Before reading this article, you may have been wondering, is Node.js a programming language or framework?
When and where should I use React.js or Node.js in my next web development project?
If you've been in web development for a while now, then you likely must have heard about React (or React.js) and Node.js (sometimes called Node). However, confusion about which is which often arises because both React and Node.js are two popular technologies that are frequently used together in the development of modern web applications.
While it's common for people new to the field of web development to confuse these distinct technologies, our goal in this article is to provide you with sufficient knowledge about each technology, their similarities, differences, advantages and disadvantages, and their possible use cases.
By the end of this article, you should have a good understanding of React and Node.js and when to use them in your projects.
What Is Node.js?
First of all, Node.js is neither a programming language nor a framework.
Furthermore, Node.js is commonly used for building real-time web applications, such as chat apps, online multiplayer games, and other apps that require real-time communication between the server and the client.
Features of Node.js
Node.js is one of the most popular technologies used for server-side application development. Here are the main features of Node that set it apart from other tools and make it widely used by companies and developers alike.
Node.js largely employs an event-driven architecture in its design. This allows it to maximize the throughput and scalability of asynchronous input/output processing in web applications with many input/output operations. And also to provide an efficient and optimized delivery between client-server communication. These capabilities of Node.js make it a popular choice over other server-side technologies for developing real-time web applications that are fast and scalable.
Free and Open Source
Node.js is an open-source software created by Ryan Dahl in 2009. Dahl initially created Node.js because he was fed up with how limited web servers were back then in handling concurrent connections and asynchronous operations. He created Node.js as free and open-source software to address these problems.
Since then, it’s been constantly developed and optimized by the developer community to keep it up-to-date with the latest industry standards, improve its flexibility, and make it future-proof.
As of today, the latest version of Node.js is 19.x, and there are no signs the project will be abandoned anytime soon.
One of the core strengths of Node.js is multiple platform support, and this is largely due to the fact that it’s open-source and the huge community of developers that have evolved around it.
This capability lets you run your Node.js code on any OS from Windows to macOS or Linux. For instance, in a Node.js User Survey conducted in 2018, it was found that Node.js is being used on the most popular operating systems, including Windows, macOS, and Linux.
Single Threaded Event Loop
Like any other technology, understanding how things work under the hood in Node.js will be highly beneficial and useful in creating efficient and scalable applications with it.
Node.js uses a single-threaded event model to handle concurrent connections, unlike other server-side technologies like ASP.NET or Spring Framework, which use a multi-threaded request-response model.
What single-threaded means in Node.js is basically that Node.js is only able to run one task at a time. But then, how’s Node.js able to handle concurrent connections if it’s single-threaded? Well, in short, Node.js uses an Event Queue and a call stack to process these connections asynchronously, thereby creating a non-blocking behavior that optimizes your applications for speed and scalability.
What Is React?
It’s also safe to assume React was created to help the company keep up with the steady innovation on the web (Angular was already created by Google but Facebook didn’t want to use it for reasons best known to them). And also, React was developed to provide Facebook users on low-end devices with a consistent and high-performance user experience.
Features of React
Since it was released to the public in 2013, React has become a popular choice for building highly interactive front-end applications, all thanks to the following characteristics and capabilities it possesses.
Virtual DOM (VDOM)
React offers fast rendering for even complex applications, using its own virtual representation of the real Document Object Model (DOM) called the Virtual DOM.
The Virtual DOM in React is designed to provide faster UI updates than the expensive and slow traditional method of using the real DOM. The Virtual DOM abstracts away manual DOM manipulations from the developer that is otherwise cumbersome and helps in writing predictable code.
Here's the definition of the Virtual DOM according to the React docs:
The Virtual DOM (VDOM) is a programming concept where an ideal, or “virtual,” representation of a UI is kept in memory and synced with the “real” DOM by a library such as ReactDOM. This process is called reconciliation.
In essence, React's Virtual DOM diffing algorithm lets you save time and improve your application performance by avoiding expensive DOM updates.
Aside from creating high-performance single-page web applications, React can also be used for developing server-side rendered applications using a framework like Next.js. You can as well use it for static site generation with Gatsby.
The popular mobile app framework, React Native, is also based on React and is used by many popular companies like Microsoft and Tesla to create complex and interactive mobile applications.
