Web development #8: Where to go from here - CodeProject

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So if you’ve read all of my previous posts and you’ve made it this far congratulations! You’ve now learned the basics of web development and you have the knowledge to create awesome websites. To actually create awesome websites you need skills and skills come from practice and experience. I’ve only touched the surface in this blog series. So it’s now up to you to get your hands dirty and write more HTML, more CSS, more PHP and more JavaScript. And while doing that Google is your friend! I’ve far from discussed all the possibilities (people write entire books about that), but at least you know all the moving parts. So these previous blogs weren’t so much about making you a pro, they were about getting you up to speed in a simple manner. The rest, unfortunately, is up to you. In case you’ve missed some posts, here they all are again.

  1. Web development #1: Internet and the World Wide Web
  2. Web development #2: Our first website using HTML
  3. Web development #3: Styling our page with CSS 3
  4. Web development #4: PHP in the back
  5. Web development #5: User input with HTML Forms
  6. Web development #6: Getting interactive with JavaScript
  7. Web development #7: Dynamic page updates with AJAX
  8. Web development #8: Where to go from here

So what’s left for us? Well, in this post I’ll write about some stuff I haven’t written about in the previous posts, but which every web developer should know about. After that I’ll lay out some alternative technologies for you that may help you get started with the technologies you want.

Debugging

So you’ve written your page, you test it in your browser, and for some reason it doesn’t do what you want it to do. How can we find our error? The examples I’ve given were pretty small and in those cases it may be feasible to just have a good look at your code again. However, when you’re going to write large applications with much more code on both front- and back end just looking at your code isn’t going to help you. I haven’t discussed debugging your code because a lot of it depends on your environment. In this series I’ve used Notepad++ which doesn’t have any debugging capabilities (although I read there’s some plugin that let’s you debug code, I haven’t tried it though). If you’re going for an IDE (Integrated Development Environment) such as Visual Studio, Eclipse, NetBeans or XCode you’ll get a lot more possibilities. You can set breakpoints, for example, which allows you to pause your software on a certain line of code and inspect variables and their values and then even step through your code line by line to follow the flow of your code. Personally I work with Visual Studio and it allows you to see the entire stack and even edit code at run time.

But that’s all back end debugging. What if something is wrong with your CSS, HTML or JavaScript? Luckily all major browsers (and probably the non-major too) have debugging support. If you’re in IE, Firefox or Chrome press F12 and you’ll get the developer tools (alternatively you can look them up in the browser’s menu). So here you should see a tab or button that gets you to the console. In the console you’ll see any errors or warnings that are generated by your page (invalid HTML, a bug in your JavaScript, etc.). You can also log to the console yourself using console.log() in your JavaScript (never ever use that in production code though). There’s also a tab called Network where you can see all server requests from your page. This comes in handy when pages load slow, perhaps you’re making a lot of requests or you’re loading some large file that takes a while to load. There’s also a tab where you can see your page’s HTML and CSS and edit them real-time (in your browser, not on the server). You can either select an element in the DOM and have it light up on your page or select something on your page and have it highlighted in the DOM. Then you can make changes to your HTML and CSS and see the results real-time. It’s also possible to debug your JavaScript. You can set breakpoints and step through the code following the execution flow and inspecting your variables. Pretty neat and indispensible when working on your pages! Try working with the developer tools in your browser of choice and look for some tutorials.

Picking a back end language

In this series I’ve used PHP. PHP is free (although most languages are nowadays), easy to start with and supported everywhere. You can simply open up Notepad(++), start typing PHP, put it on your server and it’ll run. Compare that to other (compiled) languages like Java and C# and PHP is an absolute winner. A lot of popular Content Management Systems (CMS), applications that help in creating, editing, publishing and maintaining content on your websites, such as WordPress, Joomla!, Drupal and Magento, have support for PHP too. So PHP is a good choice for many applications.

