Using Github Pages to hand off a legacy site and make everyone happier

Here's how I turned over maintenance of a legacy site -- built as a one-off project years ago using now outdated technology -- to my non-techincal cofounder, with only a few hours of work. Best of all, it now uses evergreen technology that will make it easy for her to update for years to come, and everyone is happy with the outcome.

The problem

I created Call and Response when my friend Kira and I decided to co-curate an art show of that name in 2010. It became an annual event, and each year I updated the website with the new participants and details. This year, Kira is continuing the show with support from others because I'm out of capacity to help.

Kira needs to be be able to update the website. It lists what the concept behind the show is; who's participating; where the show is; when it opens; and more. I created the original website using Django as a learning exercise when I was fairly new to web development. I went all out by my standards of the time, creating a simple micro-CMS that helped me learn about the MVC pattern, etc.

However, the project had no use outside of this particular website. It could not be generalized without a significant overhaul, and I had no need to generalize it. In fact, I had no interest in maintaining it or even working with it. I built it with Django 1.3, and hosted it with a service that I don't use anymore.

Usually, in such a case, it's tough luck for the the web developer. Kira is not a web developer and has no interest in becoming one; she just wants to be able to update her website. The responsible thing is to step up to to the task, and keep the site going.

This time I had an idea for how to reach the end goal of the site being updated in a timely way yet still ditching the legacy code. I thought I saw a path forward to handing it off to her in a way that would let her easily edit text, links, and images, and create new pages.

The solution

Here's how I converted the site from a Django project that only someone who knew Python could update into a flat site that anyone could edit by knowing only the most basic HTML:

\1. Scrape.

This seemed like something I could do fairly easily with my current web programming tool of choice -- Node.js. I just had too download and write to disk every page I could find by following links that had the same host. But often with things that seem straightforward, the devil's often in the details, and anyway, I figured someone else must have wanted to do this, so there had to be a tool for it, which would turn this from fairly easily into dead simple.

The tool I found is called HTTrack.

$ brew install httrack

I ran it against Call and Response, selecting all the default options.

$ httrack "www.callandresponsedc.org" -v

Lo and behold, it did exactly what I wanted. Now I had a full static version of the site.

\2. Host.

I needed to host this static site somewhere free, reliable, and easy to use. I created a Github organization, initialized a git repo, created a branch named gh-pages, and pushed it to Github. Now the site was up at callandresponsedc.github.io/callandresponsedc, (albeit in a broken form due to the static assets' root-relative paths resulting in 404s).

Then I added a CNAME for callandresponsedc.org, and I switched the DNS from my old hosting provider to the name service, and added the right DNS entries

Once the DNS changes took effect, the new static site was up where it needed to be: http://callandresponsedc.org. And it looked exactly as it had before: to any visitor who saw it before the change and again after, no difference would have been apparent.

\3. Enable.

While I'd waited for the DNS to change, I'd asked Kira to create a github account, added her to the organization, and spent 15 minutes writing up a brief guide to how to edit the HTML pages using Github.

Thanks to github's editing tools, she now had the ability to make changes that would take effect instantly.

Technically, at this point, I was no longer needed. I could have handed it over now. Kira was enabled to do everything she needed to do. But I would have had to add a caveat: "By the way, when you want to change anything in the menu, or header, or footer, or to add a new logo or change colors, you have to do it on every single page."

Because Httrack, good as it is, is not good enough to produce DRY results. Each page of the static site repeated all the same HTML structure for its header and footer and body, and contained its own set of inline styles. Changing any part of that would have meant changing every page. There weren't a lot pages, but nonetheless, I didn't want to force that burden on K.

I could do better.

\4. Refactor.

Large parts of the pages were identical, so I could factor them out into includes, and make a couple of simple layout templates composed of these. Same idea with the stylesheet.

To make this work, I had to use something slightly more complicated than flat HTML files. I decided to convert the site to use (Github-flavored) Jekyll. I won't repeat the instructions needed to get that up and running; just follow the link, and do what it says. It takes on the order of a few minutes.

