Static site generators (SSG) have proven to be very useful tools for easily generating static websites from neatly organised content files. Most of them support using markup languages like markdown for writing content, and offer incremental compilation so that updating a website stays fast, regardless of its size. However, most SSGs are very opinionated about how you should manage your content. As soon as your specific needs deviate slightly from what your SSG supports, it becomes a lot more tedious.
This leads to many people writing their own personal static site generators from scratch. This results in a completely personalised workflow, but without good libraries it is a time-consuming endeavor, and incremental compilation is often out of the equation as it is hard to get right.
This is where achille and Hakyll come in: they provide a domain specific language embedded in Haskell to easily yet very precisely describe how to build your site. Compile this description and you get a full-fledged static site generator with incremental compilation, tailored specifically to your needs.
Why Hakyll is not enough
To provide incremental compilation, Hakyll relies on a global store, in which all your intermediate values are stored. It is your responsibility to populate it with snapshots. There are some severe limitations to this approach:
The store is fundamentally untyped, so retrieving snapshots may fail at runtime if you’re not careful when writing your build rules. You may argue that’s not very critical — I think it shouldn’t be possible in the first place. We are using a strongly typed language, so we shouldn’t have to rely on flaky coercions at runtime to manipulate intermediate values.
Loading snapshots with glob patterns is awkward. With Hakyll, the way to retrieve intermediate values is by querying the store, using glob patterns. This indirect way of managing values is very clumsy. In Haskell, the very purpose of variables is to store intermediate values, so we should only have to deal with plain old variables.
Dependencies are not explicit. Because it relies on a global store for handling intermediate values, Hakyll has to make sure that the snaphots you want to load have been generated already. And because rules have no imposed order despite implicit inter-dependencies, Hakyll has to evaluate very carefully each rule, eventually pausing them to compute missing dependencies. This is very complex and quite frankly impressive, yet I believe we can strive for a simpler model of evaluation. If we used plain old variables to hold intermediate values, we simply would not be allowed to refer to an undefined variable.
There are other somewhat debatable design decisions:
- In Hakyll, every rule will produce an output file, and only one, if you’re restricting yourself to the API they provide. I argue such a library should not care whether a rule produces any output on the filesystem. Its role is merely to know if the rule must be executed. Because of this requirement, producing multiple outputs from the same file is a tad cumbersome.
- Because Hakyll stores many content files directly in the store, the resulting cache is huge. This is unnecessary, the files are right here in the content directory.
- Hakyll uses a lot of abstractions —
RuleSet— whose purpose is not obvious to a newcomer.
- It defines monads to allow the convenient
donotation to be used, but disregards completely the very benefit of using monads — it composes!
As always when thinking I am onto something, I jumped straight into code and forgot to check whether there were alternatives. By fixating on Hakyll, I did not realize many people have had the same comments about the shortcomings of Hakyll and improved upon it. Therefore, it’s only after building most of achille in a week that I realized there were many other similar tools available, namely: rib, slick, Pencil & Lykah.
Fortunately, I still believe achille is a significant improvement over these libraries.
- As far as I can tell, pencil does not provide incremental generation. It also relies on a global store, no longer untyped but very restrictive about what you can store. It implements its own templating language.
- Likewise, no incremental generation in Lykah. Reimplements its own HTML DSL rather than use lucid. Very opinionated, undocumented and unmaintained.
- rib and slick are the most feature-complete of the lot. They both provide a minimalist web-focused interface over the very powerful build system Shake. Shake is in itself a very complicated beast. The forward module that both libraries utilize is marked as “experimental” and depends on yet another tool to track file accesses: fsatrace. I’m not actually opposed to using Shake for dependency tracking at some point in achille, but ultimately I didn’t find rib and slick to offer much more on top of it.
How achille works
In achille there is a single abstraction for reasoning about build rules:
Recipe m a b. A recipe of type
Recipe m a b will produce a value of type
m b given some input of type
a. Conveniently, if
m is a monad then
Recipe m a is a monad too, so you can retrieve the output of a recipe to reuse it in another recipe.
(Because of caching, a recipe is almost but not quite a Kleisli arrow)
-- the (>>=) operator, restricted to recipes (>>=) :: Monad m => Recipe m a b -> (b -> Recipe m a c) -> Recipe m a c
With only this, achille tackles every single one of the limitations highlighted above.
Intermediate values are plain old Haskell variables.
renderPost :: Recipe IO FilePath Post buildPostIndex :: [Post] -> Recipe a () renderPosts :: Task IO () = do renderPosts <- match "posts/*" renderPost posts buildPostIndex posts
See how a correct ordering of build rules is enforced by design: you can only use an intermediate value once the recipe it is originating from has been executed.
Note: a task is a recipe that takes no input.
type Task m = Recipe m ()
achille does not care what happens during the execution of a recipe. It only cares about the input and return type of the recipe — that is, the type of intermediate values. In particullar, achille does not expect every recipe to produce a file, and lets you decide when to actually write on the filesystem.
For example, it is very easy to produce multiple versions of a same source file:
renderPage :: Recipe IO FilePath FilePath = do renderPage -- Copy the input file as is to the output directory copyFile -- Render the input file with pandoc, -- then save it to the output dir with extension ".html" >>= saveTo (-<.> "html") compilePandoc
Once you have defined the recipe for building your site, you forward this description to achille in order to get a command-line interface for your generator, just as you would using Hakyll:
buildSite :: Task IO () main :: IO () = achille buildSitemain
Assuming we compiled the file above into an executable called
site, running it gives the following output:
site $ A static site generator for fun and profit Usage: site COMMAND Available options: -h,--help Show this help text Available commands: build Build the site once deploy Server go brrr clean Delete all artefacts
That’s it, you now have your very own static site generator!