Stephen Smith's Blog

Musings on Machine Learning…

Competing Web Development Systems

with 5 comments


The pace of development of Web based applications has been frenetic. The pace of development of tools to program the Web is also frenetic. There are new programming languages, libraries, servers and systems announced daily. Whatever happened to the good old days where you got a new version of Visual Studio and an updated C compiler every three years or so? In this blog posting, I want to look at the problems that people are trying to solve and the innovations they are trying to introduce to address them.

One nice thing about working at Sage is that we have so many products; someone will be using one of the systems mentioned in this article. For instance SageOne and Sage Billing Boss are written in Ruby on Rails. Sage 300 ERP and SageCRM use GWT extensively. Other products use JQuery and Node.JS. Several of the mobile offerings were produced with JQuery Mobile. So within Sage we have some opportunity to compare these on real non-trivial projects.

The Perfect Programming System

The real goal of all this is delivering real value to customers (end users). All other goals are in support of this. Nearly everyone is adopting some sort of Agile development process centered around delivering value (or even delights) to their customers. Once you are delivering customer value, then the next question is always: how to do that faster? Everyone are looking for a software development toolset that delivers customer delights and improves productivity.

That’s the high level goal, but what are the more detailed goals:

  • Quick to enter changes, ideally just edit some code, save it and refresh the browser to see the results.
  • Easy to test. Meaning there are good ways to write unit tests that can run quickly every build. That the system promotes test driven development.
  • Easy to maintain. The system produces readable code that is easy for another programmer to figure out and change.
  • Little impedance between problem domain and language. When thinking about what you want to do, it isn’t a huge change of perspective to write the code; somehow the code reflects what you want to do naturally.
  • Easy to learn. You don’t need to know 3 programming languages, 5 scripting languages and 27 runtime libraries all of which interact in a complicated way to get up and running.
  • Large ecosystem – lots of tools and libraries to save you work.
  • Produces correct code. You don’t have to worry about unexpected syntax errors or other strange unexpected runtime errors that testing might have missed. By the same token you don’t have to spend a lot of time testing for and removing these sorts of things.
  • Easy to install and setup. It’s easy for programmers to setup the development environment and get up and running quickly.
  • Easy to deploy. It’s easy to transfer changes from the development environment to a live environment.
  • Ability to integrate with (consume) modules that are part of legacy systems.
  • The generated code is very small, fast and scalable.
  • Great development tools for debugging, code analysis, etc.

In life, there are many tradeoffs to make. The same in programming. You might want three things, but you can only have two. Which do you pick? Which do other people pick? Usually with a large set of goals, some practical tradeoffs need to be made. Usually there will be a lot of disagreement in a group of people as to which goals are the most important and which ones can be lived without. Often the group will break up into different camps each with the conviction they have made the correct choice and theirs is the correct way to do things. So too with programming and hence all the different camps of web developers. Here we’ll look at a number of the camps and the tradeoffs they are making. Obviously I have my own opinions and preferences and the members of these various camps will probably disagree with my assessments.

For instance would you want to sacrifice several of the items for scalability? Everyone would like to be as popular as Facebook, but if you are a new web site, then perhaps it’s better to go live quicker to get feedback rather than spend the extra time engineering scalability. Often it’s more important to get feedback quicker so you can adapt your plans rather than over-engineer and be slower to market and slower to react. This fits in with the “fail fast” methodology of innovation where you are trying lots of things to see what works, you want them live as fast as possible to see what is good. Then you can take the good ideas and engineer them for the projected growth once you know what that will be.

Client Side Programming

As a Web developer you are targeting being able to run inside of Browsers. Here you can rely on HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Nothing else is common and nothing else will run on a large enough selection of Browsers and devices. If you don’t care about rich interaction or looks, you can just write using HTML and server side code, but this is Web 1.0 and probably won’t be very popular with your customers. There are good layout tools, or just text editors for writing HTML whether it’s static or generated by a server program. For CSS the tools aren’t as good, but there is help from libraries like CSSPie or Sass. Then for JavaScript, you can either write directly in JavaScript or use something that compiles another language into JavaScript; the merits of either approach are fiercely debated. Of course when writing in JavaScript you can use libraries like JQuery to hide the complexities and provide a lot of missing support.

