Sawppy Documentation Suggestion: Static Site Generators

I’m glad I had the chance to learn about terminology and tools of industrial-strength documentation. They are great for their respective niches, but adopting any of them would require major changes and I’m not ready to take such a big leap just yet. Which brings us to static site generators. (SSG) This category of software tools see a lot of open source development, giving us many options to choose from.

Background: As input, SSGs take content in various formats. A set of rules and templates are applied to that content, generating as output a set of HTML and CSS (and maybe JavaScript) files that can be served by any web server. “Static” in this context means the web server does not have to run any code to modify the files, they are transmitted directly to users’ web browsers as-is. (As opposed to a dynamic systems like PHP.)

A large number of SSGs accept Markdown as a text content input format, so Sawppy’s existing Markdown documentation could be used with small modifications rather than complete rewrites. This also preserves the advantages of using Markdown, meeting the ease-of-use challenges A and B.

Every SSG offers customization of the rules and templates that it applies to content. At the minimum there are themes for cosmetic appearance, but plugins and extensions allow more extensive functionality. This is where I hope to create something that meets my challenge C including a lightweight BOM tool. Around this point Eric spoke up that the JPL Open Source Rover documentation system has a script that generates parts list from document content, but the generated dependency tree is not exposed to the viewer. I want to build upon that precedent and also make this kind of information available to rover builders.

To be pedantic, Sawppy documentation is already using a SSG because GitHub does not display raw Markdown files. A simple transformation to HTML has been applied for display. However, the reason I started this investigation is because the simple GitHub transformation is very limited. GitHub is aware of this, and as an upgrade, has built-in support for a SSG called Jekyll for generating GitHub Pages.

As another example, most of us had experience reading technical software documentation on some subdomain of ReadTheDocs. All of these content were generated by a SSG. MkDocs and Sphinx are two popular SSGs for ReadTheDocs, and a lot of the default functionality (automatic indexing, references, etc.) useful for technical software documentation would be useful for Sawppy as well.

But features like a lightweight BOM tool would be outside the scope of software documentation, so there were several recommendations for investigating Hugo. It is apparently the current darling for flexibly transforming content (including Markdown text) into varying different presentations. Associated with Hugo is Docsy, a Hugo theme focused on technical documentation.

Hugo and Docsy would be a bigger step up in complexity than something like Jekyll, but I’m optimistic that the benefit will justify the cost. I plan to use that as my starting point and expand my experimentation from there. But they’ll only be a part of the solution, because no matter the static generator I use I will still want a way to preview changes.

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