Which language should my startup use?

, 2,317 words

I'm often asked by entrepreneurs which language their startups should adopt when developing their technology. Attending events around London, or talking with some of the development agencies present at the events, one might hear a startling set of opinions. PHP is insecure? Ruby on Rails doesn't scale? It can be difficult -- without experience building software -- to make an informed choice which is most suitable. Technology enthusiasts tend to get tangled up in enthusiasm for their chosen platforms, so we'd like to provide an objective summary.

But wait

Not all startups are alike. Some are more technical, or more mature than others. Whilst this guidance should be of interest to technical startups, if they have capable senior staff they should be able to get this from them. Businesses with more complex needs or pressures may use multi-platform solutions. In particular, they may use service oriented architecture, or SoA. This can be used to spread some of the platform risk a business might face.

What to avoid

Fortunately for entrepreneurs, there are only a few technology language choices that are likely to be fundamentally "wrong". ASP (or Visual Basic) does not have a justifiable use, other than by companies needing to service existing ASP technology. Microsoft replaced ASP with the .NET platform more than five years ago, and even at the height of its popularity ASP was wholly inadequate. ColdFusion, one of the few languages to have an "is this language dead?" page, can -- despite the occasional new release from Adobe -- be considered a dead language, with all that this entails (difficulty finding and retaining good developers, vendor lock-in, horrendous cost, poor support, porting nightmares, infrastructure constraints). ColdFusion occupied a niche for rapid web development since the late '90s, and its legacy consists of around ten very vocal agencies and developers, some of whom are moving slowly to .NET.

Languages like Tcl -- which powered Vignette's CMS products in the dotcom heyday -- are now rather unusual in web development. They're not entirely without use or benefit, but like Lisp, Flash or Silverlight, they're often not the best choice. There's nothing inherently wrong with Flash or Silverlight, but most often their use should be considered only for incremental interface enhancements to a system built on an establish web framework.

It's worth noting that technically capable startups may use esoteric languages with a great deal of success. 37signals repopularised Ruby this way, and last.fm have been beavering away with Haskell. These languages work well for the companies because they are solidly technical, and are able to kickstart their own frameworks or adapt other projects. Many startups do not have this luxury, and although they've been very successful, 37signal's David Heinemeier Hansson was quite indulgent and not at all risk averse in choosing to single-handedly reinvent a language.

Language doesn't matter

Complex web applications can be built in just about any programming language, and it's not really the language that is so important as the frameworks that are available. Despite what some vendors may say, all languages scale, and it's hard to argue that one language is fundamentally less secure than another. One can, however, make these arguments about different frameworks. Development frameworks are toolkits to guide developers in building particular pieces of software. Critically, they provide implicit (and sometimes explicit) structure to what the developers are developing, and will allow the team to use pre-built blocks of functionality. No company, in any industry, should be building functionality without recourse to significant chunks of other peoples' frameworks. (The common argument used to be "this isn't rocket science, it's likely someone's already built at least part of what we're doing before". However, nowadays even the rocket scientists at NASA are using external frameworks.)

But frameworks really do matter

Above all, in order to make an informed choice of platform, consideration must be made as to the framework. Why would one chose to develop with a particular framework over any other? Consider these eight areas:

  1. Cost of development (rates, productivity, time cost to recruit & availability)
  2. Platform cost (& total cost of ownership, or TCO, including hosting, support, licensing, cost of requirements)
  3. Quality of developers (& barrier to entry)
  4. Maturity (& continued maintenance)
  5. Similar business use
  6. Suitability for web (& your domain)
  7. Support & documentation (don't forget release cycles and open vs. proprietary, RTFM = STFW?)
  8. Ease of integration & adaptability (SoA, other components & processes)

There are five or so fairly common languages that startup companies might use to address their needs. These are Java (from Sun), .NET (from Microsoft), and three Open Source options: PHP, Python and Ruby. I’ve tried to convey a flavour for each language as concisely as possible.

Java stands alone from the four others. It -- along with Perl, ASP and a host of proprietary platforms -- powered many of the enterprise sites of the late nineties and around the turn of the century. It's a powerful object oriented language, and is effectively Open Source. Java can be used in both Microsoft or Open Source environments. As it presents a relatively high barrier to entry in terms of technical complexity, Java developers tend to be more capable (and expensive) than many developers who use simpler scripting languages. However, Java is not a particularly productive language to work with, and many elements of functionality can be delivered more rapidly in the other languages. Java developers pioneered some of the best early web frameworks and tools: J2EE, Spring, Eclipse, Hibernate, Ant, Struts, Tomcat. Java has a fair amount of syntax in common in common with some of the .NET languages which were designed by Microsoft to counter Java's success. Java is a great language for enterprises and is commonly used by many big dotcoms, banks and airlines, but its relatively slow development pace and higher barrier to entry make it inappropriate for most early-stage businesses.

PHP is a widely-used Open Source web scripting language. Many small to medium size sites use it, alongside a few massive ones such as Facebook. Of the languages considered here, PHP has the lowest barrier to entry, which has some big drawbacks. First of all, PHP powers a number of content management systems (CMS) – such as Joomla! and Drupal – which are often confused for frameworks. It’s possible to get very simple sites up and running very quickly with CMSes, but often businesses can get caught up trying to extend them. Having a site built on a CMS platform may make sense for the first iteration, but beware of falling into trying to upgrade the modified CMS to support a complex site. It won’t, or at least, it won’t work well and be a robust, fast and high-quality solution. (This isn’t to say PHP doesn’t have frameworks – it has many, from Symfony, CakePHP and Zend to a host of others.) Secondly, the ease of use of the language means that many of the programmers and agencies available are, at best, hopeless. PHP programmers are often unfairly stigmatised by colleagues who work with more complex languages, and whilst there are some excellent ones out there, many more are poor. Grand Master Programmer theory states that around 1 in 20 (or 5%) of programmers are super programmers, and in “easy” languages this number is even lower. Hiring a good team of PHP developers is neither likely nor easy for the non-technical. A team of poor developers won’t just take longer to deliver a solution: they’ll build something which is insecure and complex, and subsequent modifications will become increasingly costly with time.

