How Web Applications Work
Modern Web Applications work based on 3 architectural levels. There is a client frontend that you experience through your web browser, a backend layer that lives on the server, and a database. There are additional elements you would find in a modern architecture stack such as API gateways, authentication & caching.
As a software architect and consultant with over 20 years of experience, I’ve worked on dozens of high availability applications at scale. Throughout my career, I’ve noticed that understanding the basics of web applications can be a challenge for beginners or those looking to expand their knowledge. In this article, I’ll provide a clear, simple explanation of how web applications function, focusing on the architecture and underlying components. I’ll use analogies, real-world examples, and visuals to simplify concepts, making it easy for anyone to grasp the foundations of web application development.
- Web Application Components: Web applications consist of a frontend (user interface) and a backend (server-side component), with databases and data storage systems supporting data management.
- Databases and Data Storage: Web applications rely on databases, such as MySQL, PostgreSQL, MongoDB, and SQLite, for data storage and management. Caching systems like Redis or Memcached can be used to store temporary data and improve performance.
- Client-Server Communication: Web applications use the HTTP protocol and techniques like AJAX for communication between clients and servers. APIs enable interaction with external services and other web applications.
- Running Web Applications: Web applications run on web servers, which can be physical machines, virtual machines, or cloud-based infrastructure. Popular web servers include Apache, Nginx, and Microsoft’s Internet Information Services (IIS).
- Responsive Design: Web applications should be designed to provide a consistent and user-friendly experience across different devices and screen sizes.
- Progressive Enhancement: This web development strategy focuses on building a core, functional experience for all users, and then adding advanced features for users with modern browsers and devices.
- Accessibility: Accessible web applications follow best practices and guidelines, such as WCAG, to ensure a user-friendly experience for all users, including those with disabilities.
- Security: Ensuring the protection of user data and preventing unauthorized access are top priorities in web application development. Follow best practices, use secure connections (HTTPS), and keep software up-to-date.
- Performance and Scalability: Key strategies for optimizing performance and scalability include caching, load balancing, using Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), optimizing code, and monitoring and profiling.
What is a Web Application?
A web application, unlike a static website or a desktop application, is an interactive, dynamic software application that runs in a web browser. While traditional websites mainly display information, web applications allow users to perform tasks, interact with data, and complete various actions. Think of a web application as an advanced version of a website, offering a richer and more engaging user experience.
Types of Web Applications
There are three main types of web applications, categorized based on how they process and render information:
- Server-rendered applications: The server handles most of the processing, and the resulting HTML is sent to the browser for display. Examples include classic PHP, ASP.NET, or Ruby on Rails applications.
- Progressive Web Apps (PWAs): These are hybrid applications that combine the best of both web and native applications, offering features like offline access and app-like experiences on mobile devices. PWAs can be installed on a user’s device, enabling push notifications and faster loading times, while still being accessible through a web browser.
Examples of Web Applications
Two well-known examples of web applications are Google Docs and Trello. Google Docs is a suite of web-based productivity tools that allow users to create, edit, and share documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. Trello, on the other hand, is a project management tool that uses a visual, card-based system to help teams organize tasks and collaborate effectively.
Components of a Web Application
Web applications consist of three major components:
- Backend: The server-side component that processes user requests, manages data, and communicates with databases.
- Database: The system responsible for storing and managing the data used by the web application.
Web Application Architecture
In a typical web application architecture, the client-side (frontend) and server-side (backend) components work together to create a seamless user experience. When a user interacts with the frontend, requests are sent to the backend, which processes the data and sends a response back to the frontend for display.
A common architectural pattern for web applications is the Model-View-Controller (MVC) pattern. In MVC, the Model represents the data and business logic, the View displays the data to the user, and the Controller manages user input and updates the Model and View accordingly. This separation of concerns allows for easier maintenance and scalability.
Web Application Flow
The flow of a web application can be summarized in the following steps:
- The user interacts with the frontend, triggering an event (e.g., clicking a button or submitting a form).
- The frontend sends an HTTP request to the backend, often including data or parameters related to the user’s action.
- The backend processes the request, performing tasks such as data validation, authentication, or database queries.
- The backend sends an HTTP response back to the frontend, containing any requested data or status updates.
- The frontend updates the user interface based on the response, providing feedback or displaying new information.
Common frontend technologies include:
- HTML (Hypertext Markup Language): The structure and content of the web application.
