Thanks in large part to WordPress, one of the world's most popular open-source applications, the use of content management systems has exploded.

This has been a positive trend, enabling companies to cost-effectively build and maintain dynamic, content-rich websites that are easily updated by non-technical staff.

But is it time to reconsider content management systems (CMSes)?

Mathias Biilmann Christensen, the founder and CEO of Netlify, a static website hosting platform, believes so and suggests that static website generators, which produce HTML websites that aren't driven by a database, are "the next big thing."

Obviously he has a vested interest in saying that, but that doesn't mean he's entirely wrong.

Christensen says static website generators haven't been ready for prime time but now, "many of the constraints that made dynamic websites the best option for creating anything but the most basic online brochure have fallen away."

That might explain why interest in static website generators, as measured by Google Trends, has grown substantially in the past two years.

Potential benefits of static website generators

One of the biggest benefits of static website generators is that they produce HTML-based websites that don't have the overhead of their database-driven cousins.

While caching is frequently employed with CMS-based websites to minimize expensive database operations that can create performance challenges, caching is rarely a panacea and can be hard to get right. 

Not only do static website generators avoid the need for caching altogether, they make it easy to use content distribution networks (CDNs) like Amazon's CloudFront to host a website.

According to Christensen, a CDN-based approach to hosting can produce page load times magnitudes of order faster, even for dynamic websites that are highly optimized.

In addition to performance benefits, websites created with static generators don't suffer from the most security issues that have plagued database-driven CMSes.

Christensen points out that by some estimates, 70% of WordPress installations are vulnerable to known exploits, and notes that a recent vulnerability in the Drupal CMS required emergency patching for 12m sites.

Challenges

Of course, static website generators aren't without their own challenges.

Though they are becoming a lot more polished and capable, it's still largely difficult for non-technical users to work with static website generators.

Workflows are frequently based on Markdown, a text-to-HTML technology, and require the use of source code repository software like Git. 

As Christensen puts it, "There's a huge need to bridge the gap between content editors and static website generation."

Additionally, the market for pre-built themes for static website generators is still nascent. That's an impediment to adoption by some companies, as the availability of inexpensive, pre-built themes has helped fuel the growth of CMSes like WordPress.

Appropriate use cases

In time, many of the shortcomings currently associated with static website generators will almost certainly be addressed.

As they are, marketing-focused websites (brochureware) and microsites will increasingly be excellent candidates for their use.

But basic content websites aren't the only candidates for static website generators.

Thanks to front-end frameworks like Angular, Ember.js and React, as well as third-party services like Disqus (for comments), Swiftype (for search) and Snipcart (for ecommerce), it is possible for companies to build sites with static website generators and incorporate dynamic functionality on the client side.

While this won't always be the best approach, with website performance only growing in importance, companies should keep their eye on static website generators and look for opportunities to incorporate them into their web development toolkits going forward. 

Patricio Robles

Published 5 November, 2015 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (5)

Alexander Levashov

Alexander Levashov, Director at Magenable

There are cases for static page generation indeed. However this isn't something novel, ages ago there was a FrontPage and I believe DreamWeaver is still alive.
On the expensive end some enterprise class CMSs actually generate static pages. If I remember correctly RedDot/Opentext works this way,

over 2 years ago

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Tony Edey, . at RCL Cruises Ltd

@Alexander
Indeed CMS systems like Tridion and TeamSite update back end files that when pushed to live, combine to become static HTML pages.

@Patricio
I have a personal dislike for WordPress for anything other than small scale operations with equally small budgets as it seems to produce slow, often very buggy sites (even the 'professional' ones). In my experience trying to do anything with WordPress feels like a constant battle to wrestle it into submission and keep it there.

Just recently I was involved in the replatforming of a site from an enterpirse level CMS to... no CMS at all. Everything is effectively hand coded though obviously utilises CSS, libraries, master pages and other such short cuts so it's not a case of building and maintaining each page individually. This has *drastically* reduced development time and costs. Before, with the CMS, building in new functionality could easily take weeks or months. Now those same projects take days and we have no restrictions or compatibility issues.

The down side is only the development agency can make edits (though the client could access the pages if desired), but so long as you've got the right support and SLA in place, this rarely takes longer that doing it yourself. This frees the client from hands-on editing and allows them to focus on content management, creation and overall strategy.

It's a model that can be scaled to a certain degree, though is limited for multinational sites or larger sites requiring lots of editors, but was an interesting break away from the default assumption that any professional/corporate site must have a CMS.

over 2 years ago

Jon Ewing

Jon Ewing, Creative Director at inframes.com ltd

We should all be building sites that run fast and static HTML will always be the fastest way to deliver content. But there's always a battle between lean efficiency and the desire to embrace the latest and most exciting technology. So this argument is never going to go away.

As an aside, I think we need a bit more work on the semantics here - a "static website generator" is really just a CMS by another name. There's nothing in the term "CMS" that implies dynamically-generated content. That's just the typical model of a CMS. And furthermore, there are a few purists who would say that Wordpress isn't a CMS as such, just a glorified blogging tool, although that's becoming an increasingly semantic argument considering it's about 1000% times more versatile than the best available CMS was 15 years ago.

over 2 years ago

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Andreas Kviby, Geek at Swedish Heroes

I do believe in the term that both Wordpress and Static Site Generators could be named CMS. But what we all do need is a editor / tool to maintain static sites without Dreamweaver and tools such.

What we need is the tools to edit and create content in the file structure that will then become the actual site itself.

We at Swedish Heroes work with our projekt statedit.io which is a complete tool to maintain and manage content, static, dynamic and remote content sources and will then blend it all together for a static generator to compile it all to static site hosted with providers like Netlify.

over 2 years ago

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Philippe Bodart, Owner at WebriQ Pte Ltd

The so called gap between database driven CMS systems and no database driven CMS system is closing. If your site is on a repository, you can use Content API's, Prose.io (write directly in to the repository in markdown) or even use Saas platforms for creating, managing and updating content for Static pages. One example is WebriQ with it's APP for managing Static web pages.

almost 2 years ago

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