Netlify adds edge transformation to help brands deliver personalization at scale

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright August 29, 2022
Jamstack pioneer Netlify emphasizes growing enterprise adoption with the release last week of new technologies to help deliver personalization at scale.

Matt Biilmann, CEO, Netlify - Zoom screengrab
Matt Biilmann, Netlify (Zoom screengrab)

A new technology designed to deliver faster dynamic personalization on websites was launched last week by Jamstack pioneer Netlify. Instead of relying on heavy client-side JavaScript or having to wait for server-side processes, its new Next.js runtime incorporates technology that developers can harness to dynamically rewrite and transform HTML content on the edge, within Netlify's global Content Delivery Network (CDN). I spoke to Matt Biilmann, co-Founder and CEO of Netlify, about the new capability and what it says about Netlify's progress and ambitions in the enterprise market.

Netlify is essentially a Platform-as-a-Service for headless websites and web applications — a leading player in the growing trend towards composable commerce and content espoused by the MACH Alliance, of which it is a member. The company, which was valued at $2 billion in its most recent funding round, was founded in 2014 to provide a platform of serverless functions that conformed to the then emerging architecture, which Biilmann named Jamstack, where JAM stands for client-side JavaScript, server-side APIs and static front-end Markup. This approach allows developers to design a web experience layer without being held back by the constraints of a traditional back-end web server architecture, while Netlify's ready-made platform provides the underlying infrastructure. Biilmann explains:

We take care of all this stuff needed to actually get that web experience layer live and in front of customers. We do release management, we do the actual edge hosting, we run people's serverless functions, we help the web experience layer connect to all the different back-end services ... we do the observability for that whole layer.

That's allowed us to really help businesses often go from having a timeline of, sometimes we've heard 13 months to put together a new release of that core website, and get that down to something like four days. That's the kind of changes we've seen in the most extreme cases. In general, we've seen companies go from maybe deploying to their web layer once a week, to ten times a day.

Enterprise interest

There's a growing demand for this kind of agility, as businesses seek to adapt to fast-changing market conditions and customer expectations, which is expanding Netlify's reach into the large enterprise market. Biilmann comments:

We have really seen this category reach a very clear tipping point, where today we're reaching more than 800 million unique visitors just to sites and apps running on Netlify, and running a lot of really cool mission-critical properties for companies like Twilio, DocuSign, TripActions, Unilever and so many more.

Last week's announcement reflects that growing enterprise interest, particularly from those looking for more effective ways to deliver web personalization at scale. Biilmann says:

There's a lot of interest in how do we actually pull off personalization in a way that feels compatible with this whole composable approach? And in a way that still gets all the performance benefit of running this kind of decoupled Web UI on a global edge network.

Transformation at the edge

The new Next.js runtime addresses this with a capability that Netlify calls Next.js Advanced Middleware. This takes advantage of technologies built into the Netlify CDN infrastructure to transform content at the edge, instead of running code in the client browser or making calls back to the origin server. He explains:

Developers ... can write a middleware that would, for example, say, if this condition is true, then change the main title on the page, on the fly at the edge, before it gets to the user's browser. That you can, of course, use for localization, for personalization. In some cases, you might also use it as an authentication layer, just sitting in front of your Next site and saying, is this an authenticated user? If it is just pass through, if not, change the origin and so on. It gives developers a lot of flexibility in how they think about doing content transformation on the edge.

While the new capabilities are in principle available to any developer using Netlify, it's targeted at those organizations pushing the boundaries of personalization at scale. He adds:

It's really important for us that we bring all these advanced functionalities to the whole development community, and we make it really accessible for anyone to play with and to get results from. But obviously ... you'll probably get a lot more out of that if you're running a large enterprise e-commerce marketing site.

Back-end integration

The word middleware is traditionally associated with technologies that pass data between enterprise applications. While this new Netlify technology is a different use of the word, the provider is developing technology for back-end integration based on its acquisition of GraphQL API platform OneGraph last year. Called Netlify Graph, this will be an important focus to help developers manage the many different connections implicit in the kind of composable architecture associated with JAMstack. Biilmann elaborates:

We've really succeeded in enabling developers to work on this web experience layer as a self-standing serverless application that they can work on independently from the back-end teams. But where I think we have a lot more opportunity to do is in helping them connect that web experience layer to all the different APIs and data sources and content sources they have on the back end.

That's, of course, why we launched Netlify Graph, but there's a full roadmap, thinking through how can we really help teams manage the complexity that comes from the composable architecture. We all know that the advantage is that you can get the best-in-class for every single piece, and you can compose both your old legacy pieces and your modern headless pieces together and use them independently and so on. But of course, it does add complexity to having to manage five/six/seven/eight different APIs and services and data sources for every web project you're working on. So we're thinking a lot through how can we simplify that and make it feel to the web teams working on it like they just have one uniform way of thinking about that whole layer on the back end.

Mainstream adoption

With enterprise adoption rising fast, that strategy is going to be important. Whereas earlier technology trends such as cloud-native apps or containerization were first adopted by digital innovators before moving to more mainstream companies, Biilmann says that Netlify is seeing mainstream adoption in parallel with the high-tech sector. He comments:

This decoupling of the web experience, we've actually seen that happen fairly simultaneously, across really high technology customers, like a Twilio or DocuSign, that are born Silicon Valley tech companies, but also in much more traditional companies like in retailers Salling Group in Denmark or Loblaw in Canada, or [real estate investor] Oxford Properties in Toronto. Just companies that you wouldn't think of as necessarily the early adopters of more radical digital transformation projects.

One factor that's making it easier for established companies to start using Netlify is that this composable technology can be adopted incrementally, rather than having to 'rip-and-replace' the platforms they're already using. He explains:

You can start with a single project. You can start building out even just parts of that project. A lot of our customers will start putting Netlify in front of their existing web property, and then building out new pages, new parts of it, on Netlify, then just start accelerating and building more and more — instead of doing some radical switch-over, like turning off their old monolith and building a new one.

We are seeing a lot of companies focus on how can you also be this orchestration layer in the middle, that makes it easier to keep a lot of your original APIs, content sources, but expose them to this new way of building. We're at a very early stage of adoption, but I think as the ball gets rolling, it will only roll faster and faster, especially because we're seeing adoption happen not just in very advanced technology companies, but also in broad enterprises globally.

My take

Further evidence that mainstream adoption of this composable approach to building websites and web applications is growing. This has all the hallmarks of a disruptive innovation that has now proven itself and is filling out gaps in its capabilities so that it can meet advanced requirements and become a complete alternative to the incumbents.

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