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What is JAMstack? How is it Enabling Headless Tech to Thrive?

Updated on November 11, 2020

9 Min Read
what is jamstack

“Hey! Do you know What JAMstack is?” I was asked this question some time ago and I was baffled and excited with the idea of another tech stack for development and its possible practical applications. In this article, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know about JAMstack.

The JAMstack is witnessing a phenomenal rate of adoption, mainly due to a wide range of tools and services that developers can use for quickly deploying high-performing dynamic web applications. In addition, there is support for atomic deploys, which result in more frequent and faster deploy cycles, ensuring that updates are delivered to users ASAP.

What is JAMstack? 

The word JAMstack was coined by Netlify back in 2016 as a way to offer a tangible definition of modern website architecture. Application developers started to shift away from the conventional monolith approach for scalable mobile applications with an omnichannel approach to digital content. Software stacks such as LAMP or MEAN were the hot stuff in their day but have started to fall out of favor.

JAMstack developers are no longer restricted to monolith applications. Rather, they can now build smaller components and atomically deploy them to a global CDN (aka edge servers). For the UI and related components, developers can utilize static site generators and power up the scaffolding with client-side JavaScript and API. As a result, JAMstack can build fast and very scalable applications without the need for a dedicated DevOps component.

JAM is an acronym for the three main concepts at the heart of the stack: JavaScript, API, and Markup. But to find out what JAMstack is capable of, and how developers can use these technologies together to enable better experiences, we need to dig a little deeper.

In practical terms, JAMstack refers to web applications developed using the following stack:

Javascript – In the browser, websites use Javascript as the runtime.

API – All server-side processes or database activities function as reusable custom-built API that connects to third party services.

Markup – The HTML markup is pre-built at deployment. 

JAMstack Workflow

  • Construction and hosting are decoupled.
  • A page is requested by a user. The file is already compiled and is served directly from the CDN to the browser.
  • Core updates are pushed via Git; modern development tools such as static site generators (Gatsby, Hugo) re-build the site entirely.
  • Content updates are pushed via Git or a CMS static site

How JAMstack is Different?

To better understand JAMstack, let’s take a look at the other stacks to see how JAMstack achieves its awesomeness. Developers used numerous methods before their creation to set up online sites and applications as such.

LAMP

LAMP is the traditional stack for Linux based environments. A LAMP stack comprises a Linux operating system (L), an Apache Web server (A), a MySQL database layer (M), and a PHP scripting layer (P). The biggest issue with this stack is the high learning curve. This increases the timeframe of setting up a functioning app and can potentially lead to problems with the performance and security of apps with concurrent users.

MEAN

This stack consists of a database (MongoDB – M), Express.js(E) for backend web application framework, Angular.js(A), a framework for the frontend web development, and Node.js(N), a run-time environment for JavaScript. As you can see MEAN is pretty much based on JavaScript. It is recommended for massive, non-relational data sets, with the performance issues of JavaScript being a clear downer. 

MERN

The stack consists of a MongoDB(M) document database, Express.js(E), which is a web application platform for back-end applications, React(R), which is a user interface JavaScript library, and Node.js(N), a runtime environment for JavaScript. Similar to MEAN, MERN is based on JavaScript.

You must be wondering why we need another development stack. I have simple five reasons why you would want to use JAMstack:

  1. Better Performance: JAMstack powered applications generate pages at deployment since they are mostly stored as markup and can be delivered over a CDN.
  2. High Security: Static websites have minimal vulnerability potential because they are all HTML files and CDN-served external API connections. This simple architecture greatly reduces the chance of website attacks. The integration of SSL certificates is easy and JAMstack can also leverage the use of microservice APIs on the server-side to protect the pages.
  3. Quick Deployment: Without the hassle of configuring and protecting the databases, JAMstack websites can easily be deployed. Developers simply work with static files that are easy to get up and run.
  4. Awesome Development  Experience: One of the most significant benefits of using JAMstack is the ease of using the architecture and tools. Developers can create complex websites with just HTML, CSS, and JS. Using site generators eliminates the need for content and marketing to maintain a separate stack.
  5. Great Community: Every day, support for multiple features appears. Perhaps more exciting is the development of local community meetings. Also, the online community is incredible. 

