According to the official definition provided on its about page, Node.js is “an asynchronous event-driven JavaScript runtime.” But what exactly does that mean? How is Node.js used and what makes it so popular with developers? This quick guide to Node.js is designed to provide answers to these vital questions and more.

What Is Node.js?

Node.js is an open-source JavaScript runtime environment built on Chrome’s V8 engine for use in back end development. It enables the execution of JavaScript code outside the confines of a web browser and makes it possible for developers to easily create fast, scalable server-side web applications.

Is Node.js a Framework?

In short: no, Node.js is not a framework. That’s a fairly common misconception, however, one that’s made by even some of the most tech-savvy people. Node.js is actually a runtime environment (RTE), which is a platform where commands are executed. In this case, the Node.js RTE allows JavaScript to run on the server side, instead of limiting it to client-side development where it was originally designed to function.

A framework, on the other hand, is a set of tools that provides a standardized way of building applications. In other words, the framework acts as scaffolding for an application, offering a uniform structure with solutions to some of the most common development problems already embedded within its architecture. 

The difference between a runtime environment and a framework does get confusing, especially when you consider that a framework can contain a runtime environment and a runtime environment can support a framework. The key way to differentiate between the two is to look at how they’re used. A runtime environment is a platform where developers run a program while a framework is a toolkit that allows developers to build applications more quickly with less coding. 

It’s also helpful to note that Node.js is not a programming language, either; that’s another common misconception. Node.js is built to support a specific programming language—JavaScript—and its purpose is to make it possible to code on the back end using JavaScript, but Node.js itself is not a programming language. It simply provides the environment where JavaScript can run.

What Makes Node.js So Great?

Node.js was first released to the public in 2009 and has been steadily picking up steam ever since. While its market share is still relatively small, Node.js enjoys hearty support from many Back End Web Developers because it’s: 

Simplifying Web Development

Node.js simplifies the process of web development because it allows programmers to use one language for the front and back ends: JavaScript. First created in 1995 to bring life to static web pages, JavaScript has long been considered the most popular programming language in the world. In fact, it’s currently used on the front side of more than 97% of all websites in existence.

With such wide usage on the front end, there are already a large number of programmers with JavaScript experience. According to Stack Overflow’s 2021 survey, more than 68% of all professional developers have used JavaScript extensively in the past year. Thanks to Node.js, all of those front end developers can now use their JavaScript skills on the back end as well, making them even more marketable in the workplace. 

Using the same language for both the client and server side has additional benefits as well. Because an entire application can be coded from back to front using just one primary language, it takes a lot less time to finish the project. Once completed, the application will operate much more seamlessly because the front and back ends run on the same language. 

Fast and Lightweight

Node.js has a reputation for being considerably faster than many of its alternatives. Its speed and lightweight nature can be attributed to two of its features: the engine it runs on and its ability to handle multiple requests at one time without getting bogged down. 

Node.js runs on V8, a high-performance JavaScript engine that was originally created by the Chromium Project in 2008 for use on Google Chrome. The increased speed of V8 is achieved by translating and compiling JavaScript code into machine code without using a cumbersome interpreter. While the engine was originally created to improve the performance of JavaScript execution within web browsers, it now also benefits the back end through Node.js.

The speed and efficiency of Node.js are also greatly improved by its unique event loop which combines non-blocking input/output and asynchronous request handling. In a traditional synchronous model, requests are handled one at a time in the order they were made; additional requests can’t be processed until the ones that occurred first are completed. This takes up a lot of memory and slows down response time. Node.js, on the other hand, handles requests asynchronously in a single thread without blocking the input-output pathway, which allows it to process multiple requests at a time.

Customizable

Another thing Node.js has going for it is how easy it is to customize, thanks in large part to Node Package Manager (npm). Npm is an extensive open-source command-line tool that provides developers with access to millions of code packages in the npm registry that can be used to tailor Node.js. These packages can be easily installed without making changes to the code base, which allows Node.js to be customized to meet the needs of the project at hand. 

