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Front end vs. Back end vs. Full Stack: What's The Difference?

Updated on December 3, 2023 

Front end and back end are two of the most used terms in the computer industry; in a way, they became buzzwords. They dictate the type of job you do as a software developer, the technologies you use and how much you get paid.

So, let's talk about the differences between these two terms, why they exist in the first place and the different paths you can take in your software development career. 

Front-end vs. back-end: understanding site rendering

To begin this journey, we need to understand the concept of site rendering. In layman's terms, site rendering means generating or rendering HTML output. HTML is a markup language that web developers use to create web pages. It's said that site rendering can happen both at server-side or client-side level, so what does this mean? It's worth noting that frontend and client-side are synonyms. The same is true for backend and server-side.

What is frontend development?

In more modern days, a new form of site rendering emerged called client-side rendering or front-end development.

With client-side rendering, the rendering of the content happens in your computer instead of the remote web server using the de facto language of the web, JavaScript. In practical terms, it means that a server is only needed to serve the raw web application, and the browser will be in charge of rendering this application in its final form, HTML. It also means that some of the logic involved in creating the web page, especially the one in charge of dealing with how things are presented to the user on the screen (called presentation logic) are handled on the client-side.

Client-side rendering became popular with the advent of JavaScript libraries such as Angular, React and Vue.

Example of a webpage (front end development)

What is back end development?

Not until too long ago, server-side rendering, or back-end web development, was the de facto way to create websites and web applications. You visit a page, send a request for content, the server processes this request and creates a response that is sent back to your browser.

When a site renders server-side, all the processes involved in creating an HTML page that your web browser can understand are handled on a remote server hosting the website or web application. This includes querying databases for information and processing any logic that your web application requires.

While the remote server is busy at work, your web browser is idle, waiting for the server to finish processing the request and sending a response. When the response is received, web browsers interpret it and display the content on the screen.

Close up of a server (back end development)

What is universal rendering?

Universal rendering is a way to render a web application developed with a JavaScript framework such as Angular, React or Vue, on the server-side the first time a page is loaded and on the client-side afterward. This shortens the time the user will have to wait before something appears on screen.

(To complicate things even further, there is yet another form of rendering called pre-rendering that renders content at compile time.)

Where to render a site is a decision that is often based on the type of application and application demographics and will vary from team to team and business to business.

What is a front end developer?

Now that we understand the different types of site rendering methods, it's easier to understand that front-end development is the art of creating sites and web applications that render on the client-side.

Technologies used by front end developers

While there are many different types of technologies and stacks, most front-end web developers use HTML, CSS and JavaScript, the de facto building blocks of the web, and client-side frameworks such as Angular, React, Stencil and Vue.

Not everything happens on the frontend, though. Client-side rendered applications still rely on services and APIs that run on back-end remote servers or the cloud.

What kind of jobs do front end developers have?

  • Web designer: A web designer, you guessed it, designs websites. The job title of web designer is pretty broad, though. A web designer could just be someone who designs the sites in a program like Photoshop or Fireworks and will never touch the code. But in another location, a web designer could do all the design comps in Photoshop and then be responsible for creating all the HTML and CSS (and sometimes even JavaScript) to go along with it.

  • User interface (UI) designer: This is basically a visual designer and is generally focused on design. They're not usually involved in the implementation of the design, but they might know light HTML and CSS so they can communicate their ideas more effectively to the front-end developers.

  • User experience (UX) designers: UX designers work in the frontend, studying and researching how people use the sites. Then, they make changes through a lot of testing.

  • Front-end developer:  Also called a front-end designer, they can create a site without any back-end development. The site they would create without a web developer, or using the backend, is a static site. A static site is something like a site for a restaurant or hair salon. It doesn't require any information to be stored in a database. The pages will almost always stay the same, unless it's time for a redesign. A front-end developer may be required to have a grasp on testing, as well as be well versed in HTML, CSS and JavaScript. This person may or may not have experience with creating the design in a design program. A different version of this title is front-end engineer. People who work with specific front-end languages like JavaScript developer are also considered front-end developers.

What is a back-end developer?

While front-end development is about making sites and web applications render on the client-side, back-end development is all about making these apps render server-side.

But it's a bit more involved than that. Back-end development is like the engine of a website—it's all about making sure everything behind the scenes runs smoothly. The back end includes the server, application, and database. So, as a back-end developer, your main gig is to keep these components in check. Think of it as the backbone that makes the cool stuff you see on the front end possible.

Back-end developers create services that process business logic and access other resources such as databases, file servers, cloud services and more. These services can be accessed and used not only by server-side rendering apps but also from client-side rendering apps.

Technologies used by back-end developers

When back-end developers create apps that run on the server-side, they use the same fundamental tools as front-end developers: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

In addition, back-end developers deal with software stacks, which are like toolkits containing operating systems, web servers, frameworks, languages, and programming APIs. These components in the stacks are employed to build server-side websites and web applications, as well as to create services that other applications can use.

Popular stacks you might have heard of are .NET, MEAN, and LAMP, but there are many others. Each stack comes with a preferred programming language like C#, JavaScript, Java, Go, Python, or PHP.

What kind of jobs do back-end developers have?

  • Back-end Developer: A back-end developer is responsible for designing, implementing, and maintaining the server-side of web applications, managing databases, and ensuring seamless communication between the front end and back end.

  • Back-end Engineer: Similar to a back-end developer, a back-end engineer focuses on building and optimizing the server-side architecture of web applications, handling data storage, and implementing business logic to support the overall functionality of the software.

  • SQL Developer: An SQL developer specializes in using the Structured Query Language (SQL) to design and manage relational databases, creating, modifying, and querying databases to retrieve and manipulate data effectively.

  • PostgreSQL/MySQL Developer: A developer specializing in PostgreSQL or MySQL focuses on designing, implementing, and optimizing databases using these specific relational database management systems, tailoring their expertise to the unique features and requirements of each system.

What is a full-stack developer?

As a developer, you don't have to settle for just frontend or backend; you can do both as a full-stack developer. This is, in my experience, where the fun begins. Full-stack developers can create sites and web applications that render both on the client-side (frontend) and the server-side (backend).

They also create services, components and APIs that encapsulate business logic, solve specific business problems and access infrastructure such as databases, file servers, cloud services and more. They work with the full stack and it's the best of both worlds.

What are the salary differences for front end and back end developers?

According to Indeed,com, back-end developers have the highest salaries, with an average of $115,437 per year, followed by front-end developers at $101,876. Full stack developers come in third place with an average salary of $101,612 per year. Indeed also points out that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for web developers and digital designers, which includes these three roles, predicts a "23% growth from 2021 to 2031, which equates to an increase of 45,400 jobs over the decade."

Front end vs back end developers: The Big Picture

By now, the difference between the frontend and backend should be more evident, as well as the different activities carried by developers that work on both ends of the wire. In practical terms, the frontend means the browser and the backend, the server or, more recently, the cloud.

If you like user interfaces, are keen on sound design and like the visual aspects of creating apps, then perhaps you would be most interested in becoming a front end software developer. The frontend is exciting not only visually, but also from a programming standpoint; you will spend endless hours writing logic that will make your site look and behave the way the designers intended.

If you like to spend your time solving business problems, writing algorithms, working in the cloud, and creating services and APIs, then backend development is for you.

If you enjoy both and feel equally excited and comfortable with all aspects of web application creation, then a career as a full-stack developer is what you want.

Whatever path you choose, there has never been a better time to be a software developer.