Limitations of JAMstack

Yeah, in many respects, Jamstack is groundbreaking. Yes, it will help you build a much better website. However, it also comes with a couple of restrictions.

For instance, if your web project generates regular/ real-time updates or users interact with dynamic features, JAMstack might not be the best choice.

Difficult to Manage Roles: User permissions and editor roles, in particular, could become a challenge. . The JAMstacks versatility means that you can use a headless CMS (such as Contentful, ButterCMS, or Directus) to handle permissions and functions. 

The worst thing to do is to use a conventional CMS for handling user permissions and editor roles).

Ill-Considered Dynamic Elements: You would need to use additional web services if you need shopping carts, input types, comments, etc. Security can be jeopardized by a large number of web services and you need to make sure that scripts are not fake and that the exchange over HTTPS with web services is stable.

Cheaper Alternatives: Certain software solutions on the market can be cheaper than JAMstack (for example, a wide variety of dev agencies often work with WordPress, which is in the skillset of every developer and support).

Scaling Complexity: Depending on the project’s complexity and scale, the JAMStack project should, clearly, not be compared to complex systems.

Real-time Notifications: The JAMstack solution is not optimized for websites that use notifications in real-time.

JAMstack: Answer to the Modern Day Web Development Issues

We have to distinguish between the following websites to understand how JAMstack works in practice:

Pre-rendered Websites: Essentially, a pre-rendered website is a website made up of pre-populated HTML pages. The browser simply requests a static page URL, after which the entire static page is returned by the server. The wonderful aspect of this system is that no calls to a database are made and no content on the fly is created. In other words, the user’s content being requested is already there. Do not misinterpret – this does not imply that every single page is put up manually, or that certain pages will not contain dynamic elements. 

Dynamic Websites: Website’s efficiency is an important part of modern-day web development and dynamic websites end up being grindingly slow no matter how well a website is optimized, and that’s because there are so many measures are triggered any time a user accesses the site/page before the actual content is loaded. Dynamic websites can be as fast as static, but that efficiency is much more difficult to achieve and take a heavier toll on your resources. On top of that, you are vulnerable to malicious attacks from many endpoints generated by so many moving components.

An additional problem here is that typical CMS (WordPress for instance) solutions are used to create several websites. Although these are not bad per se, they are burdened with a vast majority of scripts, plugins, and additional elements that simply feel repetitive over time. For a live website or ongoing web development project, load time matters to a large degree.

JAMstack – Enabling More Power to Headless CMSs

A CMS needs to be compatible with JavaScript to be JAMstack-ready. The backend, which holds all the content, databases, and files, is decoupled from the frontend by a headless CMS. 

A headless CMS usually uses APIs for pushing and pulling content between different platforms and devices. A headless CMS is also an agnostic front-end framework, making it compliant with Javascript frameworks such as Angular.js and React. Other applications can use API to easily access application components such as landing pages, microsites, or native iOS and Android apps.

It is for this purpose that providing a framework-agnostic JAMstack-ready CMS allows the developers to use their preferred JavaScript framework. Furthermore, an agnostic CMS architecture also allows developers to use well-known static site generators (SSG) such as Gatsby and Next.js to create a static HTML file structure.

JAMStack also answers the benefit of traditional CMS in the context of administrative backend tasks (editing content, handling user permissions, and delivering user-friendly UI content). JAMstack focuses on delivering an easy way of taking care of these tasks while discarding all other functionalities. 

JAMstack uses Headless CMS (where the website’s front end (‘head’) is discarded while retaining the basics such as an administrator or database. These capabilities are delivered through APIs and Javascript. In essence, without using CMS such as WordPress, you can still publish and edit content with a user-friendly UI. The frontend does not exist, so JAMstack websites become in essence “headless”.

There are two forms of approaches to headless CMS

One is powered by the API that enables applications to communicate with each other in a very structured format. As a result, without a single line of code, an API lets you create a website of your own. This does not need an SSG to function. By sending asynchronous requests to an API, this headless CMS approach serves fresh content on every visit.

