Node.js as Backend: What it is, When to Use it, & Frameworks to Try

Develop highly scalable real-time or single-page applications (SPA) using Node.js. Check out how to use this language and which frameworks will streamline your Node.js backend development.

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by Matias Emiliano Alvarez Duran

01/15/2023

Node.js is a trending topic in the app development world, and for a good reason. Amazon, Netflix, and eBay all use it in their backend. In fact, it’s used by 2% of the world’s web apps—that’s more than 22 million apps.

Using this runtime environment can make programming an app quicker and easier. But what exactly is Node.js backend development? When is it best used and what frameworks are recommended?

At NaNLABS, we use Node.js on a near-daily basis, so we’re going to answer all your questions and make sure you get the best out of this popular tool.

Table of contents

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What is Node.js as backend development?

Node.js is a popular open-sourceJavaScript runtime environment. It’s built on Chrome’s V8 engine and can be used for both frontend and backend development. However, it’s especially well suited to server-side application development due to its unique feature set.

Node.js was developed by Ryan Dahl way back in 2009.

High speed

Node.js uses non-blocking input and output (I/O) operations. This means it works on multiple client-side requests at once and doesn't block input requests while another is being processed. It also uses asynchronous I/O so when a request is received, Node.js resolves it and then makes itself available for another request.

Optimized performance 

Node.js is single-threaded, meaning it can execute an entire process from beginning to end without interruption. It’s also event-driven, so producers and consumers are separated. Its single-threaded, event-driven architecture allows Node.js to multitask several simultaneous requests without clogging up RAM.

Reusability

Node.js is normally written with JavaScript, the most common programming language. This means you can easily share parts of code between different components in the system. Plus, you can use the same parts of code for both the frontend and the backend.

Scalability

Node.js’s high-speed operations and optimized performance make it easy to scale your application. This can be done horizontally by replicating many instances of your project on different servers. You can also scale your system vertically using a cluster module that will fork your application process to all your CPU cores.

Active community

Node.js is used by millions of developers and has a strong online community ready to assist you if you run into difficulties. It also has a large open-source Node Package Manager (NPM) repository with over 60 thousand modules available. So instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, you can find a ready-made solution to your problem.

When using Node.js is (and isn’t) a good idea

Don’t know when to use Node.js? Node problem. Here we’ll explain when Node.js can make Agile software development easier—and when it’s best avoided.

Node.js’s event loop makes it unsuitable for some use cases.

When to use it

The best use cases for Node.js in backend web development all draw on its ability to process tons of data quickly.

Real-time applications

Because Node.js can provide high speeds and performance, it’s a perfect fit for real-time applications like messaging or chat that lack heavy computation demands. The environment is able to support heavy traffic from multiple short messages or chat rooms when messages are displayed to multiple users simultaneously.

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Julian Alessandro, the co-founder of NaNLABS, explains, “The way Node.js’ engine is built and how it handles input and output operations, making requests to APIs is simple for developing and fast in runtime. This is key for real-time applications where response time should be minimal.”

Single-page applications (SPAs)

Node.js can be used to create single-page web applications that look and feel like a desktop program. Due to its flexibility as a runtime environment, it’s a good choice when making social network platforms, email solutions, and dynamic websites. Node.js is also a great fit for SPA development due to its asynchronous backend data flow and non-blocking I/O.

Streaming applications

Node.js powers Netflix—the biggest streaming platform on the market. Streaming requires sending significant amounts of data in smaller packages instead of a single batch. This is especially important for audio or video streaming apps. Node.js has built-in modules that support data streaming and enable it to create readable and writable data streams. 

Scalable solutions 

Node.js’s fast, lightweight nature makes it ideal for apps that experience high-peak loads and will need to be scaled in the future. This is especially true when it’s used in a tech stack with microservices architecture. For example, Uber’s app was developed with Node.js and it has since withstood exponential growth and high demand peaks. 

