Over-engineering a Blog

I've always wanted to have a personal blog (and maintain it!) but I was just never able to get around to it. Its 2020 and I didn't want to push this any further.

I'd experimented with Jekyll before. It's a dead-simple way to host your own blog, but having worked with React over the past couple of years I just didn't feel content with just a markdown blog.

I'd also peeked at Medium, but their move to a paywall just didn't fit with me. DEV also looked like a really good option, but I increasingly wanted to host something that was really made by me.

React with Client-Side rendering

The easiest solution would have been to run yarn create react-app my-app and then going berserk (I'm a yarn user btw /s). If I decided to not go the CRA route and instead use only the packages that I actually need by building everything from scratch, I did have the following benefits:

  • I wouldn't have over 1500 dependencies, some of which I probably don't need for a blog
  • Let's talk about the first point again

However, using a stock React app also has a one pretty decently sized issue that one notices little by little over time: the dreaded blankness of our HTML while our JavaScript is still being loaded.

The Problem of Client-Side Rendering

Whenever you've hit refresh on a vanilla React app, you've probably noticed this: a blank page gets loaded, and there is a (considerable at times) delay when the things start "popping up" on the screen. You check if your WiFi connection is fast enough, but that's not the problem 🙁

A quick refresher on how React works: Our page's HTML loads first, and the HTML defines the JS files that need to be loaded for React to take over things. In the time that the page HTML has been loaded and the JS is yet to be finish loading, the client only sees what has already been loaded at this point, the HTML (and if we've taken care of it, the CSS too!). This problem is especially highlighted when the client has a poor/slow internet connection (you can also experience this in the browser by going over to the Network tab in your browser's console and selecting an option there, like slow 3G).

The Renaissance of Static

To be precise, static websites never really went away. But their introduction into the React ecosystem was pretty much exactly what developers were looking for. So, what exactly are "static" websites and why does just about everyone seem to be in love with them?

Static websites allow your web application to be server-side rendered (SSR). What this means is that instead of your application consisting of just barebones HTML which needs all of its accompanying JS to be loaded so that the app can be rendered properly, your app gets pre-rendered: using all the data that is available statically, the app (or rather, the DOM) is rendered and we can get access to the (static) app as HTML and CSS.

Now that our webpage (or at least some parts of it) is available as HTML, our website can be loaded much faster, since there is no waiting time period for the JS to load first!

IDE Tooling

One thing that I've learnt over the last couple of years is that it is almost always better to put in some of that extra effort right in the beginning even if it might seem like overkill since it pays off over the future. This was primarily my takeaway from when rewriting my work codebase using TypeScript; in the early stages it was an absolute pain to learn a not-so-pleasing-to-the-eyes-at-first syntax.

One of my goals with the rewrite of my website was that I wanted to be able to play around with it. This meant being able to use third-party packages; and TypeScript allows your IDE to use types from respective packages with VSCode's IntelliSense.

In the process of making a more complete specification of the tooling that I wanted to include in my project, I ended up with a spin-off: sreetamdas/stack, a modern-day-tech stack boilerplate for React + TypeScript + Styled Components projects.

CSS-in-JS

I've tried out CSS Modules, but CSS-in-JS just seemed more comfortable.

Framework

This was a decision between Gatsby and Next.js, and being able to support non-static sites with Next.js was a big reason for going with it. Gatsby does bring with it its huge ecosystem of plugins, as well as top-class support for GraphQL (something that I've been looking forward to working with) but Next.js is an absolute delight to play around with, so I went ahead with my choice.

And that's about it! That's the primary stack for this personal website. It's open-sourced, so feel free to check it out and contribute if you'd like 😁