What Is a Software Stack? Guide to Stacks in Programming

What Is a Software Stack? Guide to Stacks in Programming

This article looks at what a software stack does, why one component may be better for your project than another, and other important considerations when you’re choosing (or moving to) a stack.

What is a software stack?

Your software stack is a collection of technology components that will help you execute your particular application. Your stack can include components like database tools, coding frameworks, and client interface tools. These software bundles comprise your site’s back end. They work together and deploy together so a particular component can run. The software stack you build can help you run apps and will impact the user experience you create.

Software Stack Guide

Parts of a software stack

Applications have four tiers, three of which are on the server side. We will break down each of the four tiers and what they include.

  • The client tier. This is the only component in the browser.
  • The web tier. The web tier consists of the web server or the HTTP server.
  • The business tier. The business tier comprises the application server, including the development platform, frameworks, and server-side programming languages.
  • The database tier. The database tier comprises the database server you choose. This tier is often dependent on the business tier you choose.

The tiers each include several components. We will explore each of them.

  • Operating system. The operating system manages the memory and processes within your computer. The majority of the time, computers will use one of five main systems: macOS, Microsoft Windows, Linux, Apple iOS, and Android OS.
  • Server. Servers can be hardware or software and help with tasks like sharing data between different clients. You might have database servers, file servers, and web servers, for example. Depending upon the type of server you need, you will encounter a variety of popular options. InMotion works well for dedicated server hosting, for example, while Apache is a popular web server.
  • Database. Your databases let you create and maintain all the records used in your system. Popular databases used in stacks include MySQL, Oracle Database, and SQL Server.
  • Server-side scripting language. A server-side scripting language is often used to produce a customized interface for clients. This is opposed to client-side scripting, which has embedded scripts run in a web browser. The most popular server-side scripting languages include Node.js, Python, C#, PHP, and Java.

You’re not limited by the components in a stack—they’re interchangeable based on your needs and customizable for your project.

What to consider when choosing a software stack

Customize software stacks depending on your precise needs. This means that the bottom line when choosing a stack is thinking ahead. Asking yourself some key questions can help you pick the optimal components for your software stack. We will walk you through some key questions to consider.

What’s your minimum viable product (MVP), and how much do you see it growing?

Your MVP is the core set of deliverables you need to deploy your website; it describes the minimum capabilities your product must have for early customers to use it.

Look at the parameters you have in place for your website or web application MVP to guide you while choosing a stack. As you begin to receive feedback on your project from customers and how they react to different components in the user interface, you will make adjustments and work toward a key position in your market.

Knowing the size and scope of your project will also help you evaluate the complexity of the project. A more complex project, for example, will need a more thorough programming language compared to one that is simpler, which will also impact the stack you should use.

As you begin to evaluate your project, you also want to look at how the competition runs similar projects and how you can outpace them with functionality in your product and what your customers want to see. Note how you expect to scale your site or application, including vertical growth, and how your desired stack can manage this growth. Combine this scalability insight with the required functions and performance demanded of your product to guide your software stack selections.

For example, consider the comparison that you can make between Java and Node.js. Java includes a compiler to convert language code into machine code so computers can process it quickly. However, it requires writing more baseline code upfront in the project. Node.js allows developers to create more complexity with less code upfront, but it does not include a compiler. You will need an experienced developer to ensure the code is clean.

Weigh your preference for developer time versus runtime, as you will have to make up the speed you gain in development in runtime and vice versa. Determining how you want to scale your project can help you start to build your stack.

What database is best for your project?

You must evaluate a number of factors when considering which database will best fit your technology stack. How you structure your data will be central to choosing your stack. For example, if you opt to go with a NoSQL database, you must choose other components that are most compatible with that database format.

Consider your use case and priorities for the database. For example, if you need to develop a “Create, Read, Update, Delete” service, a system designed for relational database management, like PostgreSQL, will suffice. If your project stores IoT (internet of things) readings, consider some additional factors. Those with large amounts of data must turn to Apache, while those with time-series data might want InfluxDB. Other systems, like Guava Cache, can help enhance the amount of memory available.

