Having a great idea for a product is only the first step in success in today’s competitive marketplace. Product development includes elements of strategy, design, development, marketing, and distribution – and on the backbone of all of that, the right technology to support and grow your idea.
Choosing the right technology can help boost your time to market, performance, and overall maintenance – while choosing the right technology could mean additional development time, frequent debugging, performance issues, or a tech stack that fails to deliver the product you need.
This article will outline all the essential elements of a tech stack to build and support a website, web app, or mobile app in 2021. The article will walk through different tech stacks, tech stack examples, and how to choose the best tech stack to support Agile development methods. Finally, the article will outline how to accelerate the product development cycle with experienced full-stack development teams.
What is a Tech Stack?
A technology stack, sometimes also called a solutions stack, is the combination of technology services, frameworks, and languages that make up the ecosystem of a web app, mobile app, or website. It’s called a “stack” because one layer of technology can be thought of as layered upon the other. The tech stack is organized into two parts: the back-end (how it works) and the frontend (how it looks).
In each element of the tech stack, you may see various formatting: frontend / backend, front-end / back-end, or front end / back end.
Components of a Technology Stack
Now that we know the tech stack is built up of two parts, let’s break each part down into its components:
Front-End Tech Stack (Client-Side)
While the front-end is what faces the client, it is important to think beyond just the surface-level design. The frontend is made up of all the elements that go into that visual representation on the web browser or mobile device, which includes the use of three programming languages:
HTML (Hypertext Markup Language)
The language / framework for creating web content. HTML provides the structure for how the website or app will be displayed. HTML is used to support words and images in terms of their position and organization.
CSS (Cascading Style Sheets)
CSS is a companion to HTML, a language that defines how HTML is styled or presented. CSS is used to support basic style elements such as colors, fonts, layout, and very basic response features.
Back-End Tech Stack (Server-Side)
The back-end tech stack refers to everything that lives on the server “behind” what is seen, the inside workings or backbone of the website or app. Elements of the backend tech stack include:
Server-Side Programming Languages
A framework is a set of generic functionalities that can be assembled or built upon to assist in development. The choice in framework will be dictated by the programming language chosen for development as well as the target platform(s).
Common server-side web application frameworks include:
The web server is responsible for storing, processing, distributing static and dynamic content and pages to users as either a website or an app. Common back-end web servers include Apache, Nginx and IIS.
The database (also a server) is the repository for your web or mobile app code. The database is also responsible for collecting, storing, processing and managing collected data. Common databases include MongoDB and MySQL.
The operating system (OS) in a tech stack is the software interface through which the servers, frameworks, and other software elements of the stack access the computing resources. The most common OS options are Windows, Mac OS, iOS, Linux, and Android.
Why a Technology Stack is Important
Putting together a technology stack is a purposeful activity that should not be taken lightly. Beyond simple preference of one language, framework, or tool over another, technology stack combinations directly impact website or app performance, scalability, cost, as well as long-term support and maintenance.
What are the Differences Between Mobile and Web Apps Tech Stacks?
In a website and web app, a user interacts with the product via the browser, making it possible to develop a multi-channel app that interacts with a variety of target platforms. A web app can be responsive (designed for the mobile experience, fluid to various screen sizes) or non-responsive (a ‘normal’ website that may not display well on various mobile screen sizes). There are a lot of options for your web app tech stack, which can make the choices overwhelming. To aid in decision making, many organizations follow best practice combinations of tech stacks, which we will outline in the next section.
