The State of Web Development 2024
Netlify’s Annual Report on the State of Web Development consists of the findings from primary research from almost 7,000 participants, and offers unique insights into the state of web development in 2023, as well as some projections for the year ahead.
Co-Founder / CEO
January 15, 2024
With a respondent profile that is heavily skewed towards developers, it acts as an excellent barometer as to the state of health of the broader web development space.
In this short article, we analyze some of the key findings from the report paying particular attention to areas relating to Headless CMS, the market we operate in. Almost 7,000 respondents participated in this year’s survey with full-stack and front-end developers representing the majority of participants.
There is no doubt that the report signals a continued shift away from monolithic CMS-based approaches towards more modern CMS-based approaches like Headless.
Some Definitions (Glossary)
Before wading into the details it is worth clarifying some terms up front.
Traditional (or Monolithic CMS) - this refers to the most common form of Content Management System (CMS), the all-in-one offering from the likes of WordPress.
Headless CMS - a Headless CMS is a more modern approach where the front end and back end are decoupled and where the presentation layer is agnostic.
Composable - A composable architecture is one where different best-of-breed applications can work together in stark contrast to an all-in-one approach common with a monolithic architecture.
Jamstack - Jamstack is an architectural approach that decouples the web experience layer from data and business logic, improving flexibility, scalability, performance, and maintainability. It enables a composable architecture for the web where custom logic and 3rd party services are consumed through APIs.
While the report runs to almost 40 pages, we’ll not focus on findings relating to specific technology use or the growth in AI. Instead, we’ll explore the broader research relating to both traditional and modern CMS applications like Headless.
Firstly, it is noticeable that the shift away from the monolithic world of WordPress continues at pace. While still in its infancy, the advantages of moving to Headless are not just business benefits that a company enjoys. It is also an approach that the site builders (the developers) enjoy - after all, they get to mix and match best-of-breed applications to deliver an end-product without being constrained by the limitations of an all-in-one solution.
The advent of composable architectures is the natural destination for an industry hyper-focused on freedom, flexibility, interoperability, cohesiveness, performance, and productivity. Composable architectures began with the deconstruction of all-in-one, or monolithic systems. Companies first went headless, which is often seen as the first step in adopting modular and customizable composable architectures. Removing the frontend, or presentation layer, from the monolith gave developers freedom to select their preferred frameworks and content management systems, attain unparalleled productivity, and gain immediate access to the performance and scalability of serverless technologies and architectures. Now, composable has become so much more than a headless project. The data confirmed that 75% of all survey respondents had utilized composable architectures on the sites they’ve built in the last 12 months.
— Source: Netlify
Barriers to Adoption
However, despite the growth of composable architectures, it is clear that there are still some significant challenges. The main one relates to the different skill sets needed. The dominance of WordPress, coupled with a familiar CMS, married to a comprehensive plug-in ecosystem, and extensive learning resources means that there are lots of WordPress developers building websites. Not only does this force down the cost of development, but it also means that there are well-known development paths, and reusable elements to help agencies manage website builds. As key influencers in website decisions is it any wonder that agencies and freelancers continue to promote traditional CMS.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
— Source: Upton Sinclair
It is not the same when it comes to composable - which remains very much in its infancy.
Moving to Headless is not as straightforward as a WordPress site build (most Headless builds are CMS migrations away from a Traditional CMS). The community of Jamstack developers is smaller, and the complexity is currently much greater meaning that it is primarily senior developers who work on Headless site builds. This is borne out by the findings where over 40% of respondents claimed that they “were unsure where to start?” when asked about barriers to adoption for composable (or Headless sites).
These findings are ones we’ve also noted here at Contento (a Headless CMS focused 100% on websites) as we’ve worked with agencies over the past year.
Building on this, Contento will shortly be launching library features, and pre-built components to enable developers to get started on a Headless build without needing to spend days reviewing guides and docs, and watching beginner videos.
The Netlify report goes on to conclude:
The most logical conclusion we can draw is that a majority of developers are building with composable architectures, but most likely are limited to personal or small, proof-of-concept projects as monoliths still rule the enterprise. However, many organizations want to start embracing composable architectures, but don’t know where to start. The more developers build with composable tools, the more expertise will be created within organizations. But until organizations have the confidence to fully commit to composable, resources will be restricted to maintaining existing systems.
— Source: Netlify
As more developers go on the learning journey the adoption of Headless will likely accelerate, especially as more agencies look to offer clients a broader range of bespoke options.
Benefits of Composable
For those who have embraced Headless (and composable) the benefit set has been compelling.
Marrying enhanced productivity, cost savings, and improved performance alone represent a potent cocktail of resultant benefits that help to illustrate the appeal of the more modern approach. That said, what is a little surprising is that “enhanced security” and “omnichannel capability” do not appear on this chart despite being cited as two of the key benefits of Headless.
Nonetheless it is worth tempering the list of advantages with a minor caveat. CMS selection is very context-dependent and is thus a “horses for courses” decision. Headless and composable is a cutting-edge high-tech approach and thus anyone considering this route needs to ensure that adequate dev resources are in place and that the required investment is justified in terms of web traffic, market opportunity, and growth ambitions. After all, these benefits are not relevant to a personal website, a small business website, or a blog. On the flip side, companies reliant on their sites to drive business growth will enjoy significant benefits from going down this route.
The developer experience, freedom and flexibility, cohesiveness, and interoperability are why composable architectures are the preferred choice for building marketing sites, ecommerce, consumer, and educational sites.
— Source: Netlify
Drawbacks of Monolithic Platforms
When it comes to the transition to Headless, there are push and pull factors that combine and further incent a migration off WordPress (issues with WordPress are well-known, be they security vulnerabilities or website bloat). As the below chart illustrates, the inflexibility of an all-in-one solution represents a key limitation. It is also clear from the below that many of these limitations are ones that a website owner can live with, if there are modest expectations about the website and the value it brings. For those looking to scale and to optimize conversions, eventually you’ll likely out-grow a monolithic platform and will start considering alternatives.
In summary, we continue to see evidence of the growing shift away from traditional monolithic setups for developers looking to deploy modern websites. Developers are often innovators themselves and thus tend to be early adopters of cutting-edge technologies like Headless. It is also clear that the wider Headless vendor community including Contento has a lot to do to help reduce the friction of adoption. A headless setup is a more technically challenging one and thus brings risks that translate into reluctance to migrate client websites onto Headless. It thus explains the popularity of incremental or phased adoption, and multiple CMS use is increasingly popular as a way to reduce migration risks.
In short, the Headless CMS train has left the station, and the direction of travel is clear.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that monoliths have fallen behind the world’s rapid pace of innovation. As the web is revolutionized by technology like AI, the time for business leaders to rethink their web architecture is now. Composable architecture offers the speed, freedom, scalability, and performance that every business is seeking.
— Source: Matt Biilmann, co-founder and CEO, Netlify.