Web development has become weird
Call me old-fashioned, call me a curmudgeon, but I think web development has become stupid and superficial. The unending quest towards single-page apps (SPAs) has made web development extremely painful and the current trend is diverging towards seven different directions at once. On one end, we have rich SPAs that can be built as native applications, on the other we have something completely orthogonal, of which a schism is beginning to form.
The underlying problem is unfortunately that the web is being misused as an application container instead of the original text transport protocol it was made to be. It’s no use crying over spilled milk; the web has been subverted, transformed, improved upon, so much so we don’t know what the original even looked like.
How it was
In 2006, the hot new thing was Ruby on Rails or Django. If you weren’t using them, odds were you were using PHP or ASP.NET. Most intranet software ran on SharePoint or, I kid you not, WordPress. Users didn’t really care either way.
People liked Rails and Django because they made web development stupidly simple. No more SQL, just create your models and migrations. An architecture that made sense, MVC, was applied, and web apps became a little bit better. Meanwhile, the overall web development experience got a lot better.
Where it all began
On the surface, the appeal in SPAs was obvious. It started with Gmail and AJAX. No more slow page loads, the applications behaved like native applications, and soon they even looked like them! Innovative as that was, now we’re beginning to use so many web applications that are in the web only that we’re slowly starting to forget what the native app experience was.
So while the backend folks built eleventy versions of Sinatra, the front-end folks got busy. In a short time we had Backbone, Angular, and Knockout, then we got frameworks like Durandal and Meteor.js. Finally, Facebook looked at the performance of desktop applications, then looked at the performance of web applications, thought, “holy shit”, and did something about it.
The only problem was, React was a templating engine at heart. Facebook did not build a bridge for existing front-end frameworks, so that people could have just dropped in React instead of say, Handlebars or even ERB. Facebook did not do this because they already had their own way of rendering content. They didn’t need one. Build your own, they said.
Faced with just a templating engine, developers got confused. “How do I do routes with this?” they asked. So we built routing engines and state containers, and got on with our lives. Soon after that, someone understood React ran quite fine on a Node.js server, and people started rendering pages in two places: the backend and the front-end.
Having to stay on top of things is, generally, a good thing. Software progresses, it progresses so fast that we must constantly learn for us to stay employable and the profession to stay enjoyable. But at this speed, when it seems we’re not really learning from the past, it’s not doing anyone any good. React took a good idea from desktop applications, event-driven user interface rendering, and executed it brilliantly as they ported it to the web.
That’s what they call the churn.
The churn. New technologies come and they kill the old technologies, but in the midst of it all, stand you and I, wondering what the hell to do with this mess. From the other side of it all, from the ivory tower of the real world, the business analysts cast their shadow and remind us these technologies are tools, they’re meant to be replaced, they’re disposable. So are we, if we can’t learn new ones, they remind keep reminding us.
I make it sound as if web development is impossible, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Browsers are getting better and faster. Our applications are prettier, faster, more accessible, more usable. The web is replacing desktop applications and this trend is accelerating – whether this is a good or bad thing, I don’t know.
The only problem is that the development experience keeps reinventing itself at such a pace you may as well put yourself into stasis and wait for things to settle. Wait for front-end development to become boring. Odds are you can sleep for quite a bit until that happens. The second option is just to pick whatever works right now and use it.
The optimistic part is that we, as web developers, are learning, we’re doing some cool things and unifying two halves of the same thing. The backend guys are innovating and tooling progress is insane and exciting. So I cannot state that we haven’t gotten anywhere, we have innovated, learned, and improved the Web. But by how much? Are our end users happier?
A concrete solution
Given the task of implementing a web application, what would I do, given the state of the art in 2016? I spent about four years developing SPAs with many frameworks. I hate them all. Given that sentiment, this is what I would do:
- Using a language of your choice, build a business logic API that can be used via REST or some other RPC protocol. The language and its associated tooling should be performant and support rapid iteration.
- Use a batteries-included web framework, spiced with a rendering framework of your choice, to create front-end.
- Build many front-ends, not just for the web, but for mobile and perhaps even desktop, and keep them thin.
Point 4. originates from my experiences of creating and maintaining SPA applications. I think SPAs are, by and large, a bogus concept. A web application loading another page isn’t intrinsically a bad idea, if your application is fast enough. Conversely, if your SPA is slow, you’re doing it wrong. SPAs were invented for speed, because conventional web frameworks were slow. This is not the case anymore. Sure, you won’t see Rails, Django or Play beat the TechEmpower benchmarks, but we’ve come a long way from five years ago, which is when people started to play around with SPAs.
Given the speed improvements, why not go full-stack? Why a front-end and a back-end?
The answer for this is not simple. It is because we’re dealing with two incompatible abstractions:
- Building your application as an API means you need a client application to provide the user interface.
- To build such an interface, your application has to deal with the fact that HTTP, and thus REST, is stateless.
- Web applications are usually stateful.
- This leads inevitably to the requirement of building an abstraction in the middle that handles client state, which your API does not support.
- Building such an abstraction – the front-end – requires a lot of work, e.g. by using a MVC (or MVVM whatever) model. Double the work, half the fun.
So, the back-end abstraction is incompatible with client state, but the front-end application requires client state. Conversely, a full-stack application is often a heavy monolith: it needs to handle data access, its modification and its presentation in the same package. Here, as they say, be dragons. We want to keep business logic and presentation logic separate, hence, a full-stack framework does not work on its own.
As a solution, I offer a synthesis. It’s mixing a REST back-end with a full-stack frontend. The back-end can be built using whatever language is performant and maintainable. Build your front-end with a boring framework like Rails, Django or Pyramid; let it fetch its data from the REST API, i.e., treat the API as the data source. Let the front-end handle client state on its own. What you get in return:
- The ease of use of said framework. These frameworks were invented for a reason. You get routing, templating, asset pipelines etc. out-of-the-box.
- You can still do AJAX requests easily to build rich user interfaces.
- A reusable API in the backend you can use in other applications, keep your web front-end an equal citizen.
In the end though, it doesn’t really matter: with the exception of a few, our end users couldn’t care less. They really don’t give a shit. So, pick whatever technology works for you and your users. The above is just one option.