There are plenty of people who think that you need to learn programming languages to create a website. While learning about the languages and frameworks is helpful for some projects, it is not always necessary. Website builders have come a long way in the past few decades broadening the field of web development.
However, if you want to understand when to program a site or app or simply use the existing tools, you’re going to have to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the programming language and framework which underpins the project. Read on to explore more about programming languages and frameworks.
- While you don’t need to be a programmer to create a website, it’s helpful in the long term for problem solving and adding new features.
- There are many different programming languages — find the one that best suits your needs and skill level.
- Your programming language will determine the framework. Knowing your end goal can help you pick a framework and the programming language you need to learn.
Do You Need To Know Programming To Make A Website?
If you want to make a website, learning programming languages or frameworks is not necessary. These days you can create most sites with various content management systems (CMS) such as WordPress. These allow you to make beautiful sites with advanced features without having to do any coding.
There are also a lot of excellent website building services that let you create a website using just drag-and-drop actions. These tools have been around for a long time but they continue to get better and better. These advancements are why over half of all published websites use tools like WordPress and don’t require coding.
However, if you need your website to have some unique features and functionalities (or simply want to do the coding yourself) it can still be a rewarding experience. This introduction to the various languages and frameworks commonly used for programming websites can get you started on the right path.
Why Are There So Many Different Programming Languages?
Different languages were made to accomplish different functions. Having multiple programming languages available allows developers to choose the one that will produce the best results for their specific task.
The three most important types of languages for web use are:
- Markup languages, which annotate data and content with semantic information about that content
- Style sheet languages, used by rendering engines to determine how to display data and content
- Programming languages, which instruct a computer to do certain things
Do I Need More Than One Language?
You can’t do everything you need without utilizing multiple languages. Gone are the days when you can throw a simple website onto the internet without focusing on how it looks or its interactive features. Luckily, high-level languages today are friendlier to developers than those which were used in the past.
Different Focuses of a Programming Language
Each programming language has a certain focus, which affects how it is used and what types of use cases make it the best option.
- Website and application development: Hypertext Preprocessor (PHP) is designed to be embedded into hypertext markup language (HTML) documents, which is particularly useful for building websites and web applications.
- Specialist purposes of a language: There are also programming languages geared for many specialty domains. Some include command-and-control, artificial intelligence, data analysis, and graphics processing. You can use a language for any purpose, but the downsides may include a sub-optimal feature set and lower performance levels.
Popular Web Languages
Due to a combination of requirements, popularity, and the unique configuration of the internet, certain programming languages have become especially associated with web development rather than desktop applications.
Such programming languages fall into two broad categories:
- Client-side languages: Files written in client-side languages are sent directly to web browsers, which interpret the files and display the content to a website’s end-user.
- Server-side languages: These are programming languages used to build web applications that run on the server (the computer that hosts the website, not the computer of the person visiting it).
If you’re doing any type of client-side web or front-end development work, you’ll likely use the following programming languages. Even if you don’t plan to become an expert, you’ll need at least some level of proficiency in web development.
- HTML: Website pages and documents are written in HTML, which consists of base content combined with inter-linear tags that provide semantic information about the content they enclose.
- Cascading style sheets (CSS): This provides a set of detailed instructions to the browser (or a printer) about how the content of an HTML document should be displayed. CSS includes font declarations, sizing, color, on-page placements, and layering precedence.
You can think of these three languages acting like how different components of a house work together. HTML is like the foundation and the frame of the house.
CSS determines how the house will look, like paint colors, window types, and so on. JS makes things interactive — in our house analogy, this would be items like the garage door opener and light dimmers.
Almost any programming language (such as C# and Objective-C) can be used to build server-side applications. Still, a handful have become especially popular for doing so. Some were designed for the web (PHP, ASP), while others began as general-purpose languages extended with a set of standardized tools for doing web development.
- ASP.NET:Designed for developers, this is Microsoft’s server-side framework for creating dynamic web applications. While you can run ASP.NET on almost any operating system, it is optimized for Windows environments so keep that in mind when choosing your hosting. ASP.NET also works best with SQL databases.