Unidirectional Data Flow
React is designed to use a unidirectional or one-way data flow model. Basically, in React, data is usually passed down through a tree of components from the parent component to its children.
You may wonder why React uses a unidirectional data flow pattern rather than a bidirectional model. Well, the unidirectional model comes with great advantages that improve the developer experience.
A key benefit of the unidirectional data flow is that it helps to make applications easier to write and debug by preventing unintended data mutation. By enforcing a strict hierarchy of data flow, it becomes easier to understand how different parts of an application are connected and how changes to the data will affect the component tree.
In React, you write code in components. Components are small, independent pieces of React code that are used to create simple and complex user interfaces. They are reusable and can be used anywhere throughout an application.
Components are usually created in two ways in React: function components and class components. Function components are more popular nowadays and even the new React docs encourage creating your components the functional way rather than using class components.
Overall, the component-based architecture of React makes it easier to develop, test, and maintain large applications, as well as to collaborate with other developers.
Free And Open-Source
React is free and open-source software developed and maintained by Meta and a huge developer community.
Because it is open-source, React can be freely used and modified by anyone. Its large developer community has contributed to the creation of a wide range of tools and resources that enhance its functionality.
In addition, React being open-source makes it future-proof and the project is not likely to be abandoned in the near future.
Declarative Programming Model
React's core principles follow the declarative programming model, which gives developers the flexibility to construct user interfaces so they can be more easily understood by non-programmers.
Also, this model allows you to tell React what state you want the UI to be in, and it makes sure the DOM matches that state. This abstracts out the attribute manipulation, event handling, and manual DOM updating that you would otherwise have to use to build your app.
Here’s an example component in React written in JSX:
JSX is almost similar to HTML but it has a few rules and distinctions that set it apart. For example, in JSX, your markup must be wrapped in a single root element or a
Fragment element lest React throws errors in your face.
Node.js vs. React: Head-to-Head Comparison
From the previous sections, you already have an idea and basic understanding of what these two technologies are. Now, we’ll look at how they compare, their use cases, advantages and disadvantages, and when to consider using one over the other. This comparison is to help you make an informed decision when deciding on which to go for when building your next projects.
Similarities Between Node.js and React
Although Node.js and React are different technologies used to develop different parts of a web app, they do share some similarities.
Another similarity between Node.js and React is that the two technologies are free and open-source. This means that their source code is available for anyone to view, use, and modify freely.
In addition, both React and Node are easy to learn and use, with a lot of documentation available online. This makes them great candidates for beginners looking to get into web development.
Furthermore, both React and Node.js have large and active developer communities that contribute to their constant development and maintenance. This can help developers find help and resources more easily, as well as ensure that these technologies are constantly improving and evolving to meet the latest standards.
Differences Between Node.js and React
The primary distinction between Node.js and React is in how and where each technology is used.
The table below compares Node.js and React based on various metrics:
APIs, network programming, IoT, real-time and data-intensive applications, etc.
Single-page applications, dynamic webpages, highly interactive UIs
Ease of Learning
Requires knowledge of core computer concepts
Documentation is easy to follow and requires no knowledge of core computer concepts,
Access to Web APIs
Provides no access to Web APIs
Provides access to Web APIs
Lacks interactive demos
Includes interactive demos
Uses a two-way data flow in which the Node.js server and a client (such as the browser) can initiate a connection for a bi-directional data flow
Uses a unidirectional data flow pattern between parent components to child components via props
Advantages of Node.js Over React
Before we start discussing the advantages of Node.js, it’s important to note that Node.js and React are used for different purposes and should not be compared directly. However, if you’re going to be working with both technologies, here are some important details you need to keep in mind before using them.
One good advantage of Node.js over React is that Node.js allows developers to write both the front-end and back-end of an application from a single codebase, making it easier to build full-stack applications. For instance, you can use the EJS templating framework in Node.js to create fully-fledged full-stack applications without using a frontend framework like React.
In addition, Node.js is highly scalable, efficient, and flexible. It can be used with any frontend framework of your choice, unlike React, which is only concerned with the view or UI of your application and is hardly used alone to build web applications.
Furthermore, unlike React, Node.js supports many other applications besides web applications like IRC clients, file transfer tools, command line tools, and server-side scripting.