However, a lot of people prefer their languages more strongly typed and object oriented. In that case you might go for Java or C# (or Visual Basic). So suppose you want to go for C# because perhaps you already have experience in WinForms or WPF or a client wants a .NET application. So when using C# you’re basically using the .NET Framework and when going for web development you’ll be using the ASP.NET stack. But then in ASP.NET you’ll have some options like WebForms and MVC. Let’s go with ASP.NET MVC, because that’s a good choice for modern web development. ASP.NET MVC makes use of the MVC Design Pattern. MVC stands for Model View Controller. When requesting a page ASP.NET MVC basically calls a method on a class. This class is called the Controller. Perhaps your Controller makes some database calls and does some computations and then comes up with the data that you want to show on your page. This data is just another class and represents the Model. The Model is then passed to your View, which is basically your HTML, which is then returned to the client. And, like PHP, with C# (or Visual Basic) you can generate HTML/View using the Razor Engine.
So you want to get started with ASP.NET MVC? I don’t blame you, it’s a great product. I recommend you get the Visual Studio Community Edition for free and just start! There’s plenty of tutorials on the web, but if you’re looking for a more structured course on MVC I can recommend the book Professional ASP.NET MVC 5.
And here’s a little downside to .NET compared to PHP. Once you have your software ready for production you’ll need a server with .NET installed that’s also running some special server software called IIS (Internet Information Services).

Another alternative to PHP and C# is Node.js. Node.js is relatively new and is a fast and lightweight platform that allows you to run JavaScript in your back end and create real-time web applications. So you can use JavaScript in your back end, which is pretty neat because that means you can re-use code from your back end in your front end! Try doing that using any other back end language. Other than that Node.js uses sockets, which enables it to send data to your client without that client asking for it. Usually a client sends a request and the server serves. But now we can serve without the client having to request! That allows us to easily create, for example, a chat application. Our client simply subscribes to the chat and our server sends every new message to the client as soon as it’s received. So when going with Node.js you probably want to use Express as well. Express is a JavaScript framework for Node.js which makes working with Node.js just a bit easier. And when you want to start using sockets extensively you might want to check out Socket.IO, which is a library for working with sockets from JavaScript. And of course you’ll need to generate your HTML in Node.js. There’s a few options for you, but Jade is a pretty popular one.
So you may have figured out some of the downsides of Node.js. First of all, it’s JavaScript, which may or may not be a problem for you, depending on your tastes. Second, unlike C#, Node.js doesn’t “just work”. To get any serious business done you need quite some external JavaScript libraries (and there’s A LOT as we’ll see in a bit). The pro, of course, is fast, relatively easy, real-time web apps using the same language as your front end.
If you’re interested in Node.js you may take a look at what’s called the MEAN stack, MongoDB, Express, AngularJS and Node.js. It’s free, open-source and very JavaScript.

I should probably mention that .NET has their own sockets framework that allows you to build real-time web apps easily, called SignalR.

So we’ve looked at some alternatives to PHP. There are more, like Ruby (On Rails), Python and Java. You can check them out, read a bit about them, and decide what works well for you.

Some front end alternatives

So we’ve looked at some back end alternatives, but what can you do on the front end? On the front end it really all comes down to HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Your HTML is generated on your back end and there’s plenty of options to do it, like Razor, Jade or any other HTML generator. It all depends on what back end you pick.

So what about CSS? Well, browsers really require CSS to lay out your page. There are some alternatives though, most notably LESS.
LESS looks a lot like CSS, but adds some features. You could almost call it object oriented CSS.
Another alternative is Stylus, which, like LESS, adds features to CSS. Stylus is focusing more on expressive CSS, which is easy and clean to read while also supporting some form of object orientism.
There’s more, like Sass and Turbine.
Now here’s the deal. None of them replace CSS, rather they are compiled to CSS. So you write your LESS (or any other), compile it, then use the generated CSS on your page. This adds some hassle, since you need to compile your code (your not-quite-CSS) before you can actually see it on your page (as opposed to just refreshing your page). But they also make for clean, maintainble CSS. I recommend checking out at least one of them, especially when you’re going to build larger websites. Alternatively you can just use an already existing library, such as Twitter, which I’ll talk about in a bit.

