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What is a Software Stack?

6 min read

A software stack is a collection of software components that collectively work together to implement applications. Stacks typically consist of several parts, each handling a specific task or service, and are organized in a hierarchy (hence the name “stack”). 

Software stacks are tailored based on the functionality your app or website needs. There are well-known stack configurations with proven track records for creating great products, or a stack can be built from scratch. Software companies use popular stacks over custom-built stacks for familiarity. 

Carefully selecting your software stack when developing a product is essential because the right stack will help leverage your team’s expertise. If your team needs an expert, MVP Match has a network of specialized freelancers to hire for your next project. 

Software Stack vs. Technology Stack

It’s easy to get “software stack” and “technology stack” confused; the names are very similar, and sometimes the terms seem to be used interchangeably.  A tech stack, also known as a solution stack or a product’s technology infrastructure, includes everything technology related that is involved with an application or web development.  There are many types of tech stacks with specialized purposes. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Server Stacks: hardware, operating systems, runtime environments, and web services

  • Storage Stacks: the server itself and networking components

  • Cloud Stacks: for projects hosted in digital environments like Amazon Web Servers

  • Marketing Stacks: content management systems and tracking tools

What is meant by software stack? If the full technology stack includes all hardware and software, then you’ve probably guessed that the software stack would ONLY be the software components required to run an application. The software stack is one part of a full technology stack.  

Software stack components interact with each other in an application’s digital architecture to perform the correct end-user activities. Careful consideration should be taken when choosing a software stack, as the limitations and features of the software you choose can impact the function and scalability in the long term.

Front-End vs. Back-End Software Stacks 

All web applications, mobile applications, and programs with an end user have two specializations to them. The front end is what users see, focusing more on visual aspects and the parts that users interact with. The back end of a project is the pieces that users don’t see, like the web framework, databases, and web servers. 

Front-End 

Also known as the client side, the front end is the presentation level of a software stack.  Front-end developers can also be called user interface or user experience designers (UI/UX).  These product designers create the graphics and layouts and ensure it is easy for a person to use the product. 

If you are looking for a front-end stack position, you should be ready to show your skills with a variety of tools. Front-end stacks include web design languages such as  HTML, CSS, and Javascript, including AJAX and  JSON, for data transfer and retrieval. Knowing Javascript UI frameworks such as React, AngularJS, and Vue.JS is also helpful. A front-end stack should also include tools for real-time testing and deploying new features. 

Back-End

The back end is sometimes called the server side of an application.  The back-end components aren’t visible to the end user and include business logic, database management, operating systems, programming languages, and storage. 

Most software stacks consist of multiple back-end programs and components. Back-end developers have many more tools to learn and choose from.  A back-end stack needs a database like MySQL, MongoDB, or PostgreSQL, a web server software like Apache,  and a programming language.  Common back-end programming languages include PHP, Python, Java, Perl, and Ruby on Rails. 

Full-stack developers have the skills to work on the front-end and back-end of a software stack.  There are components of software stacks with cross-over between the front and back end. Node.js offers developers efficiency in full-stack development, as it allows for JavaScript to be used on both the front and back end. Also, Node.js is an open-source runtime environment capable of running on Microsoft Windows, Linux, Unix, and macOS.  

Parts of a Software Stack

The levels of a software stack depend on the needs, systems, and limitations of the product being developed. What are the layers of a software stack? The layers of a software stack include front-end components, back-end components, and database components. 

The front-end languages are predominantly for the visual look and feel of the product. There are some functionality components, but most are back-end related. 

The back-end levels of a software stack include:

  • Operating systems, including mobile operating systems like Android OS and Apple iOS

  • Server software for database servers

  • Web servers

  • File servers

  • Server-side scripting languages, like C# and Java

The database level is where all the information and records are stored.  SQL is a popular database server.

Choosing a Software Stack

Picking the right software stack is an essential task for a product manager.  Some software engineers are partial to a particular stack, and some project managers insist on certain stack components. The stack is the foundation of development. The project roadmap and eventual customer should be in mind when choosing software.  

Important aspects to consider when choosing a software stack:

  • How will the user interact with the product?

  • Will it be easy to scale?

  • Where are you storing user data?

  • Where are you storing application data?

  • Do the servers in the stack have high-read or high-write capacity?

It is essential to be consistent with your software stack. Changing or implementing new software after you’ve started your project can cause major headaches and incompatibility issues.

Examples

There are plenty of well-known software stacks used today.  These stacks are popular because the software components work well together, and developers have become accustomed to using them for their projects.

  1. LAMP: Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP (or Perl or Python)

This is one of the first stacks to gain popularity among web application developers.  It is made of open-source software that allows for flexibility and is easy to deploy. Variations of LAMP have evolved for most operating systems outside of Linux. 

  1. MEAN: MongoDB-Express.js-AngularJS-Node.js

Software engineers save time and money with the MEAN stack because it is powered exclusively by JavaScript. This allows for better collaboration between the front and back end. 

  1. MEVN: MongoDB-Express.js-Vue.js-Node.js

MEVN is a variation of the MEAN stack.  Vue.js and AngularJS are similar, but Vue.js employs a lightweight Virtual Dom instead of a real DOM. Vue.js is also simpler to learn and integrate than Angular. Vue.js does have limitations, however, so it is crucial for a product manager to think of all components of the roadmap before selecting a stack. 

  1. Ruby Stack: Ruby-Ruby on Rails-RVM (Ruby Virtual Machine)-MySQL-Apache-PHP

This is a complete development environment for building applications. The Ruby Stack is well-regarded for speed. A variation of the Ruby Stack exists that is all in Java, running on the Java Virtual Machine instead of the Ruby Virtual Machine for data-heavy applications. 

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About the Author

Kate manages content marketing for talent acquisition at MVP Match. Her job? Attracting the best and brightest tech talent into our community where they are matched with rewarding roles they deserve. She's a copywriter at heart, and has spent over 10 years in marketing for tech, healthcare, and consulting firms. An avid traveler and workation pro, Kate both embraces and advocates for a future where everyone is empowered to define work on their terms.