A fresh restart

Dra­matic changes on this web­site, and the soft­ware pow­er­ing it, to cel­e­brate ten years since it came into exis­tence.

It has been ten long years since I first founded my own space on the web. I was driven to it thanks to my writ­ing and my hob­bies, and they are what have kept me here. Although I have been prepar­ing to cel­e­brate this to some small extent over the past couple of months, this year marks exactly a decade since my web log­ging began and my own web­site was founded. And, boy, has it been a jour­ney.

The inter­est­ing thing about this has been as much what has hap­pened on the web around my web­site as what my site itself went through. For exam­ple, I started on Vox​.com, which was the address of an excel­lent blog­ging plat­form before it became (as it now is) a news web­site. Although I moved out of Vox within a year and well before it shut down, I have always had a soft corner for the dead com­pany. In any case, my next stop was Word­press where I remained for nearly a decade; until last week, in fact.

Word­press is a great plat­form; it is simple but has an eter­nal iden­tity crisis because it mar­kets itself as a blog­ging plat­form’ but is really so much more that one won­ders why Matt and co. do not simply call it a web­site con­struc­tor. What I liked about Word­press was that the source code was open and you could dig into it and bake your web­site to your pref­er­ences and to your sat­is­fac­tion. I have also always liked the Word­press tagline: code is poetry. Per­haps math­e­mat­ics is far more poetic, but I digress.

Look­ing for­ward

The jour­ney so far has not been with­out bumps. This web­site has been hacked, it has moved servers, and, most notably, it has sur­vived a mas­sive culling as part of my reju­ve­na­tion drive: over three-hun­dred of my past arti­cles were pulled from this web­site to trim it and shape it and make it more crisp and useful for future read­ers.

How­ever, I was increas­ingly feel­ing that the ten-year mile­stone deserved a true restart. Know­ing every­thing I know now, having learnt every­thing I learnt over the past ten years run­ning a web­site, what would I do dif­fer­ently if I started all over again? Now it is cer­tainly fool­ish to start over blindly and for no reason besides the fact that it has been ten years, which means my propo­si­tion has some back­ing:

  1. Word­press is slow and bloated. No matter how pow­er­ful it is as a plat­form, Word­press is slow and bloated and if there is one thing I cannot stand, it is a slow web­site. I have patience and I will wait an entire minute for a web­site to load, but most people will not and it would cer­tainly be a folly to build one’s own web­site on the assump­tion that people have the incli­na­tion to wait before a blank screen while a web­site takes its own sweet time to load.
  2. The Word­press back­end is stuck in the noughts. Around the 90s and the 2000s, the Word­press back­end was prob­a­bly the most dash­ing web­site man­age­ment setup in exis­tence. No longer is this true. Not only is Word­press built on ageing code, but their updates come too far apart. The plat­form is undoubt­edly robust, and it works, but it comes at the cost of feel­ing (and arguably being) dated, which is not some­thing I par­tic­u­larly like.
  3. Word­press is too much for a simple web­site. While it had its roots as a web log­ging plat­form, Word­press has out­grown that. And that is a good thing, except the sim­plest of things need mul­ti­ple steps some­times. For most of us with a simple, per­sonal web­site a page-based system with some under­ly­ing logic will suf­fice: this approach can be made scal­able too. For people who know noth­ing about code, Word­press is still the best option and I would still rec­om­mend it to anyone start­ing out. For those com­fort­able with code, look else­where. That is not to say Word­press is a dud; far from being that, it powers and will con­tinue to power Physics Cap­sule and the other web­sites I run and design, because they are much more com­plex and fit right into the type of con­tent cre­at­ing and serv­ing’ web­sites that Word­press is ideal for.

Kirby is all that Word­press lite’ would have been and more. That does not mean Kirby cannot scale; I have not tried it myself, but from my brief expe­ri­ence I can state with­out doubt that scal­ing with Kirby is a real­is­tic idea. But the best part about it, unlike cer­tain others (read, Ghost), is that Kirby does not want to replace Word­press or do any­thing along those lines. Kirby is its own thing.

Kirby CMS

Those of you who are aware of the cur­rent state of the Web, you will be well aware of file-based static serv­ing of web­sites. Word­press is truly dynamic (which is what makes it so pow­er­ful) and uses, at its heart, a data­base from which it pulls required data. But that power comes at the cost of page speed. There are, of course, ways of making a data­base-driven web­site fast (I man­aged to clock 0.9s with my old web­site) but noth­ing com­pares to static files served by the likes of Kirby, Jekyll etc.

Update: Many read­ers got back to me asking about all my older arti­cles. I had been work­ing on an archival (see below) and it is now acces­si­ble at old​.vhbel​vadi​.com and you can read every­thing that was on the old web­site as of Jan­u­ary 2017. Fur­ther, any link to one of my older arti­cles will auto­mat­i­cally be redi­rected to these archives.

