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.