Consider the type of use case you have for your database and the program that can help you run this type of application.

Keep long-term maintenance and security on your radar

You don’t want to overlook the importance of long-term maintenance and security on your project. You can always update parts of a stack with some reconfiguration, but a solid foundation provides tremendous efficiency. Longer code takes more time to process. Shorter, more concise code can sometimes be cryptic and harder to debug.

Different types of infrastructure will present different security challenges. For example, if you use cloud services, you must ensure you have enough data from the provider for your system to have proper monitoring. You might also need outside monitoring capabilities.

Many businesses also find that automated deployment models and dynamic testing can help them make sure their programs and systems remain fully updated and properly configured.

The complexities of modern cybersecurity call for those involved in designing your stack to also be involved in setting up your security. Therefore, gauging the cybersecurity options available with your stack and the processes that your internal team can manage should also play a role in the building of your stack.

What are your development team’s strengths?

Programming languages and frameworks are one part of a stack, but they tend to impart their “flavor” on the stack as a whole. If your team has considerable experience and comfort with PHP, for example, building a stack that is PHP-based can help your team operate more efficiently and get started on the project faster.

Popular stacks

As businesses build their tech stacks, we see some common configurations that fit together nicely and have become popular options for building applications. Here are some options to evaluate as you consider what should fit in your own stack.

LAMP: Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP


One of the earliest stacks to get traction is the LAMP stack, made up of free, open-source software components. These pieces work especially well for dynamic websites and applications. The LAMP stack includes the Linus operating system, the Apache web server, PHP application software, and MySQL database. It is the most traditional stack model and very solid. Note that PHP is interchangeable with the Python and Perl languages.

LAMP benefits:

  • Flexible
  • Customizable
  • Easy to develop and deploy
  • Secure
  • Comes with a huge support community since it is open-source
  • SQL databases work well for organizing massive amounts of structured data

Variations include:

  • WAMP (Windows/Apache/MySQL/PHP). This Microsoft Windows OS variation is all-inclusive and easy to use. The WIMP stack is similar but uses the IIS server.
  • LAPP (Linus/Apache/PostgreSQL/PHP). Optimized for enterprise-level projects, this variation incorporates PostgreSQL.
  • MAMP (macOS X/Apache/MySQL/PHP). This variation is available for Windows and Mac. It switches to a macOS X operating system.
  • XAMPP (Linux, macOS X, Windows/Apache/MySQL/PHP, Perl). This offers a more complete bundle with an FTP server. This server is cross-platform and can run on Linux, Windows, and Mac operating systems.

MEAN: MongoDB/Express.js/AngularJS/Node.js


MEAN is a more modern stack compared to the LAMP stack. It’s entirely JavaScript-powered, making it a time- and money-saver for companies that already have JavaScript pros writing client-side code.

MEAN includes the following:

  • The MongoDB database
  • The leading JSON-powered NoSQL database, which offers more flexibility than a relational SQL database
  • The AngularJS front-end framework
  • Express.js, a web framework for Node.js
  • A base platform of the Node.js runtime, instead of an operating system

Overall, it offers flexibility and lots of features for building single and multi-page web applications.

MEAN benefits:

  • Supports the MVC pattern
  • Uses NoSQL's native JSON for data transfer (using the document-based NoSQL databases, there is less time spent writing SQL and more flexibility with how data is structured)
  • Offers access to Node.js’s JavaScript module library
  • Open-source
  • Mobile-friendly with AngularJS flexibility
  • Can easily incorporate JS testing framework
  • Helps businesses be agile and scalable
  • Offers language uniformity (by using JavaScript across the front and back ends, developers working on the client side can understand the server-side code)

Variations include:

  • MEEN. This stack substitutes Ember.js for AngularJS.