In a mobile app, the user must download an application to their device. As a download, this introduces new requirements on the tech stack about the programming languages, frameworks, and other technologies required to support the mobile app on the target platform(s). In some ways, this drastically reduces the number of choices, in others it requires new considerations for the tech stack, including the need for:
- Multi-Platform / Multi-Channel Functionality
Responsive web apps can be viewed across any browser, providing cross-platform accessibility at a fraction of the cost and time of native apps. In contrast, mobile apps need to be purpose built for each platform (native apps) or developed using a cross-platform approach. Native and cross-platform mobile apps have the benefit of increased performance, offline availability, and can integrate additional native device features. While web apps are essentially websites that can be viewed across any browser, mobile apps need to be purpose built for each platform (native apps) or developed using a cross-platform approach. Consumers are also increasingly browsing apps across channels – moving between tablet, laptop, smartphone, or smart TV – growing the need for multi-channel mobile apps.
- API Integration
An API (application programming interface) is a protocol to access other applications or platforms. For example, many mobile and web apps leverage social identities (Facebook, Apple ID) via API to support logon.
- Core Smartphone Services
Consumers expect their mobile apps to support the basic functionalities of their devices including geolocation, push notifications, authentication & token management, certification, and offline synchronization.
Developers can build a backend that can power both the web and mobile apps, most commonly using RESTful API. This is helpful for organizations that maintain multiple native apps and web apps that all access the same database (e.g. Netflix).
How to Choose your Web App Technology Stack
These tech stacks offer combinations of technologies that work well together for developing web apps. These combinations have been tested and offer best practice guidance for organizations looking for guidance on which technologies to choose.
While these tech stacks only list a limited number of technologies, the tech stack will grow over time. For example, while Airbnb is an example of a Ruby on Rails tech stack, the stack actually contains dozens of different front and back-end tools.
LAMP Tech Stack
LAMP is one of the most mature tech stacks, ideally suited for high performance, functional web apps. LAMP is based upon four open-source components:
- Linux (OS)
- Apache (server)
- MySQL (database)
- PHP / Perl / Python (programming language)
The LAMP model has been widely adapted and widely used. LAMP is the backbone for many open-source web apps including WordPress.
MEAN Tech Stack
The MEAN contains a different set of solutions designed to support dynamic websites and web apps:
- MongoDB (database)
- Express.js (backend framework)
- Angular (frontend framework)
MERN Tech Stack
The MERN stack is a variation of MEAN, swapping in React for the client-facing framework, including:
- MongoDB (database)
- Express.js (back-end web application framework)
- React (front-end framework)
MEVN Tech Stack
Another variation of MEAN, MEVN swaps in Vue.js for the client-facing framework:
- MongoDB (database)
- Express.js (back-end web application framework)
- Vue.js (front-end framework)
Ruby on Rails
Ruby on Rails is known as a “full-stack” language, covering both the front- and back-end of web app development with a single language that relies extensively on libraries and software bundles known as “gems.” Unlike the previous tech stacks, Ruby on Rails does not offer a fixed stack, meaning you still have flexibility for the choices within your stack. Ruby on Rails is ideally suited to projects that require speed and flexibility. Airbnb is an example of a Ruby on Rails site.
Microsoft Tech Stack
The Microsoft technology stack provides the backbone to many high-performance websites, relying on the strong .NET framework and capable of supporting interactive content. The Microsoft tech stack relies on Microsoft technologies for web app development, including:
- .NET (framework)
- Microsoft SQL (server)
- ASP.NET and Web Forms (framework)
- Azure (cloud platform)
- Visual Studio
This tech stack is based upon two core pillars: Python (language) and Django (back-end framework). Like Ruby on Rails, Python-Django is ideally suited to rapid development toward a minimum viable product (MVP). The full stack includes:
- Python (language)
- Django (back-end framework)
- Apache (server)
- MySQL (database)
How to Choose your Mobile App Technology Stack
Native vs Cross-Platform Apps
Native app development eschews the complexity of creating a sustainable product that spans multiple platform app development and focuses on generating a competent design that stays close to the target platform–Android, iOS, etc.
