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Netlify Launches Composable Web Platform for Enterprise Devs

Today, Netlify launched the Composable Web Platform, a kind of 'Jamstack for enterprise.' I sat down with CEO Matt Biilmann to discuss.
Oct 19th, 2023 9:00am by
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Image via Netlify

At its Compose conference today, Netlify announced it is taking on the enterprise market with a new product suite: Netlify Composable Web Platform. Last week, I met CEO Matt Biilmann at Netlify’s new San Francisco office near South Park to discuss the launch.

Netlify was the company that coined the term “Jamstack,” a web development trend based on the concept of decoupling the frontend UI from the back end infrastructure. Jamstack first came onto the scene around 2016, but it never really had a satisfactory definition — and even Netlify has de-emphasized the term now. At its core, though, Jamstack was about moving away from so-called “monolithic” platforms for managing websites; in particular, popular content management systems like WordPress and Drupal. The idea was that developers would be able to use modern web technologies like React and GitHub, rather than have to conform to tools that the likes of WordPress and Drupal provided.

The new buzzword for Netlify is “composable,” which is a pretty self-explanatory term — well, compared to “Jamstack” anyway! It implies that developers will be able to pick and choose their tools (a.k.a. components) when creating and managing a website or application.

Netlify Core and Connect

“You can think about this as three big blocks, with three different core personas in mind,” Biilmann said, regarding Netlify’s new composable platform. The first block is called “Netlify Core,” which Biilmann said is “Netlify’s frontend cloud, servicing developers and allowing them access to all the modern frontend frameworks.”

Platform diagram; via Netlify

Platform diagram; via Netlify

The next block is called “Netlify Connect”, which Biilmann said “came out of the Gatsby acquisition” and was previously known as Valhalla Content Hub. “Gatsby’s claim to fame as a frontend framework was this layer of content source plugins, that were small modules — open source modules defined in JavaScript — that defined how you’re going to get content out of your API service and into the frontend framework as a GraphQL API, that you can build your components [with], and so on and so forth,” he explained.

This is where some of the complexity that began to dog Jamstack in recent years comes into play. When Netlify acquired Gatsby in February this year, many commentators wondered what Netlify’s motivation was — other than taking over a struggling rival Jamstack platform. But the answer is now clear: the Valhalla piece of Gatsby is what Netlify actually wanted, so it could add that to its own platform in the form of a connection layer. Biilmann explains why this is necessary:

“Life is easy when you start a new project and you have a modern frontend framework, and you add Contentful [a “headless CMS”] and it’s all pretty straightforward, right? Where life is hard is when you have […] a bunch of different internal systems, [where] your different data and content come from, you add a new headless CMS and maybe a headless commerce provider, and then you maybe have a big monolith that’s currently running everything — and it’s company-wide infrastructure.”

In that latter case, you need a way to connect Netlify Composable Web Platform to all the legacy products, and Biilmann is saying that this is what Netlify Connect enables. It’s a middleware layer between Netlify Core and all the other tools being used in a company’s web stack.

The Third Block: Netlify Create

The third block in Netlify’s composable platform is called Netlify Create, which Biilmann said was “built on top of the StackBit acquisition.” Netlify acquired StackBit, a visual editor, in July of this year. This piece of the Netlify platform is explicitly for the content creators, or “marketeers” as Biilmann referred to them.

“Now we can give the marketeers […] a visual UI that lets them go directly to the website, see where the different pieces of content came from, edit them directly, get preview mode — [all] without having to wait for rebuilds, for the content to propagate and everything.”

Although the Create block is what gives content managers access to the Netlify platform, Biilmann emphasized that developers will still be in control of the overall system.

“It’s always important that developers are in control, right? We don’t want […] business stakeholders [to] come in and break everything by doing the wrong thing.”

So the idea is to let developers control what business users can access and do in the system, so that they have similar functionality to “what you would get out of the box with these big monolithic systems, whether it was WordPress or Adobe Experience Manager,” said Biilmann. The difference — according to Netlify — is that developers at your company set those parameters for business users, not the software provider.

Why Would Enterprises Want a Composable Web Architecture?

During the conversation, Biilmann mentioned a few times that the strategy with the new platform is to move beyond what he termed the “early adopter market” (which Jamstack catered to) and bring the “composable” mindset of web development and CMS systems into the enterprise market.

“It was a big part of thinking through this whole composable platform — like, what does it take to get to the same level of experience there?” he said. “With all the qualities of a composable architecture in place that allows developers the flexibility to build truly unique differentiated experiences, that allows the architect the governance and the flexibility, that allows […] large companies to gradually move into this direction, without some unrealistic expectations of shutting down their legacy systems and workflows tomorrow.”

One counterargument to all this is that “monolithic” systems — such as WordPress and Adobe Experience Manager — are easier to install and manage, since it’s just one piece of software. You could even argue it’s better for developers, who just have to conform to a single set of technologies (for example, WordPress relies on the PHP programming language). Whereas if you go with a “composable” architecture, the onus is on developers to manage a wider variety of technologies, through a middleware layer such as Netlify Connect.

But for Biilmann, the future points to composable architectures, because that will allow developers to create “differentiated experiences.”

“It’s a lot like the old build versus buy distinction, right? There was for sure a time where, for all of these web architectures, people would look to just buy. [But] as the pressure to build differentiated experiences online grew, it became more and more clear that you can’t do that if you buy something off the shelf. You literally look like everyone else that bought it, with some modifications. And composable is a bit more like building, in the sense that your goal is to give developers the flexibility to build actual differentiated experiences.”

Biilmann also says that companies will need to “architect for change” in the coming years, as technologies like generative AI and upcoming augmented reality devices from the likes of Meta and Apple change the types of applications people use — and at the same time, change the UI that developers and designers use.

“If it’s already started being the case that you can’t buy something off the shelf and expect it to last, it’s going to be impossible to do [soon],” he said.

Netlify’s position is that companies will need to come up with a strategy for their web architecture that doesn’t involve constantly rebuilding it. “That’s kind of what we’re trying to solve with our composable platform,” said Biilmann.

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