JAMstack Tools and The Spectrum of Classification

Avatar of Chris Coyier
Chris Coyier on (Updated on )

DigitalOcean provides cloud products for every stage of your journey. Get started with $200 in free credit!

With the wonderful world of JAMstack getting big, all the categories of services and tools that help it along are as important as ever. There are static site generators, headless CMSs, and static file hosts.

I think those classifications are handy, and help conversations along. But there is a point where nuance is necessary and these classification buckets get a little leaky.

Note, these charts are just intended to paint a spectrum, not to be a comprehensive list of services.

Headless CMSs

A Headless CMS is a CMS that provides an admin area for creating and editing content, but offers no front-end to build the website from. All the content is accessed via APIs.

Imagine WordPress, which has an admin area, but it also has themes from which you build the website from on the server-side, with all kinds of PHP functions for you to use the content data. All that theming stuff is the “head”. So a headless CMS would be like WordPress with just the admin area. And indeed you can use it that way, as it offers APIs.

There is even more nuance here, as there are services that offer an admin area, but don’t actually store the data for you. Plus there is CMSs that are hosted for you, and CMSs where you have to bring your own hosting. Let’s have a peak.

Service Headless? Hosting Notes
Contentful Yes Cloud A classic headless CMS
Sanity JSON data structure, accessed via APIs, custom admin area is self-hosted
Cockpit Self Comes with admin UI
KeystoneJS All code, not even an admin UI
WordPress Sorta – Usually used with head Self or Cloud Has a head, but you don’t have to use it, you choose to only use APIs to access content if you wish.
Drupal Self
CraftCMS Self Specifically has a headless mode and GraphQL API. Craft Cloud will bring a cloud-hosted headless varient
NetlifyCMS Sorta – Doesn’t actually store content, just helps edit it. GUI for Git-hosted Markdown
Forestry Cloud
Joomla No Self A classic headed CMS
Squarespace Cloud Site builder, meant to build hosted/headed sites

Static Site Hosts

This is tricky to talk about because literally, any web host will host static files, and probably do an OK job of it. I think it’s most useful to consider hosts that only do static hosting on purpose because it means they can optimize for that situation do other useful things.

Service Notes
Netlify The gold standard in static file hosts. Developer conveniences galore.
Cloudflare Workers Sites CDN-first static file hosting alongside a cloud functions service.
Firebase Hosting Firebase is a whole suite of sub-products, but the hosting in particular is static and on a CDN.
GitHub Pages Static file host, but will also run Jekyll and other actions. Is not a CDN.
Neocities Static file host with online editor and community.
S3 Raw file storage. Can be configured to be a web host. Not a CDN unless you put CloudFront in front of it.
Bluehost Not really a static file host.

Sometimes you’ll see people trying to use stuff like Dropbox or Google Drive to do static file hosting (for a website), but I’ve found these services generally ultimately don’t like that and prevent the use for that. If it works today, fine, but I wouldn’t count on any of them long term.

Static Site Generators

You would think this category would be straightforward, without much spectrum. A static site generator takes input and makes statically generated pages that can render without, say, needing to hit a database. But even here there is a spectrum.

The language the generator is in kinda matters. It affects speed. It affects installability on different local platforms. It affects your ability to write code to extend it and hack on it.

But perhaps more importantly, not all static site generators are only static site generators. Some can be run on the server as well, weirdly enough. And there are some that kinda look like static site generators, but are more correctly classified as flat-file CMSs.

Software Lang Notes
Jekyll Ruby One of the originals in this generation of static site generator.
Hugo Go Known for speed.
11ty Node Processes 11 different template languages out of the box.
Gatsby React Gatsby is truly a static site generator, but generally, the sites “hydrate” into SPAs, but remain static (nothing server-rendered). Big ecosystem of plugins to help with connecting data sources, handling images, etc.
Next Next can do static site generation, but it can also run live in Node and do server-side rendering on the fly (“Isomorphic JavaScript”).
Nuxt Vue Nuxt is the spirtiual companion to Next but in Vue. It also can either be staticly generator or run isomorphicly.
Kirby PHP Kirby runs from static files (no database), but isn’t really a static site as the pages are rendered by PHP.
Statamic Statamic is similar to Kirby in that static files are used for data but the page themselves are rendered by PHP.
Perch Just an example of a CMS that keeps data in a database and isn’t trying to be a static site generator at all.