The 9 Best Backend Frameworks: When and Why You Need To Use Them
If you're considering developing a modern app or website, you may know that you'll need to have two components. The first is called the "frontend," and it handles everything related to the user experience. It controls what the user sees, when to fetch data from the server, and how they can manipulate and change it. The second component you'll need is a "backend." Broadly, this term represents the servers and data with which your frontend will use, manipulate, and display to the user. To develop a robust backend, you'll likely need one of the backend frameworks available to developers.
What is a backend framework? Simply put, it's a collection of tools, utilities, and code that you can use to accelerate your development and ensure that your system follows best practices. Now, why use a backend framework? That's also an easy question to answer. It saves time, reduces costs, scales well, and lets you — the project manager or founder — use proven technology. With the right backend framework, you'll focus less on the code and more on building your fantastic product.
Given that there are many backend frameworks available online, you may be wondering which one to use. Fortunately, there are some relatively straightforward guidelines to consider that should narrow down your choices considerably. We'll also take a look at nine of the most popular backend frameworks available right now. This guide should help you and your developers choose the right solution for your excellent new app.
What To Consider When Selecting a Backend Framework?
As mentioned earlier, a backend framework is a collection of tools, code, and other software that accelerates your development and gives your project a head start. Therefore, people typically consider three things when selecting a backend framework to use for their project.
One of the most significant concerns that most founders, project managers, and other stakeholders have in any given project is scalability. No matter if you're developing a public-facing app or you're developing something for in-house use, you're going to want to ensure that the technology you use scales well. You wouldn't want to spend a decent sum of money working on a solution only to discover that it no longer works when it becomes popular. Your 10-person company might become 100 people. Or, that app you're creating might go viral and get millions of downloads. In either of these cases, you'll want to ensure your backend framework will be able to handle everything if your usage is more than you previously anticipated.
Migrating from one backend framework to another is expensive — and risky. You could introduce bugs in the process. Therefore, pick one of the server-side frameworks that can grow with your business and perform under pressure.
Security is a hot-topic issue for a good reason. As hackers become more sophisticated and data breaches become, unfortunately, more commonplace, governments and consumers are stepping up to demand that all apps and projects are more secure. For projects dealing with the EU, it's not only good practice, but it's also a matter of importance financially. For example, the EU once tried to fine Marriott nearly €100 million for data breaches and other GDPR infringements. This breach contained highly sensitive information, including payment and passport details.
Therefore, given the potential PR, financial, and legal implications of poor security, the best backend frameworks ensure that security isn't an afterthought but is instead a central part of the framework's infrastructure.
Ease of Development
This term encompasses the learning curve that developers have, documentation, community support, libraries, whether it's open-source or not, and more. You'll want to pick one of the backend frameworks that's easy to use. Choosing a framework with poor documentation, few developers, and few community packages will lead to frustration long-term. You'll wind up spending more time and money figuring out the basics than you will to develop all the cool features you want.
The best backend frameworks have a strong community, lots of documentation, and an extensive set of functionality and features. It's worth noting that part of this depends on the team you have presently and the team you will have in the future. For example, it is technically possible to code a web server in COBOL. Maybe you happen, by chance, to have one expert COBOL programmer on your team. Great! Your project is simple, so you modify this small COBOL framework to fit your needs.
The only problem is that almost nobody else will use COBOL for a web backend. You'll find it nearly impossible to find developers for this project (or, if you do, they'll be expensive). Who even knows if you'll be able to connect your database to this backend? Can you host it on Azure or AWS? Additionally, you're opening yourself up to lots of bugs because web development was not what the historic developers of this 60-year-old language designed it to do.
More importantly, you won't gain real benefits over using tried-and-trusted backend frameworks like NodeJS, ASP.NET, and others.
That's an extreme example. However, all too often, people use what they know and pigeonhole it into a solution that doesn't work well on the backend. Save yourself the headache, and pick a robust backend framework that will provide you with everything you need to build your project right.
List of the Best Backend Frameworks for 2021
With all that said, let's take a look at the best backend frameworks for this year. Each one of these passes the criteria above. They are all scalable, reliable, secure, fast frameworks that enjoy considerable community support. You'll have no trouble finding quality developers who can code your application to support all the latest technologies and implement the very best practices.
Node.js — One of the Best Backend Frameworks Around
Today, Node.js is popular — especially in the United States. Amazon, Netflix, PayPal, and more all use Node.js in some parts of their stack to deliver quality solutions to customers.
- Node.js provides a simple, elegant, and extensible backend framework.
- This backend framework is entirely cross-platform. You can run Node.js apps on Mac and Windows for development and then upload them to your Linux server for production.
- NPM (Node Package Manager) has a massive number of packages — well over 500,000 now. No matter what you're trying to do, there's probably a package available to assist you.
