Static Site Generators: All You Need to Know About SSGs

Static Site Generators: All You Need to Know About SSGs

As websites continue to evolve to display more and more content, the web development industry has come up with new ways to upgrade the process of maintaining sites more productive. We have witnessed an advancement from creating a number of individual files by hand to a system where repeated sets of code could be included automatically. Web servers could complete that task anytime a request for a resource was received by applying templates, loops, and logic, able to return a page view as soon as it was requested. This is where static site generators come in.

Static site generators (SSG) have pretty much the same function. They apply data and content to templates and create a view of a page that can be displayed to the site audience.

Introduction to Static Site Generators

The biggest difference between a static site generator and an ordinary web application method, is a static site generator does not wait for a page to be requested and then starts generating its view on demand each time, it does this in advance for every upcoming view of a site.

As this approach began to gain a good reputation, SSG tools have seriously improved over the years. Many developers created tools to operate in the language and environment which best suited their development needs. That is why now you can find site generators that are based in a great number of programming languages, apply a variety of templates and conventions, and run in different environments. All these tools are available to developers, meaning that they can access them anytime and become more productive and make sites in minutes.

An exhaustive list of static site generators with descriptions could be found on this page.  Nowadays, the most popular static site generator on the market is Next.js. It is a “minimalistic framework for server-rendered React applications as well as statically exported React apps”. It’s easy to install through npm install –save next react react-dom. You can also build a script in the following manner:

{
"scripts": {
"dev": "next",
"build": "next build",
"start": "next start"
}
}

After that, every .js file within the automatically created pages’ directory will turn into a route that gets automatically processed. This makes Next.js. an extremely popular option for creating personal projects, blogs, and documentation. Additionally, it features a large user base and a directory of plug-ins.

And that is how most static site generators operate. They use the content, normally stored in flat files rather than databases, administer it against layouts or templates, and generate a structure of static HTML files that are ready to be delivered to users.

Advantages of Static site generators include the following:

Speed

SSG speed could easily be its most noticeable characteristic of all. As previously mentioned, there are no database queries to process, no templating and no administering on any request. Therefore, web servers are really fast when it comes to delivering static pages, and the entire site consists of static HTML files that are already on the server, waiting to be dispatched, so any request is served back to the user almost instantly.

Version Control for Content

Version control for content is another great SSG feature that lets you collaboratively work on files, control the workflow making sure you know exactly who does what, and implement changes if something goes not according to the plan.

With SSG, your content is stored in flat files and treated as any other item of the codebase, unlike in regular sites where it usually sits in a database, completely separated from the codebase and version control system. In a static site, you are able to have the actual posts stored in a GitHub repository and offer your readers an option to file an issue if something goes wrong or to add an alteration with a pull request.

Security

Platforms like WordPress are popular all around the world, meaning that they are also a victim of common targeting by hackers. Thus, any time there is a user input/authentication or multiple processes operating code on every request, there is a potential security drawback to exploit. In order to prevent this from happening, site administrators need to constantly monitor and update their systems with security checkups, making sure that this routine works impeccably and is not overlooked by less experienced administrators. With that said, static sites keep it extremely simple, since there is not much to mishandle when you have only a web server serving plain HTML pages.

Less Hassle with the Database and Server

Installing and operating the infrastructure that runs a dynamic site can be challenging at times, especially when multiple servers are involved. You are also required to handle packages, libraries, modules, and frameworks that might have different versions and dependencies, as well as different web servers and database engines for operating systems.

As a software package, a static website has its dependencies as well, but those are only relevant at build time when the site is generated. Normally, the end result is a collection of HTML files that can be delivered anywhere, scaled, and shared as needed without regard to server-side technologies. As for the site generation process, that can be achieved from an environment that you control locally and not necessarily on the webserver that will run the site, needless to say, that you can build an entire site on your laptop and deliver the result to the web when it is completed.

Traffic Surges

Occasional traffic peaks on a website can be problematic for many, especially if your site heavily relies on database calls or heavy processing. Applying caching layers like Varnish or Memcached might save the day, but can also end up introducing more potential points of system failure in the future. Compared to that, a static site is much better prepared for these situations, as serving static HTML pages requires very little amount of server resources.

On the other hand, there surely are a few disadvantages of SSG that include:

No Real-time Content

Once you opt for a static site, you lose the ability to display real-time data, such as new content about which news has been trending for the past hour, or information that dynamically changes with each visitor. Static means fixed and it will be the same for everyone.

This instance should be treated as the ultimate price to pay for going with a static site, so it is advised to ask yourself the question about how important it is for your website to host real-time data before making any choices.  Some of you might think that this can be prevented by using JavaScript to dynamically update content on a static site. However, processing data on the client-side and appending the results to the page after it has been served can prevent some users from following the injected content, affect your SEO and cause other problems, potentially taking away the peace of mind and sense of control that using a static site can bring.

No User Input

Another thing about SSG is that there is no way to add user-generated content to a static site. You simply will not be able to process user comments and attach them to a post using just plain HTML pages. You cannot get around this limitation, but you can find alternative solutions for individual cases. One of those could be applying third-party services that can handle comment requests and email you the data, or issue it in a format that you prefer.

There are platforms like Disqus that process user data and further appending it to a certain page. Nevertheless, platforms as such add comments to the page with JavaScript after it has been installed, so technically, the comments cannot be displayed on your site until the JavaScript comes into play.

No Admin User Interface

It is super easy and simple to publish a blog post to content management systems like WordPress or Medium. It can be done from any device including your phone, without a necessity to install any supplementary software whatsoever. However, that is not how it works with a static site. Usually, posts are created in a text editor and altered with a language like Markdown or Textile. Then, if you want to publish them, you would have to regenerate the site and place the files on a server.

There are platforms that provide a web interface for creating, editing, and deleting files directly on a GitHub repository, offering a user-friendly composition interface. CloudCannon is a great example of a commercial service that offers users an option to edit entire sections of a static site and observe a live version of the changes. But such offerings are mostly meant for high-end developers, capable of managing version control and Git uploads.

In addition, there are also mobile apps, available for both iOS and Android, that connect to GitHub and instantly push the changes to the repository. Another option would be to set up a service that allows users to post to a static blog by email. It could work simply by watching for emails on a certain address and downloading the post metadata from the subject line, the images from the attachments, and the post body from the message itself. Again, all these solutions are meant for technically advanced users such as developers and programmers.

Conclusion

To sum it up, static site generators are a great choice for creating simple, multi-page websites and web layouts. SSGs tend to be faster, better optimized, and standards-compliant. However, for dynamic database-driven content, static site generators are not a good pick.


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