To refactor, I just needed to figure out exactly what was common to all pages, hack it out into includes, and reassemble the includes as templates. Then I'd specify which template to use via YAML front-matter on each page, and voila, my Jekyll site would be done. Because I use Emacs, I used ediff, but you could do this with any diffing tool and text editor.

A nice side effect of this was that the pages that Kira would be editing got much simple. They went from something like:

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<!DOCTYPE HTML>
<html lang="en">
<meta http-equiv="content-type" content="text/html;charset=utf-8" />
<head>
<title>About - Call + Response
</title>
<script src="http://platform.twitter.com/anywhere.js?id=IrVoVLmkJDVw9Pagwdxsow&amp;v=1"
type="text/javascript">
</script>

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0">
<meta name="description" content="Call + Response is an art show in Washington, DC, pairing writers and artists.">
<meta name="author" content="William John Bert">

<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="/static/fonts/fonts.css">
<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="/static/css/bootstrap.css"/>
<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="/static/css/bootstrap-responsive.css"/>
<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="/static/css/style.css"/>

</head>

<div id="fb-root"></div>
<script>(function(d, s, id) {
var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0];
if (d.getElementById(id)) return;
js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id;
js.src = "http://connect.facebook.net/en_US/all.js#xfbml=1&appId=398123750217250";
fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs);
}(document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk'));</script>



<body>
<div class="navbar navbar-fixed-top">
<div class="navbar-inner">
<div class="container-fluid">
<a class="brand" href="/">Call + Response
</a>
</div>
</div>
</div>

<div class="container-fluid">
<div class="row-fluid">
<div class="span3">
<div class="well sidebar-nav">
<ul class="nav nav-list">
<li class="">
<a href="/about">About
</a>
</li>
<li class="">
<a href="/opening">Opening
</a>
</li>
<li class="">
<a href="/participants">Participants
</a>
</li>
<li class="">
<a href="/sponsors">Sponsors
</a>
</li>
<li class="">
<a href="/contact">Contact
</a>
</li>
<li class="">
<a href="/press">Press
</a>
</li>
</ul>
</div>
</div>

<div class="span9">
<div class="chiclet pull-right visible-desktop">
<a href="https://twitter.com/share" class="twitter-share-button" data-count="none"
data-hashtags="callandresponsedc">Tweet

</a>
<script>!function (d, s, id) {
var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0];
if (!d.getElementById(id)) {
js = d.createElement(s);
js.id = id;
js.src = "http://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js";
fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs);
}
}(document, "script", "twitter-wjs");
</script>

</div>
<div class="chiclet pull-right visible-desktop">
<div class="fb-like" data-send="true" data-width="100"
data-show-faces="false" data-colorscheme=light>

</div>
</div>

<div class="swappable-content">
<h1>About
</h1>
<p>
Call + Response is an (almost) annual art show in the nation's capital that brings together writers and visual artists. The writers provide the call with an original piece of writing and then visual artists generate a new piece of work in response. The end result being two pieces that resonate with each other.
[etc...]

to:

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---
layout: page
title: About
---

<h1>About
</h1>
<p>
Call + Response is an (almost) annual art show in the nation's capital that brings together writers and visual artists. The writers provide the call with an original piece of writing and then visual artists generate a new piece of work in response. The end result being two pieces that resonate with each other.
</p>

It took an hour or so to DRY out everything, and then...I was done. A site that had been a mess -- one-off code written years ago for an outdated version of a framework that I don't use anymore -- had become so simple that I could hand it off to my non-technical cofounder and both of us would be happier for it!

And sure enough, since then, Kira has made numerous updates to the site, each of which would have taken at least one, maybe a couple, rounds of emails back and forth, plus a context switch for me to make the changes, and a deploy, another round of emails to confirm that everything now looked good. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

I did this with a Django site, but it'd be just as applicable with a lot of Wordpress sites, or any CMS, really. Obviously, there are many cases where this solution wouldn't work for a variety of reasons. But if you can make it work, it's a joy to do so!