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Gatsby js

Are you looking to learn more about Gatsby? If so, this article is for you. Below we cover Gatsby’s basics and its advantages and disadvantages, before answering the most frequently asked questions about the framework. Let’s dive in.


What is Gatsby?

Gatsby is an open-source web framework based on React. It’s most commonly used as a static site generator when creating websites and web applications. Gatsby allows developers to quickly build fast websites using data sources like Markdown files, APIs, and databases.

Gatsby is similar to other static site generators like Jekyll and Hugo in its ability to generate static web pages from a set of Markdown files.

The JavaScript framework Next.js is functionally similar to Gatsby. Both frameworks are based on React and support static page generation.

How does Gatsby work?

Gatsby automates a lot of the high-level work needed to convert raw data from a database or an API into a website. Its build process fetches the data needed to generate the pages from relevant data sources, transforms it as needed, and produces finished webpages.

Before we dive deeper, we’ll need to first go over static websites and GraphQL.

Static websites: a quick summary A static website is made up of fixed-content web pages, meaning that every website visitor gets the same webpage served to them. Pages can still be customized for each visitor with the on-page HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, but all customization happens on the frontend.

Static websites are popular today for two main reasons:

  1. Static sites require little maintenance, as there are no backend servers to maintain. Developers frequently place a static website’s files into a cloud storage service like Amazon S3. The entire site is then handled by the storage service without any need for a dedicated web server.
  2. Static websites are fast for end users. Because there is no dynamic content being generated, static web pages load quickly. It’s common to see the use of a content distribution network (CDN), which places copies of the static website in storage locations around the world. A site that’s available through a CDN can be accessed quickly around the globe.

GraphQL: a quick summary GraphQL is a query language for APIs. By using GraphQL, developers can specify what data they need from a data source and get a response from the API with exactly the data they requested.

Static sites and GraphQL in the context of Gatsby Gatsby’s main purpose is static site generation. When generating a site from a data source, Gatsby uses GraphQL to expose the data source’s data to the site’s pages. Each page requests the data it needs from the underlying data sources using a GraphQL query, and Gatsby resolves the query and supplies the relevant data at build time.

Data sources in Gatsby Gatsby supports a number of datastores through its community plugins, from content management systems like WordPress and Contentful, to databases like MongoDB and MySQL. A Gatsby website can rely on multiple data sources and can transform the data from the sources as needed. We go over these potential data sources in greater detail below.

Benefits of using Gatsby

Gatsby has a number of unique features beneficial to static website creators. Let’s look at these benefits and what they mean for developers working with Gatsby.

Integrations with data sources One of Gatsby’s key features is easy connection to data sources. Most static site generators, like Hugo and Jekyll, can only use data from Markdown files to produce finished static webpages. Gatsby, by contrast, can connect to many other data sources in addition to parsing Markdown. Here are just a few of the data sources Gatsby supports through plugins:

  • WordPress
  • Contentful
  • Instagram
  • A generic GraphQL API
  • A generic REST API
  • Airtable
  • Drupal
  • Google Sheets
  • Ghost
  • Git
  • MongoDB
  • Greenhouse
  • GitHub API
  • Stripe
  • MySQL

These integrations enable Gatsby to quickly build static websites using headless CMS systems like Contentful or Headless WordPress as sources of data. In addition, developers can quickly add pages and blocks based on popular sources like Instagram. Data sources like Greenhouse and Stripe make Gatsby a great fit for internal business tooling.

Use React inside Markdown files with MDX Gatsby supports the MDX format for the content of its Markdown files. This means you can reference and reuse JSX code across various Markdown files without having to duplicate the relevant HTML code in different sections of your website.

Here’s an example of how the MDX content could look:

# chart.mdx
import { Chart } from '../components/chart'
# Here’s a chart
The chart is rendered inside our MDX document.
<Chart />

In this example, the Chart article contains a reference to both the Chart React component and the Markdown content. MDX content gets converted into HTML at build time, so the MDX pages are as fast for the end user as their plain Markdown counterparts.

Build websites from multiple sources with Gatsby Themes Given all the data sources Gatsby supports, you aren’t limited to just one per site. When building Gatsby sites, It’s possible to combine various data sources, and Themes is a feature that helps you keep the website’s look and feel consistent across all its generated pages.

Check out the Gatsby blog post entitled Using Themes for Distributed Docs **to see how Apollo GraphQL used Gatsby Themes to build a large site with a consistent set of design principles from multiple Git repos.

Emphasis on community and the ecosystem Out of all the static website frameworks, Gatsby is the most focused on its community of users. In addition to providing clear documentation on how to contribute to the framework, Gatsby offers pair programming sessions to contributors. Those interested in collaborating on bug fixes and new features in Gatsby can connect with with more experienced developers and work together to implement and merge changes.