Cross-platform development seeks to generate an app that reaches out to as many brand followers as possible by covering a wide number of end devices during the programming and creation process. Cross-platform apps are ideally suited for the emerging demands of omnichannel retailing, where consumers expect a fluid experience across devices and channels.
|Cost||High cost of development||Relatively low cost of development|
|Code Usability||Works for a single platform||Single code can be used on multiple platform, for an easy portability|
|Device Access||Platform SDK ensures access to device’s API without any hindrance||No assured access to all device APIs|
|UI Consistency||Consistent with the UI components of the device||Limited consistency with the UI components of the device, but greater consistency across devices for omnichannel retailing|
|Performance||Fast, responsive performance||High on performance, but lags and hardware compatibility issues are not uncommon|
iOS Tech Stack Example
Moving into native app development for Apple (iOS, macOS, iPadOS, tvOS, or watchOS), the choices for tech stacks become more narrow as there are only two programming languages supported: Objective-C and Swift. Objective-C is a superset of the C programming language while Swift is a newer iOS programming language that is greatly simplified and amplified by dynamic libraries to create a higher performing app.
An iOS tech stack for mobile app development will include:
- Objective-C OR Swift (language)
- Apple XCode OR AppCode (toolkit / development environment)
- iOS SDK (API to support iOS functions)
Android Tech Stack Example
Phones and tablets leveraging the Android OS are made by many device manufacturers, including Google, Samsung, Sony, Nokia, and many others. Android development is also limited to just two programming languages: Kotlin and Java. Google announced the switch to Kotlin as the official language in 2017, mirroring Apple’s preference for Swift, both of which are simpler languages with extensive libraries.
A typical Android tech stack will include:
- Kotlin or Java (language)
- Android Studio (development environment)
Cross-Platform App Development Tech Stack Examples
When it comes to cross-platform mobile app development, we are really talking about React Native vs Flutter vs Xamarin.
React Native is not fully cross-platform, requiring that some components be developed using native language (such as camera functions), with some issues with lag on features. Nonetheless, the fact that 80% of the codebase can be shared across platforms makes React Native an attractive option compared to other cross-platform app frameworks.
Flutter is an open-source and free cross-platform framework maintained by Google. While the newest entrant, Flutter offers the fastest time-to-market of any framework and the ability to “hot reload” for rapid viewing of changes done on emulators, hardware, and simulators. A Flutter-based tech stack is based upon the Dart programming language and leverages widgets in Google’s Material Design and in Apple’s style with the Cupertino pack.
Xamarin began as an open-source framework, but was later acquired by Microsoft. The Xamarin tech stack is based upon C# for program language, allowing it to work seamlessly across device platforms. Similar to Flutter, the latest Xamarin release includes hot reload and hot restart as well as other features that simplify and reduce development time.
Apps built on the Xamarin platform often do a good job matching the standards of native app development as long as the UI is very simple. The Xamarin tech stack is best supported by Xamarin Studio / Xcode (Mac) or Visual Studio (Windows).
Popular Tech Stack Example
Airbnb Tech Stack
- Framework: Ruby on Rails
- Databases: MySQL, Amazon RDS, Hadoop
- Server: NGINX
Facebook Tech Stack (Mobile & Web App)
- Framework: Tornado, React (front-end), Xamarin, Swift, React Native
- Databases: Cassandra, HBase, MariaDB, Hadoop, MySQL
- Server: Apache
Uber Tech Stack
- Programming Languages: Python, Java, Go, Node.js, C, C++
- Framework: Node.js, Apache Thrift
- Databases: Schemaless (MySQL), PostgreSQL, Riak, Cassandra, Hadoop, Redis, Twemproxy, M3 (proprietary)
- Server: NGINX, Apache Mesos
Dropbox Tech Stack
- Programming Languages: Python, C, Go, Swift, Objective-C, Kotlin, Java
- Framework: React
- Databases: MySQL, MemCached
- Server: Apache, NGINX, HA Proxy
Netflix Tech Stack
- Framework: React, NodeJS, WinJS
- Databases: DynamoDB
- Server: Amazon EC2 and RDS
Spotify Tech Stack
- Framework: Hub
- Databases: Hadoop, Cassandra
- Server: NGINX, Apache Storm
How to Choose the Right Tech Stack for Your Product?
