Unstoppable Jamstack and the Gatsby opportunity

Gatsby offers developers a lightweight, flexible, API-driven approach to building web applications -- and freedom from the heavyweight CMS.
  • Matt Asay (InfoWorld)
  • 28 October, 2021 19:15

Apparently, we’re back to wearing bell-bottoms in website land. But this time, they’re cool. Although we started with simple static-site generators (SSGs), the web evolved to embrace database-driven approaches to allow for increasingly dynamic websites. 

Content management systems (CMSs) like WordPress, Drupal, and Adobe Experience Manager emerged to give enterprises an all-inclusive approach to building their sites, whether a simple blog or an online catalog. SSGs seemed to be a thing of the past.

And so they were, until clever developers figured out ways to drive dramatic performance improvements in systems like GatsbyJS, removing SSG’s Achilles’ heel of slow build times, thereby making SSG a reality for big and small websites alike. That’s one of the main takeaways from the release of GatsbyJS 4 last week (in addition to Gatsby’s move to enable server-side rendering).

Gatsby might be ushering in the next-generation LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP). Dubbed the Jamstack (JavaScript, APIs, Markup), it’s an architecture that gives developers a lightweight, highly approachable way to build the web. 

Of course, making something easy isn’t the same as making it useful, and that’s where Gatsby comes in. It’s also what gets Gatsby’s CEO, Zack Urlocker, most excited.

Escape from the heavyweight CMS

It’s perhaps fitting that the next wave of the LAMP stack would involve a key executive from the LAMP era. Zack Urlocker first rose to prominence while running product for MySQL, the M in LAMP, and was recently announced as CEO of Gatsby, though he’s been functioning in that role for some time. 

In a conversation with Urlocker, he stressed that younger developers are driving the rapid industry shift to Jamstack. Why? Because they don’t want to be locked into a heavyweight CMS that requires them to adopt that CMS’ front-end tools, back-end database, and more.

Developers are flocking to API-driven, headless CMSs that give them access to continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD), their preferred source code repositories (GitHub, GitLab), and React, the most popular JavaScript framework for building user interfaces. 

Those old-school systems still drive most web development, but the Jamstack approach has seen rapid adoption, Urlocker noted, and when that adoption grows from three per cent or four per cent today to eight per cent to 12 per cent in the not-too-distant future, “it becomes unstoppable.”

This could prove to be true, but what sparked the interest in Jamstack approaches like Gatsby? Mobile.

As digital transformation projects have gathered steam, organisations are looking for ways to build mobile-friendly applications. Urlocker said, “there’s just no way they were going to build those projects on the legacy systems” like WordPress. Why? Because a traditional CMS structures content in a webpage-centric way, commingling content with code (HTML).

"This isn’t terrible in a world where content is going to find its way to a website, but today that same content needs to be available to mobile applications and more. A headless CMS separates the content repository from its presentation, giving developers significant new levels of flexibility to do API-driven development."

This doesn’t mean organisations have been tossing their legacy workhorses. Instead, Urlocker continued, they are keeping legacy systems running for their legacy website needs, while turning to the improved flexibility of the Jamstack approach for new applications. 

Once they experience the benefits of a headless CMS such as Contentful paired with React-based Gatsby for the front end, he said, “it just starts taking over the rest of the projects in the company,” replacing those legacy systems in net-new projects.

If mobile was the foot in the door for Gatsby (and this new Jamstack approach, generally), Google smashed the door wide open.

In 2010, Google announced that speed would be a ranking signal for desktop searches. Later, in 2018, Google further announced that page speed would be a ranking factor for mobile searches as well. Suddenly, poor performance meant more than a bad user experience. It meant users might not find their way to your site at all. Simply using a system like Gatsby meant that out of the box, sites scored 40 to 50 points higher than with a traditional CMS.

The race was on and, increasingly, Gatsby was winning that race.

Redefining how web development is done

That’s Gatsby the product. Gatsby the company has also been on a tear, fuelled by improvements the Gatsby development team, led by cofounders Kyle Mathews and Sam Bhagwat, made to the core open source project and to the company’s cloud service. 

When the company talks up Gatsby’s 10x performance boost in Gatsby 4, much of that gain comes from rendering improvements the company delivers through its cloud service.

With that in mind, I asked Urlocker if he worries that a cloud vendor could take Gatsby (licensed under the permissive MIT license) and create a rival cloud service. 

No, he said, for two reasons. First, the company “wants Gatsby to be popular,” so they are “happy that there are multiple places to host Gatsby.” In other words, owning all of a small pie isn’t as tasty as owning a significant slice of a much larger pie.

The confidence that the company will get pie at all comes down to its cloud expertise. “A big part of our secret sauce is what’s in Gatsby Cloud,” Urlocker said. 

“If somebody takes the Gatsby framework and puts it on the cloud, they still have to do a lot of work to get the functionality of Gatsby Cloud.” 

The bet is that they won’t be able to deliver as rich an experience as the Gatsby company has done. Urlocker is banking that customers are almost always going to want to do builds and hosting in the cloud, feeling like “I may as well do it on Gatsby Cloud because that’s the fastest, best experience.”

This is why, when I asked Urlocker why he chose Gatsby, the answer had become somewhat obvious. Here’s an executive with four different billion-dollar exits (MySQL, DuoSecurity, Zendesk, and Active Software), someone who could pick his next billion-dollar outcome. For Urlocker, Gatsby is that, but it’s also much more: “I truly think this is like the LAMP stack where it’s going to define how web development is done for the next 10 years.”

Or as the fictional character Jay Gatsby might have said, “Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!” This time with Jam.