And More

These are just a few of the most commonly cited reasons for the popularity of Node.js. There are many others such as excellent scalability, strong corporate support, the benefit of being compatible with multiple platforms, versatility, etc. With this many features, it’s expected that usage of Node.js will only continue to climb.

Who Uses Node.js?

Node.js has been used by countless companies—many of them big names that you’ve probably heard of, such as:

  • Netflix
  • PayPal
  • Walmart
  • LinkedIn
  • eBay
  • Uber
  • Zillow
  • Groupon
  • NASA
  • GoDaddy
  • Amazon
  • Reddit
  • Twitter
  • Yahoo
  • Citibank

How is Node.js Used?

Node.js is extremely versatile and can be used for a wide variety of applications. Some of the most common usages of Node.js are:

  1. Single-Page Applications (SPAs): Node.js is often used on complex single-page applications because its ability to process multiple requests in a non-blocking fashion allows the page to load and respond more quickly compared to other back-end options. 
  2. Data Streaming: Companies that stream a lot of data rely on the incredible speed and efficiency of Node.js. It’s even used by streaming giant Netflix, enabling their more than 200 million users in over 190 countries to enjoy hours of entertainment.
  3. Real-Time Chats: Node.js is exceptionally well-suited to the creation of chatbots and chat applications thanks to its single-threaded asynchronous method of processing requests and ability to scale. 
  4. Social Media Sites: Node.js has been successfully used on the back end of various social media sites including LinkedIn, Reddit, and Twitter thanks to its super-fast routing, secure authentication, and scalability. 
  5. Internet of Things (IoT): Node.js has also proved to be useful in the creation of IoT applications. Node is especially suitable for the task thanks to its ability to seamlessly process concurrent requests from multiple networked devices.

Why Should I Learn Node.js?

There are several excellent reasons why you should consider learning Node.js. For starters, Node.js is easy to learn once you’re familiar with JavaScript. If you don’t already know JavaScript but are interested in becoming a Web Developer, then acquiring JavaScript skills is a no-brainer—it’s the most widely used programming language on the planet, making it an absolute requirement for anyone interested in web development.

Once you know JavaScript plus Node.js, you’ll be able to work on the back end in addition to the front end. This ability opens up a wider range of career options. Instead of being limited to positions as a Front End Web Developer, you can also explore career paths such as Back End Web Developer and Full Stack Web Developer. 

While each of these positions typically earns at least six-figure salaries, working as a Back End or Full Stack Developer will earn you a bit more; the national average for Front End Web Developers comes in at $103,000 while Full Stack Developers average $106,000 and Back End Web Developers earn $115,000.

How to Learn Node.js

It is possible to pick up Node.js on your own through a self-guided tutorial, especially if you already have extensive knowledge of JavaScript. If you have not yet acquired JavaScript skills, trying to learn Node.js won’t just be challenging, it’ll be almost impossible. JavaScript is at the heart of Node.js; without it, you’ll be lost. 

The best way to learn both JavaScript and Node.js is through JavaScript classes. Structured classes provide you with an opportunity to learn from experts in the field, providing you with all the information you need to know to build web and mobile applications using JavaScript. You can even take JavaScript classes live online from the comfort of your own home or office; that way, you’ll get the same expert instruction with real-time feedback from your trainer without the hassle of navigating through traffic to get to class. 

If you’re interested in a broader-based education with a scope that reaches beyond JavaScript, then you might want to consider enrolling in a web development bootcamp. Bootcamps are especially helpful for those who are looking to start a brand new career. Often seen as a viable alternative to university education, bootcamps offer an intensive skills-focused curriculum with abbreviated scheduling, which allows participants to become career-ready in less time than it would take to earn a degree. You can even take web development bootcamps live online, making it easy to find an option that aligns with your current schedule.