What Is the Difference Between Front-end and Back-end?
What do the web development terms front-end and back-end mean?
Written by Thomas Sigdestad on
When you work with digital marketing and CMS, you’re bound to have heard your developer colleagues or some other tech-savvy person mention “front-end” and “back-end.” These computing terms obviously have something to do with digital experiences, but what’s the difference between them?
In purely etymological terms, “front-end” denotes what you experience up front, while “back-end” denotes whatever is going on behind the scenes. As simple as that. More specifically to our context, “front-end” refers to the user interface in the web browser, while “back-end” refers to the actions on the server.
Still confused? Let’s delve even deeper.
Let’s start with some handy examples. When interacting with digital media, the front-end could be a static HTML site, a single-page app, links, images, functions, and drag-and-drop. What previously was confined to the operating system in terms of functionality, you now can get directly in the web browser.
Think in terms of Google Docs, Facebook, Pixlr, YouTube, Spotify, and browser-based games. A couple of decades ago the functionality and user experience of these services were unthinkable in the web browsers. Today, front-end technology has amped up considerably, and provides a nearly limitless number of possibilities for end users.
Read more: Websites: past and present »
Most of what you see and experience in the front-end, however, requires a back-end engine that receives and delivers data from the front-end. Front-end material is downloaded to the web browser and is powered by your computer, while the back-end needs to support thousands or even millions of front-ends. In Netflix, for instance, front-end code runs on your computer, while the back-end handles all the requests, searches, and data streaming—essentially all the heavy lifting.
Examples of back-end are APIs, business logic, assembling the front-end code, scaling, data storage, and user authentication. In other words, back-end involves a lot of complexity. Just imagine how many servers, how much infrastructure, and how robust security is needed to run a service like Facebook.
The front-end is more isolated and neat in comparison, but still takes time to develop due to the close proximity to end users and their feedback. While the front-end can be compared to a steering wheel, the back-end is analogous to the car engine. Excluding some simple apps, you won’t get any way without the back-end.
The bottom line? Front-end is the user experience, while back-end is the engine behind the user experience. Both parts are essential in operating digital experiences.
Even though you don’t need a thorough knowledge of either of them to work with digital platforms, knowing something about your everyday tools will make you appreciate them more, and the understanding can even help you see new possibilities.
First published 27 November 2019, updated 12 December 2023.
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