- CSS (Cascading Style Sheets): The styling and layout of the web application. CSS frameworks like Bootstrap and Tailwind CSS can help streamline the design process and ensure consistency across different devices.
Popular backend technologies and frameworks include:
- Python: A versatile programming language with web development frameworks like Django and Flask.
- Ruby: A dynamic, object-oriented programming language with the popular web development framework Ruby on Rails.
- PHP: A widely-used server-side scripting language with frameworks like Laravel and Symfony.
Databases and Data Storage
Databases play a critical role in web applications by storing and managing data. Some popular database management systems include:
- MySQL: A widely-used, open-source relational database management system (RDBMS).
- PostgreSQL: A powerful, open-source RDBMS with advanced features and performance optimizations.
- MongoDB: A NoSQL database that stores data in a flexible, JSON-like format, making it well-suited for modern web applications.
- SQLite: A lightweight, serverless, self-contained SQL database engine, often used for small-scale projects or as an embedded database within mobile apps.
In addition to databases, web applications may also use caching systems, such as Redis or Memcached, to store temporary data and improve performance.
APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) are another important aspect of client-server communication. APIs allow web applications to interact with external services, such as social media platforms, payment gateways, or other web applications. REST (Representational State Transfer) is a popular architectural style for designing networked applications that use HTTP to communicate.
Running Web Applications
Web applications run on web servers, which process incoming requests and serve the appropriate content. Servers can be physical machines, virtual machines, or cloud-based infrastructure. Popular web servers include Apache, Nginx, and Microsoft’s Internet Information Services (IIS).
Web applications typically require a server to function, as they rely on server-side processing and data management. However, some modern web development approaches, such as serverless architectures or static site generators, can minimize or eliminate the need for a traditional server.
The Purpose of Web Applications
Web applications serve a wide range of purposes, from providing online services to streamlining business processes. They offer numerous benefits, such as accessibility from any device with internet access, easy updates, and reduced maintenance compared to traditional desktop applications. Web applications have become increasingly important as businesses and consumers rely more on the internet for daily tasks and interactions.
Security is a crucial aspect of web application development. Ensuring the protection of user data and preventing unauthorized access are top priorities. Some basic security tips include validating user input, using secure connections (HTTPS), and keeping software up-to-date.
More advanced security measures involve implementing proper authentication and authorization systems, such as OAuth or JWT (JSON Web Tokens), to manage user access and permissions. Encrypting sensitive data, both in transit and at rest, is another essential step in securing web applications.
Developers should also be aware of common web application vulnerabilities, such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), and cross-site request forgery (CSRF). These vulnerabilities can be mitigated by following best practices, using security libraries or tools, and regularly conducting security audits or penetration tests.
Performance and Scalability
As web applications grow in complexity and user base, performance and scalability become critical factors. A well-performing web application ensures a smooth user experience, while scalability ensures that the application can handle increased traffic and demand.
Some key strategies for optimizing performance and scalability include:
- Caching: Storing frequently-used data in memory, reducing the need for expensive database queries or complex calculations.
- Load balancing: Distributing incoming requests across multiple servers to ensure that no single server becomes overwhelmed.
- Content Delivery Networks (CDNs): Distributing static assets, such as images or stylesheets, across a network of servers located around the world to reduce latency and improve load times.
- Monitoring and profiling: Regularly monitoring performance metrics and using profiling tools to identify and resolve bottlenecks.
As web applications are accessed from a wide range of devices, including desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones, it’s crucial to ensure that they provide a consistent and user-friendly experience across all platforms. Responsive design is an approach to web design that aims to create flexible layouts, images, and CSS that adapt to the user’s screen size and orientation.
Using responsive design techniques, developers can create web applications that automatically adjust their layout and appearance based on the device being used. Some key aspects of responsive design include:
- Fluid grids: Using relative units (e.g., percentages) instead of fixed units (e.g., pixels) to create flexible layouts that automatically resize with the browser window.
- Flexible images: Ensuring images scale and resize based on screen size to prevent overflow or distortion.
- Media queries: Using CSS media queries to apply different styles and layouts based on screen size, resolution, or other device characteristics.
Progressive enhancement is a web development strategy that emphasizes building a core, functional experience for all users, and then progressively adding more advanced features or enhancements for users with modern browsers and devices. This approach ensures that web applications are accessible to as many users as possible, regardless of their device or browser capabilities.
Progressive enhancement typically involves the following steps:
- Building a core, accessible experience using HTML and CSS that works on all browsers and devices.
