A Peek Under the Hood of Web Application Development
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A Peek Under the Hood of Web Application Development

This article examines various aspects of web applications and highlights some differences between web and mobile application development.

Two developers typing on computers

Most of us are so comfortable using the internet and web-based software that we rarely consider the technology behind the magic. In fact, the software created by web application development teams is so much a part of our daily routine it hardly seems magical at all.

Hidden beneath the pixel-perfect user interface and feature functionality that we take for granted lie the complex elements of front-end presentation, back-end processing, security, and scalability that provide end-users with world-class experiences. 

This article examines various aspects of web applications and highlights some differences between web and mobile application development.

General Principles of Custom Web Application Development

Web application development: Two co-workers look at lines of code

Common practices exist on app dev teams regardless of the software features. These underlying principles form the best practices that govern how teams develop and design world-class software for a web environment. While the details may vary from team to team or based on the practical application of the solution, every web application should adhere to some form of the following:

Reliable, Scalable, and Maintainable Code

The five nines standard often defines the reliability of most web applications. Five nines means the software should be available for use and functioning correctly 99.999% of the time. High-quality software is so critical to end-users that Standard Licensing Agreements (SLAs) often include a clause requiring the software meet or exceed the five nines standard. 

Scalability refers to the software’s ability to handle a growing number of concurrent users. Put another way, software’s scalability determines if it will meet reliability standards during peak usage or spikes in the number of users accessing the application at the same time. Web application developers code to scale through elastic cloud hosting environments, ensuring sufficient data connections are available and writing performant and efficient source code.

While launching a new web application may seem like the end of a long journey, it’s only the beginning. Most software requires regular maintenance updates and will have new features or enhancements added. Maintainable code, written according to coding standards, documented, and layered into components, allows programmers to add new features and maintain the code efficiently.

Once a team has identified an appropriate tech stack (MEAN or LAMP, for example) that offers compatibility with their team skillset and meets the application’s needs, best practices for reliability, scalability, and maintainability can be established. Popular tech stacks often have active communities where developers can share information and best practices and help each other troubleshoot issues. 

Clear and Complete Documentation

Man compares chart to lines of code on computer

Extensive documentation of web applications serves multiple purposes, from helping onboard new team members to reminding the team of technical decisions to keeping best practices or deployment procedures close at hand.

Rather than creating volumes of digital paperwork stored on a corporate drive, developers create documentation that is easily accessible. Comments written directly in the code help the next developer understand existing functionality and dependencies. Deployment checklists posted on a physical or virtual wall ensure proper merging, versioning, and security processes are followed. And, README files contain a technical change log that provides a historical record of individual file changes.

Development Process

A team’s process to get from product vision to working software is as important as what it delivers. Many software teams use an agile software development methodology, typically either Scrum or Kanban.

Teams need high-quality issue tracking software like Jira or Trello to manage their work and priorities. The best of these tools integrate with code repositories and automated testing systems that support automation for continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) practices.

Another development process uses pre-commit hooks to serve as a double-check of the code before merging and deploying to multiple pre-production environments like dev and staging. Developers must also code graceful error-handling mechanisms to assist the user should an unexpected error occur within the system.

Security

Web applications and the way information travels across networks created security concerns not applicable to desktop software. Establishing security practices in web applications is critical to onboarding new users who trust the software developers to keep their data safe and secure. 

The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) creates open-source security software projects to help developers build safe and secure software. Developers also use integrated development environments (IDEs) with static code analysis tools that alert them of code that doesn’t comply with security standards. 

Dynamic program analysis tools allow developers to test the inputs and outputs of data in working programs to find potential security leaks and fix them before they are deployed to production. 

Along with the tools mentioned above, regular penetration testing and devops security best practices equip web developers to handle the responsibility of safeguarding their users’ data and their internal systems from malicious activity on the internet.

Back-End Technologies for Web Application Development

Web application development: Woman types lines of code

Now that we’ve covered the general framework for a web application, let’s take a look at some principles that drive web apps’ back-end development.

Along with using the appropriate back-end programming language like Node.js, .NET Core, or Go — depending on the chosen tech stack — the development team needs to build a stable and configurable logging framework to track user and system activities and errors.

The back end shares in ensuring the application is reliable, maintainable, and scalable. Dividing the functional responsibilities of the back-end web services by layer allows developers to:

  • Minimize unnecessary network data transfers to reduce security risks 
  • Ensure optimization of their code for performance and reliability
  • Scale on demand to meet usage spikes

Layering isolates controllers, use case or business case logic, and data layers, for example, into individual containers.

The back end of web applications usually includes a stable version of a relational or non-relational database that uses RESTful or GraphQL APIs. Databases use object-relational mapping (ORM) to communicate with a relational database management system (RDBMS). Best practices encourage validation requests for content, usually with schema validation and the use of strongly typed objects. 

Front-End Technologies for Web Applications

Woman points enthusiastically to code on monitor

While the back end of web apps escapes users’ scrutiny, the front end of web applications is the showcase for design thinking practices that result in the visual design and usability built into custom software. Combined, the user interface (UI) and the user experience (UX) make up the software’s GUI, or graphical user interface.

Web applications must be responsive, meaning they must provide an equally delightful user experience regardless of the device or browser used to access the software. Of course, many software products limit the type of devices, browsers, and versions they support, but there are usually several platforms that to consider.

Like back-end technologies, the front end must also isolate responsibilities by creating separate components, allowing specific functionality to be reused throughout the application. To accomplish this, front-end developers use frameworks like React and Angular. Achieving consistent styling throughout the app requires clear, high-quality CSS or using a compilable stylesheet language like Sass that delivers the UI at runtime. 

Web App vs. Mobile App Development

Web application development: Two people looking at mockups on computer

While web and mobile apps may appear similar to the end-user, the technology is quite different. Mobile apps are similar to desktop apps in that they are downloaded to a user’s device, typically a phone or tablet. Mobile apps transmit data across networks and communicate with other systems, but generally, they include functions that are contained within the app and only available to those with access to the device.

Web apps use CSS, JavaScript, and HTML to build the UI. In contrast, some mobile apps are native applications specific to a particular device and use languages like Swift, Objective-C for iOS devices, and Java for Android devices. React Native supports both iOS and Android. 

Unlike mobile apps, web apps can usually be viewed on a mobile device by using a mobile web browser. Mobile apps cannot be viewed through a browser, and many aren’t supported for use on a desktop or laptop.

Another big difference between web and mobile apps is that users often use the mobile app even while their device is disconnected from a network. Web apps require an active network connection to function.

Appreciating the Complexities of Web App Development

Group of co-workers looking at computers and talking

We’ve only scratched the surface of the work and technology it takes to create web applications. Aside from the basic functionality designed for the app, app developers must also consider reliability, scalability, and security in their code. 

Solid team processes and best practices need to be defined and communicated. The best tech stack, tools, back-end, and front-end technologies must all work harmoniously to deliver a world-class experience for end-users. 

A web application is continuously maintained and monitored for performance and issues throughout its life. The launch of a new web app is only the beginning. Developing your web application with the principles and best practices we’ve described will help your software achieve its objectives and delight your users.

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