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Programming Languages and Web Development

The central activity of software development is programming — writing actual code. This requires an in-depth understanding of one or more computer languages. In web development, a certain number of specific languages are required, and several others are simply very popular. Each language carries with it its own peculiar uses, strengths, and weaknesses. Additionally, the tools available in each language go a long way to determining their overall suitability to a particular task.


Why are there so many different languages?

Different Types of Languages

The first reason for the multiplicity of computer languages is that very different types of languages are needed. Even if no two languages overlapped their functionality (which isn’t the case), it would probably take a half-dozen different languages to cover all the various language needs. The three most important types of languages for web use are:

  • Markup Languages are used to annotate data and content with semantic information about that content.
  • Style Sheet Languages are used by rendering engines to determine how to display data and content.
  • Programming Languages are used to instruct a computer to do certain things.

Different Focuses of a Language

Each language has a certain focus, which affects how it is used and what types of use-cases make it the best option.

For example: - PHP is designed to be embedded into HTML documents, which makes it particularly useful for building web sites and web applications. - C and its derivatives (C#, C++) provides access to low-level hardware manipulation, making it particularly useful for foundational software like Operating systems and language compilers.

There are languages that are specifically geared for a number of different type of “problem domains,” such as command-and-control, artificial intelligence, data analysis, and graphics processing.

Popular web languages

Because of a combination of requirements, popularity, and historical accident, certain languages have become especially associated with web development, rather than with desktop applications.

They fall into two categories:

  • Client Side languages. Files written in client-side languages are sent directly to web browsers, which interpret them for displaying content to the end-user of a website.
  • Server Side languages, which are programming languages that are used to build web applications which run on the server (the computer that hosts the website, not the computer of the person visiting it).


Client Side Languages

  • HTML — Hypertext Markup Language — Website pages and documents are written in HTML, which consists of base content combined with inter-linear tags that provide semantic information about the content.

  • CSS — Cascading Style Sheet — Provides a set of detailed instructions to the browser (or a printer) about how the content of an HTML document should be displayed. CSS includes details like font declarations, sizing, color, on-page placements, and layering precedence.

  • JS — Javascript — Javascript is a scripting language that can be used to provide rich web interaction inside a browser. JS is event-driven, responding to actions taken by the user such as clicking, mousing, hovering, and typing. JS scripts have full access to the document structure of their associated web page.

Server Side Languages

Almost any programming language (C#, Objective-C, etc.) can be used to build server-side applications, but a handful of specific languages have come to be especially popular for doing so. 

Some of them were designed for the web (PHP, ASP), others began as general-purpose languages but have been extended with a standardized tools for doing web development.

  • SSI — Server Side Includes — A very simple scripting language for including HTML document portions into other HTML documents.
  • VB.NET — Visual Basic .NET — A part of Microsoft’s .NET family.
  • ASP — Active Server Pages — An early attempt to provide dynamic scripting functionality into HTML documents. In some ways, it was a precursor to PHP. It has since been succeeded by ASP.NET.
  • ColdFusion
  • Java — Mature general-purpose language used for desktop, web, and embedded applications on a wide variety of platforms. Has been used as a client-side scripting language, but this requires a browser plugin, so it is no longer common. Its server-side usage has largely been replaced by the similarly named, but otherwise unrelated, Javascript.
  • Perl — General-purpose development language, particularly popular with hip Comp Sci geeks.
  • PHP — PHP hypertext preprocessor — The most popular server-side scripting language in the world. PHP is behind the most popular content management systems like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, and Mediawiki.
    • PHP 4
    • PHP 5
  • Python — Popular general purpose language, popular for shell scripting, and popular for other uses among the type of people who really get into shell scripting.
  • Ruby — Very popular, elegantly constructed language with an overly-devoted user base. Can be used on its own as a general purpose language for desktop applications or shell-scripting. For web use, it is usually used in the context of the Ruby on Rails application framework.

Other Web Languages

The web isn’t just about web sites anymore. As the internet increasingly encompasses devices, real-time gaming, virtual reality, and a whole host of other new technology paradigms, new languages are being created and put into service to implement new ideas.

  • TCL — Tool Command Language — Used for command-and-control applications.
  • WAP/WML — Wireless Application Protocol & Wireless Markup Language
  • VRML — Virtual Reality Modeling Language

Programming & Hosting FAQs

How many programming languages are there?

There are hundreds of different programming languages and new ones are emerging every day. Some programming languages are even created as jokes, although sometimes those jokes become serious.

