Jamstack isn’t necessarily new. The term was officially coined in 2016, but the technologies and architecture it describes have been around well before that. Jamstack has received a massive dose of attention recently, with articles about it appearing in major sites and publications and new Jamstack-focused events, newsletters, podcasts, and more. As someone who follows it closely, I’ve even seen what seems like a significant uptick in discussion about it on Twitter, often from people who are being newly introduced to the concept.
The buzz has also seemed to bring out the criticism. Some of the criticism is fair, and I’ll get to some of that in a bit, but others appear to be based on common myths about the Jamstack that persist, which is what I want to address first. So let’s look at five common myths about Jamstack I’ve encountered and debunk them. As with many myths, they are often based on a kernel of truth but lead to invalid conclusions.
Myth 1: They are just rebranded static sites
JAMStack is 99.9% branding and .1% substance. 😳😆 https://t.co/nxoEVQ43oE— Nicole Sullivan – Black Lives Matter (@stubbornella) February 9, 2020
Yes, as I covered previously, the term “Jamstack” was arguably a rebranding of what we previously called “static sites.” This was not a rebranding meant to mislead or sell you something that wasn’t fully formed — quite the opposite. The term “static site” had long since lost its ability to describe what people were building. The sites being built using static site generators (SSG) were frequently filled with all sorts of dynamic content and capabilities.
Static sites were seen as largely about blogs and documentation where the UI was primarily fixed. The extent of interaction was perhaps embedded comments and a contact form. Jamstack sites, on the other hand, have things like user authentication, dynamic content, ecommerce, user-generated content.
Want proof? Some well-known companies and sites built using the Jamstack include Smashing Magazine, Sphero, Postman, Prima, Impossible Foods and TriNet, just to name a few.
Myth 2: Jamstack sites are fragile
Jay Freestone, on The issues with JAMStack: You might need a backend
Reading the dependency list for Smashing Magazine reads like the service equivalent of
node_modules, including Algolia, GoCommerce, GoTrue, GoTell and a variety of Netlify services to name a few. There is a huge amount of value in knowing what to outsource (and when), but it is amusing to note the complexity that has been introduced in an apparent attempt to ‘get back to basics’. This is to say nothing of the potential fragility in relying on so many disparate third-party services.
Yes, to achieve the dynamic capabilities that differentiate the Jamstack from static sites, Jamstack projects generally rely on a variety of services, both first- or third-party. Some have argued that this makes Jamstack sites particularly vulnerable for two reasons. The first, they say, is that if any one piece fails, the whole site functionality collapses. The second is that your infrastructure becomes too dependent on tools and services that you do not own.
Let’s tackle that first argument. The majority of a Jamstack site should be pre-rendered. This means that when a user visits the site, the page and most of its content is delivered as static assets from the CDN. This is what gives Jamstack much of its speed and security. Dynamic functionality — like shopping carts, authentication, user generated content and perhaps search — rely upon a combination of serverless functions and APIs to work.
Broadly speaking, the app will call a serverless function that serves as the back end to connect to the APIs. If, for example, our e-commerce functionality relies on Stripe’s APIs to work and Stripe is down, then, yes, our e-commerce functionality will not work. However, it’s important to note that the site won’t go down. It can handle the issue gracefully by informing the user of the issue. A server-rendered page that relies on the Stripe API for e-commerce would face the identical issue. Assuming the server-rendered page still calls the back end code for payment asynchronously, it would be no more or less fragile than the Jamstack version. On the other hand, if the server-rendering is actually dependent upon the API call, the user may be stuck waiting on a response or receive an error (a situation anyone who uses the web is very familiar with).
As for the second argument, it’s really hard to gauge the degree of dependence on third-parties for a Jamstack web app versus a server-rendered app. Many of today’s server-rendered applications still rely on APIs for a significant amount of functionality because it allows for faster development, takes advantage of the specific area of expertise of the provider, can offload responsibility for legal and other compliance issues, and more. In these cases, once again, the server-rendered version would be no more or less dependent than the Jamstack version. Admittedly, if your app relies mostly on internal or homegrown solutions, then this may be different.
Myth 3: Editing content is difficult
Kev Quirk, on Why I Don’t Use A Static Site Generator:
Having to SSH into a Linux box, then editing a post on Vim just seems like a ridiculously high barrier for entry when it comes to writing on the go. The world is mobile first these days, like it or not, so writing on the go should be easy.
This issue feels like a relic of static sites past. To be clear, you do not need to SSH into a Linux box to edit your site content. There are a wide range of headless CMS options, from completely free and open source to commercial offerings that power content for large enterprises. They offer an array of editing capabilities that rival any traditional CMS (something I’ve talked about before). The point is, there is no reason to be manually editing Markdown, YAML or JSON files, even on your blog side project. Aren’t sure how to hook all these pieces up? We’ve got a solution for that too!