Server Side Programming

You control the server and you control what runs on it, so you can theoretically use any programming language that can receive HTTP requests via a network socket. But usually you want something that integrates with a Web Server like IIS or Apache. There are good server frameworks to create the server programs in Java, .Net, C or any of a thousand scripting languages. Nearly every programming language has been adapted to write Web server applications with, even COBOL.

Client and Server Together

Although it is possible to program the Browser and the Web Server completely separately and independently. Perhaps only communicating through a well defined RESTful Web Services protocol. Usually we would like to leverage the skills of one to help with the other. We would also like a unified debugging and problem solving system. We would also like to reduce the number of specialized tools that people need to learn. Wouldn’t it be nice if the separation between client and server is largely transparent to the programmer? How well the client and server environments are harmonized is often a critical deciding factor in decision making.

Some Leading Development Platforms/Libraries

JQuery is a leading framework for developing using raw JavaScript. The innovation with JQuery was separating the JavaScript code out from the HTML that it controls. It uses a method to interact with the HTML very similar to CSS. The Query part of JQuery refers to how you build queries to specify which DOM objects to operate on, rather than having the JavaScript attached to each DOM object directly. JQuery has a powerful extension framework allowing many powerful libraries to be added to JQuery like SproutCore. A key goal of JQuery is to separate the JavaScript code from the HTML and then to insulate the JavaScript programmer from many of the Browser dependent parts of JavaScript like making AJAX RPC calls. The difficult part of JQuery is how it interacts with the DOM, although very powerful is quite complex and tricky. JQuery by itself is a client framework, but it integrates to pretty much any server framework. In fact Microsoft has given up on running .Net in the Browser and is now promoting using JavaScript with JQuery communicating back to .Net running on the server.

Node.js is a JavaScript server framework. For people who love JavaScript and JQuery, it then kills them to have to program the server in something else like Java, .Net, PHP or Ruby. They love JavaScript and would like to do all their work in JavaScript. With the Chrome Browser, Google introduced the incredibly powerful V8 JavaScript engine. Node.JS then uses the Chrome V8 engine to run JavaScript on the server. Additionally the Node.js developers consider using a thread to execute each web request as too much overhead (nearly every other server framework uses threads). So they also brought all the asynchronous ideas associated with JavaScript from the Browser to the Server. So anything that is executed outside of Node.js is done purely asynchronously, such as calls to the database, operating system or such. This is very powerful and very low overhead for highly scalable systems. However it is fairly difficult to program with (according to me, not Node.js fans). To help tame the asynchronous problem, Bruno Jouhier, an Architect at Sage developed streamline.js which he talked about here.

Ruby on Rails is a server framework for developing the server side of things in the Ruby scripting language. In a way Ruby on Rails is a contradiction, since it is a framework that was developed to eliminate frameworks. Many people feel that frameworks and libraries just get in the way. Why do you need all these middleware components to connect things up? Why can’t the UI just access things in the database directly without a lot of messing around with intervening layers? Ruby on Rails implements web screens using a strict MVC model, where Ruby helps generate the Model part directly on SQL database tables, so the Model part is your business logic. After all why would you need anything else? Ruby on Rails is a server framework similar to ASP or JSP, but people want AJAX web applications, so you write any richer or interactive parts of your web pages in JavaScript with JQuery that then talks back to the Ruby components on the server.