- ColdFusion: Technically an application development platform/framework, this utilizes the scripting language ColdFusion Markup Language (CFML). ColdFusion is designed to make it easier for developers to connect HTML web pages to databases.
- Java: This general-purpose, object-oriented language is used for desktop, web, and embedded applications on various platforms. It has been used as a client-side scripting language, but this requires a browser plug-in, so it is not common. Its server-side usage has largely been replaced by the similarly named but otherwise unrelated JS.
- PHP: This is the most popular server-side scripting language in the world. PHP is behind the most popular CMS like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, and MediaWiki.
- Python: A popular general-purpose, object-oriented programming language, Python is excellent for shell scripting and popular for other uses among the type of people who get into shell scripting.
- Ruby on Rails: This popular framework goes with the Ruby programming language, but its large resource demands don’t suit all servers. If you are designing a web application, using this language is considered easier than many others.
Other Notable Server-side Languages
- Server Side Includes (SSI): This is a very simple server-side scripting language for including HTML document portions into other HTML documents.
- Visual Basic .NET (VB.NET): This is a part of Microsoft’s .NET family.
- Perl: Known as a general-purpose programming language, Perl is particularly popular with hip computer science geeks.
Other Web Languages
The web isn’t just about websites anymore. As the internet increasingly encompasses devices, real-time gaming, virtual reality, and a host of other new technology paradigms, new languages are being created.
These are being put into service to implement new ideas. Some include:
- Tool Command Language (TCL): An open-source, powerful programming language often used for command-and-control applications
- Wireless Application Protocol and Wireless Markup Language (WAP/WML): Commonly used for things like data transfer and presentation (the languages are deprecated, but you may still see it in use)
- Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML): Format for representing 30D items, such as vector graphics (which has been superseded by other languages)
Should I Pick a Specific Language?
Generally, you would try to avoid using such specific languages (otherwise known as domain-specific languages). The internet has certain de facto rules for which languages “should” be used and which should be avoided. This means most web developers will need to be able to work with multiple different languages so that you can:
- Have an easier time finding tools and services, such as web hosting, that work well with what you have built
- More simply reach a wide audience due to widespread support and acceptance of popular languages and technologies
Does Programming Language Affect My Web Hosting Choices?
Not all providers support all programming languages. If you are using the more popular options, such as JS or PHP, you shouldn’t have a hard time finding a web host that fully supports your websites and applications. If you opt for a less-commonly used option, such as ColdFusion, you’ll have fewer options which will typically cost more.
Go for popular options if possible
If you can, try to pick widely-used, often-supported options if possible. Most web hosting providers support CSS, HTML, and JS. It is up to you whether you first choose your web hosting provider or your programming language(s), but it is important to make sure the two will play nice with each other.
Framework Options and Hosting
What is a framework?
A web application framework is a generic web-based software application extended and modified by developers to create a specific application.
The framework provides:
- Generic functionality
- Built-in solutions to a number of common programming problems
- Structure for organizing code
- A development philosophy or an architectural paradigm
Common Features of Frameworks
Most software applications, including web-based applications, have many similar features or functionalities. This is especially true of web applications, which utilize the following:
- Asynchronous requests
- Database interaction
- Document Object Model (DOM) manipulation
- Form controls
- Input validation
- Session management
- URL routing
- User management
Dealing with web applications within a domain
There are even more similar functionalities when dealing with web applications within a certain domain. For example:
- All e-commerce applications deal with payment processing, security, product management, and pricing
- Every CMS relates to authors, content editing, comments, categories, media uploading, and menus
In most business cases, there’s very little sense in spending the time and money to code and develop all these functions repeatedly.
What Makes a Good Framework?
A good application development framework solves most of these problems so the application coders/developers don’t have to. This saves time and usually ensures the code for these low-level foundational features is well-built and tested in production. It is a better use of programming resources to focus on new features and business-specific functions.
Frameworks and Architecture
An application development framework is more than a series of boilerplate libraries or sets of code. It isn’t just an assemblage of tools.