- It's fast. The combination of Google's V8 engine and an event-based architecture make this framework remarkably quick. An average machine can handle 30,000 requests per second for the most straightforward "hello world" type web apps.
- Node.js enjoys robust community support, and there are lots of libraries to get you started. You can use Express.js for routing, Socket.io for event communication, and Passport.js for user authentication with Twitter, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and more.
- Node.js is fast. However, despite the perception, it's not the quickest framework. No matter how you figure it, Node.js apps are still scripts that require interpretation.
Symfony — One of the Most Comprehensive Backend Frameworks
Built with PHP, which is arguably still the world's most popular web language (since WordPress uses it), Symphony provides everything you need to get web apps to run.
First developed in 2005, Symfony aims to speed up the creation and maintenance of web applications. There's a strong focus on speed, which suits the platform well, considering it uses PHP under the hood. Plenty of high-profile projects and sites use Symfony components, including Drupal 8, phpBB, Dailymotion.com, and more. At one point in time, Yahoo! Bookmarks' 20 million users were looking at a site built with Symfony.
- Includes a multitude of components that people can use to build high-performance websites.
- Building sites with MVC architecture, routing, and authentication is straightforward, thanks to the pre-built components.
- Database connectivity is equally simple, thanks to the fact that Symfony uses the Doctrine database project.
- Templating is simple with Twig.
- Tightly-coupled components make it easy to build exceptional sites, REST APIs, and other backend services.
- It's a well-thought-out platform, as it includes tools to create, scale, and administer these services.
- Symfony is straightforward to use and has a strong following, meaning that your developers will have an easy time with it.
- Scaling up is trivial with Symfony. Using the components provided, you won't tie yourself to any particular database, server, or operating system.
- There's an entire set of components and a comprehensive guide for security with Symfony. You'll find it easy to build secure solutions with this backend framework.
- Symfony is still an interpreted PHP script, so it isn't quite as performant as some of the compiled alternatives.
- While there is plenty of documentation, it can be a little hard for beginners to navigate all of the components to figure out which one does what. There's potentially a steep learning curve.
Laravel's motto is "The PHP Framework for Web Artisans." This open-source project aims to make it easy for developers to create great sites without working on too much boilerplate code. To this end, Laravel is one of the most comprehensive backend frameworks as it has tools for deployment, development, testing, automation, and more. One could argue that Laravel isn't just a framework — it's an entire ecosystem for building fast, efficient sites with PHP.
- Laravel includes everything — and that means everything — you'll need to build almost any website. Valet is a dev environment; Nova is the administration panel; Mix compiles assets with Webpack; Passport handles authentication. You get the picture.
- Laravel has a strong focus on providing everything you need to develop sites rapidly. You can, of course, use it to build REST APIs and other backend services. If your backend uses a queue (e.g., video encoding), Laravel makes that easy with Horizon, its queue monitoring service.
- Eloquent makes it easy to connect almost any database to your Laravel application. Additionally, it's an ORM, so you'll abstract many of the low-level database operations away, allowing you to upgrade your infrastructure as necessary.
- Laravel is remarkably easy to use and has a strong community backing.
- This backend framework is arguably the most comprehensive of the ones on this list. It has everything you'll need to administer, run, and develop APIs and frontend sites.
- Laravel has a custom interface for Stripe's subscription services that handles much of the "boilerplate" code you would otherwise have to write. If your site deals with subscriptions, this is a huge win.
- The Forge part of the ecosystem makes deploying PHP applications on DigitalOcean, Linode, Vultr, AWS, and more a breeze.
- Laravel has a bit of the same problem that Symfony has. There are many components, so the platform is powerful. However, there's a steep learning curve for new developers.
- As with any PHP framework, upgrades (especially to the underlying PHP interpreter) can sometimes pose problems. Therefore, you may occasionally have to do a refactor of your backend service to make it work with the latest framework and PHP interpreter.
Django aims to be a high-level framework to enable web development in Python. Until Django came along, it wasn't easy to write code for the web in Python, but Django changed much of that thinking in 2005, with its first release. At its core, Django adheres very strictly to the MVC paradigm. There's an object-relational mapper built-in to Django (the Model), a system for processing HTTP requests with a built-in templating engine (the View), and a URL dispatcher (the Controller).
Nowadays, Django powers some of the world's most popular sites, including PBS, Instagram, The Washington Times, Bitbucket, and Nexdoor.
- Django has a very clean, simple, straightforward architectural pattern that makes it easy to understand and start using.
- The object-relational mapper (ORM) means that you can choose any database solution you want.
- Django handles user authentication effortlessly. The developers very much built that into the framework.
- There's an elegant CRUD interface for administering objects within the application.
- Django is arguably one of the cleanest frameworks in terms of architecture. It's well-thought-out, and people can start using Django quickly because of that.
- The built-in user and model systems are excellent. It makes developing a project so much easier.