Google Web Toolkit (GWT) is a framework where you program in Java which is then compiled to JavaScript for the Browser half of the application. The server side is programmed in Java which runs as a Java Servlet under a Java container like Tomcat or Jetty. The nice thing is that you do all your programming in Java so you are only using one language. You also get to use all the thousands of tools and libraries that have been created for Java over the years. Since it’s a compiled language, you will not get runtime errors due to typo’s in your code like you do for scripting languages (some just ignore the errors which is even more confusing). On the downside you have to compile your code, so you can’t run it as quickly as you can with a scripting language. I’m not really sure which is faster, since when I use scripting languages I’m always fixing undefined variables and syntax errors, so although I can run quickly, I have to run many times to get things working. GWT also lets you use the Java symbolic debugger to debug your code which is very helpful.

Dart is a new project from Google that attempts to combine the best of the worlds of JavaScript/JQuery/Node.JS with Java/GWT. The idea is that Dart is a structured object oriented language (like Java) but you can choose whether variables need to be defined and adds a number of dynamic features usually only seen in scripting languages. Then the idea is that Dart can be run in some Browsers natively, allowing scripting type rapid development and for Browsers that don’t support it (like probably IE), you compile Dart to JavaScript. Dart isn’t ready for primetime yet, and it isn’t clear whether it will succeed, but it does show that the pace of development of these tools and systems is continuing at a rapid pace. Some theorize that the real intent of Dart is to replace Java as the tool used to develop Android applications, mainly due to all the frivolous lawsuits from Oracle.

Which to Choose?

The choice comes down to which items are most important to you in the list of what makes a perfect programming system. Which one gives you the best vibes, or feels right for what you want to do. Often this is heavily influenced by your current experience; what technologies are you most fluent in already; which new ones will you need to learn. This usually goes beyond a single person and you have to consider the expertise and experience of your development team.

A big influencer is whether you are writing a new system completely from scratch or you have to extend or integrate to a large existing system. If you need to extend or integrate then often your choices are limited to things that can easily do that. If you are writing a new system then you are much free’er to choose. For the new system, often it depends how much you want to rapidly prototype, versus how much the requirements are set and you want to implement quickly.

You also have to consider the longevity of the tools you are choosing. Perhaps you don’t care since you just want to rapidly prototype and start from scratch every few months. Or perhaps you know the system you are developing will need to be maintained and extended for the next ten or twenty years. Then you have to look carefully at the health of the open source community around the tool, or the commitment of the company behind the product to keep developing it.


There are many more systems in use. As I mentioned, nearly every programming language ever invented has a Web Development framework. People fuss quite a bit about which one to use, but I think once you bite the bullet and dive in, you can’t go that wrong with any of these. Also most of these can interact and interoperate at different levels, so usually you can build a composite system using many different tools (you just have to learn them all). Anyway the Web continues to be a platform that promotes innovation and fosters continuing learning.

5 Responses

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  1. Great post Stephen – well written and some great, useful information here. Thanks for putting this out there!

    Peter Wolf

    November 27, 2011 at 2:47 am

  2. Fantastic article. So true any language is just the means to to the end. I liked the camps comparison.

    Brandon Donnelson

    November 28, 2011 at 4:49 am

  3. Thanks for this Stephen. I’m just preparing now to experiment with node.js.

    Tip: if I was going to make a Javascript application (as opposed to using Javascript to simply animate HTML) I’d look at CoffeeScript: it enhances, simplifies, and compiles to Javascript while being very compatible with JQuery.


    November 30, 2011 at 6:31 pm

  4. Stephen, qik question on the perfect programming language.

    Automatically incorporate local storage sync to enable state-full complex business forms without latency or programmer complexity: Similar pattern as mobile apps on Android / iOS. I’m scratching my head why doesn’t .NET / Ruby automatically extend this support to web application business developers.

    boulton clive

    October 4, 2014 at 8:55 pm

    • Don’t know for sure. But I get the impression they spend way too much time supporting old versions of browsers. I would rather they moved ahead quicker and didn’t worry so much about make sure everything works on really old versions of IE.


      October 6, 2014 at 4:20 pm

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