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Netlify launches a new toolset to help enterprises migrate to composable web architectures

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright October 23, 2023
Last week's Netlify Compose conference saw the launch of a new platform designed to help enterprises manage their transition to a more agile, composable web architecture.

Matthias Biilmann - Netlify Compose livestream
Matthias Biilmann (Netlify Compose livestream)

Jamstack pioneer Netlify last week introduced a new toolset to help enterprises get on the path to composable web architectures. The Netlify Composable Web Platform comprises the core Netlify platform, the Connect data orchestration layer introduced earlier this year, and a no-code visual content editor. The goal is to help organizations connect multiple legacy content sources into a modern composable web architecture that allows editing by business users without having to wait for developer assistance. Matthias Biilmann, CEO of Netlify, says:

What we're launching is really our product answer to, how do we help large enterprises modernize their web stack from where they are, to where they will need to be within the next set of years — to build relevant modern digital experiences for their audience?

The announcement came at last week's Netlify Compose event, rebranded from and with more of an enterprise slant than the annual Jamstack community event that the company had previously hosted for many years. Biilmann had coined the term Jamstack, where JAM stands for client-side JavaScript, server-side APIs and static front-end Markup, when the company first began providing its platform for headless web architecture and helped spark early adoption of the model. He believes it's now time to do the same for mainstream enterprise adoption. He explains:

Jamstack ... has basically won in the early adopter space, in the sense that anyone that goes and starts a new web project today are probably going to generally build with this architectural principle — with a modern front-end framework and typically APIs on the back end, versus building one big monolithic application or buying some off-the-shelf digital experience manager, something like that.

Now, where we see the next frontier in this evolution of the web, is going from that early adopter segment through the early majority segment of basically every large company out there, having an existing web architecture that's now fairly outdated, that's often based on a big monolithic system and so on, and seeing how do we help them go from there, to a modern composable architecture, where the front-end, the UI layer, is cleanly decoupled from the back-end layer, and where the back-end layer itself is composable, so you can over time evolve the different services and plug in new ones or remove old ones and so on.

Three platform components

The launch is the culmination of several earlier steps. At the beginning of the year, Netlify acquired Gatsby Inc, creator of the Gatsby open-source framework for web front-ends and of the Valhalla Content Hub, which became the foundation for the recently launched Netlify Connect data orchestration platform. Then came the acquisition of Stackbit, a visual website editor. Added to the Netlify core, these additions complete the three components of the new Netlify composable platform — create, core and connect. Biilmann explains:

Core is our existing front-end cloud product line, really geared to help web teams build, ship and deploy faster.

Connect is what allows the architect at a large company to think through, how do we plug both our internal existing legacy systems, modern content sources, modern headless systems, into this layer in a way that gives us an abstraction in between, so we know that we can evolve over time? So we know that it's not that hard tie between the layers, that means that if we swap one of them, everything has to be redone, and so on. How do we set us up to orchestrate the content and data?

Create, on the other hand, is really the answer to — if the architects can get the data to the developers in the way where the developers can then really use this modern front-end cloud approach, build with all the modern front-end frameworks and move with all the speed and creativity that they want to — how do we make sure that the business stakeholders can also get their visual orchestration layer on top of that? So they don't get into the chicken vortex where every time they want to make a change, it's like, 'Hey, developer, can you do this?' And it's like, 'Well, we can look at it in our next sprint maybe.'

The addition of Create, based on Stackbit, and working with Connect, helps enterprises manage content originating from different sources. He explains:

What we see is that, at scale in large companies, you never end up with one simple content source or data source or back-end system. Typically, in the larger companies, you might be introducing one of the modern headless CMSes, you might be introducing on top of that, a modern, headless e-commerce platform that might hold your product catalog and so on, pricing information. Then, on top of that, you probably have legacy content sources that are just never going away, because there's thousands of people working through them and driving through them ...

