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Deepu K Sasidharan
Deepu K Sasidharan JHipster co-lead, Java, JS, Cloud Native Advocate, Dev @ XebiaLabs, Author, Speaker, Software craftsman. Loves simple & beautiful code. bit.ly/JHIPSTER-BOOK | 11 mins read

Static Site Generators rundown - How I set up my own blog with Jekyll

Static Site Generators rundown - How I set up my own blog with Jekyll

Last month I decided to move my blogs from Medium to Dev.to, I have detailed the reasons in the below post.

https://dev.to/deepu105/why-i-m-moving-away-from-medium-13ki

A lot of people suggested in the comments to set up my own blog and cross-post to Dev.to instead of relying only on one platform and I completely agree with them. I was procrastinating setting up my own blog for quite some time now. Finally, I decided to do it and set up my own blog at https://deepu.tech/blogs/ in the process I also updated my personal website to use the same platform.

So when I decided to do this finally I had to choose a blogging platform and there were few requirements I was keen about which influenced my decision.

Requirements

  1. The platform should support writing posts using Markdown with code syntax highlights
  2. I love the Dev community and hence wanted to cross-post everything to Dev.to as well without having to make any changes to the post. Means I would author once and publish to both my blog and Dev. This means some constraints/requirements
    1. It should support customizable front matter so that I can align it with Dev
    2. It should support the custom liquid tags used by Dev or I should be able to easily add those
  3. I should be able to have custom pages for my personal website
  4. Should be open source and have a good stable community
  5. Should be theme-able, have plugins for SEO, search and so on
  6. Should be statically generated and reasonably fast
  7. Should be able to host using GitHub pages - This was an optional requirement

The options rundown

With these in mind, I started evaluating some of the popular options below.

Jekyll

Pros:

  • I have experience with Jekyll since I built the new JHipster website using it
  • Supports Markdown, Liquid tags and Front Matter
  • Supports custom pages, themes, plugins and is statically generated
  • Is OSS and has a vibrant community
  • Can be hosted on GitHub

Cons:

  • I would have to build or find replacements for the custom Liquid tags used by Dev
  • I don’t have much experience with Ruby and I’m not very familiar with the Ruby ecosystem
  • Not the fastest among the options. Becomes slower as site size increases

Hugo

Pros:

  • Is very fast
  • I have extensive experience with Go and Go templates which would be helpful
  • Supports Markdown and Front Matter
  • Supports custom pages, themes and is statically generated
  • Is OSS and has a vibrant community
  • Can be hosted on GitHub

Cons:

  • Doesn’t support Liquid tags
  • Doesn’t have plugins. The built-in options are enough for my requirements at the moment though

VuePress

Pros:

  • Built with VueJS and I have good experience with JavaScript and quite familiar with Vue
  • Supports Markdown and Front Matter
  • Supports custom pages, themes, SEO, search and is statically generated
  • Is OSS and has a vibrant community
  • Can be hosted on GitHub

Cons:

  • Doesn’t support Liquid tags
  • Doesn’t have plugins. The built-in options are enough for my requirements at the moment though
  • Not geared towards blogging, but it’s possible to do it easily with some hacking

Gatsby

Pros:

  • Built with React and I have good experience with React
  • Supports Markdown and Front Matter
  • Supports custom pages, themes, plugins and is statically generated
  • Is OSS and has a vibrant community
  • Can be hosted on GitHub

Cons:

  • Doesn’t support Liquid tags

WordPress

Pros:

  • Have used it in the past and is a battle-tested solution
  • Supports Markdown using plugins
  • Supports custom pages, themes, plugins and can be statically generated using plugins
  • Is OSS and has a vibrant community
  • Can be hosted on GitHub with some workarounds

Cons:

  • Doesn’t support Front Matter and Liquid tags
  • Since most of my core requirements can only be achieved using plugins and workarounds it feels too clumsy

Though I personally liked Hugo because of its speed, based on the above the most logical choice for me was Jekyll.

Building a personal website and blog with Jekyll

Getting started

Setting up Jekyll is super easy, I followed the official guide and had a site up and running in minutes. The steps in order were as below

  1. Install a full Ruby development environment
  2. Install Jekyll and bundler gems for my user - gem install jekyll bundler --user-install
  3. Create a new site - jekyll new DeepuKSasidharan --skip-bundle, skipped the bundle install as I want to install to a vendor folder
  4. Cd into the folder DeepuKSasidharan and install gems to a vendor folder - bundle install --path vendor/bundle --full-index
  5. Start server - bundle exec jekyll serve and go to http://localhost:4000

Using a Theme

Up next was setting up a custom theme, since I really like the minimal design of Medium, I decided to use Mediumish Jekyll Theme so I did the below steps to switch to this. Steps 3-5 above can be skipped and instead step 2 from the below can be done directly as well.

