Ask a Ninja: Current state of static site generators

Over the course of the last weekend I tried to built a website for a side project of mine (gaming related). To broaden my horizon, and to be able to host the website cheap and fast, I wanted to use a static site generator for it.

First try: Jekyll. TL;DR: Does not work on windows.

Since Jekyll is directly supported by Github pages, and I wanted to host here, and a lot of other guys around on my Twitter timeline use Jekyll, I thought this is the way to go.

Jekyll does not state that it would work under Windows. It is also not officially supported there. So this is not a great surprise. There were, however, some tutorials / manuals around that described how it should be able to run on Windows, which I wanted to follow. I installed ruby, and right from the the first try to install the Jekyll gem failed hard. So I could not even follow those instructions, as already the installation failed because of some strange SSL errors.

That’s when I looked for an alternative. I found the page Staticgen.com that lists a couple of projects related to this topic. This lead me to the next step.

Second try: Pretzel. TL;DR: Not stable. Crashes all the time.

As I am a developer that feels himself comfortable on the .NET platform, I looked for something compatible with Jekyll that, mabye, would run on Windows and on Mono on my Mac. Pretzel was the candidate. I installed Pretzel, and it worked with the template that ships with it.

Sadly, as soon as I started to throw in my own HTML, CSS and JS, the Pretzel preview server crashed at least at every second request. So it was changing files, restart Pretzel, preview. Change files, restart Pretzel, preview, and so on. I did this like half an hour when I became too annoyed to follow this path further.

At the end of the day, I want to build a website, and not debug a tool that will generate some HTML for me. So it was time to look for some alternative again. Since there weren’t any other alternatives on .NET that were Jekyll compatible, I thought about Node as a platform. I know that Node JS runs on Windows and my Mac, I had some previous experience with Node and Javascript is not that bad.

I did not go to StaticGen this time, because a handful of people on my timeline also started to use a Node based static site generator: Wintersmith. So without double checking the facts and blindly trusting my tech-colleagues, I downloaded it.

Third try: Wintersmith. TL;DR: Plugins don’t work and/or are too complicated. Not enough docs.

To be honest, I was totally turned off by the default template engine Jade. I have a full HTML template, and Jade is nowhere near HTML. Some people may find that cool, but it does not represent the way I want to work with my website.

Gladly, the template system can be changed, and I switched to Handlebars, as I liked the easy and lightweight mixin with HTML. Then the difficulties began.

The HTML template I was going to use requires Bootstrap (which requires jQuery), FontAwesome, I used two additional webfonts to match a certain website style, and alltogether I ended up with a few javascript and css files. I wanted them combined and minified, but the most promising Wintersmith plugin kelvin was not ported to Wintersmith 2.

Another plugin problem was wintersmith-tags. First of all, the plugin exposes methods to be called in the template. Something Handlebars is not capable of. Luckily the switch to Nunjucks for the templating engine was more or less done quickly without a lot of effort, but then I noticed that wintersmith-tags would not, despite the documentation stating otherwise, list all available tags on call of the corresponding method. I just got back an empty array.

That the plugins are mostly written in Coffescript, which I am not used to read, does not make it any better. The fact that wintersmith-tags was the only plugin with a rough documentation makes it even more difficult to work with. Up to the point where I gave up I had 11 plugins installed, none working as I intended them to.

Conclusion:

Fact is: I’m totally frustrated about the extremely poor experience I had over the last weekend.

I will give it a last shot with Hexo. It seems more active than Wintersmith, is pure Javascript (no Coffeescript, so for me better to read and understand), and it seems to have a larger installation base, so the chances are higher to get questions answered by the community. But if that does not work out too, I already came up with my plan B:

Let go of all these static site gens available out there. I’m probably going another route: I am a developer with deep knowledge in .NET. And .NET, especially ASP.NET MVC, Razor, Web.Optimization etc. has all the stuff required to built a great website, right at my fingertips. But I still want simple HTML delivered.