- If you're a fan of Python, this and Flask are your two primary ways to do web development, so that's a perk.
- There's extensive middleware to prevent common attacks like SQL injection, cross-site scripting, password cracking, and more. Django pays significant attention to security.
- You'll find a strong community and a lot of welcoming support for Django.
- Django adheres pretty firmly to the MVC (or model-template-views) architecture. If your backend doesn't stick to this, you're going to have a rough time with Django.
- Django can sometimes feel a little overkill for specific backend services. You may not need a whole user system, for example, if your backend service is merely encoding video.
Ruby on Rails — The Only One of the Backend Frameworks for Ruby
Ruby on Rails (or Rails, for short) is a server-side framework written in Ruby. It adheres to the MVC paradigm, providing the ability to model databases and create web services and pages. Developed in 2004, Ruby on Rails became a sensation, and many significant websites started to use it.
Today, there are still plenty of sites that use Rails, including Airbnb, GitHub, Shopify, Groupon, Hulu, and more. Twitter initially used Ruby on Rails, although now it operates with different technology. Indeed, Rails continues to be a popular way to develop quality web applications and backend services.
- The Rails framework contains everything you need to build performant backend services. Indeed, it includes templating, MVC classes and components, as well as an ORM system for abstracting away database technicalities.
- Ruby on Rails takes advantage of RubyGems, so there are plenty of contributed packages that you can use to augment your development.
- The Rails backend framework uses a convention over configuration design philosophy, so it's easier for developers to pick up and start using Ruby than some other backend frameworks.
- Ruby on Rails makes it easy to deploy and get started coding. There's plenty of documentation and a very sizable community, complete with tutorials and other guides.
- One of Ruby on Rails' best features is that it can gain so much functionality from RubyGems. There are numerous helper packages out there, so development is often a breeze.
- Its adherence to the MVC paradigm is fantastic, assuming, of course, your app will also be using that.
- Ruby itself is a concise, straightforward language that makes rapid prototyping and coding possible.
- Ruby on Rails has a large community, so there'll be plenty of development assistance on your project.
- Ruby, the interpreter, can have some performance issues. People can scale Ruby apps (if they couldn't, places like GitHub or Airbnb couldn't use this framework). However, it doesn't have the same request throughput as some other frameworks on this list.
- Ruby on Rails has had a history of some security issues. While there haven't been any major ones in over four years, it is something to keep in mind when deciding whether to use this framework or not.
Flask is the primary competitor to Django. Like Django, it is also a web framework for Python web development. However, Flask takes a much different approach as a backend framework. Flask aims to be a "micro" web framework. It doesn't have many bells and whistles. Instead, it provides you with a way to define routes, respond to REST requests, implement Jinja templating, run a local server for testing, and that's about it.
However, although it may be small, that doesn't stop some important sites from using it. Two of the most popular sites using Flask include Pinterest and LinkedIn.
- Flask supports Google App Engine and many other cloud providers. This framework is simple to run in the cloud.
- There's an extensive community around Flask, and most Python web developers have heard of it or used it in the past.
- The fact that Flask is a straightforward framework means that it's speedy for a Python framework.
- There's built-in support for simple extras, like a subscription system called "Signals," where some parts of the app can notify others of a completed event.
- As a micro-framework, it's perfect for applications that require heavy customization. If you need something to help you with requests and responding to them, but the rest of the business logic you want to implement yourself, Flask is perfect.
- The documentation is fantastic. There aren't too many open-source projects with such comprehensive official documentation.
- Flask's simplicity also makes it efficient. It's significantly more efficient than Django, which can often take double the time to render the same content due to its "heavier" nature.
- Due to its simplicity, Flask apps tend to be easy to work with, and developers tend to enjoy writing apps on Flask.
- Its simple nature is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's powerful. On the other, it means you'll likely write a significant amount of boilerplate code.
- The community around Flask is not quite as strong as Django. Although Flask is famous among Python devs, it's not the number one platform for Python web development.
There are plenty of sites built with Express, including Cozy, Apiary, MySpace, and more. Of course, this doesn't count the countless high-profile sites that use Node.js as its underlying tech.
- Express is minimalist by nature. It provides a set of helper functions and ideas to get your node app up and running much faster.
- This framework provides all the basics you need to get your app up and running, including routing, templating (with exterior templating engines), debugging, and some helper middleware.
- Due to its popularity, Express enjoys strong community support.
- The developers take security seriously with Express. They set up a security best practices guide for people new to Express.
- Express is fast, minimal, and modern. It provides functionality that you'll almost certainly need, whether or not you're looking at building a web app, backend service, or something else.
- Express has many tutorials and enjoys broad community support, so your developers will get up and running quickly.
- This framework is one of the easier ones to use. There isn't much of a learning curve. Anyone that understands Node.js can start using Express quickly.
