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A conversation about static and dynamic websites

Our blog uses Jekyll, a static file generator with a basic templating system, as the backend software for our site. A few months ago we wrote about our decision to host the site on Federalist. This post is about static site generators and the advantages and disadvantages of using one over a more traditional content management system (CMS).

Not everyone on our team was familiar with static website generators before joining 18F. Soon after joining 18F, Will Slack sat down with Greg Boone, a member of 18F’s Outreach Team with a background as a WordPress developer, to learn more about the differences between static and dynamic websites.

We’ve published excerpts from their conversation below.

Will: Hi Greg! Thanks for explaining static sites to me. Where should we start?

Greg: I’ll start by explaining basically what Jekyll is. Jekyll is a piece of software that generates web pages. Do you remember Geocities or Angelfire from the 1998 era internet?

Will: Yeah! I remember how you could make and customize different pieces of a website.

Greg: So all those sites back in the day were made up of static pages.

Will: I think I know what a static page is. That’s a bunch of HTML code that a programmer writes with images and text and formatting, right?

Greg: That’s right. Every page in a website is a full HTML file. Back in the day, if you wanted to create a new page, it meant copying and pasting all the elements common across every page in the site, and then going around editing the handful of lines that needed to be slightly different from page to page.

And there is a lot of HTML that exists on nearly every page on a site. Here’s an example: If you want a banner at the top of every page with your logo in it, you have to put that HTML at the top of every page.

Content management systems (CMS) were designed to solve that problem. What a CMS does is let you write your content and store it in a database where it can be retrieved later. And then your HTML pages become little templates with swappable pieces — like Lego blocks — based on what content should be at a given URL.

Will: Ok. Do you have an example?

Greg: Sure! When you visit a site powered by a CMS, your browser asks the web server for a certain webpage. The web server, which is the computer that serves up the content, then runs a program every time a page loads to figure out what content should be on that page. And it might run a few dozen queries or a few hundred depending on what that content should be.

So the web server makes the page anew, and sends some HTML over the internet to your computer. Finally, your browser figures out how to make sense of and render all that HTML. This happens every time someone asks for that page.

So to recap, a CMS stores all the content a website has in a database and then jams it into a template when you ask for a specific page.

A static site like Jekyll takes a very different approach. Instead of using a database, though, it stores the content in one kind of file and uses Jekyll to convert them into other kinds of files. In Jekyll’s case, the content is written in a language called Markdown with a standard bit of information at the top of the file written in a language called YAML.

Will: So anyone can easily edit the content in a Jekyll site without needing to know code, except how to do formatting in Markdown?

Greg: Yup, and without having to be a “user” of any database.

Will: And how to do the YAML instructions at the top work?

Greg: Good question. Before anybody actually visits a Jekyll website, it has to be generated. You could write blog posts until you’re blue in the face and it won’t matter if you never generate them into a website. In Jekyll, you run a command called build to make that happen.

Whereas a CMS is always running, waiting to send a visitor whatever page they ask for, Jekyll does nothing by itself. It needs someone or a program to run a ‘build’ command to generate files. Jekyll is almost always not running.

Will: So if I update a blog post in a CMS, that will get pulled into a live website immediately, but if I update a post in Jekyll, someone has to “build” the page before people can see it.

Greg: Yup. The result of running jekyll build is a boat load of HTML files organized into directories, or folders, based on how you have configured the program, and you can put those files on a web server and then they’re just sitting there, statically waiting for someone to ask for them — just like in 1998.

Will: Why would you want to use a static site generator over a dynamic webpage?

Greg: There’s a lot of work done by these programs when you build those pages. A CMS has a database that all the content is stored in, and every page needs to query that database at least once to figure out what to show you.

Let’s say you want one blog post, so you go to website.com/single-blog-post. If all you get is the text of that blog post, you probably only made one query. But the cool thing about a CMS is it gives you everything else like header images, related posts, tags, categories, detailed author bios, ​plugins, and whatever the heck else content you put in your CMS.

