Migrating to Acrylamid

In the last year several people I know or follow have switched to a static weblog. I was in the middle if a redesign myself and thought it was a great opportunity to investigate the concept. The result: I replaced Django with Acrylamid for this site.

How it started

The redesign I was working on was about two things: creating a responsive (grid based) design and going back to the essentials. I think I was about 90% done when my attention was drawn to static weblogs. I immediately saw the performance benefit: generate a page once and just serve that static file. No database or processing is involved—it’s just a web server returning files.

I already knew reStructuredText and because Tarek Ziadé moved to Pelican and Daniel Greenfeld also created a new blog using Pelican, that is what I started experimenting with: Pelican. However, I did not like the HTML it generated. This is a web development blog and I use a lot of code samples. Plus I like to have (somewhat) semantic HTML. But inline code was turned into <tt class="docutils literal">example</tt>. And I wanted <code>example</code>. And code blocks were only wrapped in a <pre>, but I also want to wrap it in a <code> element.

In hindsight this was probably more a problem with docutils and/or the code highlighting than Pelican itself, but it made me investigate other static blog engines. I found Acrylamid and StrangeCase.

The latter seems to provide a lot of flexibility. But by reading the documentation I got the impression that that same flexibility would make writing a simple article too complex for me as it requires you to write Jinja2 in your article content. Jinja2 as such is not a problem for me, I just don’t want to be bothered with it when writing an article.

Acrylamid and Markdown

Acrylamid on the other hand made it very easy to start. But because it showed the same problems with reStructuredText I decided to switch to Markdown—something I should have done earlier.

The syntax of Markdown is a bit more limited than reStructuredText. For instance: it does not have a way to write definition lists (<dt>) or tables, as far as I know. But Markdown allows you to simply write HTML for the things not covered by its syntax. And since 95% (if not more) of my articles only need the stuff Markdown provides a syntax for, that’s fine by me.

But back to Acrylamid… A few things I like about it: like I said it was very easy to get started and the author is very responsive if you’ve got questions, bugs or improvements (pull requests). What’s even more important: it has all the features I need for this blog: articles (entries), pages, (paginated) lists of articles, tags and feeds.

Migration

Acrylamid provides an easy way to import content from e.g. an Atom feed. This was great since I already provided feeds on the previous version of my site (using django-atompub). So all I needed to do on the Django side was to add was a feed that listed all articles. (Note that I already migrated from django.contrib.comments to Disqus).

Although the migration of the HTML to Markdown wasn’t flawless. There were three things I had to correct manually:

  • The categories were not included in the migration. Even though they were provided in the Atom feed (using the <category> element).
  • HTML-ish looking content that could not be converted to Markdown was just left out. For instance, I use angled brackets in command line examples (e.g. “git rebase -i <sha1>”). After the migration the whole “<sha1>” part was gone.
  • The code blocks were indented three spaces instead of four and thus were not converted into <pre> blocks.

These three combined made me go over all my articles to make sure they had the right tags and the content was still okay. But to be honest, I did not mind that since it also provided an excuse to review the tags I used. Plus, I don’t have that many articles.

Decisions I made along the way

One reason I started the redesign at all was that I wanted a responsive (grid based) design. Although this blog should now be more pleasant to read on so called ‘mobile’ devices, I dropped the grid based design since it was overkill and I also doubt whether it can be called a responsive web design. I do intend to make better use of wider screens somewhere in the future, e.g. by placing the meta data of articles to the left of the main content column. But I don’t think it will be completely responsive.

I also decided to drop the images included in (almost) every article since 2009. It usually didn’t add anything to the content of the article. And it frequently took me just as long to write the article as I spent trying to find a good image.

To clean up the pages I removed the list of tags and the latest entries. Judging by the number of page views per visitor, they weren’t used that much anyway. Speaking of which: the Dutch Telecommunications Act now requires unambiguous consent to place tracking cookies from e.g. Google Analytics. I did not want to place a mechanism on this site to get that consent, so I decided to remove Google Analytics altogether.

Tools I use

Although I haven’t been working with Acrylamid (or any static blog) for long, I do want to share my current approach.

I guess I am getting old because I still prefer using Emacs over e.g. TextMate, Sublime Text or other fancy editors and IDEs. Perhaps it is because you can find a nice mode for just about any file type you can find. I’m currently using:

  • jinja2-mode to edit my templates.
  • markdown-mode for the content.
  • sass-mode to work on the Sass files. And speaking of which, my Sass files are written in the older, indented, syntax (because if feels kind of ‘Pythonic’).
  • typopunct mode for the occasional inclusion of typographical punctuation marks in my content. But usually I have this mode turned off and let the Acrylamid typography filter handle this kind of stuff.
  • Magit to manage the git repository (combined with using the command line).

The environment I use to combine all the components into what you are reading now, is described in the README of the GitHub repo for this site. One thing I want to highlight is virtualenvwrapper.gem. This plugin for virtualenvwrapper allows me to install the gems for Sass and Compass inside my virtualenv. Yay!

The checkout of the repository lives in a Dropbox folder. This way I can use e.g. the Nocs app to prepare articles via an iOS device.

Pros and cons

Again: I haven’t been using this approach for that long, but here are the pros and cons I discovered so far.

The disadvantages

Let’s first list the downsides of Acrylamic (or any static blog) compared to a CMS or my previous Django based solution:

  • I cannot publish new articles if I’ve only got access to a browser, e.g. when using a smartphone. After creating/editing a file it needs to be compiled. (Then again: I usually have my laptop at hand when publishing an article anyway. I have very rarely published an article while not working on my laptop.)
  • I have less control over the HTML that is generated from the text file. This is something that held me back initially from switching to a static blog engine. However, since I can also write HTML in my Markdown files, I can regain full control if I really want to.

The advantages

Now for the benefits:

  • I can host my blog anywhere! No complex setup needed. Just some HTML, CSS and Javascript files combined with some images and a limited .htaccess file (mostly for redirects of old URLs) and that’s it.
  • For most of my articles I can just write a bit of Markdown and that’s it. No need to worry about or tweak HTML in TinyMCE.
  • The code and content live in a single place: my Git repository—no separate database (ZODB, SQL or otherwise) required. The only dependencies are the Python eggs and Ruby gems I use. But everything specific for my blog is in one place. And with my setup that combines Git and Dropbox I think I also don’t need to worry about an elaborate (off site) backup mechanism. (Famous last words? Time will tell…)
  • I can prepare the content completely offline: creating new files, editing existing ones, previewing the result and even storing them in Git can be done in isolation. I only need to be online when I want to push my changes to GitHub or to actually publish the content. This will make it easier to blog on conferences where the WiFi connection isn’t always capable of providing a stable connection to a whole bunch of nerds. ;-)

End result

When I started with the redesign about a year ago I wanted to have a responsive (grid based) design and I wanted to go back to the essentials. I think I can say I succeeded in the latter. It doesn’t get more basic than simple HTML and CSS. As for the responsive design: I think the site got more readable and that is what counts, not what label can be attached to it.

I am happy with the current status even though I’m not completely done yet. I just wanted to get this live before the Plone Conference and improve iteratively. I’ll be attending that conference and will try to write an article about each talk I attend. That will be a good test to see how my current setup works…

Thanks

Moving from Django to Acrylamid means I can host my site anywhere. So it now resides on a server of bHosted.nl. But until today it was still running on a server of Zest Software, the company I left almost two years ago. They were kind enough to tolerate me and spare me the trouble of finding a new location for the old Django site without even charging me. Thanks guys, I really appreciate that!