A tale about how the separation started and why it’s going away now.
If you’re close to web development, you must have heard of the distinction between front-end and back-end roles. However, as time passes, the line between them has started to blur, and the divide is closing. This story tells how the separation started and why it’s going away.
Before the web was born, programming was just programming. Developers wrote code to render UI on screens, manipulate files on disks, and communicate with other computers on local networks. If they needed to do something new, they’d learn it and do it. There was no distinction of roles, and programmers were generalists.
Even at the time when dynamic websites started to appear, developers used the old “C” language to write server code (called CGI) to spit dynamic HTML content to the web browsers directly:
Then things started to go wild.
The boom of the internet caused two unexpected consequences to software developers:
#1 Loss of a definite boundary
Instead of serving a relatively fixed group of users whom you can trust, like traditional enterprise or personal software, a web application is open to the global population. You can’t anticipate how many people will use it, how much data will be stored, and how malicious people in the wild will attack it. As a result, server-side programming has become a lot more complex and stressful than before.
#2 Usability over functionality
Features are the currency for traditional software; however, for web applications, you must compete on usability. What can be done has been done, likely many times. There are more than enough players in every niche, and features offered by different brands are more or less on par. Eventually, those products with clever designs and intuitive user experiences win. UI is no more a shallow layer for exposing product features. It is the product.
These consequences resulted in two centers of mass in web development:
- A backend (server-side program) that needs to be secure, reliable, scalable, and cost-effective
- A frontend (browser-side program) that needs to be fast, fluid, and easy to understand
As with many other cases in human history, specialization increases efficiency, at least to some extent. Each role has less to worry about and can focus on just doing one thing well. But it also brought several apparent drawbacks:
- It became more costly to build an online startup. Both front-end and back-end developers are expensive; unfortunately, they’re usually not exchangeable or easily convertible.
- It’s hard to get back-end developers to be “customer focusing” because they’re already occupied by worrying about servers instead of payers. It causes cultural problems.
- Team boundary creates room for finger-pointing, bringing more cultural problems.
The line between the front-end and back-end has started to blur.
Even with Node.js, becoming a generalist (aka, full-stack developer) is still difficult because language is only one of the barriers: database, security, distributed design, big data — each one of these is a deep domain that takes years of experience to perfect.
The good news is innovative people are putting efforts into further fixing the gap:
Front-end frameworks are becoming more backend-ish
Server-side complexities are being abstracted away
Server-side programming has its own nasty intricacies. Fortunately, new generation startups are building solutions to ease the pain. For instance, user authentication and authorization are notoriously hard to implement correctly, and Auth0 is dedicated to hiding the complexity by offering a set of plug-and-play APIs. So instead of thinking of technical details, you can now focus on high-level workflows. There’re more examples of such trends in other domains, like payment systems, CMS, e-commerce, etc.
The two forces are jointly breaking down the wall between the front-end and back-end by pushing front-end developers more towards the other side. In the future, the web development paradigm will be front-end centric: a symphony of APIs under the hood of user experiences.
And you know what? When the boundary of roles is torn down, the cultural problems will disappear.