The alternative approach is based on Git interfaced with a GUI. Using an admin panel, one can write a message, save it, and then the CMS component will deposit it into the code repository and cause a redeployment. The key advantage of this approach is that you do not have to wait for an AJAX to react to the main content of your website.

Best Practices

Like all development ideas, JAMstack works best when developers follow the following best practices

Avail the Power of CDN

Serving content from a CDN improves speeds and performance, regardless of the location of the visitors/users. This global availability improves user experience and makes it easier to scale up the project.

Use GIT for Version Control

A version control system, such as Git, guarantees that the trail of changes exists. Developers can also collaborate and loss of app data can be mitigated. 

Quick Cache Validation

When the build-to-deploy process becomes a normal event, you need to realize that it only goes live when a deployment goes live. Eliminate any uncertainty by making sure that the CDN is capable of instant cache purges.

Atomic Deployment

Atomic deployments mean that the live website is updated after the successful deployment. Atomic deployments help to ensure that the most recent version of the live site is consistent across the entire project. When minimizing downtime is important, they can be particularly helpful.

Using Contemporary Techstacks

Each JAMstack project is different, so a slightly different set of tools often does the trick. Try to discover headless CMS, CDN, checkout/payment providers as the teams continue to create more JAMstack sites and combine these resources in interesting ways.

JAMstack Vs. WordPress

Launched in 2004, WordPress currently powers about 35% of the internet and is the reigning champion of content management. It has moved from a simple blogging platform to a multi-purpose website development CMS backed by a vast ecosystem of themes and plugins. It is possible to get a WordPress site up and running cheaply and without requiring significant technical experience.

Over the years, technologies have evolved a lot and the stack used by WordPress is no longer as trendy as it once was. JavaScript frontend frameworks such as React have contributed to building a new way of creating websites, one that many developers find more rewarding. As a consequence, developers have been exploring alternatives to WordPress and its PHP based templates.

There are many reasons why JAMstack has become an increasingly common alternative, besides being the “new shiny thing” in web development. For website owners and developers alike, it solves many pain points, such as being quicker, cheaper, simpler to scale, and more stable web development.

Speed

JAMstack sites load faster. It is also possible to harness routing libraries that render internal links appear instantaneously. It offers an extremely rewarding user experience and a very attractive one at a time when search engines are so focused on rewarding speedy sites.

With JAMstack, pages are not generated through server requests, but are pre-built and served via a CDN. CDNs can also be used by conventional server-built pages, but to store cached static content, such as images and stylesheets, when the whole site can be served via CDN, it is much quicker.

Costs

It is cheap to host static files and is also free for smaller sites.

Scaling is also a lot simpler. Spikes in traffic can be troublesome for a typical site because they can slow down the server or even cause it to crash. With a CDN, to satisfy consumer demand, it’s easy to scale up.

Security

JAMstack sites are much less vulnerable to attacks because they send out pre-built pages and do not have complex connections with a server. You don’t have to think about bugs in servers or databases.

To keep ahead of security vulnerabilities, WordPress sites need regular updates. A platform is vulnerable to malicious attacks without any attention to this.

Conclusion

JAMstack is not the answer for every branched or sub-branched issue that is being primarily addressed by it. Highly large and complex sites do not benefit from the development of static sites; it takes too long in the development to outweigh the increase in load time. A static site makes it difficult to incorporate and adds an extra layer of complexity if the site has dynamic features such as feedback, search, e-commerce, and forms. A conventional CMS is possibly a safer way to go in these instances.

In this article, I covered extensively how JAMstack is taking over the conventional way of web and app developments but it surely has its share of limitations. I covered various aspects of what JAMstack is, let me know in the comments section below about your experience with JAMstack or if you are planning to give it a try.   

Share your opinion in the comment section. COMMENT NOW

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Salman Siddique

Salman is a content marketer with a CS background, so he is (very) good at creating and marketing technical content. When not working as a Digital Content Producer at Cloudways, he enjoys reading interesting stuff and learning new skills.

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