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What is n8n.io?

What is n8n.io?
December 15, 2020

n8n is a “free, fair code, self-hosted workflow automation tool.” In simple terms? It’s an app that integrates with other apps, to automate processes between them.

At quick glance you see “automation tool” and think “well I’ve heard of a few of those”. Indeed, Zapier is the most well known of all the automation tools, while Integromat has cemented itself as the primary alternative - but both are closed, cloud-based products with a premium price tag.

But, open-source and self-hosted - that’s where n8n comes in doing things differently. Why it matters - we’ll get to that later - but for now, know that n8n is the newest automation tool and is gaining serious traction and the start of a cult following.

The basics of n8n?

Say you want a Slack message whenever you get a new Mailchimp subscriber, or you want to create Freshdesk tickets from Airtable records - you can accomplish these sorts of automations with n8n. 

They are made possible through n8n's growing network of integrations. At the time of writing, n8n natively supports 170+ different apps — and you can use them instantly. However, you can also integrate nearly any app that has an API if you know what you're doing, putting n8n's open-source and versatile nature to good use.

What's the name about?

If you're wondering how to pronounce "n8n", you're not alone. But it’s easier than you think: it's pronounced, "n-eight-n". 

"While looking for a good name for the project... I realised very quickly that all the good [names]... were already taken. So, in the end, I chose 'nodemation'... I then ended up on 'n8n'." 

— Jan Oberhauser, Founder and CEO, n8n.io

How does n8n work?

Like most integration-automation apps, n8n works by connecting to apps via their APIs.

What is an API? APIs are like digital tunnels that allow different apps to send each other information without altering or breaching one another. Kind of like a mail service, delivering data from app to app. By using this exchange of app information, n8n empowers its users to create automations with the following tools:

Nodes

Nodes are the connective points throughout your n8n automations. Data enters through nodes, is processed through nodes, and leaves through nodes, too. Connecting nodes to one another is what makes automation in n8n possible.

Connections

Connections are the pathways that connect nodes. If nodes are the dots, then connections are the lines that link those dots up together. Much like wires connecting electrical goods to the mains, but it’s not energy being transferred, it’s data.

Trigger nodes

Trigger nodes kickstart an automation in n8n. They are always the first node in the workflow and act as a green light for your automation. For instance, if you have an automation that runs every time you get an email, then your automation would start with a trigger node that activates when a message arrives in your inbox. 

One differential between n8n and other automations apps, is that workflows in n8n can have multiple triggers.

Workflows

Workflows in n8n are the canvases of your nodes and their connections. Each workflow begins as a blank slate where you can drag and drop nodes and connections. Workflows are also what separates your automations from one another. Think of them as documents in Google Docs.

How much does n8n cost?

n8n is completely free to use. You can install it right from your computer's terminal and have the complete app at your fingertips in just a few minutes. It's also backed up to GitHub, so if you're feeling savvy, you can create your own fork and even modify it to meet your needs.

n8n is self-hosted. That means your automations will be running on your own computer or server, not theirs. To maximise the flow of data, you might want to invest in a remote server for yourself — and that could cost you from a few bucks, or several hundreds per month depending on what sort of usage you’re planning.

The beauty of this model is that n8n is infinitely scalable. You pay what you need to, and nothing more.

Do I have to self-host n8n?

Not anymore! Recently the n8n team launched a cloud version of n8n. This means hosting is taken care of. You just create an account, log in and build your automations.

Prices for the cloud version range from 20 Euros to 120 Euros per month depending on the number of workflow executions you'll run. Keep in mind that unlike Zapier and Integromat which count each step in a workflow as a task, n8n counts your entire workflow as one execution whether it has two steps or 20.

What can you automate with n8n?

Don’t let n8n’s simplicity fool you. You can still use the platform to automate nearly everything you can on more expansive tools (such as Zapier). The only downside? The process might be more technical than it is on other platforms, especially if n8n doesn't include built-in integration for those apps you want to use.

Some of the common uses for n8n include generating designs, pulling data from webhooks, creating bots for Telegram, and interacting with GitHub users. And of course, all of this is done automatically. If you know some basic Javascript you'll be able to get even more done.

If you come across something you can't do in n8n, don't worry. The app is quickly picking up steam and development of new features and integrations is constant. So if you can't build your ideal workflow yet, you probably won’t have long to wait.

The history of n8n

n8n started as a personal project of Jan Oberhauser in Berlin, Germany. As a developer, Oberhauser had tried nearly every other major automation platform and found that none of them fit his needs just right. They were either too pricey, too limited, not scalable enough, or simply lacking in features. 

Oberhauser decided to scrap these mainstream platforms and create his own. At first he kept his idea to himself, it then became a GitHub project, and eventually, it was backed by a website and turned into a fully-fledged business.

Announced to the world in October 2019, it caught quite a lot of attention and in March 2020 got $1.5 in seed funding to continue its growth.

How does n8n compare to Zapier and Integromat?

So n8n is free, open-source, and highly-customisable. But how does it compare to more established solutions like Zapier and Integromat?

Price

At first glance, n8n is the clear winner here. Sure, Integromat and Zapier both have free tiers, but n8n is the only one that promises to never charge you a penny. And even if you're going with their cloud version - starting at 20 Euros per month it's very competitive.

Features

All three apps have features to be proud of, and a few limitations holding them back. For example:

  • Zapier offers a suite of built-in apps that handle data formating, webhook calls, email parsing. These let you do quite a bit quickly.

  • Integromat offers more advanced features and flexibility, but remains a structured and easy to use tool. Multi-path workflows, loops and logic are all possible.

  • n8n has probably the most flexibility - especially if you're familiar with Javascript. You'll be able to program your nodes on a much more granular basis.

The deciding factor? It comes down to simplicity-of-use versus how many features you actually need.

Learning curve

Lastly, we have the learning curve, or how easy each app is to use. And there’s a clear skill gradient between them. 

The easiest of these three is Zapier — most users can start building workflows within an hour. Integromat is a tad more complicated but still fairly simple, you can think of it as a more advanced version of Zapier with a visual as oposed to sequential build interface.

n8n, on the other hand, is yet another step up. Even the installation process, which involves pasting code into your terminal, might feel a little uncomfortable for the average user. Their cloud version is the way to go for users that want an easier on ramp.

Are there any n8n tutorials?

There are plenty of places to find n8n stutorials online, including:

Of course, if you’re struggling to get your head around the inner workings of n8n’s nodes, connections and workflows, these tutorials may still be pitched too high.


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