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Behind the Scenes: What makes Gatsby Great

Dustin Schau
April 2nd, 2019

Gatsby is great from a multitude of perspectives. Our community is great. The developer experience is great. The performance of the resulting application is great. Our documentation is great. And so on and so forth… if I were to focus on each of these areas, this post would become an overly long love letter that I’m not sure many would want to read.

As such–this post focuses on just a single element of what makes Gatsby great: performance. To prime the discussion, let’s consider this post on the webdev subreddit on Reddit.

Genuine question, every page is loaded immediately [sic] on click. Seriously never seen such a quick website before. Any insight as to how they’re able to achieve this?


Fun fact–that website in question is reactjs.org which, as you may or may not know, is an application built with and powered by Gatsby 💪.

In an effort to answer this initial question, this post outlines several foundational techniques that Gatsby enables by default to deliver this experience. Specifically:

  1. Server-side rendering (SSR) at build time
  2. Route-based code splitting
  3. Modern APIs

Finally, this post concludes with tangible, practical advice for measuring and asserting conclusively that your app is actually ludicrously fast.

Let’s dive deep.

Server-side rendering (SSR) at build time

The mental model many hold for Gatsby is that of the static-site generator. This is accurate (with a caveat that it’s excellent for web applications, too). Gatsby excels at producing optimized static content (HTML, CSS, JavaScript, images, etc.) that can be deployed anywhere for pennies. Gatsby produces optimized static content by invoking server-side APIs at build time. But, but… you say–“Gatsby is just a static site generator, it’s not server-side rendered!” Let’s put down the pitchforks–let me explain!

Server-side rendering at build time merely means that we invoke the same server-side APIs invoked by a traditional server-side rendered application. We render a React component to optimized, pre-rendered HTML. If we first consider a React component, e.g.

this page will be rendered and optimized by Gatsby’s approach of invoking server-side APIs at build time. That process looks a little bit like:

Note: want to see the actual code? Check it

This produces optimized, pre-rendered HTML for every page in your application. It ends up looking something like this:

Your React components are traced, rendered, and static HTML is produced via server-side APIs. Great. Why?

Why server-side render?

First: let’s consider the scenario in which we are not server-side rendering, e.g. a traditional React application produced by something like create-react-app. This application once deployed requires JavaScript to parse, render, and eventually produce HTML to the DOM. This eventuality means that your users are waiting for JavaScript to be parsed and evaluated before your application is usable. It also–of course–requires JavaScript.

Short circuiting this process and turning this eventuality into a certainty is the key win of server-side rendering. This process produces static HTML that does not require JavaScript to run. Your application will load much more quickly and will be interactive more quickly. You will improve Search Engine Optimization because search engines can more quickly, reliably, and accurately parse your content and meta tags.

Your user’s time isn’t wasted to eventually render your application. We render your application at build time (as much as possible!) to maximize performance and deliver the ⚡ fast experience your users expect. Why force the work and time on your user when we can short-circuit this process and render the application for them at build time?

This is the central idea of server-side rendering. Gatsby uses server-side APIs to render your application at build time so your users get a usable application much more quickly, even when JavaScript is disabled. Nifty. You’re probably jumping ahead of me at this point. Why perform this process at build-time–this is what Gatsby does–when we could perform this work at request time with traditional server-side rendering approaches?

Zero Node.js servers required ✋

To begin describing why build-time SSR is so appealing, let’s first take a look at what a deploy and release looks like if we don’t require a server. What’s required for a typical set-up for deploying static content (which Gatsby produces)? It looks something like:

  • Creating a Content Delivery Network to route your content as close as possible to where your users are requesting it
  • Creating a bucket/location to host static content (like S3, Google Cloud Storage, etc.)
  • Setting up a Domain Name System (DNS) to make your content reachable via a pretty URL, e.g. gatsbyjs.org
  • Routing the CDN layer in front of your static content
  • Set up a Continuous Integration (CI) environment so we can build and deploy code to production with minimal impact to end users

… and, that’s it! We’re done as far as setup goes! We can use whatever stack you prefer here. Netlify? You bet. More a fan of AWS? Of course. Heroku? Yup. You get the idea. Gatsby can be deployed anywhere easily and cheaply.

We now have an infrastructure setup so that we can release our web application. What’s a release look like?

and then copying the result of gatsby build (the public folder) to your static content host of choice.

That’s it. What if your site goes viral and receives hundreds of thousands of requests? You get charged in terrabytes of data with most CDNs, and that cost is quite literally pennies. Deploying a new version of your app? Fire off a deploy and your users will have the new version available the instant the build process completes.

Let’s contrast this approach with setting up and deploying a purely server-side rendered application.

Deploying a server-side rendered application

First: perform the same steps in setting up a static content host. Oh and we’re not done yet, sweet, sweet summer child.

