A Beginner's Guide to Back-End Development

A Beginner's Guide to Back-End Development

If you’re not a developer or engineer, concepts like front-end vs. back-end development can be challenging to wrap your head around. Pile on all of the frameworks, programming languages, APIs, and libraries that developers use to build apps, and things can get pretty confusing.

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 it is helpful whether you’re a CEO, a hiring manager, a salesperson for a tech-based startup, or a product manager.

To help you become a pro in all things back-end development, we’ve gathered up a series of articles that cover some key things to know—in a way non-developers can understand. You’ll not only know what server-side scripting is and what back-end engineers do, you’ll learn the pros of the different programming languages, how the cloud is changing things up, why APIs are so important, and how to make decisions about what frameworks are best for your app.

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.

It’s important to note that this convenient way of divvying up development has changed significantly over the past 10 to 15 years with the explosive growth of JavaScript, which wasn’t as ubiquitous on the front end as it is now, or as common on the back end, thanks to Node.js. There’s more overlap between the two, especially when it comes to a JavaScript developer’s role on a fully JavaScript-powered stack.

Here’s a visual to give you an idea of how front-end and back-end development flow.

Front End Developer

You can see how the server-side (in the green box) manages all those requests that come from users’ clicks. Front-end scripts volley those requests over to the server side to be processed, returning the appropriate data to the front end. This often happens in a constant loop of requests and responses to the server.

Now, let’s take a look at how back-end architecture works—the software and machinery that take over in step four in the above graphic.

Back end development


The “traditional” back end is a mix of the server, databases, APIs, and operating systems that power an app’s front end. For an in-depth look at the software that ties it all together, read our article on Server-Side Scripting. 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++

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#

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

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.

JavaScript (Node.js)

While traditionally considered a front-end scripting language, the introduction of Node.js showed the world that this general-purpose object-oriented programming language could also be used on the server-side of applications. As one of the core technologies of the web, JavaScript is now a popular choice for front-end and back-end web development.

PHP

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

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.

Perl

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

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.

Ruby

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

Back-end development can be much more varied than front-end development, which is largely driven by JavaScript, HTML, CSS, and various front-end frameworks using these languages.

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.

1. Servers

How Servers Work

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.

2. Databases

Relational Databases

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.

In this quick Guide to Modern Database Technology, you’ll get an understanding of how databases work, common terms to know, a look at SQL vs. NoSQL, and how to determine which database is best for your web application.

3. Middleware

What is Middleware

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.

Middleware also lets cloud applications and on-premise applications “talk,” and provides services like data integration and error handling. Good middleware can also maximize IT efficiency and power things like user engagement, business process management, content management, authentication, and more. Koa.js is an example of a server-side JavaScript framework.

Next, we’ll talk about some of the programming languages and frameworks used to build different types of middleware, APIs, and server-side software.

4. APIs

APIs

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.

To help explain the power of APIs, Upwork wrote the free ebook “The API Economy” that covers all you need to know to get started with APIs. Download it for free.

Common skills needed for back end development

Now that you know what back-end development involves, let’s distill these concepts into a list of skills a back-end developer should possess.

  • Basic understanding of front-end technologies HTML, JavaScript, and CSS
  • Working knowledge of back-end development (configuration, administration and management of databases and servers)
  • Server-side languages (e.g., PHP, C#, Java)
  • Database technologies (e.g., MySQL and SQL)
  • Security and authentication best practices
  • Experience writing RESTful APIs

Common back-end development jobs

Back-end development is an umbrella term that refers to the server-side of any application (not just websites). The fundamentals of understanding how to build the back-end of an application can thus be applied to a number of different professions. Let’s took at the most common back-end development roles:

  • Back-end web developers: The most common job for back-end developers is to build the back end of a website. They are responsible for building and maintaining the database, server, and business logic behind a website.
  • Full-stack developers: Full-stack developers have a working knowledge of both the front-end and back-end of a technology stack. On small projects they may be the sole developer building a minimum viable product. On larger projects they are team leaders assisting with integration between the front and back end of an app.
  • Java developers: From websites to desktop applications, back-end developers who specialize in Java are in high-demand in the enterprise app industry.
  • Software developers: Depending on the job description, this could be another Java developer job or any of the other languages we listed above. Software development roles usually refer to non-website applications such as desktop apps.

Hiring a back-end developer

You may know you need some back-end development and engineering, but may not know what goes into your project or which experts you’ll need to get it done. When it comes time to find that top-notch back-end developer, we’ve put together a few more resources for you.

If you have settled on a stack or technology, Upwork’s Hiring Guides have articles to help you find, hire, budget for, and write job descriptions for a variety of developers like PHP developers, SQL developers, C# developers, and .NET developers.

Once you’ve created your job post, kick off your search for top talent to invite to your project. Upwork has smart filters that let you drill down into the skills and categories you need. Or, search reviews of engineering and architecture professionals and filter for ratings and location. These reliable, first-hand reviews help connect you to talent who have had success with projects like yours.

Author Spotlight

A Beginner's Guide to Back-End Development
Yoshitaka Shiotsu
Technical Copywriter & SEO Consultant

Yoshitaka Shiotsu is a project engineer turned technical copywriter and SEO consultant who regularly contributes to the Upwork Resource Center. He specializes in helping tech companies, startups, and entrepreneurs set themselves up as voices of authority within their target industries.

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