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The terms "framework", "library" and "tool" can mean different things to different people at different times depending on the context. The general definitions used here:
A library is an organized collection of useful functionality. A typical library could include functions to handle strings, dates, HTML DOM elements, events, cookies, animations, network requests, and more. Each function returns values to the calling application which can be implemented however you choose. Think of it like a selection of car components: you’re free to use any to help construct a working vehicle but you must build the engine yourself.
Libraries normally provide a higher level of abstraction which smooths over implementation details and inconsistencies. For example, Ajax can be implemented using the XMLHttpRequest API but this requires several lines of code and there are subtle differences across browsers. A library may provide a simpler
ajax() function so you’re free to concentrate on higher-level business logic.
A library could cut development time by 20% because you don’t have to worry about the finer details. The downsides:
A framework is an application skeleton. It requires you to approach software design in a specific way and insert your own logic at certain points. Functionality such as events, storage, and data binding are normally provided for you. Using the car analogy, a framework provides a working chassis, body, and engine. You can add, remove or tinker with some components presuming the vehicle remains operational.
A framework normally provides a higher level of abstraction than a library and can help you rapidly build the first 80% of your project. The downsides:
A tool aids development but is not an integral part of your project. Tools include build systems, compilers, transpilers, code minifiers, image compressors, deployment mechanisms and more.
Tools should provide an easier development process. For example, many coders prefer Sass to CSS because it provides code separation, nesting, render-time variables, loops, and functions. Browsers do not understand Sass/SCSS syntax so the code must be compiled to CSS using an appropriate tool before testing and deployment.
The distinction between libraries, frameworks, and tools is rarely clear. A framework could include a library. A library may implement framework-like methods. Tools could be essential for either. I’ve attempted to label each project but the scope can vary.
Projects in approximate order of usage/popularity/hype…
React usage appears low in statistics perhaps because it’s used in applications rather than websites. Almost 70% of developers claim to have some experience using the library.
Angular is the first framework – or MVC application framework – to appear on this list. The most popular edition remains version 1.x which extended HTML with two-way data-binding while decoupling DOM manipulation from application logic.
Angular 1.x is still in development despite the release of version 2 (which is now version 4!) Confused? See below…
Angular 2+ is radically different to v1. Neither is compatible with the other – perhaps Google should have given the project a different name?!
Vue.js is a lightweight progressive framework for building user interfaces. The core offers a React-like virtual DOM-powered view layer which can be integrated with other libraries but it is also capable of powering single-page applications. The framework was created by Evan You who previously worked on AngularJS but wanted to extract the parts he liked.
Ext JS evolved from YUI-Ext and has one of the longest histories on this list. Although best known for its wide range of configurable, accessible, cross-browser UI components and data visualisation tools, Ext JS also provides a framework for building full applications. Alternatively, you can use the component library with React or Angular.
Ext JS is the only framework here to offer commercial training and support. There are also options to have the Sencha team help review your code, automate testing, and migrate to other platforms.
Client-side usage is low but either library can be adopted for server-side Node.js applications.
Backbone.js was one of the earliest client-side options to provide an MVC structure commonly found in server-side frameworks. Its only dependency is Underscore.js which was created by the same developer.
Backbone.js claims to be a library because it can be integrated with other projects. I suspect most developers consider it to be a framework, albeit less opinionated than some others.
Ember.js is one of the larger opinionated frameworks which is based on a Model-View-ViewModel (MVVM) pattern. It implements templating, data-binding, and libraries in a single package. The convention-over-configuration concepts will be immediately familiar to those with Ruby on Rails experience.
One of the older MVVM frameworks, Knockout.js uses observers to ensure the UI stays synchronized with underlying data. It features templating and dependency tracking.
Hungry for more? The following projects are less popular but worth
Build tools automate a variety of web development tasks such as pre-processing, compilation, module bundling, image optimization, code minification, linting, and running tests. Tasks are usually managed together in a single executable package. The most popular options:
npm is the Node.js package manager but its scripts facility can be used for general-purpose task running. It’s an attractive option for simpler projects with few dependencies. However, more complex tasks can rapidly become impractical.
Browserify supports CommonJS modules as used by Node.js to compile all modules into a single browser-compatible file.
RequireJS started life an in-browser module loader although it can also be used in Node.js. It supports AMD syntax.
Linting analyses your code for potential errors or deviation from syntactical standards. You’ll never miss a closing bracket or undeclared variable again!
ESLint is the most popular linting tool supported by the majority of IDEs, editors, bundlers, and task runners. Every rule is a plugin so it can be configured to your liking.
One of the first linters and it implements a strict set of default rules. Development has slowed and it can be a little uncompromising for some developers.
Test-Driven-Development requires you to write code to test your code before you start writing it. You’re welcome to write code to test your test code too!
A testing framework from Facebook which has risen in popularity because of its close connections with React and Webpack.
Mocha can run tests in Node.js and a browser. It supports asynchronous testing and is often paired with Chai to enable test code to be expressed in a readable style. It was the most popular option for several years.
Jasmine is a behavior-driven test suite which can automate the testing your UI and interactions in a browser.
If you follow the wisdom of crowds, momentum is currently behind React and other libraries are moving in a similar technical direction. It’s a safe career choice but you should also consider Vue.js or the React-compatible-but-smaller Preact.
Monolithic frameworks have fallen from favor but, should you require a strict structure for larger projects, AngularJS remains a popular option. The majority of developers have stuck with version 1.0 but that’s possibly out of necessity than choice. Longer term, version 2+ could be a safer bet but you will need to learn TypeScript.
Sencha’s Ext JS is a great option for companies (small businesses to enterprises) looking for an option that includes both a framework and pre-built, integrated components and tools, including access to commercial support. Ext JS also easily integrates its robust component library with React and Angular, for developers looking to implement pre-built components as opposed to building them on their own.
Do not discount jQuery. It’s not trendy and is rarely mentioned in the technical press, but it’s actively developed and more than capable for websites and applications. jQuery has a shallow learning curve and is understood by many developers worldwide.
Tools choice is less critical and can vary from project to project. Most WebPack, Gulp or npm scripts. You can’t go far wrong with ESLint and Jest for testing but there are plenty of alternatives to try.
That said, every project, team and skill set is different. You have limited time to make an assessment so it’s tempting to use what you know. This article will receive comments recommending FrameworkX but everything looks like a nail when you have a hammer.