Programming languages generally belong to language families, having taken aspects of a "parent" language or influence from multiple languages. In such a way, you might look at the history of programming languages as an evolving ecosystem. 

This history is deep, starting with Fortran and BASIC in the 1950 and 1960's, which influenced most of the languages to ever exist. "C" was created in the 70's which is one of the most influential languages, resulting in C++ as one of the most influential object oriented languages.

What are the most popular programming languages?

The most popular programming language is "C" it is the root of almost all object oriented languages, runs the fastest, and for the most part is required for software development of operating systems.

Following that is JAVA, which is a very general purpose language which can run on any computer without the need for recompilation by using bytecode designed to run on a Java virtual machine (JVM), making it extremely popular for web applications, with reported use of over 9 million developers.

Following that is PHP and Javascript, which are very popular for web development, then C++ and Python, which are object oriented but with a lot of extra functionality built in. Finally Shell, Ruby, Objective C, C#, SQL and Perl are popular choices after that.

What is a programming paradigm?

A programming paradigm is a style of constructing the elements and structures of a language which describe how a language works or what it is used for. The most distinguished paradigms are imperative, declarative, functional, object-oriented, procedural, logic and symbolic. 

A programming language can have more than one of those concepts, but generally focuses on a just a few at once. These paradigms have different ways of handling the "state" of a program, or controlling certain portions of data as declared values. Functional programming is useful for mathematical expressions and deals with using the power of recursion highly effectively.

Perhaps the most prolific paradigm though is object-oriented programming (OOP) which allows for the creation of "objects" as structural blueprints. Generally those called "classes," which create unique instances of an object, each of which contain data (called fields) and special procedures (called methods). These objects, once constructed, can communicate with other objects and interact with the fields, or invoke the method in another object.

How does a compiler work? Do I need to use a compiler?

For most programming, you don't need to know how a compiler works, just how to use one to debug code. A short synopsis of how a compiler works though, is that a computer has a certain "finite" number of "states" and that once put into motion, the system becomes known as an automata which operate with the states together as what is called a "finite state machine."

While these terms sound exotic and difficult, understanding them will help understand how regular expressions work, and thus why programming languages often have very strict rules about syntax. Very often, a missing parenthesis or semi-colon can break software completely, automata-based compilers or script interpreters breaking is the reason why the code won't work.

What's the difference between a programming language and a scripting language?

A scripting language is a sub-set of programming languages which generally doesn't need to be compiled. Javascript and PHP are great examples here, these languages work without the need to compile, they use pre-compiled software in a special way such that they're recycling machine-level operations without the need to transform your scripts into byte-code in order to run. This means the code won't be as efficient in speed, but that it will take less time to write/debug since it doesn't have to be compiled every time. Also, this is extremely useful for web applications, since Javascript code will be delivered to the user and will run automatically without needing to compile first. What is an Interactive Development Environment (IDE) and should I use one?

For programming languages which do compile (and even some that don't) using an IDE can make software authoring happen a lot faster. When writing programs from a text editor or command line, using a lot of "print" statements is necessary to debug issues. Within an IDE however, debug tools will print errors for you in many cases, and with the use of "intellisense" you can very often browse the methods of a class without needing to type out the whole name. Also, an IDE will use syntax coloring based on the language, highlighting different parts of the code with different colors, making it easier to read. An IDE is mostly useful for server side code or desktop applications, for web development, text editors and browser tools are often faster and easier to work from.

What does "Client-side" versus "Server-side" mean? Why is it important?

Client-side means that the code will run on the device of a visitor to your web page or user of your application. Javascript, HTML, CSS are the most common types of scripting languages used for this purpose. Server-side code runs on the web application server, which is kept at a single domain name or IP address. 

This code can be either be compiled or scripted depending on which technologies are used. These applications often receive input from application users, perform logical operations, and then send output operations back. Understanding how a client and a server work together is the first step in knowing how to build a web application.

Which languages are best for web application development?

There aren't many real limits to what programming languages can be used for the server-code.

By use of a wrapper, one programming language might reference software written in another programming language, so different pieces can be strung together. However, from the most popular languages listed above, PHP and Javascript are perhaps the most dominant in web development, as part of the Linux Apache MySQL PHP (LAMP) stack. Java and C# both content for control of larger scale enterprise applications, while Python has a ton of powerful web frameworks as well.

Don't let popularity be a deciding factor though if you are trying to optimize performance, but popularity can be useful for beginners looking for tutorials. There is no "best" language, otherwise there would only be one programming language.

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