The .NET framework is a set of proprietary languages (most prominently C#, VisualBasic.NET and ASP.NET) developed by Microsoft. Microsoft made a half-hearted attempt to “open” the languages by publishing an ECMA standards document, and there is an Open Source implementation (Mono) available, but for the most part development with .NET requires use of Microsoft operating systems and licenses. This isn’t a discussion of the merits of Closed vs. Open Source, but it’s worth noting that each Microsoft server costs around $1,000 to license, and their database software costs between £2,000 - £16,000 per CPU (most servers have two to four) to license. These are usually insignificant amounts once a business is proven but can seriously eat into seed or first round capital. (Microsoft have a Bizspark programme to provide these products freely for the first three years of a startup’s life.) The .NET languages, and particularly VisualBasic and ASP.NET have a barrier to entry only slightly higher than that of PHP. That, and the fact that they represent “point and click computing” have resulted in an industry segment full of sub-par programmers. Like PHP, when hiring Microsoft programmers there’s much to be wary of. .NET powers sites of all sizes (though relatively few massive ones) and is very common. .NET has some CMS frameworks such as dotnetnuke and Community Server which often distract startups. Most startups don't have "legacy applications" to deal with, but .NET can be particularly easy to integrate with older Windows applications and services, and is an easier migration choice for older "Microsoft" code. I have been called in to rescue twice as many project disasters on .NET than any other platform.

Ruby on Rails is a combination of framework and language, with Ruby being the language and Rails being the framework. Ruby was considered a dead language to all but some system administrators when it was revived in 2003 by 37signals to develop their award-winning productivity startup Basecamp, and then taken on to power Twitter. Their lead developer built the first parts of the Rails framework before throwing it open to the Open Source community for further work, and in doing so the first true Web 2.0 framework was built. With a mid-level barrier to entry and a fan-base of intelligent, capable, multi-skilled developers, Rails represents an excellent choice for a startup. The project is mature enough and well documented enough to have attracted developers seeking refuge from other, more tiresome languages. Some purists consider it a joy to program in, and anecdotally it appears to be the platform of choice for many of the hot American companies on TechCrunch. Rails is a web framework at heart, and is less suitable for non-web projects. Being so fashionable, there are many developers both on and off-shore (increasing rapidly) but finding available resource can sometimes be tricky.

Finally, Python’s Django framework has catapulted it into a serious contender to web development. Python is an Open Source language (with a philosophy behind it) long-beloved by Object Orientation enthusiasts, system administrators and Google, and has had a number of different web frameworks – like Zope – before. However, it’s only really with the appearance of Django over the last few years that it’s been more widely used by start-ups. Describing itself as a framework "for perfectionists with deadlines", Django is comparable only to Rails in its tight focus on delivering functionality very quickly for Web 2.0 web applications. Whilst technically there are some interesting differentiators between Django and Rails, there are only a few key differences worth considering. Django is much newer and has a more immature codebase. This means there’s far less supporting documentation, far fewer experienced developers, and is more likely to change as it gets away from version one. Such is its impressiveness, however, that Google released Django as the first supported language on their App Engine cloud computing platform, and a number of Rails developers are starting to transition over. Central to Django are the principles or DRY (“Don’t repeat yourself”) and Python’s lack of TIMTOWTDI (“there more than one way to do it”), with a medium barrier to entry, these help less experienced developers get it right -- the first time around -- in a way which PHP frameworks cannot.

At a glance

Having run of the few expert companies assisting early start companies with their technology strategy and platform, I was particularly well exposed to platform disasters through the rescue projects I embarked on. In fairness, early-stage business failure caused solely by language or platform choice is rare, but it's often a significant contributory factor.

From what I see, one of the biggest technology risks is where companies take on agencies or developers who have built their own, idiosyncratic frameworks, and I see these tripping up companies time and time again. Seed money gets invested on something that shouldn’t be in use, rather than something provided by an off-the-shelf framework which won’t tie the business to a particular agency. I’ve written previously on the other technical challenges start-ups will face when working with agencies or developers.

  • The good: Python (Django), Ruby on Rails
  • The bad (or less good): Java (also J2EE, JSP), .NET (includes C#, VB.NET, ASP.NET), PHP
  • The ugly: ASP (also Visual Basic), ColdFusion, Flash, Silverlight Lisp, Tcl, Perl, any framework built and provided by a development agency, even if they say it’s “open source”

A guiding principle

It is impossible to give general advice on which languages are better than others, and this post makes a number of generalisations. An expert in a particular language or framework will usually be more productive than a non-expert in another language. Whatever the choice, it's important that the experts aren't using the platform in an idiosyncratic manner.

It never hurts to focus on simplicity. A business should own as little technology as is suitable to fulfil its strategy. This should translate to every variable one can use to measure technology: number of servers, number of licenses, lines of code owned, technical staff. The less a business owns, the easier it is to change and grow. Other considerations aside, the framework that's most suitable for expressing the business' logic as simply as possible is often the right choice.