I've long agreed that many sites, like blogs, are better baked than fried. It makes for web hosting that's cheaper to run and simpler to maintain. I've also often thought that using a database can be an anti-pattern for managing content. But, what I've also found is that baked sites often yield a poor writing environment. That said, I think I'm going to give it another try, because I think I might have found a new approach that works for me.

From WordPress to Jekyll to WordPress

As I've mentioned before, I've flirted with a variety of platforms for putting stuff from my brain on the web. But, the last time I switched away from WordPress to Jekyll, I ended up switching right back again.

Jekyll took way too long to generate my site and its 1150 posts, and I couldn't figure out how to speed that up for previewing drafts without moving files around. I tried a few different external tools like Mou and Marked, but the process never clicked. I've also never quite gotten along with Ruby, so I didn't go far with scratching my own itches on Jekyll.

On the other hand, WordPress has a nicer writing experience. But, it's clunky in other ways. I'm always worried about all that PHP code sitting around frying up page views, hoping no one figures out how to get at the publishing machinery. I'm also less interested in hacking on PHP for fun, these days.

Gulp is great

The place where I've been having a lot of hacking fun over the past few years is in node.js. So, when I was thinking about trying static hosting for my blog again, I started looking into node.js-based Jekyll clones.

But then, it occurred to me that Gulp would be a fine tool for the job. In a nutshell, like unix tools pipe character streams between tools, Gulp pipes streams of files between small utility functions. All I had to do was build up a small collection of file processing functions and glue them together.

Copying Rioki's homework

As it happens, someone else had already started that work for me! The core of it, handling the posts, looks something like this:

function posts (path) {
  return gulp.src(path)
    .pipe(frontMatter({property: 'page', remove: true}))

Pretty clean & straightforward, at least to my eyes.

Starting from Rioki's gulpfile.js, I hacked and iterated until I had a gulpfile.js of my own, split into a directory of small task modules. At this point, I've got a bunch of in-memory post indexes, date & tag based archive pages, RSS feeds, and a handful of other templated pages. I can push all the content to an Amazon S3 bucket with one command.

Oh, and building the whole site only takes around 30 seconds. Still, that's not fast enough for running previews while writing. So, I've broken things up so new & draft posts lead to quick rebuilds when their files change - and I even trigger a LiveReload service that keeps a browser tab updated as I make changes in Vim.

And, best of all, I understand how the whole thing works. This stuff feels nicely maintainable and fun to expand in the future as a saw-sharpening / yak-shaving opportunity. I might even take a shot at spinning off all the code from the content and release it as a standalone module installable from NPM in case anyone else wants to try it out.

From WordPress and Jekyll to Gulp

I found a WordPress-to-Jekyll exporter plugin. It generates a nice zip file download right from the site admin. That let me dump the 50 posts I've accumulated since the last switch.

And, a great thing about the YAML-and-markdown file format used by Jekyll is that I was able to merge my posts from both decafbad.com and blog.lmorchard.com just by copying them into the same directory. So, I'm thinking that I'll revive my old blog by squashing it right on into the new, and set up a handful of redirects to unify the whole mess.

Amazon S3 deployment

Hosting a static website on Amazon S3 is cheap and fast and low maintenance. And, a module called gulp-awspublish can handle pushing this whole site to S3 really easily.

Turns out I generate around 4750 files, between all the posts and tags and dates. It takes about 30 minutes to upload the first time. But, gulp-awspublish keeps track of MD5 hashes. So, next time I generate and upload, it skips all the pages that haven't changed. That's just a handful of files, if all I'm doing is publishing one new post.

It also seems like this module uploads one file at a time. I wonder if I might hack it to queue up a few dozen or so in parallel to speed things up? I doubt that uploading thousands of files was the original use case, so it might do with some tweaking.

Page sections loaded via AJAX

I've got a simple template for this new blog, and I hope to keep it that way. But, there's a lot of stuff in that sidebar. Well, I decided to tweak a few things and suddenly I had 4750 files to upload to S3.

Just because the site is statically published doesn't mean some parts can't be dynamic with the help of the client. Rather than put up wth regenerating & uploading all the things in the future, I yanked the sidebar out of almost every page and generated it as a separate resource.

Then, with a tiny bit of jQuery magic, I load that sidebar into the page via AJAX. That shrank the size of the site overall, and it's so fast and cacheable that I never see any difference.

I think this will be one of the little keys to maintaining the site: Try to extract any common element used throughout the site, and push it into a dynamically loaded asset. Not everything can be done that way, but I think plenty can.

Disqus and comment archival

I'm also back to using Disqus for comments. They've got a great service, and they're not a roach motel. They have a great API, and I even wrote a Python script for decafbad.com that archives comments from closed threads right into the blog post itself.

At some point, I need to get that working again and maybe transliterate it over to node.js.

Next steps

I've got some more I'd like to do with this stuff, but the main next steps are these:

  • Write more often
  • Write more consistently

Of course, having skimmed through my posts over the years on this blog, I'd estimate about 25% of the whole thing is me grousing out loud about the long stretches I spend neglecting this place.

So, who knows? Maybe you'll see my next post show up sometime next June!