There are many important considerations for choosing the right tech stack for your mobile app or web app in 2021, including:
1. Product Scope
Clear market and user research can help define the needs and requirements for the product. The product scope will help to define user assumptions, business assumptions, and then finally technical assumptions. The project manager and business analysts work together to define:
- What is the “problem” the product is trying to solve? Is it clear when the problem is solved? What happens if the problem is not solved?
- Who are your target users? Are they aware of the problem? Are they actively trying to find a solution? If so, how many of them?
- What are the competitive solutions for solving this problem? What do they do well or not well?
- How will the product (web or mobile app) improve over the current solutions / or solve a new problem?
- How do users browse the web or use their devices?
- If the product encompasses eCommerce, it integrate with other channels (omnichannel or single channel)?
Once these user and business assumptions are filled in, technical assumptions emerge about which devices / platforms the product should work on, basic functionality, and the level of interactivity.
2. Existing Infrastructure
Although a particular tech stack may have been successful for an existing product, it may not work for other products. With that said, leveraging existing infrastructure is an important consideration. This step will also examine if any the product can leverage existing assets, either proprietary to other products or available in external libraries and frameworks being used.
3. Defining the Platform
The decision should align with the target users, dictating native vs cross-platform vs web-app, and the ability to meet those specific needs. If developing for native platforms, consider tandem (side-by-side) versus sequential development of different platforms. While tandem development speeds time to market, lessons learned during testing have to be applied to each platform. In sequential development, the idea can be refined, but there is a risk of alienating users of alternate platforms.
Beyond scalability is the base performance of the app, dictated directly by the business requirements of the app and the tech stack choices that influence the size of the app, how fast the system reacts, and how many requests the system can process. With performance being the first and most important factor in user acceptance of a new product, it is important that this factor be a part of every decision in the tech stack, for the front and backend – of particular importance is the need to balance time to market (possibly with an easy modular framework) with performance (where some of these heavily coded modules could cause performance issues). Where performance is a top priority, native development often outweighs the benefits of cross-platform development.
5. Time to Market
If the app needs to get to market quickly, or if the product is likely to change, focus on a simple, well-tested, and flexible tech stack that supports Agile development.
In determining the budget, most organizations focus on an MVP app and must plan an initial budget based on the product plan, in-house / freelance or outsourced skill, the required infrastructure, open source vs license fees, and ongoing maintenance. The budget should include the entire anticipated lifecycle for the product, from development and maintenance to its eventual disposal.
The ability to scale both vertically (adding more elements or data) and horizontally (scaling to more devices) while still maintaining performance. This question will be helpful for understanding servers and databases, but particular attention should be paid to frameworks, as there is a tradeoff between modular-based development and the ability for those modules to be scaled or modified in the future.
Not all technologies are equally secure. Mature, well-tested technologies provide stability, but all tech stacks require testing.
9. New Trends
Although new technologies can offer a substantial boost to development time, features, performance or scalability, there is a risk to being “too” trendy in new technologies. However, following the latest UI and UX trends can help ensure the tech stack offers the latest and greatest options.
10. Skill Availability
Expert availability, through in-house skill (and time) and hiring often limit the tech stack, particularly given the IT skill gap. Rather than limit choices, lean on the expertise of seasoned product developments through outsourcing.
The product development process is a journey that starts with an idea, follows careful research, and establishes the tech stack and development process to ensure success. Of course, not every organization has the resources to build and scale every idea into a successful product. Net Solutions has nearly 200,000 hours of product development experience helping organizations move from ideas to market-leading web and mobile apps.
If you are looking for a development team able to deliver full-stack excellence with end-to-end Agile development processes, reach out to learn more.