Rather, a framework is a generic form of an application, made specifically by a development team. (This is somewhat analogous to an abstract class being subclassed.) The result is that application frameworks impose an architectural paradigm and sometimes a development philosophy. Some developers consider this imposition a reason not to use a framework, but actually, it is precisely their most important benefit.
Providing an architectural structure eliminates the need to decide how the various parts of the application will work together. It promotes a well-designed organization of code and a sensible separation of concerns, saving coders from arbitrary decisions about where to place certain types of logic.
Most web application frameworks follow some version of the Model-View-Controller (MVC) architecture pattern, one of the simplest and most fundamental architectural patterns around. It is particularly well-suited to the web, which is essentially a network of user interface (UI) clients.
MVC is a way of organizing an application into three distinct areas of concern:
- Model: This defines the data schema, usually as a series of classes that specify the main items of interest to the application, such as people, blog posts, orders, products, and stores. An underlying framework class (the active record pattern, of which object-relational mapping is a subset implementation) communicates with the database. The Model class and its underlying framework class provide a layer of abstraction, which allows many framework options to be database-agnostic.
- View: This is usually a set of template files that determine how specific Models are displayed to the user. There is usually at least one View per Model, and in certain cases, there may be several Views — for example, there might be a set of data that needs to be presented in three different ways.
- Controller: In the conventional MVC paradigm, the Controller is the glue that holds the Model and View together. But in many real-world situations, especially those with strong command-and-control requirements (robotics, dispatch, traffic management), the Controller can become a very large part of the application.The Controller can often be broken down into two distinct parts (though this depends on the framework):
- Application Controller: This takes requests from the web server and calls the Models and Views needed to fill the request. In MVC parlance, this is the original meaning of Controller.
- Type-specific Controllers: There can often be individual Controllers that deal with specific types of functionality, such as a forms Controller, or an email Controller.
Choosing a Development Framework
One of the problems in selecting a web application framework is they tend to be fairly similar, especially at the level of textual descriptions. Most are MVC, handle basic needs like session management, promise to speed up development, and claim to improve developer happiness.
Are many frameworks the same?
As the various framework developers have seen what the others are doing, they have each worked the best ideas into their own code. There is a convergence of excellence which makes most popular frameworks both very good and very similar.
Should my existing programming knowledge determine my choice?
The biggest determining factor regarding which framework you choose is language. You may already know how to write Ruby on Rails, which has caused many people to start learning Ruby.) Beyond that, your best bet is to actually look at some applications built using the frameworks you are considering.
Use real-life examples as guidance
Has someone built something remarkably similar to what you want to build? Use the same framework. If one framework seems to make more sense to you than the others, use that one. Most frameworks provide remarkably similar features. So instead of trying to find the framework that is right, try looking for the one that is right for you.
Web Development Frameworks by Language
In the following sections, I will cover a variety of frameworks for some of the most popular web development languages. I’ll try to help you choose the right option, see how all the options are similar (or not), and show you how developers have chosen to implement features and functionality.
- ASP.NET: This open-source, server-side framework lets you produce dynamic websites plus web applications and services. It’s been succeeded by ASP.NET Core, though the former is used with some regularity. ASP.NET Core is not Windows-specific and features things like continuous compilation, modularity, using NuGet packages, and optimizations for cloud implementations. It is also host-agnostic, lightweight, and community-focused.
- CakePHP: This modern framework includes the scaffolding features for which Ruby on Rails is famous. Builds are quick, and many tests and security features are built into the framework.
- CodeIgniter: If you are looking for a lightweight framework great for rapid app development situations, CodeIgniter is easy to use, comes with numerous libraries, and is affiliated with an active community. You’re sure to find plenty of resources for working with CodeIgniter.
- Django: One of the most popular Python web frameworks, Django is free and open source to all Python users. It offers everything you need for a straightforward project and makes it easy for Python developers to create complex data-driven websites. The components you create can easily be reused, and you can get your web apps spun up quickly. It has excellent administrative features, such as dynamically generated create, read, update, and delete (CRUD) interfaces.
