Web application frameworks, or simply "web frameworks", are the de facto way to build web-enabled applications. From simple blogs to complex AJAX-rich applications, every page on the web was created by writing code. I've recently found that many developers interested in learning a web framework like Flask or Django don't really understand what a web framework is, what their purpose is, or how they work. In this article, I'll explore the oft-overlooked topic of web framework fundamentals. By the end of the article, you should have a solid understanding of what a web framework is and why they exist in the first place. This will make it far easier to learn a new web framework and make an informed decision regarding which framework to use.
How The Web Works
Before we talk about frameworks, we need to understand how the web "works". To
do so, we'll delve into what happens when you type a URL into your browser and
Enter. Open a new tab in your browser and navigate to
http://www.jeffknupp.com. Let's talk about
the steps your browser took in order to display the page (minus DNS lookups).
Web Servers and ... web ... servers...
Every web page is transmitted to your browser as
HTML, a language used by
browsers to describe the content and structure of a web page. The application
responsible for sending
HTML to browsers is called a web server.
Confusingly, the machine this application resides on is also usually called a
The important thing to realize, however, is that at the end of the
day, all a web application really does is send
HTML to browsers. No matter how
complicated the logic of the application, the final result is always
being sent to a browser (I'm purposely glossing over the ability for
applications to respond with different types of data, like
JSON or CSS files,
as the concept is the same).
How does the web application know what to send to the browser? It sends whatever the browser requests.
Browsers download websites from web servers (or "application servers") using
HTTP protocol (a protocol, in the realm of programming, is a
universally known data format and sequence of steps enabling communication
between two parties). The
HTTP protocol is based on a
The client (your browser) requests data from a web application that resides
on a physical machine. The web application in turn responds to the request with
the data your browser requested.
An important point to remember is that communication is always initiated by the client (your browser). The server (web server, that is) has no way of initiating a connection to you and sending your browser unsolicited data. If you receive data from a web server, it is because your browser explicitly asked for it.
Every message in the
HTTP protocol has an associated method (or verb). The various
correspond to logically different types of requests the client can send, which in turn
represent different intentions on the client side. Requesting the HTML
of a web page, for example, is logically different than submitting a form, so the
two actions require the use of different methods.
GET method does exactly what it sounds like: gets (requests) data from the
GET requests are the by far the most common
HTTP request. During
GET request the web application shouldn't need to do anything more than
respond with the requested page's HTML. Specifically, the web application should not
alter the state of the application as a result of a
GET request (for example,
it should not create a new user account based on a
GET request). For
GET requests are usually considered "safe" since they don't
result in changes to the application powering the website.
Clearly, there is more to interacting with web sites than simply looking at
pages. We are also able to send data to the application, e.g. via a form.
To do so, a different type of request is required:
usually carry data entered by the user and result in some action being taken
within the web application. Signing up for a web site by entering your
information on a form is done by
POSTing the data contained in the form to the
POST requests usually result in the state of the
application changing. In our example, a new user account is created when the
POST requests do not always result in
a new HTML page being sent to the client. Instead, the client uses the response's
response code do determine if the operation on the application was successful.
HTTP Response Codes
In the normal case, a web server returns a response code of 200, meaning, "I did
what you asked me to and everything went fine". Response codes are always a
three digit numerical code. The web applications must send one with each
response to indicate what happened as a result of a given request. The response code
literally means "OK" and is the code most often used when responding to a
POST request, however, may result in code
204 ("No Content")
being sent back, meaning "Everything went OK but I don't really have anything to
It's important to realize that
POST requests are still sent
to a specific URL, which may be different from the page the data was submitted
from. Continuing our sign up example, the form may reside at
submit, however, may result in a
with the form data being sent to
www.foo.com/process_signup. The location a
POST request should be sent to is specified in the form's
You can get quite far using only
POST, as they're the two most
HTTP methods by a wide margin. A web application, then, is responsible
for receiving an
HTTP request and replying with an
HTTP response, usually
containing HTML that represents the page requested.
POST requests cause the
web application to take some action, perhaps adding a new record in the
database. There are a number of other
HTTP methods, but we'll focus on
POST for now.
What would the simplest web application look like? We could write an application
that listened for connections on port
80 (the well-known
HTTP port that
HTTP traffic is sent to). Once it received a connection it would
wait for the client to send a request, then it might reply with some very simple
Here's what that would look like:
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(If the above doesn't work, try changing the
PORT to something like
This code accepts a single connection and a single request. Regardless of what
URL was requested, it responds with an
HTTP 200 response (so it's not really a
web server). The
Content-type: text/html line represents a header field.
Headers are used to supply meta-information about the request or response.
In this case, we're telling the client that the data that follows
is HTML (rather than, say, JSON).
Anatomy of a Request
If I look at the
HTTP request I sent to test the program above, I find it looks
quite similar to the response. The first line is
<HTTP Method> <URL> <HTTP version>
or, in this case,
GET / HTTP/1.1. After the first line come a few headers like
(meaning we will accept any type of content in a response). That's basically it.
The reply we send has a similar first request line, in the format
<HTTP version> <HTTP
Status-Code> <Status-Code Reason-Phrase> or
HTTP/1.1 200 OK in our case. Next
come headers, in the same format as the request headers. Lastly, the actual
content of the response is included. Note that this can be encoded as a string
or binary object (in the case of files). The
Content-type header lets the
client know how to interpret the response.
