The Good and the Bad of Node.js Web App Development
What is Node.js?
As an open-source project, Node.js was sponsored by Joyent, a cloud computing and hosting solutions provider. The company invested in a number of other technologies, such as Ruby on Rails framework, and provided hosting services to Twitter and LinkedIn. The latter also became one of the first companies to use Node.js for its mobile application backend. The technology was later adopted by a number of technology leaders, such as Uber, eBay, Walmart, and Netflix, to name a few.
Node.js downloads. Install Long-Term Support and the latest versions of Node.js for Windows and MacOS here. Also, a reminder – npm is distributed with Node.js out-of-the-box.
Documentation. Find the docs and getting started guides at the link.
Frameworks. Using middleware over pure Node.js is a common practice that makes developers’ lives easier. We have a separate article comparing popular Node.js frameworks, where we look at Express.js, Meteor, Sales.js, Koa.js, Keystone.js, and Loopback.js.
Node.js strengths and weaknesses make it the subject of a heated discussion. To set the record straight, we have analyzed both – Node.js pros and cons – in an attempt to find out what projects can benefit from this technology choice. So, why use Node.js?
A fast explanation of what is Node.js (please, subscribe if you want more video content)
The Benefits of Node.js
⊕ Robust technology stack
- better efficiency and overall developer productivity
- code sharing and reuse
- speed and performance
- easy knowledge sharing within a team
- a huge number of free tools
⊕ Fast-processing and event-based model
Node.js is fast; it is not a myth. Take a look at the performance tests by toptal.com, comparing how GO, PHP, Java, and Node.js handle concurrent requests. There a couple of reasons for Node.js showing such results:
Non-blocking Input/Output and asynchronous request handling made Node.js capable of processing requests without any delays. In the context of backend, synchronous processing assumes that code is executed in a sequence. Thus, each request blocks a thread, making other requests wait for it to be finished. Asynchronous processing allows requests to be processed without blocking (non-blocking I/O) the thread. So after a request is processed, it can push out a callback and continue serving requests. That helps Node.js make the most of single threading, resulting in short response time and concurrent processing.
Another aspect is the event-based model. When using a common language for both client/server-side, synchronization happens fast, which is especially helpful for event-based, real-time applications. Due to its asynchronous, non-blocking, single-threaded nature, Node.js is a popular choice for online gaming, chats, video conferences, or any solution that requires constantly updated data.
The examples speak for themselves: many leading companies switched technologies to developed Node.js applications and noticed significant improvements – PayPal, for instance, noticed a 35 percent decrease in response time since migrating from Java.
⊕ Scalable technology for microservices
Since it’s a lightweight technology tool, using Node.js for microservices architecture is a great choice. This architectural style is best described by Martin Fowler and James Lewis as “an approach to developing a single application as a suite of small services, each running in its own process and communicating with lightweight mechanisms, often an HTTP resource API.”
Accordingly, breaking the application logic into smaller modules, microservices, instead of creating a single, large monolithic core, you enable better flexibility and lay the groundwork for further growth. As a result, it is much easier to add more microservices on top of the existing ones than to integrate additional features with the basic app functionality.
Monolithic architecture vs microservice architecture in a nutshell
Node.js is the technology of choice when building and deploying microservices solutions, according to Node.js User Survey Report 2017. About half of the respondents are using microservice-related technologies (namely, Docker, the leading software containerization platform) to build Node.js web apps:
Percentage of developers using Docker containerization with Node.js
More recent findings show that microservice-related technologies such as Docker and Kubernetes experienced growth in usage in 2018, as this architectural style gets only more popular. With each microservice communicating with the database directly through streams, such architecture allows for better performance and speed of application. A match made in heaven is supported by two frameworks widely used for microservice architecture. The Express framework lists IBM and Uber among its users, while restify is used by npm and Netflix.
As an example of live implementation, Walmart’s shift to microservices architecture with Node.js resulted in the following immediate benefits:
- Overnight 20 percent conversion growth in general and 98 percent mobile conversion growth
- One hundred percent uptime on Black Friday (handling over 500 million page views)
- Saving up to 40 percent on hardware and 20-50 percent on overall operations
Another bright example of how Node.js can outperform the competition in terms of performance is the case of GoDaddy. Running the SuperBowl ad campaign, the company was able to handle 10.000 requests per second without downtime, using only 10 percent of the hardware thanks to Node.js.
⊕ Rich ecosystem
With such a vast variety of free tools accessible in a few clicks, there is a huge potential for the use of Node.js. At the same time, open source software enjoys growing popularity as it allows you to build new solutions reducing the overall costs of development and time to market.
⊕ Strong corporate support
As mentioned above, the development of Node.js was supported by Joyent. In 2015, the Node.js Foundation was created to “enable widespread adoption and help accelerate the development of Node.js.” IBM, Microsoft, PayPal, Fidelity, and SAP became the founding members of the organization.
The list of organizations using Node.js in production is constantly growing. It currently includes almost three hundred well-known companies, such as PayPal, Medium, Trello, Uber, and Zendesk.
Very few open source projects have ever enjoyed such strong support from the world’s leading companies. And that foretells Node.js has outstanding potential.
