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.
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.