Web Server Fatigue
If we were going to continue building on the example above as the basis for a web application, there are a number of problems we'd need to solve:
- How do we inspect the requested URL and return the appropriate page?
- How do we deal with
POSTrequests in addition to simple
- How do we handle more advanced concepts like sessions and cookies?
- How do we scale the application to handle thousands of concurrent connections?
As you can imagine, no one wants to solve these problems each time they build a
web application. For that reason, packages exist that handle the nitty-gritty
details of the
HTTP protocol and have sensible solutions to problems
the problems above. Keep in mind, however, at their core they function in much
the same way as our example: listening for requests and sending
HTTP responses with
some HTML back.
Note that client-side web frameworks are a much different beast and deviate significantly from the above description.
Solving The Big Two: Routing and Templates
Of all the issues surrounding building a web application, two stand out.
- How do we map a requested URL to the code that is meant to handle it?
- How do we create the requested HTML dynamically, injecting calculated values or information retrieved from a database?
Every web framework solves these issues in some way, and there are many different approaches. Examples will be helpful, so I'll discuss Django and Flask's solutions to both of these problems. First, though, we need to briefly discuss the MVC pattern.
MVC in Django
Django makes use of the MVC pattern and requires code using the framework
to do the same. MVC, or "Model-View-Controller" is simply a way of logically
separating the different responsibilities of the application. Resources like
database tables are represented by models (in much the same way a
Python often models some real-world object). controllers contain the business
logic of the application and operate on models. Views are given all of
the information they needs to dynamically generate the HTML representation of the page.
Somewhat confusingly, in Django, controllers are called views and views are called templates. Other than naming weirdness, Django is a pretty straightforward implementation of an MVC architecture.
Routing in Django
Routing is the process of mapping a requested URL to the code responsible for
generating the associated HTML. In the simplest case, all requests are handled
by the same code (as was the case in our earlier example). Getting a little more
complex, every URL could map 1:1 to a
view function. For example, we could
record somewhere that if the URL
www.foo.com/bar is requested, the function
handle_bar() is responsible for generating the response. We could build up
this mapping table until all of the URLs our application supports are enumerated
with their associated functions.
However, this approach falls flat when the URLs contain useful data, such as the
ID of a resource (as is the case in
www.foo.com/users/3/). How do we map that
URL to a view function, and at the same time make use of the fact that we want
to display the user with ID
Django's answer is to map URL regular expressions to view functions that can
take parameters. So, for example, I may say that URLs that match
^/users/(?P<id>\d+)/$ calls the
display_user(id) function where the
argument is the captured group
id in the regular expression. In that way, any
/users/<some number>/ URL will map to the
display_user function. These
regular expressions can be arbitrarily complex and include both keyword and
Routing in Flask
Flask takes a somewhat different approach. The canonical method for hooking up
a function to a requested URL is through the use of the
route() decorator. The
following Flask code will function identically to the regex and function listed
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As you can see, the decorator uses an almost simplified form of regular expression
to map URLs to arguments (one that implicitly uses
/ as separators). Arguments are
captured by including a
<name:type> directive in the URL passed to
Routing to static URLs like
/info/about_us.html is handled as you would
HTML Generation Through Templates
Continuing the example above, once we have the appropriate piece of code mapped to the correct URL, how do we dynamically generate HTML in a way that still allows web designers to hand-craft it? For both Django and Flask, the answer is through HTML templating.
HTML Templating is similar to using
str.format(): the desired output is written
with placeholders for dynamic values. These are later replaced by arguments to
str.format() function. Imagine writing an entire web page as a single string,
marking dynamic data with braces, and calling
str.format() at the end.
Both Django templates and jinja2, the template engine
Flask uses, are designed to be used in this way.
However, not all templating engines are created equal. While Django has rudimentary support for programming in templates, Jinja2 basically lets you execute arbitrary code (it doesn't really, but close enough). Jinja2 also aggressively caches the result of rendering templates, so that subsequent requests with the exact same arguments are returned from the cache instead of expensively being re-rendered.
Django, with its "batteries included" philosophy, includes an
("Object Relational Mapper"). The purpose of an
ORM is two-fold: it maps Python
classes to database tables and abstracts away the differences between various
database engines (though the former is its primary role). No one loves
(because the mapping between domains is never perfect), rather, they are
tolerated. Django's is reasonably full-featured. Flask, being a
"micro-framework", does not include one (though it is quite compatible with
SQLAlchemy, the Django
ORM's biggest/only competitor).
The inclusion of an
ORM gives Django the ability to create a full-featured
CRUD (Create Read Update Delete)
applications seem to be the sweet spot for web frameworks (on the server side).
Django (and Flask-SQLAlchemy) make the various
CRUD operations for each model
Web Framework Round-Up
By now, the purpose of web frameworks should be clear: to hide the boilerplate
and infrastructural code related to handling
HTTP requests and responses. Just
how much is hidden depends on the framework. Django and Flask represent two
extremes. Django includes something for every situation, almost to its
detriment. Flask bills itself as a "micro-framework" and handles the bare
minimum of web application functionality, relying on third-party packages to do
some of the less common web framework tasks.
Remember, though, that at the end of the day, Python web frameworks all work the
same way: they receive
HTTP requests, dispatch code that generates HTML, and
HTTP response with that content. In fact, all major server-side
now equipped to choose between frameworks as you understand their purpose.