- Incorporating advanced features, such as geolocation, offline access, or touch interactions, for users with cutting-edge devices and browser support.
Accessibility is a crucial aspect of web application development that ensures all users, including those with disabilities, can access and interact with the content. Accessible web applications follow best practices and guidelines, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), to provide a user-friendly experience for everyone.
Some key principles of accessible web application development include:
- Providing alternative text for images, allowing screen readers to describe the content for visually impaired users.
- Ensuring proper contrast ratios between text and background colors, making content easier to read for users with color vision deficiencies.
- Designing clear and intuitive navigation, making it easier for all users to find their way around the web application.
- Using semantic HTML elements and ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) attributes to provide additional context and information for assistive technologies, such as screen readers.
Developing and Testing Web Applications
A well-structured development process is essential for creating high-quality web applications. This typically involves using version control systems (e.g., Git) to track code changes, organizing work into sprints or milestones, and regularly testing the application for bugs or issues.
Testing web applications involves several types of tests, including:
- Unit tests: Small, isolated tests that focus on individual functions or components to ensure they work as expected.
- Integration tests: Tests that verify the interactions between different components or systems, such as the frontend and backend, or the application and external APIs.
- End-to-end tests: Simulating user interactions and workflows to ensure the entire application works as intended from a user’s perspective.
In this section, we’ll address some frequently asked questions related to web applications that we haven’t covered in the main article.
What is the difference between a web app and an application?
A web app is a type of software application that runs in a web browser, while an application (often referred to as a desktop or native application) is a software program that runs directly on a user’s computer or device. Web apps are accessed through the internet and are typically platform-independent, whereas native applications must be installed on the user’s device and are often platform-specific.
Is a web application just a website?
No, a web application is not just a website. While both web applications and websites are accessed via a web browser, web applications are interactive and dynamic. And also allowing users to perform tasks and interact with data, whereas websites are primarily informational and display content.
Why do we need web applications?
Web applications offer numerous benefits, including accessibility from any device with an internet connection, easy updates, and reduced maintenance compared to traditional desktop applications. They allow businesses and users to streamline processes, access services, and collaborate more efficiently.
Where do web applications run?
Web applications run on web servers, which process incoming requests and serve the appropriate content. The frontend (user interface) runs in the user’s web browser, while the backend (server-side component) runs on a server, either a physical machine, virtual machine, or cloud-based infrastructure.
What is the difference between a website and a web application?
The main difference between a website and a web application is the level of interactivity and functionality. Websites primarily display information and are often static, while web applications allow users to perform tasks, interact with data, and complete various actions, making them more dynamic and interactive.
Does a web application need a server?
Web applications typically require a server to function, as they rely on server-side processing and data management. However, some modern web development approaches, such as serverless architectures or static site generators. And also can minimize or eliminate the need for a traditional server.
What is the purpose of a web application?
Web applications serve a wide range of purposes, from providing online services and tools to streamlining business processes and enhancing collaboration. They offer a more engaging and interactive user experience than traditional websites, making it easier for users to perform tasks and access information.
How Web Applications Work
Understanding how web applications work is essential for anyone looking to delve into web development or expand their knowledge of technology. By learning about the components, architecture, and technologies involved, you can build a solid foundation for creating engaging, dynamic web applications. As a seasoned software architect, I encourage you to explore this fascinating world further and discover the endless possibilities web applications have to offer. Whether you’re developing a simple blog or a complex enterprise solution, the skills and knowledge you gain in web application development will prove invaluable throughout your career.
Web Application Architecture Article Series
Did you enjoy this article? We have a full article series on the topic of web applications. Check out the below articles to dig further into the topic.
- Types of Web Applications
- How to Build a Web Application
- Scaling PHP Web Applications
- 3-Tier Web Application Architecture: Definitive Guide
- Serverless Web Applications
- How Modern Web Applications Work
- Web Applications vs Enterprise Applications: Key Differences
- Web Applications vs Desktop Applications
- Web Applications vs Native Applications
- API vs Web Application: Key Differences Explored
- SaaS Web Application Development: Complete A-Z Guide
- Future of Web Applications: Rise of SaaS and Traditional Web App
- SaaS, Web Services, SOA, vs SOAP: What’s the Difference
- Web Service vs Web Application
- Market your Web-Based SaaS Software
- Monitor Web Application Performance
- Best Cloud PHP Hosting Providers for Web Apps Compared