Hope You Like Jammin’ Too: Understanding JAMstack

As web API aficionados, we’re always on the lookout for new web development styles. And today, we have a new one for you. If you love working with JavaScript, APIs, and Markup to build websites, then JAMstack is probably your new best friend.

The increase in less-monolithic systems has ushered in new software development approaches for the web. One of which is JAMstack, a new(ish) breed of web development architecture that promotes a decoupled client and server relationship, offering an alternative to traditional CMS approaches. The alleged result is better performance, better security, and better developer experience.

In this post, we’ll provide a brief overview of JAMstack and why it’s rapidly gaining popularity. At the same time, we’ll also posit how its adoption could result in continued growth for the API space.

What is JAMstack?

JAMstack.org defines JAMstack as a “Modern web development architecture based on client-side JavaScript, reusable APIs, and prebuilt Markup.”

In a nutshell, JAMstack eschews the status quo of building websites with a monolithic CMS like WordPress, or Drupal in favor of three main building blocks:

  • JavaScript – Dynamic programming is handled by JavaScript, running client-side
  • APIs – Server-side processes are abstracted into custom-built or third-party APIs
  • Markup – Websites are served as static HTML, generated from source files using a site generator or build tool

Jamin’ With the JAMstack Community

If you’re not familiar with JAMstack, the community is very vocal about best practices and examples of sites using the approach. Accordingly, JAMstack.org and JAMstack.wtf are great places to start.

The headless CMS Ghost is one JAMstack proponent, citing the “progress around static site generators, front end frameworks, and API-centric infrastructure” as a major driver for its adoption. Their stack is as follows:

  • Front-end built in React using Gatsby, a static site builder
  • Netlify used as a CDN (content delivery network)
  • Content delivered by Ghost’s API
  • Algolia API for search functionality
  • Zapier for automation of community feedback into Slack

You’ll find even more slimline examples on JAMstack.org, with Boston’s budget site listing just Jekyll (static site generator), Gulp (streaming build system) and Chart.js (open source HTML5 chart creation) as tools used in their stack.

Expect to get used to seeing tools like Netifly, React, Github, Contentful and Jekyll appear time and time again when reading about the JAMstack, as they’re all at the forefront of a sleeker and more nimble approach to web development.

Advantages of JAMstack

Most of JAMstack’s advantages are pretty much exactly what you’d expect from ditching a monolithic CMS that’s patched up with plugins and workarounds:

  • Faster performance – files served over a CDN are pre-built and ready to go
  • Better security – reduced surface area for attacks and no server or database vulnerabilities
  • Easier to scale – CDNs can compensate for increased traffic, even if it arrives suddenly

In addition, the experience is marketed as being better for developers because it allows them to focus on the front end, and develop/debug in a more targeted and more mindful way. Naturally, however, one of the biggest advantages of JAMstack for readers of this blog is that it places APIs at the center of the developer experience.

Trying to figure out how to achieve a certain function on your site becomes less about finding solutions that will integrate with your CMS of choice — not to mention all of those tweaks you’ve made over the years — and more about finding the best API for the job. If that doesn’t exist, creating a custom API is another option.

For experienced API developers, that’s probably a much more appealing solution than trying to achieve the same thing by patching up a CMS. Plus, it could potentially open up a whole new angle for your business (or a cool side project, at the very least) as an API company

JAMstack and Website Management

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that “Hell is other people.” If he’d been born a little later, we might have thought he was talking about having to deal with other people’s WordPress plugins.

Kym Ellis, a technical marketer at Ghost who has written about her experience with JAMstack, told us about how getting away from plugins was one of the most freeing aspects of the approach:

“Ultimately, most of them do the same thing: inject a piece of code somewhere. Plugins are easy to work with because they give you a user interface that you can relate to, but they can also add unwanted bloat and make site updates more difficult.”

Most marketers probably dealt with more code editing their MySpace profile (showing our age there…) as a teenager than they do now on a daily basis, but the days of using shortcuts to avoid coding may be numbered. One of the reasons Kym chose to embrace this was to prevent feelings of alienation: “With JAMstack, the workflow is more involved, so you’re not the last to know. You’re in on things from the start.”

For most businesses, a better workflow is an appealing vision. Design, development, and marketing often work in silos, resulting in a disjointed end product and slow revisions. JAMstack isn’t an automatic cure for this, as introducing new software and/or approaches will never heal rifts on their own, but it does encourage more interaction between teams. Plus, we’ve seen above that many of JAMstack’s advantages – faster performance, scalability, better uptime etc. – are valuable for both marketers AND developers/designers.

JAMstack and the Future of APIs

The biggest advantage of JAMstack for the API space is the ‘A’ sitting right there in the middle of its name: APIs are central to the approach, part of “the big three” if you will. That means adoption of the JAMstack will inevitably be accompanied by increased exposure to, and therefore familiarity with, web APIs by developers not previously all that well acquainted with them.

Further up the page, we talked about plugins and their tendency to break websites/each other/developers’ hearts. One of the biggest advantages of APIs, on the other hand, is that they’re designed to play nicely with other services. That’s something we don’t need to preach about to readers of this blog, but it may not be so immediately obvious to those who are new to API development and consumption.

As JAMstack becomes more and more common, we’ll see a rush to create services that replace (and improve upon) elements of a traditional CMS. Netlify, Gatsby and Contentful are three services that have been vocal about publicizing JAMstack, and are clear advocates of APIs. Innovation is always a good thing, so we’re excited to see more API companies and API-focused companies emerge and potentially IPO.

Final Thoughts

It’s fun to make a lot of bold statements like “in five years, 80% of all new websites will be using JAMstack,” but it’s also completely unrealistic. WordPress and Drupal are so firmly entrenched as the status quo that any exodus from them will be far from overnight.

Then there are the likes of Wix and Squarespace, who have a captive audience of non-coders. The JAMstack approach isn’t appropriate for this crowd, posing a significant roadblock to ubiquitous adoption. While JAMstack may not be fast-tracked into the mainstream, it’s an impressive demonstration of the power and flexibility of APIs.

With all of that said, more companies and individuals using JAMstack is an exciting prospect for API providers. It translates into increased API consumption and increased need for knowledge of API best practices and strategy. And that is, most definitely, our jam.