Updated on November 2, 2022
Frontend and backend are two of the most used terms in the computer industry; in a way, they became buzzwords. They dictate the type of job you do as a software developer, the technologies you use and how much you get paid.
So, let's talk about the differences between these two terms, why they exist in the first place and the different paths you can take in your software development career.
Frontend vs. backend: A matter of site rendering?
To begin this journey, we need to understand the concept of site rendering. In layman's terms, site rendering means generating or rendering HTML output. HTML is a markup language that web developers use to create web pages. It's said that site rendering can happen both at server-side or client-side level, so what does this mean? It's worth noting that frontend and client-side are synonyms. The same is true for backend and server-side.
Server-side rendering (Backend development)
Not until too long ago, server-side rendering, or back-end web development, was the de facto way to create websites and web applications. You visit a page, send a request for content, the server processes this request and creates a response that is sent back to your browser.
When a site renders server-side, all the processes involved in creating an HTML page that your web browser can understand are handled on a remote server hosting the website or web application. This includes querying databases for information and processing any logic that your web application requires.
While the remote server is busy at work, your web browser is idle, waiting for the server to finish processing the request and sending a response. When the response is received, web browsers interpret it and display the content on the screen.
Client-side rendering (Frontend development)
In more modern days, a new form of site rendering emerged called client-side rendering or front-end development.
To complicate things even further, there is yet another form of rendering called pre-rendering that renders content at compile time.
Where to render a site is a decision that is often based on the type of application and application demographics and will vary from team to team and business to business.
What is a front-end developer?
Now that we understand the different types of site rendering methods, it's easier to understand that front-end development is the art of creating sites and web applications that render on the client-side.
Technologies used by front-end developers
Not everything happens on the frontend, though. Client-side rendered applications still rely on services and APIs that run on back-end remote servers or the cloud.
What are some jobs for front-end developers?
User interface (UI) designer:This is basically a visual designer and is generally focused on design. They're not usually involved in the implementation of the design, but they might know light HTML and CSS so they can communicate their ideas more effectively to the front-end developers.
User experience (UX) designers:UX designers work in the frontend, studying and researching how people use the sites. Then, they make changes through a lot of testing.
What is a back-end developer?
While front-end development is about making sites and web applications render on the client-side, back-end development is all about making these apps render server-side. But it's a bit more involved than that. While the previous statement holds true, back-end developers also create services that process business logic and access other resources such as databases, file servers, cloud services and more. These services are the backbone of any application and can be accessed and used not only by server-side rendering apps but also from client-side rendering apps.
Technologies used by back-end developers
Back-end developers also work with software stacks that include operating systems, web servers, frameworks, languages, programming APIs and more. The frameworks, languages and programming APIs in these stacks are used to render server-side sites and web applications and to create services that other applications can consume.
What is a full-stack developer?
As a developer, you don't have to settle for just frontend or backend; you can do both as a full-stack developer. This is, in my experience, where the fun begins. Full-stack developers can create sites and web applications that render both on the client-side (frontend) and the server-side (backend).
They also create services, components and APIs that encapsulate business logic, solve specific business problems and access infrastructure such as databases, file servers, cloud services and more. They work with the full stack and it's the best of both worlds.
Reflections on Frontend and Backend Developers
By now, the difference between the frontend and backend should be more evident, as well as the different activities carried by developers that work on both ends of the wire. In practical terms, the frontend means the browser and the backend, the server or, more recently, the cloud.
If you like user interfaces, are keen on sound design and like the visual aspects of creating apps, then perhaps you would be most interested in becoming a front end software developer. The frontend is exciting not only visually, but also from a programming standpoint; you will spend endless hours writing logic that will make your site look and behave the way the designers intended.
If you like to spend your time solving business problems, writing algorithms, working in the cloud, and creating services and APIs, then backend development is for you.
If you enjoy both and feel equally excited and comfortable with all aspects of web application creation, then a career as a full-stack developer is what you want.
Whatever path you choose, there has never been a better time to be a software developer.