What's a framework? All about software frameworks

As a programmer, you know that web development and software development can be complex work. A framework can make your job easier, and save you the trouble of writing your code totally from scratch. The right framework can also reduce your development time by making it faster to design and troubleshoot.

What is a framework?

A framework is a boilerplate that facilitates development by offering infrastructure that you can build your own code on top of. Or, you can think of it as a template that provides pre-coded and reusable functions to facilitate software development.

That all sounds very abstract, so here’s a quick example to make things more concrete: Let’s say you’re a frontend developer taking on a full-stack development project. You might use one of the many popular backend frameworks that provide server-side functionality you need, then add your custom code for the frontend. 

Most programming languages have at least one associated framework, if not more. JavaScript frameworks include Vue and Angular, Ruby has Ruby on Rails, Python has Django, and so on. The contents of a framework can vary broadly depending on the framework, its language, and its purpose.

In most cases, popular frameworks are open source and maintained by a community of developers. For example, Vercel makes Next.js because it speeds up app development, and makes it simpler for developers to use their service.

Why do we use frameworks?

In short, frameworks make development much simpler for you and your team. Since some of the code is already written and tested, a framework can speed up the development process, improve security, reduce the risk of errors, and a whole lot more. 

For more in-depth information about what frameworks can do for you, see “What are the benefits of frameworks?” below.

Types of frameworks

As you might guess, frameworks can be used for a variety of development projects. You can find frameworks for software development, web development, working with APIs, and even doing data science work. 

But here are the types that you’ll come across most often and a few popular examples of each. Note that some frameworks can extend across categories. 

Front-end frameworks

These web-application frameworks are used for the development of the front end (visible portions) of a web application, such as layout and design.

  • Angular: An open-sourceJavaScript framework for developing single-page applications.

  • Vue: An open-sourceJavaScript framework for building user interfaces and single-page applications.

Backend frameworks

These frameworks are used for the development of the backend of web apps, or the components that handle server-side functionality.

  • Ruby on Rails: A Ruby-based, server-side framework for developing web applications.

  • Django: A high-level Python framework for web development.

  • Express: A node.js framework for developing web and mobile applications.

Mobile development frameworks

Used to assist in the development of mobile applications for Android, iOS, and more — or even cross-platform applications that rely on the same codebase.

  • React Native: An open-source UI framework maintained by Meta (Facebook) for developing cross-platform mobile apps on Android, iOS, Android TV, MacOS, and more.

  • Flutter: An open-source UI framework maintained by Google. Can be used to develop mobile apps for developing cross-platform mobile apps.

Software framework vs code library

If you’re having trouble telling the difference between a framework and a code library, don’t worry, you’re not alone. This distinction confuses many seasoned programmers.

Contentful’s Senior Software Engineer David Fateh explained the two terms by comparing development to the process of building a house. A framework, he says, is like a construction blueprint: A template that defines a basic structure for your build. A code library is more like a carpenter’s tool belt: It has tools designed to perform specific tasks.

Developer Advocate Alvin Bryan offers a real-world example to drive the point home: Unity and Unreal are both frameworks for developing games. They both use different programming languages, one uses C++ and the other uses C#. But they might use the same library for the task of managing and controlling sound. That means they both call that library to perform a specific task.

To get a bit more technical, the distinction between a framework and a coding library can be explained by a concept called inversion of control. When you use a library, your code calls the library to perform a specific task, for a specific outcome. When you use a framework, it calls your code. 

What are the benefits of a framework?

Frameworks offer a skeleton to build on so that programmers don’t have to start from scratch when building software or web applications. In short, it will reduce your software or web development costs and reduce your development time. 

But that’s not all a framework does for you.

  • You can focus on one area of development: If you’re a full-stack developer and you have a knack for backend development, you can use a framework to cover the frontend functionality. Now you can focus on what you’re best at.

  • Improved productivity: You or your company can use a framework to cover reusable generic functions. This saves programmers from writing code for the parts of the software or web application that don’t change from project to project. On top of that, as you learn a framework for a language like Java, you can get even faster at development — and this will improve your productivity even further.

