What’s your JAM? JAMstack vs Monolithic Web Architectures

Have you heard of JAMstack and wondering what it is and how this web architecture could be useful? It’s more than useful, we think it’s a gamechanger. So let’s dive into what JAMstack is and why we love it so much.

The term “JAMstack” was first coined by Matt Billmann and Christ Bach, the founders of Netlify. They used it as a reference for modern web development capabilities and workflows that they pioneered at Netlify. They had no other way to refer to this new architectural approach in conversation so they created the term “JAMstack” to help us understand it more succinctly.

The term JAMstack is therefore an acronym derived from the elements of modern web architecture. That is, JavaScript, APIs, and markup:

JavaScript is the most common language for front-end web applications. The “J” in JAMstack represents pure JavaScript. Which can morph into libraries like Vue Js or front-end frameworks like React.

APIs: We’re in the age of mass proliferation of APIs. Developers no longer have to hardcode everything from the ground up. They can instead use third-party components to build common functions such as search or payments.

Markup is pre-rendered HTML, usually served through a site generator. It is the part users see when they open your application.

Altogether, these three elements form the JAMstack. It’s an architecture that differs from traditional monolithic systems – used to power CMS like WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla.

It doesn’t rely on on-premises databases or physical servers. The JAMstack instead runs on cloud platforms and leverages serverless and microservices architectures.

The JAMstack approach to web development had been in the works for several years, but it really took off in 2017. Yet, it’s hard to define it explicitly. So, it’s more like a design philosophy that uncouples the front-end of web applications from the backend, and that’s where this philosophy’s real potential starts to shine.

JAMstack vs WordPress

Suppose you wanted to create a blog.

In the past, you would probably settle for a monolithic CMS such as WordPress. Where, unlike the JAMstack, your backend and frontend would exist as a single unit. All the utilities you needed to launch a blog – content database, site rendering code, admin source code – would be stored on a shared hosting server, running on cPanel.

But as the web development industry grew, some trends stimulated a change in web architecture. From a monolithic state to the unbundled JAMstack design.

In today’s world, we now have a bunch of cloud providers. We don’t have to maintain servers or handle different integrations between different servers and services. The tedious work of maintaining servers and patching security bugs is now a thing of the past.

The Great Unbundling

JAMstack takes all the complexity of building deployment pipelines, of running the infrastructure, of managing serverless functions and abstracts it away from the developer.

In JAMstack, web applications are statically generated then deployed over an edge network.

So, every time you load content you don’t need to make calls to the database. You can pre-render the entire front-end into static pages during the build process, which can then be served from a content delivery network, rather than a traditional web server.

Loading web applications through a CDN means content servers don’t have to respond to every single end-user call. And if it’s statically generated, you can scale your product without any loss in performance.

Why Are Developers Excited About the JAMstack?

For those who are thinking of switching their applications to JAMstack powered solutions, here’s a list of benefits to consider.

Reliability at scale

Teams can now leverage third-party domain expertise through APIs. It’s easier to build far more complex applications than if they were to take on the risk and put effort into building such applications themselves.

Now you can outsource functions like authentication and identity, payments, content management, data services, search, and much more.

Additionally, API providers and CDN providers will handle the necessary provisioning to ensure sites scale with user traffic.

Security

Central CMS like WordPress that rely on monolithic web architectures make easy targets for malicious hackers. JAMstack reduces the surface area for attacks by abstracting server-side processes into microservice APIs. Its architecture is designed such that your static files are safe from most types of vulnerabilities – security exploits, data leakage, DDoS attacks, or malware.

It’s also easier to identify and debug issues on applications built using JAMstack since they are built using a collection of third-party libraries rather than a single monolithic codebase.

The only thing that matters is that you pass permission rights wisely to your employee to avoid human mistakes.

Improved Developer Experience

The essence of JAMstack is to decouple the front-end from the back-end. Monolithic architectures are resource hogs. There’s no ROI when developers consistently have to worry about monitoring backend servers. They can use that time elsewhere.

Furthermore, using JAMstack allows you to track changes on your source code using version control systems like git. You can easily manage code modifications, simplify staging and testing workflows, ensure data integrity and improve the entire web development speed and efficiency.

Performance

From a performance perspective, web experiences built using JAMstack can afford a faster load time for end-users.

With JAMstack, you are not fully rendering the page on request from a template sitting in a database – you’ve already compiled the site to static mark up. This makes your applications load much faster than traditional monolithic web architectures.

Furthermore, the pre-rendered content can be cached on a CDN, obviating the need for the user request to travel back and forth from a central server where data would be processed. Content is instead delivered almost instantly, with significantly lower latency. It’s not unheard of for a site to increase its performance by as much as 10x when it shifts to the JAMstack.

Content Management Made Easier

Traditional WordPress couples the front end with the back end; anytime you need to push your content live, you need to update the whole application. Anything beyond a small team makes this unnecessarily complex.

What if you are a newspaper or heavy content publisher? You’d have to push the whole database live for every article, many times a day.

With JAMstack, you can use a headless CMS to separate the body of the content from the presentation layer. This way each piece of content can exist uniquely. You can define how it relates to others, creating a flexible model that can fit any digital container. This way, you won’t have to update your entire database every time you make updates.

Towards a Distributed Future

New technologies look fresh and exciting at the onset. Based on this one could dismiss incumbent technologies.

Going by the latest data on JAMstack driven websites from the JAMstack Virtual Conf 2020, 35% of websites created in 2020 were enterprise-grade. This is a tell-tale sign that JAMstack has gradually become an enterprise-grade solution that meets the needs of both large and small enterprises.

But WordPress has been in existence for over twenty years. JAMstack still doesn’t match what WordPress has been able to do on its platform.

However, the speed benefits to end-users make it promising, as does its appeal to developers.

What is worth remembering is that JAMstack is a next-gen architecture for web development. It is neither a programming language nor a CMS nor a specific framework. It’s an innovative development practice geared towards building fast websites and mobile applications.

As of now, developers are still experimenting with it, and it doesn’t offer the capability to scale as WordPress does. One thing remains true: that it’s time to reconsider monolithic architectures for more unbundled ones.

The future of web architecture is in the hands of JAMstack developers, only time will tell where they take it. At Sphere, we are excited about new development paradigms that create better user experiences and ease the way for contributors to a great web application; JAMstack is a win-win because it offers the potential for lightning fast sites, content management that is not tied to development cycles or the backend, and developers can focus on building great web products, and not on content creation overhead.

We’ve built JAMstack sites for some very large customers, so if you want to eliminate the bottlenecks inherent in a monolithic CMS and other benefits of JAMstack, reach out for a consultation, we’d love to talk with you about it.

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