- Flask: A great, simple-to-use, and flexible Python framework, Flask is considered a microframework because it does not require specific tools or libraries nor include components with functions provided by third-party libraries. To add application features, use the various Flask extensions. Flask allows you to decide how certain aspects of your web application will behave.
- Horde: If you are looking for a free and open-source framework to help you create collaborative software, Horde might be it. In addition to providing you with components like email and calendars, Horde functions like a general, all-purpose web app framework. You will get the classes you need to handle: user preferences, compression for files, browser detection, connection tracking, and mime handling.
- Java: Commonly used in enterprise situations, one of Java’s options is the Spring Framework. While Spring can be used by Java apps in general, you can use the extensions to build web apps on top of Java Enterprise Edition (Java EE). Spring doesn’t require you to follow any particular paradigm or programming model, but you can use the Spring MVC component if following the MVC pattern is important.
- Angular.js: This is a front-end web application framework maintained by Google and a community of open-source contributors. It simplifies the lifecycle of Single-Page Applications (SPAs) during the development and testing phases and utilizes MCV and the Model-View-ViewModel (MVVM).
- Express.js: This is like a server framework for web applications, frequently used as part of the MEAN stack, which includes MongoDB, Express.js, Angular.js, and Node.js. Express.js is inspired by the simplified Ruby framework, Sinatra, and is a simple project, but you can easily add what you need using plug-ins.
- Node.js: This environment allows you to execute JS code server-side and developers to run JS on the server, produce dynamic content, and serve said content before the page gets sent to you. Apps utilizing Node.js are fast compared to those built with PHP or ASP.NET apps. It is extremely popular, and its community is large. You can use JS everywhere — there is no need for different languages for the front-end, middle-tier, or server-side.
- React.js: This JS library makes it easy to build dynamic UIs. Developers can create pages updated continuously with data without requiring a page refresh (typically less optimal since users do not like interruptions). A Facebook product, its use is most obvious in the Facebook Feed updates — new items show up at the top without your webpage ever reloading. React.js corresponds to the “V” (or View) layer and can easily be used in conjunction with other JS frameworks.
- Laravel: This is a popular PHP framework. Laravel is free, open source, and intended to facilitate rapid app development. It was originally designed to be a more advanced alternative to CodeIgniter. There is also a CMS called October built on top of the Laravel framework.
- MVC support by Laravel: This comes with built-in unit testing functionality and includes many features right out of the box. It has a modular packaging system/package manager for feature additions, multiple communication methods with relational databases, and utilities for aiding application deployment and maintenance.
- PHP: A server-side language commonly used for scripts, it has gained popularity over the years as a general, all-purpose language. Some PHP frameworks include CakePHP, CodeIgniter, Laravel, Symfony, Yii, and Zend.
- Python: A high-level, object-oriented, all-purpose programming language, this has seen a surge in popularity recently (especially in the data science fields). It is not as commonly used for web development as other languages, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see Python web applications with some regularity.
- Ruby: This modern, easy-to-use, object-oriented programming language was designed to make programmers happy. However, Ruby was used relatively infrequently prior to the success of the Ruby on Rails framework.
- Ruby on Rails: “Rails” is why Ruby exploded in popularity. In the early 2000s, David Heinemeier Hansson developed a custom web framework for Bootcamp’s flagship product. The server-side framework uses MVC and is an “opinionated framework.” Rails is great for developing robust applications (even if they are not the most performant).
- Sinatra: Named after musician Frank Sinatra, this framework is one of the major alternatives to Ruby on Rails if you are working with Ruby. Sinatra differs from Rails in that it ships only with the basics — while Rails is a monolith that handles pretty much everything, Sinatra has chosen the opposite route and given you only what you need to develop a web application.
- Symfony: This performant, stable, and mature PHP framework has a steep learning curve but excellent documentation and support. It emphasizes reusable PHP components and libraries to speed up the creation, deployment, and maintenance of PHP web apps and websites. There is a somewhat enterprise focus, and developers have full configuration control and decision-making. It is heavily inspired by the Spring Framework available to users of the proprietary Java programming language.