  • Easier testing: Frameworks can help you eliminate problems faster when you begin troubleshooting. If you’re using a reputable frontend framework, for instance, you can be sure that it’s working properly and focus your troubleshooting on the backend.

  • Speed: When you develop an application from scratch, your code for certain functionality might be less than perfectly optimized. (We all know deadlines can be tight.) When you use a framework for that same functionality, you are using code that has been developed and continuously reworked to provide the highest possible speed. In short: frameworks can make your apps much faster.

  • Reliability: A framework is maintained by developers who will test the code rigorously to ensure top-notch reliability. They’ll also ensure that it meets changing requirements so you don’t get caught with a web application that suddenly doesn’t work.

  • Documentation: Good frameworks come with extensive documentation and community support. That is a big reason to use a framework, where you have regularly updated resources for reference, and other people to learn from and share experiences with.

  • Better security: Whether your framework is maintained by a company like Meta or Microsoft, or a community of programmers, you can trust that it has been tested and re-tested to address the security vulnerabilities of the programming language. 

What are the challenges of a framework?

Frameworks are great for many kinds of software and web development, but they’re not perfect. Here are some potential challenges to keep in mind as you explore the possibility of using a framework.

  • You need to learn the framework, and language: A framework can help speed up development for a programmer, but they aren’t simply plug-and-play tools. You’ll need to learn the framework itself — and know the programming language the framework is based on. For example, if you like the idea of using Django, you’ll also need to know Python to make it work.

  • Structural limitations: Even the most advanced frameworks aren’t designed to do everything. They’re designed for a specific purpose — such as offering a specific set of backend functionality. That makes them less useful for other tasks.

  • There are a lot of them: Frameworks are popular these days, and it can be difficult to choose the right one. You’ll need to be careful to find one that works best for your application, and stick with it to get the most out of it.

How do you pick the right framework?

If you are a programmer at a company, they will likely have a set of frameworks they like to use for various backend, frontend, and web development projects. Or, if you plan to work with a service like Contentful, they will likely have frameworks they can recommend for your software or web development.

That makes it simple.

If you’re looking for a framework on your own, there are questions you can ask to make the decision easier. For instance, what programming languages do you know? Is it important to use an open-source framework? What functionality do you need in a framework? Are you stronger as a frontend developer than a backend developer, or vice versa? What kind of project are you working on?

Once you’ve answered these questions, look for the frameworks that are tailored toward your requirements. Then, do research to find out what other programmers think of a framework. Find the community of programmers that uses the framework and ask them whether they think it’s right for you. 

There are a lot of resources out there, whether you’re working on frontend development using JavaScript, or backend with Python. So don’t always pick the newest, shiniest framework. Do your homework and find the tool that’s right for you.

What frameworks does Contentful recommend?

If you’re planning to work with Contentful, we are agnostic about the framework you use for tooling on the backend. So find what works best for you, your company, and your particular software.

On the frontend, Contentful endorses React and associated frameworks like Gatsby. In fact, we use it ourselves as part of the tooling in our App Framework. This is because it’s a widely adopted framework, it offers high usability, and it enables you to develop fast, scalable frontend applications. However, if you aren't familiar with React or would prefer to use something else, Contentful's rest APIs and GraphQL API make it straightforward and simple to integrate into your workflow, no matter which framework you choose. 

If you’re looking to integrate Contentful with other digital tools, you can use our own App Framework. Here’s how to build custom apps with this tool.

The value of frameworks

Frameworks can go a long way toward improving your software and web development projects. They offer fast, reliable patterns that you can use to avoid the trouble of starting from scratch. 

There are a variety of these tools out there, connected to programming languages from Java to Python, and intended for tasks as varied as backend development and data science. 

The options can be difficult to navigate, but with a little research you can find a framework that works for you. And the right framework will bring big benefits: It will reduce development time, save money, and ultimately help you make better applications and websites.

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