- Express includes a powerful but straightforward routing system that will get your server, API, etc., up and running quickly.
- Express has no ORM support and no concept of databases. Node has plenty, but the fact that Express doesn't also include this feels a little disappointing (or, perhaps more correctly, incomplete, considering that many other frameworks do have this support).
- For some people, Express might be too basic (e.g., no support for users, authentication, and so forth).
Spring Boot — The Only One of the Backend Frameworks for Java
Spring Boot is a backend framework for Java development that makes it easy to create production-ready Spring applications. First released in 2002, Spring Boot is a proper backend framework in that the developers intend for it to develop RESTful APIs. This aspect is evident on the project's home page, which advertises that it can deliver "independently evolvable microservices."
Although Java has been on the decline in recent years, many large companies still use it. Netflix uses Spring Boot in some of its components. Amazon even uses quite a bit of Java, as well. And, of course, Android development has all been done in Java historically (although it's now moving to Kotlin).
- It's the only backend framework on this list to use Java.
- Spring Boot has many modern capabilities. It works well with event-driven architectures, has asynchronicity built-in, and works in serverless environments.
- Spring Boot aims to be simple to use, with virtually no configuration or XML files required.
- Spring Boot's project initialization system makes it easy to get started with any packaging type, Java version, and all your dependencies (so no editing Gradle or Maven files by hand).
- Spring Boot has a clean architecture that's easy to use. Routes are simply decorators on functions, for example. The result is clean, straightforward, testable code.
- Spring Boot has many companion add-on projects that handle almost anything you need — including authentication, database connections, and more.
- One of those projects, Spring for Android, makes it trivial to integrate the Spring Boot backend framework APIs you develop with Android applications. If you're developing an Android app, this is a huge benefit.
- This framework focuses on backend microservices, meaning that all the guides and documentation focus on those best practices within the backend framework.
- Although people use Spring Boot and Java, it doesn't have the same following as many other backend frameworks on this list. Therefore, it may be harder to find developers and get questions about this framework answered.
- Java is not the most performant or easy to run. Therefore, running your backend services may not be as trivial as some of the other frameworks on this list.
When most people think of ASP.NET, they think of clunky, monolithic software that ran on poorly-optimized Windows boxes. That viewpoint couldn't be further from the truth these days. With the creation of .NET Core, ASP.NET is now a fast, free, open-source way to produce web applications. Indeed, ASP.NET allowed one development company to increase its throughput by 2,000% as compared to Node.
There are quite a few popular sites that incorporate ASP.NET (whether Core or regular ASP), including Microsoft, SpaceX, Slack, Alibaba Travels, MasterCard, ROBLOX, and more.
- ASP.NET Core is fast. It's arguably the highest-throughput framework out there now.
- While ASP.NET continues to work only on Windows, ASP.NET Core can run on Windows, Mac, or Linux. Both your production and development environments are cross-platform.
- ASP.NET Core is open-source, but Microsoft also backs it. So, you get a level of professionalism with this server-side framework that you may not have with some of the other ones.
- ASP.NET Core has practically everything you'd expect from a backend framework, including libraries for reading files, security, cryptography, and much more.
- It's extensible. There are plenty of NuGet packages that provide any functionality missing from the core framework.
- It's fast (the .NET Core version, that is). That's one undeniable advantage. A lot of the speed comes from the fact that .NET Core is not a script but produces compiled binaries instead.
- Having the backing of a multi-trillion dollar company like Microsoft means that you can be sure that this framework is professional, has few issues (again, the .NET Core one), and has extensive documentation.
- Both Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code have built-in support for ASP.NET. As such, developers writing code with this backend framework is a breeze.
- There's a NuGet package for almost any functionality you could ever want. You'll always have help from many libraries for your code — from authentication to database connectivity.
- The original ASP.NET is slow and only runs on Windows. If you're using that, it can be a challenging backend framework for many reasons.
- However, since .NET Core is newer, some packages won't work with it. .NET also has a confusing matrix of compatibility with the standard version, portable version, core, etc. Check that the libraries you'll need for your solution are compatible with your framework and version standard before starting.
The Best Backend Framework Will Vary for Different Use Cases
There are many "best" backend frameworks because each one is the "best" for a different use case. Flask, ASP.NET Core, Express, Laravel, and similar frameworks might be the best choice for small backend solutions. For more comprehensive solutions, a more custom Node.js solution, Django, or Symfony might be more appropriate. However, even that's an overgeneralization. The reality is that the backend framework you should pick depends on so many factors that there isn't one-size-fits-all advice.
If you're looking to build backend services and need to pick the right backend framework, please get in touch with us. Having worked on multiple software projects, Impressit has extensive experience working with various backend frameworks. We know what works and what doesn't. As such, we'd love to learn more about your project and set your project up for success no matter how big it eventually gets.