If you’re not a developer or engineer, concepts like front-end vs. back-end development can be challenging to wrap your head around.
The good news? You don’t have to write code to understand the basics of back-end development and the various components of a typical “software stack.” In fact, knowing your way around is helpful whether you’re a CEO, a hiring manager, a salesperson for a tech-based startup, or a product manager.
What is Back-End development?
Back-end development refers to the development of server-side logic that powers websites and apps from behind the scenes. It includes all the code needed to build out the database, server, and application. From database migrations to API integrations to setting up the server-side technologies that make a website tick, a back-end web developer may be the talent you need to get your next web project off the ground.
Front-end vs back-end development
To understand the back end, or the “server side,” you also have to know the front end and how the two interact. The front end, also called “client-side” programming, is what happens in the browser—everything the end users see and interact with. The back end, on the other hand, happens on the server (on site, or in the cloud) and databases. It’s the machinery that works behind the scenes—everything the end user doesn’t see or directly interact with, but that powers what’s happening.
The “traditional” back end is a mix of the server, databases, APIs, and operating systems that power an app’s front end. The back end of applications can look very different from application to application, whether it’s the use of cloud-based servers and data warehouses, containerization with a service like Docker, Backend-as-a-Service (BaaS) providers, or APIs to replace more complex processing.
Types of back-end languages
Back-end languages will differ in file size, performance, compatibility, how many lines of code required, and the style of programming. Some back-end scripting languages are object-oriented programming languages, a style of programming that bundles attributes and functions within objects. Other languages may be compiled rather than interpreted, something that affects load time, readability, and processing power required to run the application.
Let’s take a look at the different types of back-end programming languages.
C++ combines all the features of C with object-oriented programming features such as classes. As a low-level programming language it is used to communicate efficiently with system hardware for better performance. This makes it ideal for video games, large web applications, and other use-cases where system-level performance is a premium.
C# is the language of choice for Windows servers and environments. If your technology stack is based off of Microsoft products such as ASP.NET, chances are high C# will be the most productive choice for your developers.
Java is a general purpose object-oriented programming language that was designed with cross-platform compatibility in mind. Any machine running an installation of the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) can execute Java programs.
PHP is the most popular back-end language for the web. PHP has a low learning curve and the benefit of a massive codebase and long history of open-source developer community support for using PHP on the back end of websites. If you’ve ever set up a personal website with WordPress, PHP was powering the back end from behind the scenes.
Python is a general purpose programming language that boasts an impressive library for data processing. For back-end development, Python brings the advantage of programmer productivity through its simple syntax and short code length.
Developed by Larry Wall in the 1990s, Perl is a general purpose programming language that’s popular in the Linux and Unix world. Perl’s strengths lie in text manipulation and log management. It’s great for writing short automation scripts on the fly.
Scala is a general purpose programming language that supports both functional and object-oriented programming paradigms. Because Scala is based on Java, it is still powered by the JVM and compatible with Java.
Developed in the mid-1990s by Yukihiro “Matz” Matsumoto, Ruby is a dynamically-typed general-purpose programming language that’s known for programmer productivity. It supports procedural, functional, and object-oriented programming paradigms and is known for its ability to incorporate metaprogramming into apps (code that can change while it's running).
Back-end tools & technology
To simplify things, we’ll break the server side down into four main components of a “software stack”: the server, the database, the operating system, and the software.
Here’s some more information about each of these components of the backend.
Of your back-end stack’s four components, whether it’s on-site or in the cloud, the server acts as the lifeblood of the network. These high-powered computers provide shared resources that networks need to run, including file storage, security and encryption, databases, email, and web services. Once you’ve gotten the basics down about on-site servers, expand your knowledge with a look at virtualization, how servers get provisioned to house multiple apps, and containerization, another way servers provision their operating systems out to house compartmentalized applications.
Databases, in the context of a website, are the brains that make websites dynamic. Any time you request something from a website—whether you’re searching for a product in an online store or searching for hotel locations within a specific state—the database is responsible for accepting that query, fetching the data, and returning it to the website. Databases can also accept new and edited data when users of a website or application interact with them. The client can change information in a database from the browser, whether a user is posting articles to a CMS, uploading photos to a social media profile, or updating their customer information.
Middleware essentially describes any software on the server that connects an application’s front end to its back end. Think of middleware as plumbing for your site—it pipes any communication, like requests and responses, back and forth between your application and your server/database. Just like plumbing in a house, you don’t see middleware, but it’s there and it has to be reliable and always do what’s expected of it.
Middleware (server-side software) facilitates client-server connectivity, forming a middle layer between the app(s) and the network: the server, the database, the operating system, and more. Middleware can be multi-layered, organized into different layers of a site, whether it’s the presentation layer or the business layer. This is also where Web APIs can play into the stack, providing a bridge between the business layer and presentation layer.
You can’t talk about the back-end portion of an application these days without touching on APIs (application programming interfaces) and how they connect software, applications, databases, and services together seamlessly. APIs play an integral role in how most server-side software architectures are built, oftentimes replacing more complicated programming to allow software to communicate and data to be transferred.