But let’s say that single blog post page has a header image, tags, categories, an author, and maybe some related posts connected to it — each of those things has at least one query to the database (and usually quite a few more). You can mitigate that work by using cache technologies that essentially save a version of the page as a static file, but you then have to invalidate that cache, tell it to make a new version of the page, every time you make a change to it.

If you’re curious, WordPress has an excellent page in their documentation showing what is going on behind the scenes when it processes a request. Drupal, Joomla, name your CMS, they all have something similar, even if it’s not published.

Will: I think I understand how it works; why someone would want to use a CMS over a static site generator?

Greg: It really depends on your needs. Most non-technical bloggers, I think, would say editing in a CMS is easier because you can use a “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) type editor that abstracts away the HTML code. As a writer, you just have to think about what to write — and not how to write in a markup language that then translates your writing.

With a CMS you also get a lot built in that you have to do yourself on a static site generator. Jekyll, at least, has support for tags, but our ability to list all the tags on a blog post, for example, we had to invent ourselves. WordPress has a handy template function called get_the_tag_list that gets a formatted list of tags on the current post. When you put it in a template, each tag is automatically linked to its archive page. We had to build this feature ourselves.

Will: What are some of the benefits of using a static site over a CMS?

Greg: While CMSs come with all those extra features packed in, static site generators tend to optimize for simplicity. Some people see that as a strong advantage. On 18f.gsa.gov, for example, we have that tagging feature but on useiti.doi.gov — also a Jekyll site hosted on Federalist — they don’t because they don’t need it, and if they ever do, they have the freedom to design the feature as it best suits their problem, use ours, or someone else’s solution. With most CMSs, you opt into those features the way they were designed by the CMS team.

They’re also easier because the content is visible and portable. All the content for 18f.gsa.gov lives in a Git repository. We host it on GitHub right now, but we don’t need to and if GitHub ever goes away we can easily move the content elsewhere or recover it from any clone of the site that exists (like on a team member’s laptop). This makes it easy for us to accept pull requests from the public to fix our typos and be very public and transparent about how our site works.

The portability is also important for when we decide to move the site somewhere else. We did this with 18f.gsa.gov when we moved it to Federalist and it was relatively painless. Migrating a CMS-driven site is a bit more work because there are many more things to think about: backing up databases, database passwords, sensitive configuration details like administrator passwords and firewalls. This can be a difficult and time-consuming process.

It’s not just when moving the site that you have to worry about all those things. Security of the database is a constant concern with dynamic sites. Databases require work to ensure their security. If your database goes away, you have nothing. This means you want to have regular backups, your database server firewalled off from anything that could attack it, strong permissions around who can access it and by what means. You need technical people on hand a lot more frequently to maintain a CMS. Static sites don’t have a database. There are still some basic security concerns, but many fewer of them.

Another advantage can be responsiveness. Because the server isn’t doing all that work every time someone visits, it can respond to a lot more queries a lot faster. You could host hundreds or even thousands of high-traffic static websites on an average server because the files are so lightweight it takes almost nothing from the server to return them. Ultimately these three reasons are why we chose to use a static site for 18f.gsa.gov. It’s a relatively small site, mostly simple content that doesn’t change very often or require much interaction beyond reading. We have a technical enough team to keep it maintained and it’s simple enough that transferring that knowledge to other people on the team is not hard.

Will: What about commenting?

Greg: When you make a comment on a CMS you’re writing to the database and your comment shows up on the next page load. There aren’t great ways to do commenting on a static site right now because the website a visitors sees is static HTML without an easy way for a website visitor to add a comment. There’s no database, so there’s no easy way to store the comment attached to a specific post, and there’s no application running in the background to validate and process a form submission.

If we wanted comments on 18f.gsa.gov we’d either have to build something that would immediately save to a file and rebuild the site or use a third-party service. Going down the second road forces us to think about questions like: What are the terms of service? How does this company handle our users’ data? Will they arbitrarily decide to start injecting ads into our site? How do built-in moderation features work? These are all kinds of things you don’t necessarily have to think about if you want comments in a CMS.

We think people should know exactly what they’re getting when they load 18f.gsa.gov and where it’s coming from: us.

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