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When I read about frontends, it always mentiones webpages. Can it be used in different contexts, e.g. desktop applications?

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See also: programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/177143/… –  Hugo Jan 6 '13 at 16:01
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The term is generic and it tends to be used in n-tiered applications and refers to the UI.

It is not limited to n-tiered applications - in a single tiered application, if you have good separation of layers (say UI, business logic and infrastructure), you would still refer to the UI as the front-end.

So, you can use it whenever you are specifically talking about the UI - the interface that the end user uses.

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Hm, I had a very different definition of front end. I'm wondering if there is a difference in interpretation between USA (front end = UI) and Europe (front end = part of a system which would be accessed by users). –  MainMa Jan 5 '13 at 17:23
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@MainMa - Don't know. For me a UI == part of a system which would be accessed by users... –  Oded Jan 5 '13 at 17:31
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@MainMa In my mind the UI encapsulates (or is) the part that the user accesses; so is indeed the front end whichever way you look at it. By definition a UI doesn't need to be graphical; UI != GUI –  Fergus Morrow Jan 5 '13 at 17:39
    
For me UI means just one layer in the application(s) which run on the client side of a CS system. And those applications are often called the front end. –  Doc Brown Jan 5 '13 at 22:36
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The term is used both in design and development, including development of desktop software. The term targets a part of a system which is intended to be accessed by a customer or a user.

1. In web development:

It is not unusual to make the difference between:

  • Front end: the website or web application itself, as it is used by people outside the company,

  • Back end: the part of the web application which is used only by people with specific permissions and which allows them to execute administrative tasks.

Note: moderators would be qualified as people outside the company, so controls used by moderators are part of front end.

2. In SOA/SASS:

When services are involved, front end would be everything directly accessible by the users/customers. A desktop application installed by the user and which connects to a bunch of web services would be qualified as front end.

Services themselves, in this context, would be excluded from the front end.

Note: if a web service is the actual product, it may be qualified as a front end. For example, Twilio web service is the front end.

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Wikipedia has an article that answers this question directly, front and back ends.

In the context of compilers:

  • Front end validates the syntax and semantics then outputs some intermediate representation, such as an AST.
  • Back end generates the assembly or translated code.
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