Node.js and the new web front-end
The two UI layers
In this web application architecture, the UI layer on the browser was the sole domain of front-end engineers. The back-end UI layer was where front-end and back-end engineers met, and then the rest of the server architecture was where the guts of the application lived. That’s where you’d find data processing, caching, authentication, and all other pieces of functionality that were critical to the application. In a sense, the back-end UI layer (often in the form of templates) was a thin layer inside of the application server that only served a front-end as incidental to the business logic it was performing.
So the front-end was the browser and everything else was the back-end despite the common meeting ground on the back-end UI layer. That’s pretty much how it was until very recently.
With a lot of companies moving towards service-oriented architectures and RESTful interfaces, it now becomes feasible to split the back-end UI layer out into its own server. If all of an application’s key business logic is encapsulated in REST calls, then all you really need is the ability to make REST calls to build that application. Do back-end engineers care about how users travel from page to page? Do they care whether or not navigation is done using Ajax or with full page refreshes? Do they care whether you’re using jQuery or YUI? Generally, not at all. What they do care about is that data is stored, retrieved, and manipulated in a safe, consistent way.
Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Separating the back-end UI layer out from the back-end business logic just makes sense in a larger web architecture. Why should the front-end engineers care what server-side language is necessary to perform business-critical functions? Why should that decision leak into the back-end UI layer? The needs of the front-end are fundamentally different than the needs of the back-end. If you believe in architectural concepts such as the single responsibility principle, separation of concerns, and modularity, then it seems almost silly that we didn’t have this separation before
Except that before, Node.js didn’t exist. There wasn’t a good option for front-end engineers to build the back-end UI layer on their own. If you were building the back-end in PHP, then why not also use PHP templating to build your UI? If you were using Java on the back-end, then why not use JSP? There was no better choice and front-end developers begrudgingly went along with whatever they had to use because there were no real alternatives. Now there is.
I love Node.js, I love the possibilities that it opens up. I definitely don’t believe that an entire back-end should be written in Node.js just because it can. I do, however, strongly believe that Node.js gives front-end engineers the ability to wholly control the UI layer (front-end and back-end), which is something that allows us to do our jobs more effectively. We know best how to output a quality front-end experience and care very little about how the back-end goes about processing its data. Tell us how to get the data we need and how to tell the business logic what to do with the data, and we are able to craft beautiful, performant, accessible interfaces that customers will love.
Using Node.js for the back-end UI layer also frees up the back-end engineers from worrying about a whole host of problems in which they have no concerns or vested interest. We can get to a web application development panacea: where front-end and back-end only speak to each other in data, allowing rapid iteration of both without affecting the other so long as the RESTful interfaces remain intact. Jump on in, the water’s fine.