Going Full Static with Zola

by FIGBERT

Those of you who read my last "I Wrote This" post will know that I was having some trouble with my website. My site was coded using Sapper, a Svelte-based web-app framework I had been using for some time. I had chosen to use Sapper because it allowed me to stay as close to the web-metal as possible, while still letting me do some fancy things like use components, scoped CSS, and server routes. However, after diving deeper into website tests and statistics, I started noticing that my "static" site had a lot more moving parts than I thought. The HTML was crammed full of inline scripts and blob://s, tanking performance, wreaking havoc on my CSP, and breaking the site for people with scripts disabled. I decided to move the site to Zola, a ludicrously simple static site generator made in Rust. Feel free to check out the source code here.

NPM Hell

I decided I was going to rewrite my site because I have a bad habit of rewriting everything all the time largely because of Sapper's underwhelming response to this Github issue, which proposes a "strict export" for Sapper sites to remove inline scripts and use of eval(). I think this is a great idea, but it unfortunately has not received much attention (though it appears that as I'm writing this, it has been added to a "Roadmap Triage" project board). I started a new branch and began working to translate my site to Sapper's main competitor, Routify. Sapper and Routify are not the same thing, but for me they both would serve well enough. After around two days, I had a working MVP of my site in Routify.

Then disaster struck: I got a bunch of emails from Github. A series of high priority security vulnerabilities had been found in dependencies used by basically all of my web projects. I spent a day force-updating all the dependencies of my web projects – a bit of a pain because npm refuses to natively upgrade breaking changes – and decided to stay as far away from the Javascript ecosystem as possible. I hate that when I install a JS framework, a fundamental tool of modern web development, I install a million other dependencies that could, and often do, have critical security vulnerabilities. I'm thankful that Dependabot caught these ones, but it really killed my enthusiasm for using any JS framework on my site – which means Routify was out of the picture.

The Last Dependency Standing

I decided to use a static site generator. I'd heard of many of the big boys in the past, like Hugo, Jekyll, and Eleventy, but they all had their own problems when I looked at them in the past. Hugo has god-awful templating syntax, Jekyll is Ruby-based and I don't know Ruby, and Eleventy isn't even an escape from Javascript! So I decided to use Zola, a "one-stop static site engine" with zero dependencies. Zola is made in Rust, so it's super fast, and it's designed to be dead simple. Seriously: the CLI has only five commands, everything is configured from one .toml file, and your content is all written in "Augmented Markdown."

The interesting thing is that there's honestly not much more to the story because of how easy and simple Zola is to use. All of my posts and projects go into the content directory, my CSS, favicon, and miscellaneous files (non-content related stuff like emojis and public keys) go in the static directory, and templates and shortcodes go into the templates directory. If I was using a theme, it's files would go into a theme directory.

Benefits

  • My slow Python script to convert Markdown posts to Svelte (which was perfect at first but I then packed full excess tests and sandboxing) is gone. Zola handles that automatically.
  • I got rid of TailwindCSS, and replaced it with custom styles. It's actually pretty fun to write simple custom CSS, especially with modern tools like variables.
  • Writing new posts is ludicrously easy now. I write a post in Markdown, throw any images or videos used in the same directory, and publish.
  • Zola comes with a whole bunch of features built-in that I didn't have before, like syntax highlighting and anchor links (the latter of which I have yet to set up). Other things are just handled automatically, like feed generation or i18n.
  • Build times are much faster. Exporting with Sapper wasn't slow, but it didn't feel instant. Zola does.

Drawbacks

  • You sacrifice a certain amount of control by using a static site generator, like link properties. You could solve this with shortcodes, or by contributing to the project (which I plan to do).
  • I mean that's really it to be honest.

To Infinity and Beyond

I'm really happy with using Zola, and I look forward to continuing to work with it in the future. I want to publish my blog's styles and templates as a Zola theme, but I have to iron out a few kinks (like anchor links, which are still a bit finicky on my end) before that. I also have yet to re-implement a bunch of the indie-web features and GoatCounter analytics of my old site into this version. Overall though, I think it's been a really fun and productive experiment using Zola, and I'd highly recommend using it for anybody looking for a great, no-nonsense static site generator.

Until next time, FIGBERT.