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Java vs. Node.js: An epic battle for developer mind share

Peter Wayner | Feb. 18, 2015
Here’s how the enterprise stalwart and onetime script-kiddie toy stack up in a battle for the server room.

Where Node wins: Speed
People love to praise the speed of Node.js. The data comes in and the answers come out like lightning. Node.js doesn't mess around with setting up separate threads with all of the locking headaches. There's no overhead to slow down anything. You write simple code and Node.js takes the right step as quickly as possible.

This praise comes with a caveat. Your Node.js code better be simple and it better work correctly. If it deadlocks, the entire server could lock up. Operating system developers have pulled their hair out creating safety nets that can withstand programming mistakes, but Node.js throws away these nets.

Where Java wins: Threads
Fast code is great, but it's usually more important that it be correct. Here is where Java's extra features make sense.

Java's Web servers are multithreaded. Creating multiple threads may take time and memory, but it pays off. If one thread deadlocks, the others continue. If one thread requires longer computation, the other threads aren't starved for attention (usually).

If one Node.js request runs too slowly, everything slows down. There's only one thread in Node.js, and it will get to your event when it's good and ready. It may look superfast, but underneath it uses the same architecture as a one-window post office in the week before Christmas.

There have been decades of work devoted to building smart operating systems that can juggle many different processes at the same time. Why go back in time to the '60s when computers could handle only one thread?

Where Node wins: Momentum
Yes, all of our grandparents' lessons about thrift are true. Waste not; want not. It can be painful to watch Silicon Valley's foolish devotion to the "new" and "disruptive," but sometimes cleaning out the cruft makes the most sense. Yes, Java can keep up, but there's old code everywhere. Sure, Java has new IO routines, but it also has old IO routines. Plenty of applet and util classes can get in the way.

Where both win: Cross-compiling from one to the other
The debate whether to use Java or Node.js on your servers can and will go on for years. As opposed to most debates, however, we can have it both ways. Java can be cross-compiled into JavaScript. Google does this frequently with Google Web Toolkit, and some of its most popular websites have Java code running in them -- Java that was translated into JavaScript.

There's a path in the other direction, too. JavaScript engines like Rhino run JavaScript inside your Java application where you can link to it. If you're really ambitious, you can link in Google's V8 engine.

 

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