Bitnami-Hosted stacks

Bitnami is a cloud-based library and hosting solution that supports a number of stacks, allowing you to deploy your application either on your own server or in the cloud. Download Bitnami packages with one click. Here is our recommendation for available infrastructure based on some of the most popular programming languages.

Ruby Stack: Ruby/Ruby on Rails/RVM (Ruby Virtual Machine)/MySQL/Apache/PHP


The Ruby Stack comes ready to run, with a complete development environment for Ruby on Rails. Its most popular “gems” make building applications fast and easy. Ruby is notably compatible with MySQL on the back end, and development is rapid.

Benefits include:

  • Good for simplifying challenging programming projects
  • Allows for good language portability, which can increase the speed of processing
  • Comes with an open-source library

Variations include:

  • JRuby. A version of the Ruby stack that is all in Java. Ruby runs on the Java Virtual Machine (JVM). It’s all about productivity for developers and heavy data applications.

FAQs about stacks

We encounter some common questions from people new to using stacks. We will address some FAQs to help you start your new project.

What is a single software stack?

A single software stack brings together all aspects of the platform from a single provider. Rather than integrating systems from multiple compatible providers, all the parts of a platform in a single software stack are managed by one provider. Some companies may find that this increases efficiency, while others dislike the reduced flexibility.

Why are software stacks important?

Your software stack is the technology you use to run your project. The choices you select to include in your software stack will influence important factors in your final project, such as your budget, what platforms your project will run on, and how the data is processed and stored.

For example, one stack may make it easier to offer real-time location handling or server-side rendering. Since your software stack will impact how your team builds your project and how you present features to clients, think carefully about the stack you want to put together for your project.

What is a full-stack framework?

Frameworks are designed to help developers create code for program applications faster than writing everything from scratch. A full-stack development framework offers certain types of pre-written code for particular processes, which developers can use to build their programs. There are a variety of libraries, or frameworks, that web developers will learn, such as AngularJS, Hibernate, and Spring Boot.

Software stack vs. server stack?

A server stack is one type of software stack, which can also be called a solution stack. A server stack includes elements like runtime environments, web services, and database software. It may also contain support for various programming languages.

Software stack vs. technology stack?

Your software stack will comprise mainly the software parts you will need to bring together to run an application. On the other hand, a technology stack includes both the software and hardware components. Your technology stack will be a compilation of tools, applications, and various services. For example, the software components will include items like MySQL or web browsers. On the other hand, the hardware includes items like RAM and your monitor.

Hire web developers or work as one

Web development is a critical component of running a business today. If you do not have experience building and employing IT stacks in your business, you can work directly with experienced, independent web developers who dedicate themselves exclusively to projects like yours.

Since these professionals build their entire careers around website and application development, they have the skills and expertise needed to help you achieve your goals. They can help you manage all the aspects of your software stack, from the programming elements used to build the back end to the HTML and CSS that will help you create an optimal interface for customers.

If you are an experienced web developer, you can build your own career by finding website development clients as an independent contractor. Upwork allows you to promote your portfolio, browse and bid on open jobs, and manage each of your projects. Building your career in full-stack development as an independent contractor has never been easier.

Upwork is the place to connect clients and full-stack web developers. Get started now and see what you can accomplish.

Upwork is not affiliated with and does not sponsor or endorse any of the tools or services discussed in this article. These tools and services are provided only as potential options, and each reader and company should take the time needed to adequately analyze and determine the tools or services that would best fit their specific needs and situation.


Projects related to this article:
No items found.

Author Spotlight

What Is a Software Stack? Guide to Stacks in Programming
The Upwork Team

Upwork is the world’s work marketplace that connects businesses with independent talent from across the globe. We serve everyone from one-person startups to large, Fortune 100 enterprises with a powerful, trust-driven platform that enables companies and talent to work together in new ways that unlock their potential.

Get This Article as a PDF

For easy printing, reading, and sharing.

Download PDF

Latest articles

X Icon