Sweet, Sweet Summer Child


  • Set up and provision several virtual machines (VM) to run instance(s) of our server-side app
    • Traditional examples are something like EC2
  • Configure the VM to be able to run Node.js code
    • Consider using Docker to ensure you have a consistent Node.js environment
  • Set up auto-scaling to ensure we can accommodate and fall-over based upon heavy load or error states

Does this sound like something that sparks joy? ✨ Oh–let’s talk about the deploy process, too.

Releasing a one-line fix to our SSR application requires deploying an entirely new version of our application. This means spinning down existing versions of our service, spinning up new versions of our service, and handling and remediating any errors that may arise.

The benefits of both approaches are the same. Improved performance (which has other, important related benefits) by short-circuiting the process of eventually producing HTML by directly producing HTML. However–deploying and hosting static content is objectively easier, cheaper, and more reliable than deploying a server for rendering applications.

Let’s continue.

Route-based code splitting

Gatsby–like other tools–uses the filesystem as a convention for mapping to routes for instance, given the following directory structure:

also note we expose a programmatic API for dynamic route creation

The routes (e.g. the URL the user enters or navigates to in the website) /about, /contact, and / will be available in the resulting application. Let’s take a look at one of these routes.

Pretty vanilla looking component! We are rendering a form with some validation and functionality provided by the excellent libraries yup and Formik. The likelihood that these libraries are used in all routes in our application is unlikely–yet this is traditionally the approach that many take with bundling their client-side JS libraries. This means that even if a particular route (e.g. /about) is not using certain libraries that they will still likely be included in a monolithic JavaScript bundle containing all dependencies. However–Gatsby, your friendly web app compiler, is a little smarter!

We use code-splitting (enabled via our internalized dependency webpack), and in particular, our approach prioritizes app-level dependencies (libraries used by the majority or all routes) coupled with route-based code splitting for dependencies that are likely only used on a particular route. To more fully understand this, let’s take a look at a sample structure produced by our build process: gatsby build.

Let’s take a deeper look at some of those JavaScript files.


app-2abedacd9bf03aaca373.js in the above example is our commons bundle. It contains the shared dependencies for all routes. This can be cached between routes, so that JavaScript libraries like:

  • react
  • react-dom
  • @reach/router
  • react-helmet

are bundled on every route because they are used on every route.


9-f5d9c17474395c2890a3.js in the above example is our route-based code splitting, in action. This will contain the separate dependencies that are required by our /contact route, specifically Formik, yup, etc. based on the previous example. This means that each route is only downloading the necessary JavaScript to make the page functional. No more and no less.

Consider the output of webpack-bundle-analyzer, which makes this even clearer.

webpack Bundle Analyzer


component---src-pages-contact-js-34c976efa1482a119a50.js contains metadata that defines the necessary resources for a specific route. We’ll come back to this–promise!

To tie it all together, the build process produces a contact/index.html file containing something like:

This is an optimized, HTML representation of the React component at src/pages/contact.js containing the minimal resources required for the page. Our users only load the resources they need for every single route. No more, no less. 🔥

Want to dive deeper? Much of this is encapsulated in our internal webpack config

Modern APIs in Gatsby

Gatsby uses modern browser APIs to both maximize performance and user experience–which oftentimes go hand in hand!–only loading assets when they are necessary and likely to be requested. Specifically, the following APIs are crucial to the end user experience in Gatsby:

  1. IntersectionObserver – an API to conditionally perform some action when an element enters the viewport/view
  2. link rel="prefetch" – an API to prefetch resources in the background when the browser is idle
  3. srcset powering responsive images – a API to load the smallest possible image that matches the viewport of the requesting device

Let’s get to it.


If you’ve ever browsed a Gatsby application, you’ve probably noticed that links to internal routes feel like they load instantly. This in-app navigation is powered, in part, by an IntersectionObserver.

Curious what an IntersectionObserver can do? Check out the following example. Emoji are used when an element is entering/leaving the viewport.

See the code implementing this functionality here.

srcset powering Responsive Images

Whew. It’s been quite a ride. Finally, I’d like to discuss one of my favorite Gatsby components, specifically gatsby-image. This component also registers an IntersectionObserver, and uses it in an interesting, performance-focused manner. Let’s get to it.


There are far, far, far too many otherwise decently performing websites that load a gargantuan 5Mb image request as a hero image. But–thankfully, this isn’t you! You use gatsby-image and you get all of the following:

  • Responsive, optimized images using a srcset
    • A picture element with a source srcset is used
    • This means that using several media queries, you load the smallest image that matches your device (e.g. mobile devices get smaller images, desktop devices get larger images, etc.)
    • We even generate 2x DPi images for beautiful images, regardless of the screen quality!
  • A base64 blurred image loaded by default
    • This has two wins: 1) Larger images outside the viewport are not requested until they’re needed, and 2) The blurred image is in a container with the same dimensions as the real image–therefore, no jumping when the image loads!
    • Also see: traced SVGs for a super slick alternative
  • An IntersectionObserver that swaps the base image for the larger image, when the image is in the viewport

And one of the best wins of all–Gatsby’s pluggable ecosystem and GraphQL data layer are both used to produce and pass the optimized images directly to this component. It looks something like:

Our static build process will create an optimized, responsive hero image as static HTML that looks something like:

For a demo of all you can do with gatsby-image, check out the example Using Gatsby Image.

