Welcome to the staticDimension

There has been a lot of talk around the web lately about building ‘baked blogs’ — Brent Simmons (and he is not alone) is tired of not being able to read sites that John Gruber links to on Daring Fireball, because the sites tend to go down under heavy traffic influx. This is typically due to one of two things: cheap, crappy, hosting; or not properly “baking” one’s blog. The former is easy to fix, but costs a bit more money. The latter is also easy to fix, but can be quite complicated, costing you time.

Unfortunately most blogs that go down are WordPress blogs that aren’t being cached and thus, are dynamically being generated. The problem is that ‘baking’ a WordPress blog can be quite complicated and more than the average user wants to deal with (I will go into this more in a later post). In light of all this recent discussion I have been exploring all sorts of different blogging platforms — from Movable Type to things like Jekyll. I came across one true gem in all of this configuring, SSHing, and general time wasting — that gem goes by the excellent name: staticDimension.

How great is that name?

This is a fully baked, static blogging platform. It is bare bones. It is free. And I think it just maybe perfect for new bloggers that are serious about the craft of writing on the web, and serious about not spending lots of money on hosting. Looking at the current blog software ecosystem I see two choices for bloggers that want to be able to provide ‘linked lists’ mixed with articles (like I do here, and Shawn Blanc does, and Gruber and Kottke probably started), the first choice is Tumblr, the second is staticDimension. Sure, you can do this with WordPress and other platforms, but only if you are comfortable digging around some code — there is still no easy way to set this up on WordPress. Both Tumblr and staticDimension come with this feature built-in.

We know enough about Tumblr already and it’s hosted, but free, platform, that has been seeing growing pains of late. This newcomer though, staticDimension, is also free and is dead simple to install on just about any web server. All you have to do is upload the files to the servers public directory and then change the username and passwords — you are now done. There are no plugins, no database configuration, no nothing. Upload, set preferences, done.

Simple.

What does it look like? Head on over to benb.me for a look at a blog running on staticDimension. (The site is running on the same server as TBR.) It is pretty simple and out of the box allows you to make three types of ‘posts’: pages, articles, linked posts. I think that is pretty much all that any new blogger is going to need to get going. All articles are written in Markdown and saved as plain text files on the server, making it easy to both backup and get your data back out of the platform if you decide to move to a more robust platform later on.

The entire system is easy and simple.

The Backend

It drives me nuts when you can’t see what the backend of a blog really looks like, so here is the control panel of staticDimension:

The whole thing is dead simple. My biggest complaint is that you can’t post from MarsEdit or TextMate (yet), but for a new blogger I doubt that matters as much as having an easy to setup system does. The backend is so fast and easy that it works fine on iOS — meaning you can write in your favorite program and copy and paste in the content with ease (not the case with WordPress). The options are far and few between, but the system has what you need — with one exception: auto-tweeting. It’s not the end of the world, but it does add a step that a service like Tumblr and WordPress don’t add.

Design

The stock template leaves a lot to be desired and truthfully this is the biggest downfall of the system at the moment. There really is no other templates that you can install. I took about 30 minutes and modified the four template files that are needed for the system to run (easy to do if you know HTML markup) and I also edited the CSS file to change the look and add in Typekit (again standard CSS if you know how to write that). After doing that I found that I like the way the site looks, love the site speed and am pretty darn happy with it.

This is a flexible system for CSS writers, but I couldn’t find a way to edit the headline behavior on the site. For instance if I wanted to make the post headline of an article link through to the post page, I couldn’t find where that code lies. That’s a bit annoying, but again this is not for people who want full customization (not yet at least, it’s version 1.1 right now). I do think this is a good system if you know how to tweak a bit of CSS and you just want to get up and running. The stock theme is pretty, well, not attractive out of the box.

Speed

This is fast, granted I only have a few posts on the site, but it rebuilds instantly. You don’t even need to rebuild unless you edit one of the template files (not including the CSS, that changes when you upload the new version). Browsing speed is lightening fast, even with Typekit installed.

Archives

The archives are pretty basic and you have to drill down from year, to month, to day before you see a post. Then you see the post names as they appear in file names — a bit lame, but again not unusable. There are a few tricks to get the CSS working right past the main archives page, but emailing the developer will help you solve that problem.

Archives are really not good by default in any blogging system. WordPress’ are unuseable (mine work because there is a lot of extra code being used) and Tumblr’s are silly unless you add a photo to every post you write. So while the archives are not great, this is something that is simply not great on any platform. I would love to see the archive system grab the title instead of the file name — that would remove at least one level of ugly.

Annoyances

I like the platform, but there are some things that need work:

  1. Your page name is what appears in the navigation, and in the page heading when you go to it. Leaving no real room for customization of wanting the nav to say one thing and the page title to say something else.
  2. As I mentioned before, no way to auto-tweet.
  3. No way to post from blogging clients like MarsEdit.
  4. Limited theme customization.
  5. No other themes available.
  6. Sidebar needs to be modified on each of the four template pages. To reflect the actual sidebar — there is no one sidebar template the system pulls from.
  7. No search, though adding in a Google site search box wouldn’t be hard.

Again, this is a version 1.1 system and I am sure lots of changes are being worked on.

Final Thoughts

If you are just getting started with blogging and you want to run the web server yourself — give this a go first. I honestly think that you could run this off of a cheap $10/mo hosting plan and withstand a DF link — assuming you are not image heavy, or just don’t serve the images yourself (I don’t, S3 works great for that). The setup is stupidly simple. The backend is just what you need, nothing more. The files are stored as plain text so you can move them wherever, whenever.

It’s just easy and it really is pretty nice. If you hate databases and SQL (who doesn’t) and you wanted to have linked list posting — this is a system you really need to check out. I say give it a try first because it really is that easy to set up and, frankly, if you are wanting to put your writing on the web you should be the one that owns the content.

[Updated: 4.12.11 at 1:17 PM]

One thing I didn’t mention is that the developer is incredibly nice and very responsive. I emailed with him a bit when I was playing with the platform and trying to work out some kinks. Since posting this review the platform was updated to version 1.2 and then to version 1.2.1 shortly after he read my thoughts. The biggest change is in the archives and how they display the post names — great work!

Originally posted for members on: April 12, 2011
Follow along on RSS, App.net, or Twitter.
~I would appreciate it if you considered becoming a member.~