One legitimate criticism has been that the headless CMS and build process can cause a disconnect between the content being edited and the change on the site. It can be difficult to preview exactly what the impact of a change is on the live site until it is published or without some complex build previewing process. This is something that is being addressed by the ecosystem. Companies like Stackbit (who I work for) are building tools that make this process seamless.
We’re not the only ones working on solving this problem. Other solutions include TinaCMS and Gatsby Preview. I think we are close to it becoming commonplace to have the simplicity of WYSIWYG editing on a tool like Wix running on top of the Jamstack.
Myth 4: SEO is Hard on the Jamstack
Kym Ellis, on What the JAMstack means for marketing:
Ditching the concept of the plugin and opting for a JAMstack site which is “just HTML” doesn’t actually mean you have to give up functionality, or suddenly need to know how to code like a front-end developer to manage a site and its content.
I haven’t seen this one pop up as often in recent years and I think it is mostly legacy criticism of the static site days, where managing SEO-related metadata involved manually editing YAML-based frontmatter. The concern was that doing SEO properly became cumbersome and hard to maintain, particularly if you wanted to inject different metadata for each unique page that was generated or to create structured data like JSON-LD, which can be critical for enhancing your search listing.
The advances in content management for the Jamstack have generally addressed the complexity of maintaining SEO metadata. In addition, because pages are pre-rendered, adding sitemaps and JSON-LD is relatively simple, provided the metadata required exists. While pre-rendering makes it easy to create the resources search engines (read: Google) need to index a site, they also, combined with CDNs, making it easier to achieve the performance benchmarks necessary to improve a site’s ranking.
Basically, Jamstack excels at “technical SEO” while also providing the tools necessary for content editors to supply the keyword and other metadata they require. For a more comprehensive look at Jamstack and SEO, I highly recommend checking out the Jamstack SEO Guide from Bejamas.
If you’re trying to sell plain ol’ websites to management who are obsessed with flavour-of-the-month frameworks, a slick website promoting the benefits of “JAMstack” is a really useful thing.– jdietrich, Hacker News
Where we can improve
So that’s it, right? Jamstack is an ideal world of web development where everything isn’t just perfect, but perfectly easy. Unfortunately, no. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms of Jamstack.
Sebastian De Deyne, with Thoughts (and doubts) after messing around with the JAMstack:
Let’s be honest: Getting started with the Jamstack isn’t easy. Sure, diving into building a blog or a simple site using a static site generator may not be terribly difficult. But try building a real site with anything dynamic and things start to get complicated fast.
You are generally presented with a myriad of options for completing the task, making it tough to weigh the pros and cons. One of the best things about Jamstack is that it is not prescriptive, but that can make it seem unapproachable, leaving people with the impression that perhaps it isn’t suited for complex tasks.
Tying services together
When you actually get to the point of building those dynamic features, your site can wind up being dependent on an array of services and APIs. You may be calling a headless CMS for content, a serverless function that calls an API for payment transactions, a service like Algolia for search, and so on. Bringing all those pieces together can be a very complex task. Add to that the fact that each often comes with its own dashboard and API/SDK updates, things get even more complex.
This is why I think services like Stackbit and tools like RedwoodJS are important, as they bring together disparate pieces of the infrastructure behind a Jamstack site and make those easier to build and manage.
Where to go from here
Sheesh, you made it! I know I had a lot to say, perhaps more than I even realized when I started writing, so I won’t bore you with a long conclusion other than to say that, obviously, I have presented these myths from the perspective of someone who believes very deeply in the value of the Jamstack, despite it’s flaws!
If you are looking for a good post about when to and when not to choose Jamstack over server-side rendering, check out Chris Coyier’s recent post Static or Not?.
I feel like your first and last points contradict each other.
Jamstack isn’t just using a SSG, because they’re also dynamic and functional, as per your first point.
Sure. You can have a Jamstack site that just uses VanillaJS (or something simple like jQuery, or lodash). But you said:
Pandoc and 30 lines of Bash to build hosted on GitLab and auto-deployed to Netlify == JAMstack bliss.
By the way, editing with GitLab web IDE with previewing is perfectly fine for blog posts and the like. No extra heavy IDE needed. But I do prefer Vim and the Pandoc Plugin personally.
Seriously surprised no one has mentioned https://browsersync.io which is easily the best previewing tool ever made.
I have to chuckle at the level of deep ignorance about the entire approach and why it has value. Besides, back end APIs are so easy to make now that you can make your own API services and maintain the control. So happy people are coming around from the server-side dark ages.