It is likely I’m going to grab ASP.NET vNext and built my own static site gen on top of it. Using the next .NET version it will also run cross-platform and I can use it on my Mac too.

This way I can make sure it works as I want it to, and since the guys using Wintersmith (and by the way are not really happy with it too) are also mainly former .NET devs, I probably have a good chance to get the first users except me, too. But I really hope Hexo is going to work out. Doing that much work just to get a simple but modern website on, is quite ridiculous. A decade ago it was a lot easier, but expecations have risen since then. A lot.

Update 2015-02-10: I will postpone my exploration of Hexo a little bit. It seems the project is still alive and just a few days ago release it’s version 3 RC. I can’t figure out if Hexo does support Nunjucks but I’m getting in touch with its creator and will find out.

Setting up my infrastructure – Part 8: A little bit more evaluation

After a little break I’m back again with the next findings in my little pet project.

First of all I wanted to check out the build servers before diving into the bug trackers. So I set up the first assembly for my project, with just one class and a unit test for it. As I already mentioned in my requirements it is a .NET project and I want to have at least the very basics (building, unit testing etc.) covered.

My test case for this was very easy:
Set up a project in the build server, have it check out the sources of the project and let it build.
After building is okay, add the configuration for unit tests and let the test run.
Check if it builds when checking in new code, and check how it reacts when either the build breaks or unit tests fail.

So, now this is, what I encountered with the systems:

Bamboo

Without digging too deep into the documentation (Documentation? Yes, this is the url. Check.), I set up a build plan in Bamboo to build my project. I set up a first stage that should check out the project from source control and build it.

Well, the setup was done quickly, but the build would not start. What I did was the following: I configured two local agents, both are capable of running the build. The build plan had a single stage “Build” with two jobs: Checkout and call msbuild with my solution file.

When I manually selected ‘Run’ it was queued and ‘waiting to be build’ forever. When clicking onto it, and selecting the only stage with the hourglass besides it from the sidebar, it told me this status: “Status: Job has not yet been queued. Waiting for prior stages to complete.”.

This was where I went like WTF? What prior stages? This was the only existing stage in the only existing plan.
After spending several hours with this situation I decided to create a User account on my Bamboo evaluation installation for someone to support me and opened a support ticket at Atlassian.

A few hours later the support logged in – and just saw a failed build that started like 20 minutes before.
After that the server behaved like normal: A new checkin resulted in an almost immediate new build like I would have expected.

So, why did the build fail? I used a Git repository on BitBucket for the tests, and configured the version control settings to check out from Git. I though that was the obvious way to do it. I was wrong, as Bamboo would not check out the sources. As I later found out, since the Git (hint! hint!) repo is hosted on BitBucket, I needed to select ‘BitBucket’ instead of Git from the repository type selection to be able to use it. My dear. After that it worked.

So, after this little problem I went on to configure the unit tests. I added a new stage for the tests to the build plan and configured a new job that would call MsTest and run the tests.

That job failed on every approach to run it. It always told me that the assembly was not found.
To make a long (several hours over a few days!) story short: Obviously the different stages in a build plan are executed on the same agent, but in different working directories.

At the time of this evaluation there wasn’t anything hinting to that in the Atlassian docs. By now, there is a small article explaining that you need to configure Artifacts to bring build results from one stage into another, but without further explaining how to set up the artifacts in detail.

Back then, I tried to figure out the different directories but that required a lot of changes to my build scripts that wouldn’t work on the dev machines after that, and so I put the MsTest job in the build stage to have it execute.

Guess what? After changing the build stage it wouldn’t start again with the same delayed until forever problem I already had until I waited several hours when it suddenly executed.

After all, my experience with Bamboo wasn’t really turning me on.

TeamCity

I already mentioned that we use TeamCity at my work place. So setting up the initial project was a bit new to me, but I knew what the settings were and where I had to tune a little bit. So the initial setup of my project with two build steps build and test was done in a few minutes.

