I’ve been thinking on maintaining a blog for a while now and had already stacked up a pile of writings ready to post. A long summer break allowed me enough free time to sit down and get started on the technicalities; a process a bit more complicated as initially expected but worth it in the long run. This blog serves not as a tutorial on making one with Pelican (I’ll get to that eventually), but as a brief log on my reasoning and thought process during creation.

Blogplatform

Deciding

From the outset I tried to steer away from heavy content management systems such as Drupal or WordPress. They’re easy to work with and take a lot of work of your hands, but a serverside database means too heavy a load for what’s basically a smallscale personal blog, and several unnecessary security risks on top.2 The tech-hipster in me opted for a DIY approach with full control over both content and design. Static blog framework wise there are several popular options, but as I’m more accustomed to the Python programming language through other applications, I ended up choosing for Pelican over the more widespread Ruby-based Jekyll. An added value of managing my blogs clientside and delivering small sized static pages is the ease of finding an appropriate host (I host my pages on GitHub Pages while serving larger files through Dropbox) and a seamless integration in my Markdown-based writing workflow.3

Set-up

The initial set-up is relatively simple, as installation and basic generation is done through command line, and content written in Markdown, AsciiDoc or reStructuredText4 gets served as stand-alone pages or articles. There’s a wide choice of existing templates, but further customization requires some working knowledge on webdesign as well as, preferably, on basic programming concepts (Pelican templates are created using the python-based Jinja2, allowing for template logic and inheritance). Needless to say, hosting on GitHub Pages requires knowledge of Git, but that’s really not a skill learned in vain as the concept of version control applies well to writing important papers too.

Development

Getting acquainted with these tools can be time consuming. Luckily Pelican’s well documented, and there are plenty of tutorials out there, as well as hundreds of working examples hosted on GitHub available as reference (the backbone of my template is a heavily modified Plumage theme). I prefer a minimalistic layout easy on the eye, and steered clear of unnecessary clutter, but with the advent of visual blogging5 I figured I’d integrate some graphical elements, such as article banners (that’s the extent of it really, I’m not much of na artist), as visual content engages the reader more easily. One easily overlooked design problem is ensuring responsive webpages for the ever increasing mobile internet traffic6, but with easy support for Sass, or just using Twitter’s Bootstrap framework, this comes pretty naturally. Finally, implementing additional features is pretty easy too. There’s a wide range of existing plugins for features like searching, minifying assets, table of contents and comments (using the third-party Disqus blog hosting service).

Hosting

GitHub has allowed free hosting for static personal or projectsites on GitHub Pages for a while now. This boils down to creating a new repository with your username and GitHub url (steviepoppe.github.io) and hosting your pages there. I created an additional source branch to host all my sourcefiles, use ghp-import to place my output files in a seperate branch, and force push that to the master branch on GH Pages.7

pelican content -o output -s publishconf.py && ghp-import output && git push -f origin gh-pages:master

So far GitHub’s SSL certificate only covers *.github.io domains, there’s no support yet for custom domains. Thus as final step after having set up my custom domain, and as an additional security layer, I use CloudFare to secure part of the connection and enroll some further optimisations.

Conclusion

While further customization requires some technical experience (or at least the proper mindset), I believe the base set-up is easy enough for anyone to learn and allows for more control over your own content and a smoother workflow as you would have relying on big CMS systems. Any extra skills learned will definitely come in use as digital publishing, webdesign and working with Git or other forms of version control become more and more basic skills anyone should possess. In retrospect, Jekyll appears to be an easier option for beginners with it’s widespread usage, but both Jekyll and Pelican achieve the same thing, so this is personal choice really. I’ll end up writing a full step-by-step beginner’s guide on setting up Pelican and hosting on GitHub Pages eventually, but for now I’ll post several decent tutorials below.

Further reading


  1. Icelandic Sunset by Stevie Poppe (https://flic.kr/p/M83mKT - CC BY-SA 2.0) 

  2. Burnett, Brett. 2015. “Why Did We Migrate from Drupal to Jekyll?” Text. The BHW Group. https://thebhwgroup.com/blog/jekyll-drupal-wordpress 

  3. O’Nolan, John. 2015. “The Ultimate Guide to Writing & Publishing with Markdown”. Ghost. https://blog.ghost.org/markdown/ 

  4. All three are open, lightweight markup languages with a heavy focus on readability through seperation of content and layout layers. 

  5. Fanguy, Will. 2016. “The Amazing Evolution of Visual Storytelling: Blogging, Instagram, Snapchat, and the Future”. Business 2 Community. http://www.business2community.com/trends-news/amazing-evolution-visual-storytelling-blogging-instagram-snapchat-future-01557833 

  6. the amount of mobile traffic now accounts for more than half of total internet traffic‘ “Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2015–2020 White Paper”. 2016. Cisco. http://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/solutions/collateral/service-provider/visual-networking-index-vni/mobile-white-paper-c11-520862.html 

  7. I’m doing this manually through command line for now, but there’s several automatisation options including using Travis-CI for the more hardcore blogger.