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Julian adds, “The single-threaded way of working is really good for building APIs that can scale fast. This allows it to handle multiple requests at the same time using a small amount of resources, in that way scaling is quite easy.”

API integrations

Since the release of Node.js version 10.5.0, threads have been available to compute more complex processes such as API integrations. Due to JavaScript's use in both frontend and backend, the server and frontend can communicate easily via REST APIs with Node.js. Plus, you can easily find a library to develop a REST or GraphQL API, thanks to the large online community.

When to avoid it

If you find yourself facing any of the situations below, it’s best to use a different runtime environment such as Java or Python.

Heavy computations

Due to its single-threaded nature, Node.js executes tasks asynchronously. This means that if a heavy computation request appears in the thread, it will need the entire CPU to process it before it can move on to other queued tasks. So Node.js’s biggest strength, its event-driven, non-blocking I/O model, is rendered useless, and performance suffers.

Multi-threaded applications

Multi-threading is a program execution model where applications have multiple threads working independently from each other while sharing the same resources. Since Node.js is meant for single-threaded apps (which perform one task at a time) you can’t do proper multithreading with this environment. You could use Node.js to build a multi-threaded solution by breaking your code into synchronized code blocks, but this alternative is time-consuming.

Web applications with relational databases

Javascript (Node.js’s primary language) has a way to represent objects called JSON (Javascript object notation) that’s very well suited for non-relational databases like Mongo. Node.js’s relational database support tools aren’t as advanced as other languages. This makes Node.js less desirable for use cases with relational databases, at least for the time being. Java or Python are best suited for working with relational databases.

5 Node.js frameworks to know about

As any good Jedi master needs an apprentice, every good runtime environment needs the right framework. Here are some of the best on the market.

1. Express.js

Express.js is the most commonly used Node.js framework and is our framework of choice at NaNLABS. We think it’s the best way to take advantage of high-speed operations within simple architecture. Express.js offers many useful features that make backend development easier:

  • Fast server-side programming packages

  • Wide test coverage

  • A large number of HTTP helpers

  • Improved content negotiation

  • Model-view-controller (MVC) architectural pattern

  • Huge community support

Express.js works well for developing applications both small and large and has been used to create apps for companies like Twitter, Accenture, and IBM.

Uber also uses the Express.js framework for its applications. Source: Unsplash

2. Koa.js

Koa.js was created by the same team that made Express.js and is being billed as the next generation in Node.js frameworks. It was built to create client-side web applications and includes callback channels, event delegation, and the ability to run asynchronous code. Other benefits include:

  • More customization options

  • Exceptional error handling 

  • Cascading middleware

  • Node inconsistency normalization

  • Proxy and content negotiation support

Its similarity to Express.js means you can take advantage of that framework’s flexibility whilst also enjoying the benefit of increased freedom and a simpler coding experience. But because Koa.js is relatively new to the scene it has a smaller support community, making it difficult to use for beginners.

Koa.js is used by Linkedin for their backend development. Source: Unsplash

3. Hapi.js 

Hapi.js is one of the most straightforward, dependable, and safe frameworks out there. It’s often used to develop proxy servers and REST APIs because it’s highly reliable and has rich security features. Other features include:

  • End-to-end code hygiene

  • Regularly updated secure defaults

  • Rich ecosystem of official plugins

  • Quick and easy bug fixing

  • Default authentication and input validation

Hapi.js is great for developing scalable and secure real-time applications. This means it’s a popular choice for social media apps and is also used to create programs for companies like PayPal and Disney.

