Back-end vs. Front-end Programming Explained

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Programming and web development are often divided into “back-end” vs. “front-end” development. This is because most software is divided between the data/information being used or sorted and the interface that a person is using to interact with this data. This “separation of concerns” is actually a codified software design pattern and best practice for building maintainable systems.

Back-end programming typically refers to writing code for things like servers and databases. Front-end programming refers to building intuitive, attractive, and easy to use interfaces for people to click on, type into, and mouse around on.

A familiar example of this would be liking a Facebook post. The front-end would deal with making the like button look good and respond to mouse clicks or touches. The back-end would deal with correctly storing and retrieving who liked the post from the database. When you click (or touch) the like button, the front-end sends your ‘like’ across the Internet as JSON (a data format) to a REST Web service (a type of backend interface), which then process the ‘like’ and stores it into a database.

Front-end Programming and Related Technologies


HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) are the core technologies of most web pages. HTML gives a webpage its structure and determines the location and order of text, images, and other elements. CSS gives a web page its appearance or styling. CSS controls things like color, font-size, width/height, and margins/padding. You can think of HTML as the interior structure of a house (the 2×4 wood, the drywall, etc.) and you can think of CSS as the interior (and exterior) design of the house. In the web world, if you want to change the color of your house, you don’t need a new interior structure (HTML), you just need new paint (CSS).

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JavaScript is used to make web pages interactive. Things like forms, animations, and anything to do with data is handled by JavaScript embedded in a webpage. This includes things like creating accounts and signing in, saving preferences, or posting messages. JavaScript has been around for 20 years, but only within the last 5 years have its capabilities and adoption exploded. Today, it is one of the fastest growing areas within the programming landscape.

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jQuery is a JavaScript library. jQuery is really good at handling “events” on a webpage like when someone clicks or moves their mouse. jQuery is also good at finding a small part of a webpage and making very specific changes to that part.

Going back to the house analogy, if JavaScript represents the tool bag containing the tools to build a house, jQuery is one of the tools to simplify building the house. Instead of building each wall individually by assembling 2x4s, jQuery allows you to build a house with pre-built walls. This is a faster, easier, and more consistent way to build a house.

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Angular is a JavaScript framework that will handle common web development tasks like routing, http request, promises, testing, events, and animations.

AngularJS, like jQuery, is another tool in the JavaScript tool bag. Like jQuery, AngularJS makes building a house faster. Unlike jQuery, which has components (pre-built walls), Angular provides the architectural pieces (like plumbing) needed to quickly build walls. Angular was started by Google and is an open-source JS (JavaScript) framework. Angular 2 was recently announced and represents an entire rewrite (remodel) of Angular 1. It is the fastest growing JS framework at the moment.

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React is a JavaScript library focused on building what people see and interact with in a web or mobile application (aka ‘the view’). React was created by Facebook and is used to create Facebook messenger and Instagram. React exists because building data-driven applications is hard business. When billions of users are clicking on billions of ‘like’ buttons, this is hard to keep organized and up to date. React simplifies things like this for developers.

Like jQuery and Angular, React is another tool in the JavaScript tool belt. Some engineers would argue React is the best tool ever produced in the JavaScript tool belt, due to its robustness, simplicity, and elegance. (Think moving from screwdriver to power drill). It is the second fastest growing JS framework at the moment, and will likely be the number one JS library within 12 months.

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Back-end programming and related technologies


Java is a programming language that powers all kinds of systems. Java is commonly used to power enterprise software for things like HR, banking, and inventory tracking. Java also powers Android, which is used in over 1.4 billion smartphones. Java might not be as hot as it once was (JavaScript has eaten some of it’s web marketshare) but it’s not going anywhere. Programming popularity indices like TIOBE rank Java as the #1 most popular programming language in 2016. Common products written in Java you interact with everyday include: Amazon’s website and Kindle, airline reservation and ticketing system (all major airlines use Java to manage ticketing and reservations), and most banking systems (including web access to your own checking account) are written in Java.

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PHP is a “server-side scripting language”. It is widely used by both WordPress and Facebook, which collectively power a significant percentage of the web. PHP is commonly embedded into HTML, in order to make websites interactive and data driven. It is the second most popular back-end web language (after Java).

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Python is a general purpose programming language used for a wide array of applications. Python is used for building hardware projects on the Raspberry Pi, analyzing large datasets, scientific computing, 3-D modeling, and web application development. Python has been expanding as a programming language both within corporations and universities. This is partially due to its simplicity to learn, partially due to its strong support in the math and scientific communities, and partially due to its power in automating system administration and configuration management tasks.

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.NET is Microsoft’s solution to Oracle’s Java technology. It is both a back-end technology and a desktop technology. The desktop portion of .NET allows people to easy and quickly create Windows applications like Word, Excel, and Outlook. The web technology allows people to create robust dynamic back-end web applications. .NET is comprised of many different programming languages including: Visual Basic (VB), C++, C#, and ASP.NET.

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Ruby is a popular programming language within the startup world. Known for it’s simplicity, easy of use, and ability to quickly create web applications, Ruby was the fastest growing programming language a few years ago and was popularized by companies like 37Signals and Twitter. While Ruby (and its support Rails framework) are still popular today, most startups and new back-end development is being done in NodeJs.

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NodeJS is a back-end technology that allows a front-end focused programming language (JavaScript) to effectively and efficiently run on the back-end. Historically, in order to create a robust web application, a programmer had to know HTML, CSS, JavaScript and a back-end technology (like Java or PHP). By enabling JavaScript to run on the back-end, it simplifies the number of tools a developer needs to know to be successful. In programming terms, it simplifies the development stack. This is a game changer for the web development world, and we predict Node.js will continue to outpace both Ruby and PHP in coming years.

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Blurring the lines

There used to be a fairly clear separation of back-end and front-end development. But it’s gotten a lot blurrier as of late with the rise of the full-stack developer. Full-stack developers can code the front and back-end. A full-stack developer might spend one minute setting up a server and routing and another designing a page layout. They’ll likely need to know one of the back-end languages above paired with the ability to proficiently use HTML/CSS and JavaScript to design a user interface. Using Indeed job trends, you can see the increasing use of “full-stack” in job listings.

Indeed job trends shouldn’t be taken as a science but they can give some sense of where the industry is going. More developers are learning both sides of the stack and more companies are looking for them. The major caveat to this, of course, is that with a great breadth of knowledge usually comes less depth. There’s only so much of the ever-change programming landscape that most developers can know.

Thankfully, we can offer both breadth and depth (or combination thereof!) with our training on most major programming languages, frameworks, and libraries. If your team needs help learning any of the technologies listed above (or many others), please contact us.