If you want to compare Node.js to something else, you can look into ASP.NET, Laravel, or Ruby, which are server-side development alternatives to Node.js.
Advantages of React Over Node.js
Unlike Node.js, React is best used for creating highly interactive and complex user interfaces in web or mobile applications. Although React integrates well with Node.js and both can be used together to create web or mobile apps.
As noted before, React and Node.js should not be compared directly. However, there are some significant advantages you'll experience when writing applications in React compared to working with Node.js.
To begin with, React has a more mature community and ecosystem than Node.js. Beginners can use React's boilerplates and examples to get started quickly with the library. You can, for example, use a tool like Create-react-app to bootstrap React applications in seconds without having to go through complex steps like configuring your app parts or worrying about the most appropriate file structure to use.
While frameworks like Express.js in Node.js make it easier to create Node applications, configuring and structuring your application is still entirely up to you. Node.js and Express provide almost no direction on how to structure your application. A huge disadvantage for developer experience.
Additionally, the React documentation often includes interactive demos that allow readers to see the results of the code they are learning about in real-time. This can be a helpful way for beginners to understand how React works under the hood and for more experienced developers to see how the different pieces fit together.
The Node.js documentation, on the other hand, although comprehensive and well-organized, lacks interactive demos and covers a wide range of topics related to core software development. Understanding database systems, network programming, and web application development are examples of such topics. As such, it may require a higher level of knowledge and familiarity with these concepts in order to understand the documentation fully.
Overview of Node.js vs. React
Node.js is often used for building the backend (the server or the part that has access to data and that which users cannot interact with) of an application, while React is used for building the frontend (the client or user interface with which users interact with).
When to Use Node.js Over React?
In the previous sections, we discussed the amazing capabilities and features of Node.js that make it an excellent choice for developing various types of applications. For instance, in a Stack Overflow Developer survey conducted in 2020, out of 40,314 respondents, about 51.4% of developers use Node.js in their application stack.
Let’s look at some of the kinds of applications and use cases Node.js can best be used for.
APIs: One of the primary use cases of Node.js is in API development. It allows developers to create scalable and high-performance APIs using frameworks such as Express.js.
Network Programming: Node.js provides a number of built-in modules for working with network protocols, such as the
netmodules for creating HTTP and network servers.
Full-Stack Web Applications: Because of its non-blocking I/O model and ability to handle a large number of concurrent connections efficiently, Node.js is particularly well-suited for developing real-time, data-intensive full-stack web applications. Examples of popular applications using Node.js include Netflix, LinkedIn, Uber, and many others.
When to Use React Over Node.js?
React is a frontend library primarily used for building the user interface of web applications. It allows you to build reusable UI components and efficiently update the UI when data changes occur. These features make it an excellent choice for creating complex and dynamic web apps, such as e-commerce sites, streaming platforms, social networks, dashboards, and analytics pages.
Below are examples of popular applications using React in their application stack.
Facebook - React originated from Facebook, so it's not surprising that it's used in the social networking app's application stack. Facebook uses React to create complex and interactive UIs without the need for page reloads, resulting in a smooth and efficient user experience. React allows Facebook to declaratively describe its UI and efficiently update the actual DOM, improving the performance of its application.
Instagram - Like Facebook, Instagram uses React to build a complex UI that provides an enjoyable experience for its users, as well as in some other features, such as tags, geolocation, and search.
Dropbox - Dropbox is another example that proves React can be used to create any type of complex and high-performance interface. The cloud-based file hosting platform employs React in its stack to provide advantages such as smaller file sizes and faster reloading speeds, making the application more user-friendly.
Netflix - Another popular React use case is Netflix's React-Gibbon UI architecture. The streaming platform leverages Reacts’ declarative approach to UI development and one-way data flow model to create a high-performance and seamless experience for its user base.
Node.js vs. React.js: Is Node.js Better than React?
Well, if you’ve read this article up to this point, you should by now already know the right answer to this question.
Node.js and React are two different technologies that are often used together in the development of web applications, and directly comparing them would be absurd. However, this article has provided you with the guidance and knowledge you need to differentiate the two, as well as examples of their use cases.
In conclusion, each technology has its own strengths and areas of focus, and the choice of which one to use depends on the specific requirements of the application or project you’re building.