Node.js vs Java: Choosing a Back-end Language for Large App Development

The Web is full of technology comparisons, but why do we need to compare? We try to find differences between programming languages, development platforms, frameworks, tools, and APIs, but for what reason?

The reason is simple – the initial choice of technology makes a lot of difference. For business owners, the use of specific technology determines the performance and growth possibilities of their product. For development teams, the technology defines the ease of product support and the seamlessness of eventual migrations to other platforms. For developers, the decision to learn a particular technology may be the key point in their careers.

We at DA-14 share our views and opinions on the technologies we use in conducting our work by comparing them to each other. The subject of our expertise includes multiple development technologies, and by comparing them, we show the criteria we use in selecting a particular tool for a particular project.

Today, we would like to discuss the Java vs. Node.js differences in the context of their suitability for developing large applications.

Java vs Node.js – Overview

At first glance, it may seem that we are comparing the incomparable – a programming language to a runtime. However, if we zoom out a bit, we will see that Java has evolved into a complete ecosystem with its own libraries, plugins, APIs, as well as a runtime environment and a virtual machine. Thus, the comparison is justified.

Java as a programming language is more than 20 years old. It was first created by Sun Microsystems and then acquired by Oracle, which still owns and develops it. Java has been dominating the software development universe as a server-side language. Java is an object-oriented compiled language deriving its syntax from C++.

Node.js is not a programming language, but a runtime allowing the execution of JavaScript on the server side. Now, JavaScript which is almost as old as Java, is an interpreted language which has been used on the client side for quite some time, until Node.js came along. Node.js with its “JavaScript everywhere” concept made it possible to use JavaScript on the backend, too.

Node.js was first released in 2009 and is now an open-source community project developed under the Node.js Foundation.

Let’s compare the Node.js vs Java performance to see in which cases it will be reasonable to choose one or the other for the backend development.

Advantages of Java

The advantages of Java as a backend programming language are quite numerous.

Platform Independence

Java is known and loved for its “Write Once, Run Anywhere” approach, meaning that the code written in Java can be run on any platform, regardless of where it was originally created. Such platform independence is due to the so-called Java Virtual Machine – the environment where Java code is executed.

Before JVM, all software was written for a particular operating system, and JVM became a breakthrough by allowing the software to be run on any hardware or operating system where the JVM is installed. The JVM makes the Java source code readable by any platform without any special compilers. In this respect, Java is different from other languages that require compilers.

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Image credit: Javaworld

In its turn, Node.js has modules that are tied to the operating system. When you need the software to run on another platform, you will have to rebuild the modules, so that they are compatible with the new OS.

Integrated Development Environment (IDE)

Both Node.js and Java have their IDEs, but Java's they are better. The preferred tools of Java developers are Eclipse, IntelliJ IDEA, and NetBeans that come with integrated debuggers, servers, and decompilers.

Each Java IDE is a complete ecosystem that supports all stages of backend code creation. In each IDE, you can easily write your code, edit and debug it, build your software, and then test it.

Node.js developers often use just plain text editors and command lines to write their code. Some prefer Visual Studio Code that supports Node.js and JavaScript in general. Of course, there are well-performing Node.js IDEs on the market, too, for example, WebStorm featuring smart coding assistance and error checking, and Eclipse Che with its teamwork support and a special Node.js stack including a fully configured debugger module. However, most developers agree that Java IDEs are much more streamlined and elegant than those used in Node.js development.

Libraries

For over two decades, Java has accumulated a great wealth of libraries containing reusable code components. Libraries are a great time-saving tool that encompass the knowledge of the vast Java community.

Most Java libraries are open-source and supported and updated by experienced Java developers. The collection of Java libraries covers all programming aspects – there are general purpose libraries, such as Apache Commons, XML parsing libraries, such as JAXB, unit testing libraries, such as JUnit, and thousands more.

Node.js features modules that can be thought of as JavaScript libraries. Some of the modules are built-in, like the url module for parsing URL strings, crypto module providing the cryptographic functionality, http module supporting the features of the HTTP protocol, fs module enabling interaction with the file system, path module for working with file and directory paths, while others are available as third-party components. The modular structure is one of the strong points of Node.js, allowing the user to save time and achieve ease of modification and scaling. Nevertheless, the quality of Java libraries is still considered to be higher.

Multi-threaded Processing

Java uses a multi-threaded web server that processes each request in a separate thread. Multi-threading allows for the performing of several tasks simultaneously without queueing the events.

Multi-threaded processing makes Java a great tool for CPU-intensive applications, such as video streaming, image editing, etc. With Java, multi-threading is integrated, while other languages need additional procedures for each operating system to enable multi-threaded request processing.

Node.js is single-threaded, where all requests are processed in a single thread. The events are placed in a queue to be processed one by one. The single-threaded approach somewhat slows the performance of Node.js applications and makes it a suboptimal choice for large, CPU-heavy products.