Our vision is to say, how can we build a system where our system knows, from the Connect layer, where each piece of content comes from, where developers can give the structure to say, this is the way we want the non-developer persona to interact with this. And then on top of that, when you go in as a content editor, you can go in and directly on top of the website, literally see, 'I want to edit this content, I can now see where it actually comes from, I can change it directly here, I can see in the preview on the website, how the changes would look like and can approve it and I can publish and send it back into the system it actually came from, without having to have a mental map of where all of that comes from.' ...

Create becomes that whole visual orchestration layer for the non-developer persona, but still tightly controlled by the developer. Because the developers on the other hand, they don't want marketers to get a no-code site builder tool where they can just go crazy. They want to make sure that everything is built with the right design system components, following the structure that's in place to make things perform, and be accessible and all of that.

Enterprise acceleration

Packaging these three components into a ready-made toolkit saves enterprises from having to build their own architecture from scratch, as some larger organizations have already done. He goes on:

We talk to a lot of enterprises that are building their own ad-hoc Connect layer, in the sense of, maybe building an internal GraphQL federation service, on top of all of their products, and making that run and scale and so on. We talk to quite a few companies that are trying to then solve these visual editing problems, ad hoc, and build those and so on. We think that we can just bundle up the best-in-class best practices for this in a very similar way that ... we did with the Jamstack ...

I see our opportunity is doing the same as we did for Jamstack, essentially, and say, 'Here's how you do it — set it up, add your connectors, annotate where the content comes from.' And now the whole thing just works, the workflow makes sense, and you don't have to worry about building all the glue between these different composable services, all the workflows to get the data to flow through the system in a predictable manner, all the tooling to make the different stakeholders work together. We can provide you that in a platform where everything works together.

Enterprises are under increasing pressure to adapt quickly to changing user expectations and market demand. Whereas enterprise customers already running on Netlify are able to release changes to production an average of 140 times a week, Biilmann says that prospects he talks to are more often restricted to a single release window every few weeks. He adds:

As the expectations users have [for] digital experiences go up, and as the whole piece of content, code and changes accelerates — and those will only accelerate more with all the generative AI tools we've seen coming out now and so on — that piece goes from being a bottleneck and a problem to just being a deal breaker. That's where we can really help ...

We know we can come in and help them get from there to that kind of place where change is constantly flowing through the system. You're able to constantly iterate, you're able to try things, experiment, and you're able to give developers the freedom that they need to pick the best tools for their projects and build great experiences — while still making it work for the business stakeholders, and for the architects that needs to have governance, oversight, security and a long-term architectural roadmap for how they go from one state of the system to another.

One of the key aspects of the Netlify offering is that it allows an enterprise to plan a gradual transition rather than a wholesale rip-and-replace of its existing systems. Biilmann explains:

Typically, when we talk to [large enterprises], they have a need to drastically increase their time to market and their ability to ship faster. And they are often stuck on a pretty large monolithic system, sometimes a big DXP, sometimes a combination of in-house and services they bought and so on ...

Those are the type of customers where we really believe we can come in, and help them solve that conundrum. Start by connecting your current legacy systems into Connect and add the modern tools you want. Start taking pieces of your current digital experience, and build that with modern front-end tooling. But keep the rest of it the same. Start editing in this visual layer on top and make that the place where the business personas can drive their workflows. And now you can gradually start iterating in that path ... Build a plan over the next year as to how are you gradually going to move to where you need to be that's not based on some unrealistic expectation of redoing everything right now.

My take

The advent of toolsets like Netlify's are a prerequisite for the wider adoption of composable architecture — part of a move to what I've been calling Tierless Architecture. Early adopters have found success building their own in-house solutions, but as those lessons learned start being incorporated into prepackaged tooling by enablers like Netlify, the wider market can start to jump on board and adoption moves to the early majority. This is a crucial step for any new technology to cross the chasm and enter the mainstream.

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