- Yii: An open-source, high-performance framework designed for applications that need complex (yet quick-loading) web pages, Yii is meant to be easy to use. It is one of the oldest PHP frameworks that are still actively maintained.
- Zend: If you are looking for an enterprise framework, Zend might be your option. It is not ideal for rapid app development, but you get top-notch security features, high performance, and the ability to extend your platform as necessary. Its enterprise focus means there are a lot of components.
- Zikula: Much more than a web app framework, this is like a combination of CMS and web application framework and an extension of Symfony. The biggest draws are the increased features devoted to developing dynamic features, a theming system, support for rapid prototyping, and its CMS-related features. In many cases, Zikula might be a bit much. But if you seek a full-featured framework you are unlikely to outgrow, Zikula would be ideal.
Frameworks Utilizing Non-Model-View-Controller (MVC) Architecture Patterns
Most of the frameworks mentioned above follow the Model-View-Controller (MVC) architecture pattern, but there are alternatives, including MVVM and Model-View-Presenter (MVP). Together, MVC, MVVM, and MVP are the three commonly used architecture patterns in web development.
We briefly mentioned MVVM in the Angular.js section above. In MVVM, we have the ViewModel instead of the Controller. The ViewModel is responsible for things like:
- Functions that help maintain the state of the View
- Displaying methods
- Manipulating the Model
- Triggering View events
Generally speaking, MVVM is especially good for SPAs. It is not a complete framework but is typically used as part of a framework. Some MVVM options include:
- MCCM Light
- Caliburn Micro
There is also the MVP framework, very similar to MVC, but with the Controller replaced with a Presenter. The Presenter, used to handle all UI-related events on behalf of the View, does the following:
- Receives user input via the View
- Processes the user data through the Model (which passes the results back to the View)
Unlike the View and Controller layers in MVC, the View and the Presenter are completely separate and communicate with each other through an interface. Some MVP framework options include:
Frequently Asked Questions About Languages and Frameworks
How many programming languages are there?
There are hundreds of different programming languages, and new ones are emerging every day. Programming languages generally belong to language families, having taken aspects of a “parent” language or influence from multiple languages. In such a way, you might look at the history of programming languages as an evolving ecosystem.
What are the most popular programming languages?
The most popular programming language is C, the root of almost all object-oriented languages, which runs the fastest, and for the most part, is required for the software development of operating systems.
After that is JAVA, a general-purpose language that can run on any computer without the need for recompilation by using bytecode designed to run on a Java virtual machine (JVM). This makes it extremely popular for web applications, with the reported use of over 9 million developers.
Third are PHP and JS, which are well-liked for web development, then C++ and Python, which are object oriented but with a lot of extra functionality built in. Finally Shell, Ruby, Objective C, C#, SQL, and Perl are popular choices after that.
What’s the difference between a programming language and a scripting language?
A scripting language is a subset of programming languages that generally doesn’t need to be compiled. JS and PHP are great examples. These languages work without the need to compile, using pre-compiled software in a special way recycling machine-level operations without the need to transform your scripts into byte-code to run. The code won’t be as efficient in speed, but it will take less time to write/debug since it doesn’t have to be compiled every time.
What does client-side versus server-side mean? Why is it important?
Client-side means the code will run on the device of a visitor to your web page or user of your application. JS, HTML, and CSS are the most common types of scripting languages used for this purpose. Server-side code runs on the web application server, which is kept at a single domain name or IP address. This code can either be compiled or scripted depending on which technologies are used.
Which languages are best for web application development?
PHP and JS are perhaps the most dominant in web development as part of the Linux Apache MySQL PHP (LAMP) stack. Java and C# are both content for control of large-scale enterprise applications, while Python also has a ton of powerful web frameworks.
Don’t let popularity be a deciding factor if you are trying to optimize performance, but being well-liked can be useful for beginners looking for tutorials. There is no best language. Otherwise, there would only be one programming language.