What about alternatives for JavaScript? There are quite some languages that compile to JavaScript. The two most notable are probably TypeScript and CoffeeScript though.
When you read the first lines on the CoffeeScript page you’ll pretty much have an idea what CoffeeScript is all about, “JavaScript has always had a gorgeous heart. CoffeeScript is an attempt to expose the good parts of JavaScript in a simple way”. So there isn’t much to say about that. It’s just a new syntax for JavaScript, hiding the dirty bits. I haven’t used it myself, but if you don’t quite like the JavaScript syntax and want to try something that’s like JavaScript, but prettier you might want to check out CoffeeScript.
Now TypeScript, that’s quite something different. It adds type safety to JavaScript and actually reads more like C# than JavaScript. Not completely by coincidence as TypeScript was actually created by Anders Hejlsberg, lead architect of C#. Of course it still just compiles to JavaScript. If you’re already in the Microsoft stack and using Visual Studio you may as well give TypeScript a try!
I also want to mention Dart very briefly. It was created by Google and it’s a fully object oriented way of writing JavaScript. In their words “new, yet familiar”.

Libraries and Frameworks

When working with JavaScript you know everything is possible, but nothing is easy. Luckily a whole lot of people have created libraries for you that you can use when using JavaScript. In this section I just want to point out some popular libraries and frameworks. We’ve already seen jQuery and jQuery UI.
Another very popular framework is Twitter Bootstrap. It’s mostly CSS, but has some JavaScript too. It allows you to create pages that look good and scale well across devices with relative ease. It mostly depends on tagging your HTML elements correctly. I’m not going to discuss it any further here. Just know that it’s available and that it’s widely used.
Another popular library is Knockout. With Knockout you can bind your JavaScript classes to your HTML elements. So values are automatically synchronized between your HTML and JavaScript. If a user changes the value of a text field the underlying value is changed and is reflected on your page and vice versa. Again, I’m not discussing it further, just know that it exists.
Another library that you simply cannot ignore is AngularJS. AngularJS is an MVVM (Model View ViewModel) framework for building Single Page Applications (SPA). That means you get a single web page and all data is fetched using AJAX. It makes for a fluent user experience as the website doesn’t need to refresh with each request (only parts of it). AngularJS is BIG. It basically does most that jQuery does and everything that Knockout does as well and the learning curve can be steep. Luckily there are some nice tutorials and books around.
Now one of the most awesome JavaScript libraries you’ll come across is D3.js. If you need any kind of graph or table, or any visual to represent your data, D3.js is the library you need. Just look at it. The website features many examples and it’s fun to just look at it. The only thing I don’t like about this library is that I haven’t needed it yet :-)
You might come across Ember.js as well. It’s an MVC framework for creating Single Page Applications.
Without going into detail, here are some other popular JavaScript libraries: Underscore.js, Backbone.js, MooTools, jQuery Mobile, Modernizr

There’s literally thousands of JavaScript libraries and frameworks. Some are pretty big, like Angular, and some are really small and do just one thing only, but do it really well. You might want to check out Microjs, a website with literally hundreds of very small JavaScript files. Just look around and see what’s available, it might surprise you.

Some final words

So in this final post of my web development series we’ve looked at some alternatives and libraries you can use to help you create awesome websites. There’s still lots of stuff that we haven’t covered, like putting your website in production (because that really depends on the languages you used and where you’re hosting), security (very important!) and SEO, or Search Engine Optimization. We’ve also skipped databases entirely.
We did have a look at all the parts that are vital in web development though. You should now have a pretty good idea of what you need to create your own websites.
For more (less succinct) books on various topics, including a lot of web development, I can recommend Manning Publications. They have some good stuff on Node.js, D3.js, SPA Design, CORS, and more.
Two other really cool articles/projects I came across are Learn JavaScript by Dave Kerr, where he creates a Space Invaders game using JavaScript and a Mario game by Florian Rappl. Both are worth checking out (and if you don’t like their articles you can still play the games ;-) ).

So that’s it for this series. That isn’t to say I’ll stop blogging or I’ll stop writing about web development, it just won’t be for this series. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Any comments and questions are more than welcome!

Thanks for reading.

Happy coding!

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