At the same time, we should note that the Node.js is working on implementing the multi-threaded mode. However, the solution called “worker threads” does not, in fact, create a truly multi-threaded process. There is still the single thread with new processes that can share memory and exchange messages.

The worker threads are a solution for CPU-intensive tasks. This is probably the only major area where Node.js lacks. Currently, there has not been a stable version. Therefore, we cannot say whether this initiative has been successful. In any case, it is worth following.

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Image credit: Twisted

Advantages of Node.js

Node.js also has quite a number of advantages that have earned the appreciation of JavaScript developers around the globe.

JavaScript Everywhere

This is the major advantage of Node.js and what made it such a breakthrough. Node.js was the first tool that allowed the developers to use JavaScript on the backend. With Node.js, JavaScript is used both on the frontend and backend, creating a more seamless infrastructure.

With JavaScript used both server-side and client-side, it is easier to migrate the code if needed. Since the same language is used, the logic that was originally created for the browser will run on the server with minimal adaptations.

Java, in its turn, is a backend language requiring something different for the frontend development. There are Java-specific frontend tools, such as JavaFX and Swing, but even they cannot provide the same code uniformity as Node.js does.

Faster Development

Node.js has a much easier learning curve than Java, so getting started is quicker. Besides, knowledge sharing within the team is also smoother when everybody knows JavaScript.

While we said that Java libraries and reusable components are superior to those of Node.js, there is still a lot of community-developed code that can be reused in Node.js apps. If we add that Node.js takes about 33% fewer lines of code than Java, it becomes obvious that creating an app with Node.js takes less time on the average.

Scalability

Both Node.js and Java can execute requests asynchronously, which makes the apps built with both tools highly scalable. The requests can be executed in parallel with no need to wait until the previous ones are completed.

However, Node.js shows better horizontal scalability achieved by adding more hardware. At the same time, with vertical scalability resulting from adding processing power Node.js is not as great, as by its single-threaded nature, the thread uses a single core only. For multi-core systems, you need to use the cluster module that allows the creation of child processes that use all cores. Still, we should note that running a cluster may be a very memory-consuming solution.

In its turn, Java does not scale out, or horizontally, very well. It performs well with a certain number of servers, but at some point adding more servers no longer gives the expected performance increase.

Advantages of Both Back-end Development Languages

Here, we will name only one point, but its importance cannot be underestimated in the context of app performance.

Speed

Sometimes, Node.js leaves Java behind. in other cases, it is the other way around. It depends on the metric that is used to compare the speed, but different metrics give the top position to either Node.js or Java.

The speed of execution has to do with the way both tools process input/output (IO) requests. Node.js processes IOs in a non-blocking way, meaning that its single thread can manage several IO requests at the same time. There is no need to wait for the completion of one request to start processing the others.

Java uses both blocking and non-blocking IO. Blocking IO means that the first IO request blocks all others. This reduces the speed significantly, as the application needs to wait until the thread processes requests one by one. The speed can be increased by adding threads, but that option is rather uneconomical.

At the same time, for Java the non-blocking IO has been adopted as a standard, while its flow is more complex than the non-blocking flow in Node.js.

Non-blocking IO processing makes Node.js the tool suitable for creating apps that involve massive reading and writing operations, such as logging, data acquisition, backup, transaction processing, and real-time apps.

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Image credit: Webapplog

Node.js vs Java Comparison Summary

Our comparison of Node.js and Java as backend tools showed that both have strengths and weaknesses that may influence the choice of technology for a particular application. Let’s summarize our findings so that we can easily see the advantages of both.

Advantages of Node.js and Java:

Node.js
Java
Same language across both frontend and backendPlatform independence
Faster and easier developmentConvenient IDE
High application speed for IO-intensive appsLarge ecosystem
ScalabilityHigher performance for CPU-intensive apps
Processing speed

How to choose the right technology?

There is more than one factor that should be considered when selecting the technology to use when building your app. For example, if you are planning an enterprise-scale application that is heavy on the CPU, then Java will be the preferred choice.

Java is great for IoT software development, e-commerce platforms, and Big Data apps. The image below shows some of the best-known brand names that chose Java as the technology behind their software products. Java is the language that is used to create and maintain such major platforms as Google and Android, the global marketplaces eBay and Amazon, and many others.

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Image credit: Codingnomads

At the same time, we cannot say that enterprise applications are never built with Node.js. The choice depends on their nature, and Node.js will perform perfectly in apps depending on the processing speed and involving a lot of data read and write operations (fintech software, e-commerce platform development, booking systems, media apps, and others). Check the image below, and you will see that Node.js has established its presence in many key industries and become the tool of choice for manufacturing companies, such as BMW and Siemens, banking institutions, such as Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo, and many more.

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Image credit: Maxprog

With the growing number of web apps and their increasing complexity, the question of choosing Node.js vs Java in 2019 can become critical. Our development teams are experts in both technologies, and we will be glad to suggest the best one for your project. Contact us to discuss your business specifics, its goals and values, and we will find the solution meeting all your expectations. 

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