Build Web Applications In Static HTML

September 15, 2009

If you enjoy writing small web applications in web microframeworks like Sinatra or, consider this: no matter how quick and easy it is to write and deploy, your app will never be as quick and easy as no app at all.

Every feature you implement means more code to maintain, and frequently you use the same feature for many web sites, resulting in a lot of duplicated code. You can package a feature as a plugin or gem for easy propagation to all of your sites, but upgrades may still require adjustments to database structure or application code, and you still have to re-install the plugins or update your gems manually which can be very time consuming if you have 20 or 40 sites sharing the code.

What if you could forget about writing web applications entirely and just deploy some static HTML files, like in 1995 before you learned Perl?

This web site you are reading now is deployed as a collection of static HTML files (thanks to Jekyll), but you can read and write comments because I’m using a service called Disqus to provide them via JavaScript. I’ve added an application-like feature to a site without writing a single line of server-side code. I can deploy by uploading some files and telling Apache where they are. How far can we take this? Well…

Beyond Comments

Programmers have been using services like Pastie and Gist to add syntax highlighting to their sites which, like this one, could be implemented with static HTML. There are also services which offer entire customer feedback and discussion systems like Uservoice.

In addition to pulling data into a site, we can push data out for processing and possibly for re-display at a later time. You’ve likely heard of Google Analytics, which collects and analyzes web page usage data in this fashion.

These are third-party solutions so the providers own your data. What I’d like to see, and what I suspect we will start to see soon, is open source versions of this type of service which would give us back our data, as well as control of the interface. Rifgraf is one such open source web service which will collect and graph whatever numeric data you send it (like a simple, generalized Analytics).

If you’re familiar with Rails you should probably consider ActiveResource as a foundation when designing your own web service. It may not be your ultimate answer, but it may get you up and running quickly, and it integrates very easily with your Rails apps and standard XML-eating JavaScript libraries. I’m also somewhat optimistic about Apache’s CouchDB as an engine for these services. Its native interface is HTTP, its query language is JavaScript, and it can serve HTML. It’s currently at version 0.9.1 and probably not stable enough for serious production use, but I believe it will be soon.

Interface-Oriented Design is a book published by Pragmatic Programmers which discusses many of the problems involved in designing such services. I recommend it to anyone conteplating getting involved. It’s an oldie but a goodie (still relevant, and will remain so for a while since it’s about design principles rather than specific technologies).

The Big Caveat

Sorry to say, there is a major problem with all of this, which is the limiting factor in how far we can practically take this idea of static HTML web applications: Google. As of now, Google does not index content added to a page by JavaScript. With Disqus comments this isn’t ideal, but it isn’t terrible either; at least your posted content is searchable. It’s not too bad in the case of images or code snippets either, but it means that you don’t really want any vital content to be provided by a JavaScript service.

However, I believe—and this is very unofficial—that Google will eventually index this type of content. I have seen evidence of their spiders on my own sites poking at AJAX-only URLs. Repeat: I have no evidence that this means anything, I am simply guessing. If I were Google, I’d be working on it.

If you’re still with me on this, let me be more specific. I believe that Google will index content added automatically after a page is loaded. This includes all of the technologies I’ve discussed so far which simply fetch content as they are rendered by the browser. I am not as hopeful about content that is added to the page after a button or link is clicked (such as with AJAX pagination).


I encourage you to consider the idea that functionality, and even data, can live outside of your web appli…I mean HTML files. We’re accustomed to avoiding code duplication within a project, but what about code duplication within our portfolio? By considering all of our sites as a unit I hope we can lessen the pains of maintenance and prevent long-running sites from turning into un-upgradeable relics that we “never want to look at again.”

If planned carefully, I think we can use this kind of distributed application design as a way to simplify our sites, even if we don’t go all the way back to static HTML.

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