Think of a hand­ful of coloured mar­bles on a table and a mixed bag of mar­bles next to it. If you were asked to pick a blue marble, you could the­o­ret­i­cally per­form a really quick search in the bag and pull out a blue marble, but, for the simple reason that an extra step or two are involved, it will still always be slower than simply pick­ing up a blue marble from the desk.

Unlike Jekyll, how­ever, Kirby does not render a truly static site; instead it is a file-based con­tent man­age­ment system. How­ever, it comes with a caching facil­ity that works beau­ti­fully and, for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses, makes a web­site as fast as if you were using a static site gen­er­a­tor. My reser­va­tions with using Jekyll (no matter how tempted I was to com­bine it with Github) should not be of con­cern here, but suf­fice it to say that so far I have been incred­i­bly happy with Kirby and I only hope devel­op­ment of this goes on actively for years and years.

Besides caching, my core setup involv­ing the trio of mini­fy­ing, source code ver­sion­ing (to bust caches) and Cloud­front deliv­ery works like a charm with Kirby. CSS and JS han­dling is great too and I par­tic­u­larly like the file struc­ture because it makes a lot of sense (and one cannot always say that about file struc­tures). For now, I am load­ing CSS and JS in the header to pre­vent FOUT, but I will, over the coming weeks (or as time per­mits) think of a workaround that will let me move them to the footer: after all, this is always a better prac­tice.

I do not use the Com­mand Line Inter­face, pre­fer­ring manual work via FTP (which is more com­pli­cated, I am aware) but Kirby has sup­port for CLI too. In fact, Kirby has a small but pow­er­ful selec­tion of plu­g­ins that allow for a lot of expan­sion. One that I wanted was LaTeX sup­port but, while that does not exist, I think Math­Jax will work just fine and test­ing this out is cur­rently on my to-do list.

Update: I got math­e­mat­ics to work beau­ti­fully. Proof: $ e^{i\pi} + 1 = 0 $.

A lot of this is made pos­si­ble thanks to Kirby being a file-based system, which means I can simply upload my arti­cles as txt files (which, you will know if you have been read­ing this web­site for a while, is my pre­ferred uni­ver­sal format). The icing on the cake is that Kirby sup­ports Mark­down; it has its own flavour of Mark­down, but the stan­dard syn­taxes work just fine too and saving Mark­down as a txt file works as it should.

The com­par­i­son drawn to static sites and against data­bases does not mean Kirby is dumb’ (for lack of a better word). There is suf­fi­cient on-the-fly logic while ren­der­ing pages and none of it takes sub­stan­tially more time than a static site itself. Too good to be true? Per­haps, but it sure is true.

Under­stand­ably, all of this comes at a price: whereas Word­press is free, Kirby costs any­where from €15 – 79 based on whether you plan to use it com­mer­cially or not. This is rea­son­able and I do not mind paying rea­son­able sums to sup­port such good soft­ware, and one that I will likely use a lot in the coming days and, most impor­tantly, one that my online home is built on.

Life with Kirby

Kirby has an admin­is­tra­tion area called The Panel which works smoothly, and (prob­a­bly) uses AJAX instead of reload­ing the web page repeat­edly. Although I rarely use The Panel, choos­ing to handle files directly via FTP instead, the times I do use it, the whole envi­ron­ment feels like sev­eral steps up from Word­press, but there is, as always, lots of room to improve.

I do not like to keep draw­ing par­al­lels between the two, but it is inevitable since I moved from Word­press to Kirby after all. This is my first arti­cle and I am back on Byword to write it. I use Cyber­duck on Mac to upload to my server and I did the same when it came to design­ing my web­site itself and every­thing has been going incred­i­bly smoothly.

I have not yet set up an RSS feed for this web­site and that is on the cards, as is a past ver­sion of this web­site where all my older arti­cles will be avail­able. (This will not include the three-hun­dred-odd arti­cles I pulled down a few months ago but will only con­tain the ones that were still on my web­site as of Jan­u­ary 2017.)

Update: The RSS feed (for essays only) is now up and run­ning. Sub­scribe to it now or do so later through the menu button on the top-right.

I briefly tried includ­ing cover images for my arti­cles but found them to be dis­tract­ing from the text and they soon became, in my mind at least, a clas­sic exam­ple of form over func­tion. My design now, as a result, is simple but (again, in my opin­ion,) ele­gant. There is a sense of solid­ity and sta­bil­ity and slick­ness around Kirby and a char­ac­ter­is­tic peace of mind thanks to its set up and per­for­mance that I rarely had with Word­press. And now that I am here, all set up, I look for­ward to a lot of great things over the second decade of this web­site.

Adden­dum: I espe­cially want to thank my good friend, Manu S, for lend­ing his time to beta test the new web­site and check for cross-plat­form con­sis­tency, and for pro­vid­ing valu­able inputs during the design stage.

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