⊕ Seamless JSON support
The Drawbacks of Node.js
Θ Performance bottlenecks with heavy computation tasks
The problem occurs when Node.js receives a CPU bound task: Whenever a heavy request comes to the event loop, Node.js would set all the CPU available to process it first, and then answer other requests queued. That results in slow processing and overall delay in the event loop, which is why Node.js is not recommended for heavy computation.
However, in 2018, multithreading was introduced in Node.js as an experimental feature with the 10.5.0 update. A new feature called worker threads module can be used to leverage additional threads from a thread pool, to carry CPU bound tasks. But that can be done only on machines with multiple cores, as Node.js still allows you to use one core for one thread. That means that heavy parallel processes can be executed on a different thread. This feature is remaining experimental in Node.js version 12 but has been significantly improved.
Θ Callback hell issue
Due to its asynchronous nature, Node.js relies heavily on callbacks, the functions that run after each task in the queue is finished. Keeping a number of queued tasks in the background, each with its callback, might result in the so-called callback hell, which directly impacts the quality of code. Simply put, it’s a “situation where callbacks are nested within other callbacks several levels deep, potentially making it difficult to understand and maintain the code.”
Example of code with nested callbacks
Image source: callbackhell.com
Θ Immaturity of tooling
Although the core Node.js modules are quite stable and can be considered mature, there are many tools in the npm registry which are either of poor quality or not properly documented/tested. Moreover, the registry itself isn’t structured well enough to offer the tools based on their rating or quality. Hence it might be difficult to find the best solution for your purposes without knowing what to look for.
The fact that the Node.js ecosystem is mostly open source, has its impact as well. While the quality of the core Node.js technology is supervised by Joyent and other major contributors, the rest of the tools might lack the quality and high coding standards set by global organizations.
Θ Growing demand for experienced professionals
As the hype over Node.js continues to grow, the demand for experienced professionals in this field increases.
There’s a big knowledge gap between engineering students starting on their jobs and employers’ needs
How to Learn Node.js
Here’s your starter pack to understanding and working with Node.js.
Turorials. Don’t limit yourself to official docs: See tons of free lessons on W3Schools, visit international workshops from Nodeschool, and of course, use the library of free tutorials by freeCodeCamp.
Interactive learning. See free and paid resources that allow you to learn Node.js using interactive lessons and exercises. One of the most popular is The Art of Node.
Community. See the official list of community-run Node.js projects. A quick tip: Research Facebook groups and communities in your area/first language. And of course, refer to the Node.js communities on Reddit, a tag on StackOverflow, and the topic on Quora.
Node.js vs Ruby on Rails vs Django vs Symfony
There’s not a lot of technologies that can compete with Node.js’ popularity or market demand. However, if we look at the alternatives for server-side programming, we see at least three more shining stars in the sky. It’s Ruby on Rails, Django, and Symfony. Let’s see whether they hold up to Node.js’ benefits and share its drawbacks.
Comparing Node.js, Rails, Django, and Symfony stats
Ruby on Rails is known for its simple but opinionated language and the availability of gems – Rails’ own ecosystem of custom packages. Ruby itself is an intuitive and beginner-friendly language with a supportive and dedicated community that contributes code to RubyGems. Rails was created for rapid development and prototyping, though it’s successfully used by such brands as GitHub, Twitter, and Airbnb, proving its wide range of use cases. Its data migration functionality is especially impressive – unlike Node.js, which uses additional packages, Rails already has a feature allowing you to easily and consistently manipulate your database.
When should you use Rails over Node.js? Rails can’t compete with Node’s performance and scalability, however, Rails can be a better choice for fast development. Node.js does have to use third-party modules to achieve that speed of development, but Ruby has it all unconventionally. As for the language, no tool has a distinct advantage – while Node.js has a high demand but low proposition, Ruby’s talent pool is initially smaller.
Symfony is a PHP framework which automatically provides it with 20+ years of documentation, and a massive, active community. More than 80 percent of the web is powered by PHP with projects like Facebook, Baidu, or any other website running on WordPress. While Symfony is just one of PHP frameworks on the market, it’s impressively stable, scalable, and works well for large-scale projects. It also uses a templating engine Twig that works akin to many PHP-based Content Management Systems.
When should you use Symfony over Node.js? Symfony naturally supports CMSs features such as templates and admin dashboards which allows it to run blogs, news sites, and eCommerce stores. Some of the examples include Yahoo Answers, Dailymotion, and National Geographic.
Make Node.js Shine
Obviously, with all the listed Node.js advantages and disadvantages, the technology is no silver bullet. But neither is Java, .Net framework or PHP. Yet, there are specific cases where each one of the listed technologies perform best. For Node.js, these are real-time applications with intense I/O, requiring speed and scalability.
This might be social networks, gaming apps, live chats or forums as well as stock exchange software or ad servers, where speed is everything. Fast and scalable, Node.js is the technology of choice for data-intensive, real-time IoT devices and applications.
Recently, Node.js has been actively used in enterprise-level software. While there is still much argument about this, many large companies and global organizations, such as Capital One and NASA, have already adopted Node.js. And the enterprise Node.js ecosystem continues to mature with such tools as IBM API Connect, Triton by Joyent, N|Solid by NodeSource, Red Hat OpenShift, Trace by RisingStack and others.
This post is a part of our “The Good and the Bad” series. For more information about the pros and cons of the most popular technologies, see the other articles from the series: