Going Static

July 14, 2016

As of yesterday, I completed a rewrite of this site and moved it over from a Ruby/Sinatra stack to a static site built by a custom Go executable, and deployed based on the ideas that I wrote about in the Intrinsic Static Site.

Overall, it was a good opportunity to do general housecleaning, and to write tests for modules that didn’t previously have any, but the major impetus for the move was for bigger reasons. I’ve touched on a few of them below.

Static Is fast

The site is now stored in S3 after it’s built from Travis, and then served from a CloudFront distribution at one of their ~40 edge locations from around the world. Every page is static HTML so there’s no dynamic rendering or data store access to slow anything down.

The old stack, which was dynamically rendered but buffered by rack-cache and using CloudFlare as a CDN, was pretty fast already. But I like that the new stack is all hosted by one company (AWS) rather than being straddled across CloudFlare and Heroku, and that I now have fine-grain control over the behavior of my CDN.

Static is resilient

The previous site had a few dependencies in the form of a Postgres database used to procure tweets, books, runs, etc., and depended on Flickr in some cases to serve images. On the whole both were very dependable, and rack-cache helped mitigate the damage caused by any service hiccups, but the former would occasionally result in a database connection error which would 500 the site, and the latter would occasionally break connection while an image was loading.

The new system still uses Postgres and Flickr as sources, but they’re only referenced during the site’s build step. Any trouble will error the build and cancel deployment, so no user will ever see a problem.

Static is future-proof

I’ve recently been concerned with just how many minor tweaks I had to make to old the Ruby codebase just to keep it modern and alive. For example, it’s good practice to follow the currently released version of Ruby at all times lest you be caught with a major disparity gap when a major backwards incompatible change comes down the pipe in the future.

Ruby’s worst maintenance problem is that every gem that needs even reasonable levels of performance is written in C. These native extensions are built as bundler installs gems, and are prone to breakage as libraries that they’re linked against on the system are updated. I can’t even count how many hours I’ve sunk into fixing eventmachine builds because something changed in OpenSSL.

From a longevity perspective, Go is Ruby’s polar opposite. The language and its core libraries are incredibly stable, and no release in recent memory has been backwards incompatible. By convention dependencies are vendored so that they don’t rely on a centralized repository system, and are almost without exception written in Go itself so that build problems are few and far between.

There’s a reasonable chance that this site’s new code will build on a contemporary Go compiler from ten years in the future with no changes. You couldn’t say the same about a Ruby codebase even when thinking about only two years down the road.

And even in a future where all compilers have failed, I’m still left with the build artifact itself in S3 which is a simple collection of HTML, CSS, and image files that will run anywhere, including a browser pointed at localhost. It’s trivially simple to move them around or archive them permanently.

There and back again

Considering that I originally started publishing on the original static site generators like Movable Type, then went dynamic after the static site craze of the early 2010s and joining Heroku, it’s mildly amusing to me that I’m going back to my roots. That said, I’m happy to be back on a platform that lets me make big changes more safely and eats less of my time in ongoing maintenance.

Going Static was published on July 14, 2016.

Find me on Twitter at @brandur.

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