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Frontend Development / Open Source

Netlify Acquires Gatsby, Its Struggling Jamstack Competitor

Netlify coined the term Jamstack and inspired an ecosystem. Gatsby tried to compete, but today Netlify announced it has acquired the company.
Feb 1st, 2023 8:00am by
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Netlify is acquiring one of its main competitors, the Jamstack framework and platform company Gatsby. I spoke to Netlify’s co-founder and CEO Matt Biilmann about the deal, why he was interested in the struggling Gatsby, and what it means for the future of Jamstack — the web development trend his own company pioneered and Gatsby had glommed onto.

“The future of the web is composable architectures,” stated Biilmann in the press release, which cited Gatsby’s Valhalla Content Hub platform for enterprise developers as an example. Netlify also confirmed that the Gatsby web framework will “remain open source for all developers to use.”

Gatsby’s Failed Bid to Beat Vercel and Netlify

I put it to Biilmann that Gatsby’s JavaScript rendering framework, based on React, has fallen well behind competing frameworks like Next.js and Nuxt in popularity. I also said that I never quite understood the value proposition of Gatsby the company, which at one point called itself a “content mesh,” but seemed to lack the infrastructure that Netlify has — especially in regards to CDN technology and the ability to host content. So why buy Gatsby now?

Biilmann replied that the Gatsby framework has had success with “mid-market to enterprise companies, typically building really content-heavy sites — often with thousands, or in some cases hundreds of thousands, of pages.” He added that the websites that use Gatsby’s framework are “often sites where the content comes not neatly from just one API, but often from a few different content sources.”

He noted that Gatsby tried to do a similar thing to Vercel, in creating a commercial company around its open source framework. I’d add that Gatsby also tried to compete against Netlify, claiming as recently as May 2022 that “when it comes to critical metrics like build time and page speed, Gatsby Cloud outperforms the one-size-fits-all platforms like Netlify.”

“It [was] clear after a while that they weren’t winning the framework battle against Vercel, as a general purpose framework,” Biilmann said. “And they were probably a bit boxed in by us in terms of building a cloud platform.”

But Biilmann points to Gatsby’s Valhalla platform, released at the end of last year, as a sign of progress. He says it was “built in order to help customers get data out of their headless CMS’s, their headless content sources, their legacy systems…and make [the data] query-able in the frontend, through a GraphQL API.” That, he added, “is an area of composable architectures that we’ve had an eye on for a while.”

The New Catchphrase: Composable Architectures

So what does this term, “composable architectures,” actually mean to Netlify, I asked?

Biilmann described it as a “change away from monolithic solutions,” citing a couple of examples: Adobe Experience Manager “as the DXP [digital experience platform] system for all your web productions” and Drupal “as the core engine that both powers the backend and the frontend of your site, the business logic and the UI layer, and so on.” He argues that these types of “monolithic” solutions can “start to feel very legacy and very dated.”

I should point out that both WordPress caretaker Automattic and Drupal caretaker Acquia have embraced headless solutions now, so they would probably object to Biilmann’s framing of their platforms.

“A lot of the solutions that target the web,” Biilmann continued, “we are seeing […] evolution in modern frontend technology through frameworks like Gatsby and Next.js — and just [in] general, libraries like React and Svelte and Solid and so on, makes working with old-school template systems and pipelines very constraining for the frontend developers.”

He says there are similar frontend evolutions in content (headless CMS) and in “headless commerce” APIs. So with composable architectures, he argues, businesses can select “best of breed” solutions in all these areas. Where Netlify comes in, he said, is that it “helps companies orchestrate” all these pieces. He mentioned “the web UI layer, tying together build systems, webhooks from different content sources, deployment, edge run times,” and more. (it’s worth noting that in 2020, Gatsby also aimed to be an “orchestration layer” for building websites — but that clearly didn’t work out.)

So Is Jamstack Still a Thing?

Netlify currently styles itself as “the leading platform for modern web development” and says it has more than 3 million developers on its platform. Unlike Gatsby, Netlify has done a great job of making its platform understandable to developers — despite the somewhat vague buzzword it coined, “Jamstack.”

It’s worthwhile examining where the Jamstack terminology came from and how it fits into what Netlify does now. Netlify was launched in 2015 and soon after coined Jamstack. I couldn’t find any mention of it on Netlify’s website during 2015, but in 2016 an independent website was launched that talked about a “JAM stack,” where JAM stood for JavaScript, APIs and Markup. At the time, Netlify promoted itself as a deployment platform for static websites, but there was no mention of Jamstack on its homepage (later, a blog post defining the term appears to have been backdated to November 2015, as I could find no record of it on Netlify’s blog until 2017).

Update: a representative from Heavybit, an investor in Netlify, informed us that Matt Biilmann also talked about “the JAM stack” in an April 2016 presentation.

I mention all this history because I think it’s fair to say that Netlify stumbled onto a new trend — it coined a phrase that was vague in meaning, but which began attracting attention. A community formed and new startups (such as Gatsby) were launched to take advantage. It’s not too dissimilar to the terms “Web 2.0” or “Web3,” two other buzzwords that took off and attracted large communities, without people knowing precisely what they meant.

In its latest definition, updated in July 2022, Netlify calls Jamstack “an architectural approach that decouples the web experience layer from data and business logic.” But Brian Rinaldi, who runs a newsletter called Jamstacked and has co-authored a book on the subject, argues that Jamstack has now become more of a “community” than a set of architectural rules.

Biilmann confirmed that Jamstack is “a community-driven term.” He admitted that “it has been evolving and shifting a bit,” but added that “the core characteristic of what it describes has actually been pretty clear from the beginning — in the sense of this decoupling of the web UI layer from all the backend business logic.”

In any event, now that Gatsby has been gobbled up, it’s clear that Netlify is one of the strongest players in this ecosystem — regardless of whether it’s a Jamstack company or one focused on “composable architectures.” Vercel is now probably its closest competitor, although CDN companies like Fastly and Cloudflare are also successfully mining this space.

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TNS owner Insight Partners is an investor in: Automattic.
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