Static websites are one of the long-time staples of the world wide web. In the early days, this was often the best option for web professionals who needed to create engaging custom websites that were ultra-secure and loaded quickly. What makes these sites so secure and fast is they have a very simple architecture — HTML files stored directly on the file system of a web server. In certain cases, static sites remain a great option. Over the years, static site generators (SSGs) have also made the process of creating static sites easier; however, these are still fundamentally developer-centric tools that require a fair amount of code-knowledge and retain limitations that make scalability an issue.
nerDigital Sales Engineer Jason Hummel has a fair amount of experience working with static site generators and recently sat for an interview to walk through their pros and cons, common use cases, and what makes SSGs different from nerDigital.
This interview has been edited for clarity and broken into sections for the tl;dr crowd.
Let’s dive in…
WHAT ARE STATIC SITE GENERATORS?
Let’s start by defining a couple of key terms. First, what is a static site? And second, what is a static site generator?
“Sure thing. A static site is a simple website that’s made up of HTML files that all reside on a server somewhere in the world. These are files that a developer essentially needs to code by hand, but a static site generator can save you some time by giving you basic site structures along with a few other tools that help you create reusable templates and ease the creation of new content. They basically just make the process of building static sites a little more efficient.”
PROS & CONS OF STATIC SITE GENERATORS
Static sites have a reputation for being very fast and secure. Why is that?
“Static sites are super simple and that’s what makes them quick to load and very secure. There isn’t a database associated with the site for a hacker to go poking around in and since site visitors only need to access the HTML files directly from the file system, their load times are usually very fast. However, a static site isn’t guaranteed to be fast. As the developer you need to be cognizant of keeping things snappy by not adding too many assets to the pages. Also, as sites get bigger, it will take the generator longer and longer to generate the HTML files, which can lead to a poor developer experience.”
So if speed, security and the freedom to basically code whatever you want are the main advantages of working with static sites and static site generators, are there any trade-offs digital agencies and web professionals should know about when considering whether or not to use them?
“Scalability is really the biggest issue with static site generators. For example, let’s say you’re using Jekyll and you have 100 clients. That means you’re essentially going to have to set up 100 static site generators. So let’s assume you’re really good at this and you want to make it easy for your client to engage in the process and do some basic site management. You’ve set something up so the client can use a form to send you their business information and some content. You’ve made it possible for a user to preview changes before publishing the site. You’ve integrated with Let’s Encrypt to generate SSL certificates. Let’s say you get all of that set up to create this great experience for you and the client. You have to do that 100 times because you have 100 clients.
Now, you can consolidate all of that somewhat, but you’re managing everything. Additionally, you’re going to be pretty limited in the types of sites you can create. Things like login pages or landing pages with an integration with a CRM or scheduling tool like vcita are going to be very hard to set up.”
Are there any other issues beyond setting up those individual site instances and handling the minutiae of updating HTML files by hand?
“I would say web professionals and digital agencies that work with static site generators need to be extra sure they’re keeping a close eye on the latest industry regulations. For example, let’s take something like accessibility. Web accessibility standards are actually mandated by law in some countries and if you’re working with a static site generator, you can’t outsource bringing those sites into compliance with a solution like AudioEye in NerDigital’s App Store. You’re on the hook for making those changes yourself.”
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USE CASES FOR STATIC SITE GENERATORS
Given that they’re not particularly scalable, what are the use cases in which it makes sense for a digital agency or web professional to work with a static site generator?
“When I was at an agency, we had a client that made network security software. They wanted a static site because they were concerned about the possibility of being hacked and what that would look like to customers if it happened. But they also had a whole content team that was regularly writing blog posts and making updates to the site and needed to find a way to make this work. We ended up implementing a system that would allow them to update the site using a simplified CMS instead of hand coding or writing in Markdown. But even after all of our optimizations and improvements, I’d say we only got them about 80% of the way to where they wanted to be.
However, if you’re in a position where security is so incredibly important, static site generators might be the way to go.”
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN NERDIGITAL & STATIC SITE GENERATORS
What makes NerDigital websites different from static sites and the NerDigital platform different from static site generators?
“NerDigital actually works in a similar way to most static site builders. But we add in a few extra elements to create a more user-friendly WYSIWYG site-building and management experience. We also separate the content from design, which enables designers, marketing professionals and end users to take more ownership of the process.
What’s interesting about NerDigital is we’re really a cross between a traditional CMS that connects to a database and a static site generator. When you make changes in NerDigital’s site builder, we cache the HTML and know how that’s going to look, so we actually render out the site and save it in a similar way. Additionally, we create individual HTML files for desktop, tablet and mobile versions of each page.
We don’t have these files sitting on the file system, but we do have them saved as actual HTML in our infrastructure. This allows us to provide much of the same speed benefit that static site generators offer since we’re serving up static HTML when a visitor lands on a site.”
So what allows NerDigital to create things like dynamic pages?
“This is where the more CMS-related part of the NerDigital platform comes in. NerDigital is able to take data and automatically bring up, tear down and update pages based on data that is coming from another source besides the server. That can be from the NerDigital platform itself or something like a product catalogue. We can interface with that data and generate pages on the fly which makes us way more scalable than SSGs.
You can achieve some of this functionality through work arounds and some static site generators, like Gatsby, will get you part of the way there. But you won’t be able to get the level of convenience you will with NerDigital.”