The power and appeal of Gatsby is that we internalize all of these great APIs, performance techniques, and patterns. Enabling these (and improving with incremental releases of Gatsby!) allow you to focus on what matters: delivering compelling and engaging user experiences backed by your friendly, fast, and powerful web compiler: Gatsby.

It’s been quite a ride 😅! By this point, we’ve covered the foundational techniques Gatsby uses to deliver a performance optimized application for your end users. However–to assert something is fast, you need to measure it. You need analytics, tools, and checks to assert that not only is your app fast but also just as important that it remains fast.

Techniques for measuring performance

With any application, even one with a rock-solid performance basis like Gatsby, the advice I’d give is to trust, but validate. It’s unlikely you’ll introduce a significant performance regression with a new feature and pull request, but even the best of foundations can be torn down. “I think I’ll load six fonts each in weights 100-900″, they said, and “Oh, and I think two feedback libraries and a few analytics libraries are really going to drive conversion and put us over the edge,” said someone, assuredly, at some point.


The quickest and easiest recommendation for measuring performance is to first and foremost use the tools available to you. Chrome has an excellent tool built-in, Lighthouse accessible via the “Audits” tab in Developer Tools (and fun fact–Gatsby’s very own Ward Peeters and Marcy Sutton are core contributors!).

Lighthouse is accessible via the developer tools in Chrome: F12 -> Audits and then Run audit. You’ll be greeted with a result like:

Lighthouse Example

Lighthouse will provide scores from 0 – 100 for a variety of meaningful categories, including performance, accessibility, and more. Actionable feedback is provided if the score is less than 100, so you can feel empowered to make improvements and maximize those 💯s!

Lighthouse is a great first step to asserting whether or not your application is actually fast. If you are scoring near 100s (if you’re using Gatsby–you probably are!) you can feel assured with a reasonable degree of confidence that your application is actually fast. However–Lighthouse can sometimes vary between runs and results can sometimes vary depending on which machine is used to run the test. To gain a greater degree of certainty that your application is fast I recommend another, complementary tool: Webpagetest.


WebPagetest is an amazing tool built by Patrick Meenan. You can tweak the device used in the tests to validate that your application works even on low-performing devices that tend to be CPU-constrained. You can use a slower network to ensure that you get an accurate representation of how your users could be interacting with your application in less-than-ideal network connections. You can even choose the location of where your test is run!

I liken the relationship between Lighthouse and WebPagetest as similar to the relationship between a unit test (Lighthouse) and an end to end test (WebPagetest). A unit test gives you a fair degree of confidence that what you’re testing works like you expect. An end to end test gives you a near certainty that what you’re testing works as expected, because you’re testing in real-world conditions.

Both are valuable–and both have their place!

Trust, but validate

As mentioned, performance is something that should be regularly monitored. Using tools like WebPagetest and Lighthouse are great techniques that should be used and help uncover performance problems (among other key concerns like accessibility improvements, SEO, etc.). However, the usage of these tools are oftentimes done in a reactionary, ad-hoc manner. Performing a Lighthouse test, discovering issues, and devoting a week or two to remediate is all too common.

Why react to something (!) with manual, ad-hoc spot checking? What if we could remediate and diagnose at pull request time?

Using Continuous Integration checks is a great technique that can catch regressions before merging, therefore catching regressions before shipping regressions. It looks a little something like this:

Continuous Integration Status Check

If you check out the pull request, you can see that the failing CI status check alerts us of a possible performance regression that is introduced in the pull request. The check runs Lighthouse in a CI container, and will fail the check if our code in the pull request reduces the scores below their expected baselines.

In this pull request, I intentionally introduce a few dependencies like Bootstrap, lodash, and… jQuery because let’s at least make the performance problems clear and obvious! If you check out the CI logs you can see the output from the failing CI check:

If we set up a performance baseline (and we’re using Gatsby here, so let’s shoot for scores of 💯), we can catch regressions at pull request time. Using Gatsby gives us some luxuries here in being performant out of the box but a performant default does not mean that you should rest easy, unconcerned of such trivial concerns as performance, accessibility, and more. Trust, but validate.


Gatsby is great because we provide a solid foundation, smart defaults, and use modern web APIs, each of which are pillars on which to build incredibly performant web applications. In detailing each of these foundational areas, I hope it’s been made apparent the value that Gatsby has for not only developer experience but also in the very real benefit performance has on user experience. Use Gatsby. You’ll thank us and your users will thank you.

We can’t wait to see what you’ll build 💜.

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Dustin is the co-founder and VP of Engineering at Gatsby, helping the team build out the fastest website framework and Cloud platform around. When he’s not focused on that, he likes to read mystery novels, relax with a glass of wine, and explore San Francisco with his wife.

Follow Dustin Schau on Twitter

Tagged with apis, deployment, lighthouse, Website PerformanceView all Tags

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