  1. Delete the folder DeepuKSasidharan we created above
  2. Clone the theme to this folder - git clone https://github.com/wowthemesnet/mediumish-theme-jekyll.git DeepuKSasidharan
  3. Cd into the folder DeepuKSasidharan and install gems to a vendor folder - bundle install --path vendor/bundle --full-index
  4. Customize the _config.yaml file with my own user details, Google Analytics, Disqus ID and so on
    1. I had to update the exclude section to add vendor/ to it and to .gitignore as well
    2. Updated the jekyll-paginate plugin to jekyll-paginate-v2 in the plugins section
    3. Commented out the baseurl section
  5. Start server - bundle exec jekyll serve and go to http://localhost:4000

Customizations

So now I had a good looking website with an about page and blog up and running. I customized the look and feel a bit and changed the default page from blogs to about. You can check the source code at deepu105/deepu105.github.io

Now the next challenge was to make sure I can author once and post to both my blog and Dev.to, this means I have to make sure the front matter supported by Dev.to also works on my blog and any custom Liquid tags from Dev I use in the blog needs to work on my site as well.

The first part was easy, I just had to customize my sites includes and layouts to use cover_image instead of image and use the tag: [] syntax for tags.

I also added support for Dev.to like series and read time with a custom ruby plugin.

Adding custom liquid tags

In order to use Dev.to tags, first I tried if I can reuse them from Dev since its OSS, but it seems like they are heavily coupled with Rails and internal models to be extracted into Gems. I created a ticket asking for it as well.

So decided to write my own Liquid tags in Ruby. I reused available OSS Liquid tags and customized them to work like the Dev.to ones in syntax and feature. I ended up creating the codesandbox, twitter, gist, link, speakerdeck and youtube tags. You can find them here. Probably will add more as I use them. This is not scalable and I would love to see the Dev.to tags published as Ruby gems.

For example, here is a simple stub for the youtube tag.

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module Jekyll
     # A simple stub for the Dev.to youtube tag
    class YoutubeTag < Liquid::Tag

      def initialize(name, id, tokens)
        super
        @id = id
      end

      def render(context)
        %(<p>
            <div class="embed-video-container">
                <iframe width="710" height="399" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/#{@id}" allowfullscreen></iframe>
            </div>
        </p>)
      end
    end
  end

  Liquid::Template.register_tag('youtube', Jekyll::YoutubeTag)

Publishing to GitHub

Now that I have a site up and running with markdown posts that work in both my blog and Dev.to without having to make any adjustments, I decided to publish this to my Github accounts Github pages.

But there was an issue here. Github doesn’t allow running any custom Ruby code on GitHub pages, so I can’t just push to GitHub and get the site built and published so I decided to write a simple script to do the site generation on my machine from the source branch and push it to the master branch on GitHub.

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#!/bin/bash

rm -rf _site

if [ -z "$(git status --porcelain)" ]; then
    echo ">>> Working directory clean"
    TMP_LOC=/tmp/deepu.github.io

    /bin/rm -rf _site
    /bin/rm -rf $TMP_LOC

    echo ">> Building site"
    bundle update listen
    bundle exec jekyll build

    echo ">> Move site to temp folder"
    mkdir --parents $TMP_LOC
    mv _site/* $TMP_LOC

    echo ">> Checkout and clean master"
    git checkout master
    find -mindepth 1 -depth -print0 | grep -vEzZ '(temp(/|$)|vendor(/|$)|\.git(/|$)|/\.gitignore$)' | xargs -0 rm -rvf

    echo ">> Move site form temp & publish to GitHub"
    mv $TMP_LOC/* .
    now=$(date)
    git add --all
    git commit -am "Updated site on $now"
    git push origin master --force

    echo "$now: Published changes to GitHub"

    git checkout site_src
else
    echo "Working directory is not clean. Commit changes!"
    exit
fi

My current workflow

So now that I have things in place, I author posts as markdown with a full front matter like below and publish on my blog first. Then I publish the same to Dev.to

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---
title: "Static Site Generators rundown - How I set up my own blog with Jekyll"
published: false
description: Static Site Generators comparison
tags: [showdev, ruby, Jekyll, blogging]
cover_image:
canonical_url: https://deepu.tech/setting-up-a-blog-with-jekyll/
---

I’m not using the RSS import option in Dev as it uses the rendered blog and hence might need adjustments. I also set the canonical_url to my blog site.

Future plans

There are some things that can be improved.

  1. Use the Dev.to API to publish this direct from my publish script when I author a new post or make updates to an existing one.
  2. Improve the link tag and add some more tags for GitHub.
  3. Use local assets image for my own blog and generate the image URL for Dev.to when publishing.
  4. Currently, all links point to Dev.to, make the link tag smart enough to point to my blog when published to my site(I don’t want my readers to switch between sites). This might be a bit hard since Dev.to links have a random suffix.

So what do you think? If you have any suggestions on improvements or questions leave a comment.

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Cover image credit: Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

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