Of course everything worked from the very instane I clicked on run.
Then I went on to activate code coverage reports for the test build step by simply activating dotCover from a little drop down in the test build step. After the next build I had a complete test coverage report on TeamCity.

Conclusion

I struggled a lot with Bamboo. It has a steep learning curve and the documentation is.. well, let’s simply call it it could be better. A lot. The Atlassian tools in general, and Bamboo is no exception, are obviously powerful, but you have to spend a LOT of time with the system to get it running like you expect it to – and I don’t want to spend too much time fiddling around with my toolset.

TeamCity on the other hand is streamlined and guides you through the process of configuring your builds. Everything I needed was set up in a matter of minutes and everything worked directly as expected from the very beginning.

Actually, at this point it was clear for me to use the JetBrains tools and not Atlassians, but I still had a quick look at Jira and YouTrack, which I want to describe in a dedicated blog post.

See the other parts in this series:

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Setting up my infrastructure – Part 7: The evaluation begins: Installations

After I picked the evaluation candidates I first tried a test-setup on a development VM at home.

Download

For this I downloaded the evaluation products from the Atlassian homepage and the free installers from JetBrains. Please note the slight difference between a ‘product’ and an ‘installer’ download. I wanted to do a side-by-side installation of all tools on the same VM to compare them easily.

Just as a little side-note, I will do a blog post on my hardware that drove me crazy during the evaluation. Just so far by now: I have a Drobo storage attached to my server at home, and I had the virtual server hard disks on that drive. Now guess what happens when suddenly the host machine looses the connection to the Drobo. Regularly and over and over again. But as said, this will be part of a separate blog post on its own.

So, after the download I ended up with two .exe installers for YouTrack and TeamCity, and with two zip archives for Jira and Bamboo. The Atlassian web site then directed me to a documentation link where I had to look for the installation instructions matching my setup.

Installation

All four products are Java-based.

JetBrains solved this very sound by obviously packaging the required runtime directly into their programs. I did not need to install Java on the system before installing YouTrack and TeamCity. Both programs as well as the first build agent of TeamCity were installed as autostart windows services automagically. They installed fine and directly started to run on the their corresponding port that I could change in the installer.

Now the tricky part began: Installing the Atlassian tools. First of all, the documentation suggested to install the 32-bit SDK, even on 64-bit machines. Just to get this straight: We’re talking about software that aims to be run in a production environment for enterprises, and they suggest using a lot of ram. This was my first WTF-moment with the Atlassian tools. I loved to choose a 64-bit runtime, and not the SDK but the real runtime, but well…

So, I installed Java. The JDK. For 32 bit. I then had to unzip the zip file and choose an installation and an instance folder: Second WTF-moment. The instance folder is something like the working directory of the program. Okay, so I did. In a small side-note in the installation documentation there is mentioned that there should be no space in any path name. “Any” means, no spaces in the path to Java, the products installation directory and the products instance directory. Of course, Java is installed in “C:Program Files…” by default. With a space in it.

Being a software developer myself I can only shake my head about such a ridiculous requirement. A software should be written in a way that it can cope with valid paths on the corresponding operating system. Especially software that is intended to help other software developers. Well, of course I ran into problems with my default Java installation location and had to uninstall and re-install Java again to another location.

The next tricky part was installing the Atlassian software as a windows service. You have to manually use a Java service wrapper tool for that. Oh, and I almost forgot: To configure Jira and Bamboo you need to manually edit configuration files, which are not really well documented…

After all, I got all four system to run. That is, I could open them in the browser and set the systems up.

So far, it’s an extremely clear plus for YouTrack and TeamCity. Installation is very easy and no hassle with config files, Java paths and service wrapper tools. The Atlassian stuff might be suited for enterprise use with a special person dedicated to setting up, configuring, fine-tuning and maintaining the system, but for a one-man show the overhead of a simple tool installation seems too much.

In the next post I’m going to describe the first functionality tests.

See the other parts in this series:

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