I replaced a static site generator with a script to generate static sites

Today I threw out my cumbersome hakyll-based build scripts for memo.barrucadu.co.uk and www.barrucadu.co.uk in favour of shiny new ones written in plain Python that don’t use any frameworks at all. I’ve had enough, I don’t want to use static site generators any more—scripts to generate a static site are more than enough for me, thank you very much.

The main reasons I switched away from hakyll are:

  • Haskell compile times are really bad.
  • The templating system is terrible, and I’ve never liked it.
  • It’s very opinionated, and trying to do things in a different way is difficult.
  • The API doesn’t expose everything you might want, I’ve found myself copying and pasting library code so I could make minor tweaks

I considered switching to another static site generator like jekyll or hugo, which would have solved my problems with hakyll… and inevitably introduced their own problems. The thing is, static site generators have to be opinionated. If they’re not, they can’t automate things like generating sitemaps, RSS feeds, blog archives, etc. All of the features you want from a static site generator only work because the generator imposes some restrictions on the way you do things.

Eventually you’ll want to do something which the tool makes awkward.

So I decided to write my own tools, but I definitely didn’t want to write yet another static site generator, as I’d be introducing exactly the same problems! Instead, I’ve written two bespoke scripts, one to generate memo.barrucadu.co.uk and one to generate www.barrucadu.co.uk. They have many similarities, because I did memo.barrucadu.co.uk first and then modified it to get www.barrucadu.co.uk, but they’re two separate codebases and I could totally change how rendering pages works (say) in one without affecting the other. This is some of the flexibility you lose when you use a pre-existing static site generator.

I adopted some general principles based on my experiences with hakyll:

  • Haskell compile times are bad, so write it in Python.
  • I want a powerful templating system, so use jinja2.
  • A lot of hakyll’s opinions come from how it handles incremental builds. I don’t need incremental builds, as I regenerate the entire website on every deploy, so I can do away with all that complexity.

I also had some wants:

  • I didn’t want any URLs for pre-existing pages to change.
  • I still wanted to use pandoc for rendering.
  • I wanted to add some features hakyll had put me off investigating: sitemaps; automatically determined “first published” dates for memos (from git history); and templating the horrible mass of html that was barrucadu.co.uk/index.html.

This page you’re reading has been rendered by the new script. It’s a little bit longer than the old script, and more verbose in parts, but it’s got no opinions other than those I chose. I’ve also cut the deploy time down from half an hour to five minutes. Because it doesn’t do any incremental building, it’s a bit slower to generate the site (after the initial compile) than the old script was, but it’s still under a minute.

Maybe I’ll experiment more now that it’s no longer a huge pain.