build on the community’s work if they want to reach higher levels of sophistication and create something new.

Going Full-Stack with Reusable Code

JavaScript frameworks built on reusable components blur the line between front-end and back-end development. These used to be handled by separate teams with very different skill sets. Because they were usually working in different languages, coordinating between the front- and back-end teams could lead to frustrating misunderstandings. The current crop of frameworks makes full-stack JavaScript development more practical. Using one primary language end to end removes those barriers in communication that complicate interdeveloper cooperation. Everyone can read and understand each other’s work. Using reusable JavaScript like this expands the tools available to developers, too. The front-end team has more to do than designing layouts. They can be more interactive and innovative. Back-end developers have access to more tools for building out the front end. The team can work together to create a better experience for end users (which should be one of the primary goals of any software development project). Developer productivity isn’t the only reason to use reusable JavaScript for both the front- and back-end. It harnesses many of the language’s benefits, such as:
  • Reduced server load
  • Faster response and page load times
  • Wide compatibility across devices and platforms
  • Easy maintenance and debugging
  • Offline access
  • Faster development and updating
  • Lower maintenance costs

Committing to Reusable Components

In this day and age most developers are probably already using reusable components to some extent. However, the majority haven’t fully committed to applying reusable code wherever it’s relevant. They’re missing opportunities to improve their products and provide faster development to their clients. There are two main steps to making sure a company is realizing the full potential of reusable JavaScript. First, they should both use and contribute to package managers and code repositories. Package managers are the form of reusable code mostly likely to be used by developers at the moment. The increasingly popular Node Package Manager (NPM) is the fastest growing, though others like Bower, jspm, and Duo have their uses as well. Despite using package managers in rising numbers, a large portion of developers don’t publish their own work to these collections at the company level. That’s a missed opportunity. They should be taking reusable JavaScript a step further by creating shortcuts for their frequently used functions and adding it to the collected toolkits for anyone to use. Sharing code like this meets resistance from a lot of executives who worry about giving away trade secrets. In practice, that isn’t a serious concern. Sharing components isn’t the same as putting completed software online for free; it won’t let competitors steal a product under development and release it early. There are relatively few instances where publishing a package to NPM would put a company at risk. It’s just a harmless way to build the communal base of JavaScript knowledge. Beyond that altruistic motive, sharing code builds a company’s reputation as an industry leader. Peers who use the components gain respect for the developer, which makes hiring and retention easier. Reviews serve to validate the company’s expertise for potential clients. There’s also the possibility of spurring a new trend in programming that could inspire industry press attention, which leads to more and better clients. Make it simple for team members to share their JavaScript components. Set up a standard procedure for use company-wide, and consider offering incentives for engineers who publish solid packages. At the very least it should be a positive factor in promotion or raise decisions. The second element of adopting reusable JavaScript is more internal: creating a customized starter kit for JavaScript projects. This should be the result of a group workshop about company ideals and priorities instead of something created by executives and handed down. Team members need to buy into the concept, and the best way to ensure that is to give them the sense of ownership collaboration provides. These kits should lay out standards for start-of-project decisions, touching on topics like editors, bundlers, testing frameworks, preferred HTML versions, logging protocols, API structure, and anything else that makes sense for the company. Aim for a “highest common ground” where many set-up decisions are premade but the team isn’t prevented from creative problem-solving. However far developers take it, adopting reusable JavaScript should be seen more as an opportunity than a chore. The effort invested saves both time and money in the long run through the creation of faster, higher quality software. Developers have nothing to lose by sharing their expertise- and everything to gain.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, reusable JavaScript (and by extension full-stack JavaScript development) solves a lot of problems raised by digital transformation efforts. It powers fast, agile development and takes advantage of a deep pool of talented experts. While JavaScript can stumble with computationally intensive projects, its combination of performance and speed makes it an excellent choice for enterprise software.

Does Full Stack Mobile Development Exist?