PayPal uses the Hapi.js framework for its applications. Source: Unsplash

4. Meteor.js 

If you’re looking for a framework that’s specific to Javascript and uses only one language, Meteor.js is the ideal pick. It has comprehensive libraries and testing features, making it quick and easy to work with. It’s especially useful for real-time and streaming apps due to its smooth server-to-client data flow. It also includes:

  • Cross-platform support

  • Hot code reload

  • Automatic minification

  • Reactive templates

  • Extensive community support

If your development team is experienced with Javascript, Meteor.js is very easy to get to grips with. It also allows you to deploy live updates post-launch without disrupting the user experience. It’s a useful framework for building real-time, cross-platform apps on a tight deadline.

Meteor.js has been used to build innovative apps for Ikea. Source: Ikea

5. Nest.js

Nest.js is another go-to framework for us here at NaNLABS for developing web solutions. Because it’s a functional-reactive programming (FRP) and object-oriented language, it’s often used to develop enterprise-level software that’s built to scale. Key features include:

  • A powerful Command Line Interface (CLI)

  • Active codebase maintenance and development

  • Supports lots of nest-specific modules such as TypeORM, Mongoose, and GraphQL

  • Easy to use unit-testing apps

  • Suitable for both monolith and microservices architectures

Nest.js is highly customizable, includes extensive documentation and has a large community of followers. For these reasons Nest.js is currently the fastest-growing Node.js framework and is used by companies like Roche and Decathlon.

Adidas has used the Nest.js framework to make its apps. Source: Adidas

Still need help?

Still have doubts about Node.js or don’t have the in-house expertise for the custom software development process? Hire a team with extensive experience working with Node.js like NaNLABS. We offer consultancy, team augmentation, and MVP development services to get your app off the ground. 

Far from a ‘bolt-on’ team of programmers, we pride ourselves on getting to know the ins and outs of our partners and how they work. This approach helps us build the strong relationships necessary to exceed your project milestones and goals.

Ready to build your own custom software with a team that cares about you and your processes? We’re not code monkeys, we care about you

Node.js backend development in your next project

Node.js is a fast, high-performing runtime environment that can make your backend development much smoother. It’s especially useful when developing:

  • Real-time applications

  • Single-page applications (SPA)

  • Streaming applications

  • Scalable solutions 

  • API integrations

But it’s best avoided when dealing with heavy computations, CRUD applications, or web applications with relational databases. You should also choose your framework carefully, as each works better in some scenarios than others.

Ready to build your own custom software with a team that cares about you and your processes? We’re not code monkeys, we care about you

Frequently asked questions about Node.js backend development

Is Node.js good for backend development?

Yes, Node.js is good for backend development for several reasons:

  • It’s lightweight and fast

  • It’s good for multitasking simultaneous requests

  • Components and codes can be reused

  • It’s easy to scale

  • There’s a large, active community for support

  • It has native support in AWS

Can a Node.js application be built with TypeScript?

Yes, a Node.js application can be built with TypeScript. TypeScript is a superset of Javascript making it easy to rename your .js files to .ts. While TypeScript can run directly on Node.js with the ts-node package, we recommend you use the JavaScript version of your project for the final deployment. 

What’s the difference between Javascript and Node.js?

The difference between Javascript and Node.js is that Javascript is a programming language used for writing scripts on a website. Node.js is a popular open-sourceJavaScript runtime environment best suited to server-side application development due to its unique feature set.

What are the best practices for Node.js backend development?

The best practices for Node.js backend development are:

  • Creating a package with Node Package Manager (NPM) and saving the exact package version

  • Adding the script property and object to your package.json

  • Use environment variables to look up values from process.env in Node.js

  • Create a style guide for your developers working on the projects

  • Avoid garbage collection if you’re using Node.js version 8

  • Use Node’s logging frameworks to reduce resource consumption and latency

What are the most used Node.js frameworks?

The most used Node.js frameworks include: 

  • Express.js for high-speed operations within simple architecture

  • Koa.js to create client-sideweb applications, callback channels, event delegation, and run asynchronous code

  • Hapi.js to develop proxy servers and REST APIs

  • Meteor.js for real-time and streaming apps specific to Javascript

  • Nest.js for developing web solutions

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