JavaScript as the language of the cloud

This article was originally published on my blog at Computerworld on Jan 20th, 2016 

Since my last post, I had an opportunity at work to take over the responsibilities over a couple of web apps. I also implemented one from scratch. I spent the last 15 years working with Java. The last time I had anything to do with JavaScript was over a decade ago. The browsers were weak and JavaScript support was not standard. Web pages were rendered using server-side templates and all business logic happened on the server.
A decade in the software industry is like a century in other fields. Browsers are no longer dumb terminals and JavaScript has emerged as a tool for building cross-platform apps. Expensive and bloated Java application servers have declined in popularity years ago. Node has emerged as a platform for server-side JavaScript.

Proliferation of cloud platform APIs gave rise to the idea that an app does not actually need a complex server back-end. It is now conceivable that apps may exist entirely in the browser and use cloud APIs. If needed, the same developer working on the app can build the server back-end using Node.

Software industry would not exist if it wasn’t for the hype surrounding technologies. JavaScript and Node are no exception. It is easy to write spaghetti code that is impossible to maintain. Skilled JavaScript developers that can write quality programs are hard to come by. Dozens of competing and incompatible frameworks confuse and get in the way of creativity.

JavaScript on the server side in Node is not the same as JavaScript in the browser. Node is based on V8 as is Chrome browser. Chrome is far from being the dominant browser. This may not be much of a problem for enterprise apps where IT can dictate everyone to use a particular browser. Consumer facing apps do not have such luxury. Developers still need to test their apps in different browsers.

Node itself is not cross-platform in the same way that Java is. In Java I can include all the framework and library “jars” with my deployment package. I know that if my Java server runs on my MacBook Pro it will also run on the Linux servers. This is not the case with Node modules that use native code.

There are tools and frameworks for JavaScript that exist to address the flaws of the platform and make it better. Sticking to established well thought out framework alleviates concerns developers have with the platform. Bower and NPM make dependancy management easy. Angular, ReactJS and Polymer are great frameworks for buildings apps. Using Apache Cordova it is possible to package JavaScript apps as mobile apps. AppJS can package a JavaScript app as a desktop app. Docker solves the problem of Node portability.

Java has served me well over the years, but it is time to move on. It is 2016 and it is the year of JavaScript. Just like COBOL developers, Java developers will remain employable for decades. The need to support and maintain millions of lines of code of core business software will always be there.

With the rise of the cloud, network has at last become the computer. A developer working out of their bedroom can build an app that can reach millions. JavaScript is an essential glue that holds these apps together. The wild array of framework choices is a sign of innovation and creativity that captures the essence of the cloud. Platforms that do things better superseded COBOL. JavaScript is doing that to Java.