Its emphasis on community means that Gatsby has a strong plugin ecosystem. Tasks that you can solve with popular Gatsby plugins include everything from dynamically resizing images on your website to adding Typescript support, and everything in between.

Drawbacks of using Gatsby

But there are a few things you should be aware of before you commit to using Gatsby in production.

GraphQL is embedded in the Gatsby architecture GraphQL is deeply part of Gatsby, with every data source, including REST APIs, needing to be queried using GraphQL at build time. The requirement to use GraphQL often facilitates site-building with Gatsby, but also comes with its own learning curve. For developers unfamiliar with GraphQL, this strong dependence on GraphQL can be challenging to understand.

Performance Some Gatsby users report that the build process of a large Gatsby website takes significantly more time as compared with other static site generators like Jekyll or Hugo. While Gatsby offers a commercial solution that claims to speed up the builds, not all Gatsby users are ready to pay for a hosted build system.

Gatsby assumes page-based structure Gatsby was created as a static website generator, and it assumes that the site you’re building consists of multiple pages with content. If you are building less of a content-focused website and more of a web application, you will likely find this approach limiting.

Not all datastores are supported through plugins While many data sources are supported by Gatsby plugins, you might need to create your own plugin if your data source isn’t supported.

Next, let’s look at the use cases for which Gatsby can be a good fit.

When to use Gatsby

Static site generators are a great choice when building websites and web applications, and Gatsby definitely fares well in the static website generator category. In addition, its plugin ecosystem makes it easy to quickly create a static website from almost any data source. Here are a few use cases for which Gatsby can be a great choice.

Blogs and documentation sites With its focus on content, Gatsby is a great fit for any content-oriented website like a blog, a knowledge base, or an electronic book.

Internal dashboards Gatsby data-source plugins can come in handy when building internal dashboards, for example, the plugin for Stripe payments or the plugin for the applicant tracking system Greenhouse. With other frameworks you would need to fetch the data directly from the API from these services. But with Gatsby, getting a simple site set up with these data sources can be as simple as adding a set of API credentials and running gatsby build.

MVPs and prototypes With so many available plugins, Gatsby is a great framework for quickly setting up proofs-of-concept, MVPs, and prototypes.

Gatsby vs. Next.js: when to choose which?

Gatsby is frequently compared to Next.js, a somewhat similar JavaScript framework. Here are a few differences between Gatsby and Next.js to help you choose the right option for your project.

Gatsby: optimized for static websites with few dynamic elements As a static site generation framework, Gatsby works best when building complex sites that are mostly static. It’s definitely possible to add dynamic content to a Gatsby site by using React components. However, if you are looking to heavily modify the routing for your site, or to add user-specific pages like account pages or e-commerce functionality, the Gatsby’s structure won’t be very helpful.

Next.js: a web application framework with static website building functionality By contrast, Next.js is a web application framework recently made capable of static website generation. As such, Next.js is a great fit for complex web applications or for static sites with a significant amount of dynamic on-page components. Next.js also lacks Gatsby’s plugin ecosystem for supporting all kinds of data sources, so setting up a simple static website would take longer with Next.js.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Is Gatsby free? Yes, Gatsby is a free, open-source framework. The company behind Gatsby offers a commercial service, Gatsby Cloud, that provides features like hosted deployment workflows and previews for Gatsby sites, but you don’t have to buy Gatsby Cloud to use Gatsby.

Is Gatsby good for SEO? Gatsby can be configured to make your site SEO-friendly. For example, you can speed up the page load speed of your website by taking advantage of Gatsby features like server-side rendering and speed optimizations. Faster page speeds, apart from creating a better user experience, are frequently said to improve search engine rankings. You can also use plugins like react-helmet to add relevant meta sections to your website’s pages—the search engines commonly reference the metadata for search indexing purposes.

Why is Gatsby so fast? Websites built with Gatsby according to web development and JavaScript best practices can feel fast to end users. The main reason for this is that Gatsby websites are generated at build time. Once a page is generated, serving it to each user takes a very small amount of time.

Does Gatsby use Redux? Gatsby uses Redux internally to store and manipulate the state of the website during the build phase. Separately from Gatsby’s internal use, it’s possible to use Redux in your own React components in a Gatsby project.

Does Gatsby work with WordPress? Yes, Gatsby has multiple plugins that make it easy to use a WordPress instance as a data source for a Gatsby website. See the company’s guide entitled Using Gatsby with WordPress for specific instructions on how to set Gatsby up with a WordPress backend.


Summary

In this article we surveyed Gatsby, covering how it works, its advantages and disadvantages for developers, and its common use cases . We also answered some of the most common Gatsby-related questions in the FAQ section.

If you’d like to give Gatsby a try, check out the Gatsby tutorials.