Chad McElligott

Bootstrapping my Static Blog

7 min read

I have had many false-starts with blogging. Most of the time I start out tinkering with various front-end javascript frameworks, testing build tooling, and trying to come up with fancy ideas prior to bootstrapping the blogging pieces. As time went on I would tell myself I would eventually get around to building the blogging portions of the site, but when push came to shove it never became a priority. So my site would sit around with integrations setup to tools I use (i.e. Pinboard, Pocket, Last.fm), but without anything setup for me to write.

This time I am determined to take a different approach. While I do want to leave the door open to customizing all aspects of the site, I am starting from the beginning with blogging as the primary focus. I really want to break out of the discomfort of blogging, and I know the only way to make that happen is to... just do it. It'll get easier as I go, right?

In this post, I want to share my initial setup with you.

Choosing 11ty as My Blogging Platform 🔗

I had already decided that I wanted to self-host and use a workflow driven by flat files and static-site generation. I really like the git-based flat files because they are simple, portable, and mine. I'm also really comfortable working in Markdown and have tools (like IntelliJ editors and Marked.app) that have strong support for Markdown. I knew there were good free options for hosting static sites and that more have emerged in recent times, so building this way would be a low-overhead way to start blogging. The only decision left was to choose which SSG to use.

I narrowed my choices of blogging platform down to 3: Zola (written in Rust), Hugo (written in Go), and 11ty (written in Node). There are myriad others available as can be seen on jamstack.org, but these were the ones that were already top-of-mind to me. Zola because I have recently been learning Rust and it is a popular choice in that community; Hugo because I had run across a Hugo template I liked recently (hugo-coder); and 11ty because it is known to be a "simple but powerful" SSG compared to the likes of Gatsby and Next.js.

I chose 11ty in the end because, even though I liked the hugo-coder template, I felt like I would want to build up my own template from scratch. I also felt like having a SSG that was installable by npm install along with all the other dependencies I would want to use like Prettier, Husky, and lint-staged, would be a really smooth experience. I was also really happy that 11ty supported Nunjucks templating as a first-class citizen. Nunjucks is essentially a port of the Jinja2 templating language, which I'm very familiar with from working so much with Ansible.

So after getting some boilerplate setup for 11ty (this blog post from @mtmdev_ was really helpful), the next step was deciding where to deploy it.

Deploying My Site to Netlify 🔗

I have always been a fan of platforms like Heroku and Github Pages that take so much of the toil away from deploying applications. I have deployed web applications to both, and have been very happy with them. BUT! You'd have to be living under a rock to not see all the buzz about Netlify these days, so I wanted to give it a try to see for myself.

The short story about Netlify is that the buzz and attention they get are fully deserved. After publishing my application to a repository on Github, signing up with Netlify took seconds. Walking through their on-boarding process is quick and before I knew it my application was fully available at a random netlify url. I could hardly believe how easy it was.

Netlify also offers server-side analytics for $9/month, which I thought was a good deal. Yes, Google Analytics is free, but I wanted something that was more privacy conscious. My runner-up was Fathom, but it was more expensive, and I really liked that server-side analytics don't require client-side scripts to be effective.

So now that my application was up, a new concern arose: What domain did I want to use?

Grabbing a New Domain Name: chadxz.dev 🔗

My previous personal websites were all hosted under the domain name chadmcelligott.com. While straightforward, this domain name is difficult for most people to spell or remember, so I wanted to change it up and go for something shorter and simpler.

To purchase the new domain name, I used Namecheap. In my experience they're a good quality registrar. I have numerous domains I have purchased with them throughout the years and have never had any issues. When I went to choose the domain, I knew I wanted a .dev domain because I like that they are https only and stands for "developer" (hey, that's me!). I chose chadxz.dev because chadxz is my Github username, it was available and cheap, and it felt like a good fit.

After purchasing my domain, I moved the DNS over to Netlify DNS service. Using the Netlify DNS is free and is configurable if you want to set up additional records besides the ones necessary to host your site. As a bonus, once your custom domain is configured, Netlify automatically provisions a SSL certificate for free.

So now that my application is up, what other functionality did I feel my site needed to have a solid foundation?

Establishing My Newsletter with buttondown.email 🔗

One aspect I have always appreciated about some blogs is the ability to follow bloggers whose content I enjoy. I knew when setting up my blog that I wanted to make it super easy for people to follow my content if they wanted to. On this front, I decided on two pieces to tackle this:

  1. Ensure the blog has an RSS/Atom feed setup
  2. Make it painless to receive new content via email

The RSS/Atom feed was super easy - 11ty has a 1st-class plugin for generating Atom feeds, and the walk-through on their site shows how to build a basic template for one.

Adding the ability to subscribe to my blog content via email was more work and required vendor selection. I knew I wanted to find something free and easy, because I was only getting started and knew my needs would not be complex. As it turns out, earlier in the day I had subscribed to Cassidy Williams' newsletter "rendezvous with cassidoo", which uses buttondown.email. Taking a look at their site, they do everything I wanted and have a generous free tier (up to 1,000 subscribers for free), so I decided to roll with them. My newsletter is now available at https://buttondown.email/chadxz, and I'll be adding a small unobtrusive signup form to the bottom of my post template in the future.

Now while setting up my newsletter, I realized I wanted it to be sent by me and from my new domain. In order to make this work, I would need some way to receive email at my domain.

Receiving Email at My Custom Domain With ImprovMX 🔗

While doing some research into whether Netlify DNS supported sending and receiving email, I ran across an official recommendation on a Netlify support thread for using the service ImprovMX. ImprovMX has a dead-simple setup and allows setting up to 5 email addresses (including a wildcard) to forward emails sent to your custom domain to the email address of your choice. For free. If you want to send emails from your custom domain, you have to cough up some $$, but for now I'm going with their free tier.

The Foundation has been Laid 🔗

So with all of that done, we have:

The site itself isn't much to look at yet, but with all of this preliminary work done, design and extra features can be added. The most important thing is that all the barriers to publishing are gone!

I'm looking forward to designing the site and writing more on a variety of topics: other projects I have going on (like learning Rust), books and articles I am reading, thoughts about challenges I face at work, and more.