Throughout the history of the internet, web and database servers were the primary infrastructure for site hosting. When websites got more complicated, another layer, called the application tier, would take on more complex aspects of the site (like an API, for example). As traffic increased, web servers were scaled out to add capacity with the help of load balancers. Scaling in this manner wasn’t always easy or cost-effective, given how unpredictable consumer demand and spikes in traffic often are. Later, content delivery networks (CDNs) came into the picture, taking a load off web servers by pushing static content to the edge. But, for most traffic, the origin servers would still have to be ready to serve site visitors. In this approach, website development and management were often costly and difficult to scale, and sites faced constant security risks.
Enter Jamstack. With Jamstack, all site content sits on a CDN, ready to be served. Web pages are pre-rendered instead of being rendered in real-time (as was the case in pre-Jamstack days). As such, content is closer to the end user, pages load faster and sites can easily scale up or down to handle unexpected shifts in traffic.
Jamstack represents an exciting and fundamental shift in how we have traditionally approached web development—one that is inclusive of the needs for performance, security, availability and scalability and at a much lower cost to the developer. It’s no surprise that Jamstack has taken the web development world by storm over the last couple of years; in 2020, the number of sites developed with Jamstack jumped 85% from the year prior. Here, I’ll share some basic tips for getting the most out of Jamstack.
Adding Dynamic Features to Static Sites
Jamstack starts with the idea of a static site—pre-building as much of a site as is practical—and incorporates dynamic elements to achieve fast websites with fewer attack vectors. The term, which was coined in 2015 as JAMstack, derives from:
- A = APIs, which enable dynamic content on an otherwise static page
- M = Markup, which is the HTML and CSS code that provides formatting instructions to the browser
By combining these three elements, Jamstack allows developers to quickly create and maintain websites that can be served efficiently to users. A static site renders well for mobile, web and video while relying on APIs for dynamic features. High page speed is achievable by pre-building as much of a site as possible and then using a CDN to deliver the page to users around the world. When a user visits a website, they see a pre-rendered page delivered by the CDN with no dedicated servers needed.
Notably, the page’s static nature does not require the content to be static. Leveraging third-party APIs can enable dynamic content such as search, payment processing and real-time data. This modular approach allows for flexibility and avoids vendor lock-in—swapping out different APIs as technology changes and new tools become available is easy. The ability to integrate with serverless functions also lends itself to Jamstack sites becoming more dynamic.
Without the need for web application servers and database servers, Jamstack pages scale well as visitors increase, improving both the experience of the visitor and the organization’s bottom line.
In essence, a Jamstack site has no backend that needs to be managed by a developer. The static nature of the page means there is no link between the website and a database, which reduces the security attack surface. Since all site elements are delivered from the CDN or an API, potential attackers aren’t able to hack web application servers or database servers.
When an organization creates a website with this approach, there are no servers to maintain and no staging environments to create, so there is less of a need for complex DevOps resources. Jamstack’s simplicity means there are fewer moving parts than in a traditional site and less room for error. Because of this decoupling between the frontend and backend, Jamstack sites are faster to launch and more reliable.
Another advantage of the static setup is that reverting to an earlier version of a page is simple. This is possible through the concept of atomic deploys, where the entire site is updated at once, creating a new version. With Jamstack, developers have more freedom to experiment and avoid the tiring trial and error of traditional sites—if something does not render as intended, switching the entire site back to a previous version is painless.
Assembling a Jamstack Toolkit
Jamstack’s tools, processes, and best practices are evolving rapidly, and an important part of diving in is remaining open to experimentation and tracking emerging developments. Getting started is simple since Jamstack integrates with existing workflows and many organizations have established relationships with vendors already in place for key technologies, speeding up the decision-making process. These technologies include:
- CDN: To deliver pages from locations close to users—a requirement for achieving fast performance.
- Static site generator (SSG): To generate the site using raw data and templates—automating the process of coding pages and ensuring they are pre-built and ready for users.
- Content management system (CMS): To act as a content repository. A CMS for a Jamstack website is described as “headless,” which means that content is stored outside of the codebase and delivered via APIs for seamless display across different devices.
Expanding the Value of Jamstack
We are still in the early years of Jamstack’s maturation, and not all deployments are equally effective. For example, some Jamstack platforms are hosted out of centralized data centers coupled with a CDN, which slows performance relative to delivering sites directly from the edge. Some Jamstack hosts also charge more to add developer seats, which discourages collaboration among large teams and can result in unpredictable pricing.
Regardless, Jamstack is one of the best technological solutions to come to developers in recent years and one which will surely influence the future of web development. Not only does it make websites faster, more secure, and easier to scale, but it builds on many of the tools developers already know and love—empowering them to achieve their maximum productivity.