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Full stack mobile developers were once the unicorns of the software world. They existed but were so rare and hard to find that they may as well have been mythical. Companies that outsourced their mobile apps to individual developers had widely mixed experiences (rarely good ones). That isn’t to say that full stack mobile development is impossible, though. It’s highly functional at a company level. Software development agencies have been expanding their capabilities towards building a cohesive stack instead of simply creating a tool or app.

What It Means to Be “Full Stack”

“Full stack developers” have the knowledge and skills to build an entire mobile app, from back-end to middleware to front-end tools. The list of subject areas includes:
  • Hardware (including device utilities)
  • Operating systems
  • Virtualization
  • Hosting
  • Containers
  • Scaling
  • Package Management
  • Server management
  • Programming
  • Security
  • Frontend development
  • Frontend design
  • Requirements gathering
  • Project management
  • Non-technical communication skills
The developer needs to be intimately familiar with a few options at each level to qualify as “full stack”. They also have to be able to build native, hybrid, and mobile web apps. The knowledge base doesn’t stop there, either. Full stack developers should keep on top of changing trends in application architecture in order to properly guide clients in their choice of tools. It’s incredibly difficult for one person to do all these things with any degree of skill. Those few talented developers aren’t going to be found without luck or extensive headhunting. What’s hard for one person, though, is considerably easier for a software development agency. Many developers within these comprehensive-minded agencies have the knowledge to build an app top to bottom within a narrow range of requirements. Where there are gaps in their experience, the agencies have room to employ a mix of specialists to provide full coverage.

Why Full Stack Is Coming Back Into The Conversation

In early days everyone was expected to be a full stack developer. As computing became more complex and involved multiple languages and toolsets, people began specializing in areas like front end, back end, databases, or mobile development. What changed is the modern tools and resources that have begun to make it possible for individuals to be capable of building an effective mobile app from the ground up again.
  • Programming languages: Languages like Ruby abstract away complex machine details, letting developers build from scratch with less code.
  • Development frameworks & third party libraries: React, Angular, JQuery, PHP, Node.js, and similar tools speed up development while delivering a better quality app.
  • Cloud databases: With simple, guided setup and management, developers don’t need the same level of database construction skills they once did.
  • Expanded support: Most of these tools have forums where developers can reach out for help. This allows them to use tools they’re less familiar with more effectively.
When a single developer builds an app alone, it can be highly cohesive. They don’t need to make compromises or balance opinions among a team, so programming is cleaner and more straightforward. On a more pragmatic note, mobile developers are still expensive and highly in demand. There’s strong motivation for companies to find someone who can “do it all”.

Stumbling Blocks

Despite the appeal of full stack mobile development, there are inevitably trade-offs. Aiming for more breadth of skills results in a shallower understanding of each. Full stack developers generally have limited range within a specific topic, limiting their flexibility. It’s a “jack of all trades, master of none” situation. Because of this limited toolkit, apps created by individual full stack developers tend to lack innovation and creativity. Their apps all seem very much alike. There’s also the risk of lower overall quality. Every developer has their idiosyncrasies and blind spots, and they might not catch their own mistakes. Some trade-offs seem trivial, but in reality, they can break a project. The biggest culprit is communication. Successful app development involves next-level communication skills, and that’s something that challenges full stack developers who are busy actually building the app. Communication takes away from that work, so they may skimp on updates or overlook feedback until they’re past the point where it can be easily integrated into the project.

The Future of Full Stack

The best use for full stack mobile developers is as a force multiplier on a mobile app development team. They can serve as an “architect”, using their wide knowledge base to create a more cohesive final product. Because they know every step, they’re able to spot potential issues and gaps in the team’s skill set. As a bonus they can fill in for other developers as needed. The team can then be smaller without having to take on new developers mid-project. So, does full stack mobile development exist? Yes, but in practice it’s most effectively done at a company level rather than an individual one.

A fast, high-performance mobile presence is key to staying competitive, even for small and medium businesses. Concepta’s experienced developers have created dynamic apps for everyone from educational companies to country singers. Set up your free consultation to find out what we can do for you!

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