What Is a Local Web Development Environment and Do You Need One?

By Paul McFedries

Local web development environments are a useful tool for web coders. In programming circles, an integrated development environment (IDE) is a collection of software programs that make it easy and efficient to write code. Most development environments are tailored to a particular programming language and come with tools for editing, testing, and compiling code (that is, converting the code to its final form as an application).

In the web coding game, there aren’t IDEs, per se, but there is a similar beast called a local web development environment, which is also a collection of software. It usually includes the following:

  • A web server
  • A relational database management system (RDBMS) to run on the web server
  • A server-side programming language
  • An interface for controlling (starting, stopping, and so on) the web server
  • An interface for accessing and manipulating the RDBMS

The key point to grok here is that this is a “local” web development environment, which means that it gets installed on your PC or Mac. This enables you to build and test your web development projects right on your computer. You don’t need a web hosting service or even an Internet connection, for that matter. Everything runs conveniently on your computer, so you can concentrate on coding and leave the deployment of the site until you’re ready.

Do you need a local web development environment?

Okay, if it’s possible to use a simple text editor to develop web pages, why not do just that? After all, every Windows PC and Mac in existence comes with a pre-installed text editor, and there are lots of free third-party text editors ripe for downloading, so why bother installing the software for a local web development environment?

To be perfectly honest, a local web development setup isn’t a must for everyone. Certainly if all you’re doing for now is getting started with a few static web pages built using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, then you don’t yet need access to the back end. Similarly, if you’re building websites and web apps for your own use and you already have a web host that gives you access to MySQL and PHP, then you can definitely get away with using just your trusty text editor.

However, there are two major exceptions that pretty much require you to build your web stuff locally:

  • If you’re building a website or app for someone else and you don’t have access to their web server.
  • If you’re building a new version of an existing website or app, which means that you don’t want to mess with the production code while tinkering (and therefore making mistakes) with the new code.

That said, there’s also something undeniably cool about having a big-time web server purring away in the background of your computer. So, even if you don’t think you’ll need a full-blown web-development environment in the short term, think about installing one anyway.