August 28, 2023

Keep your stack short

Not long ago I wrote about using Gatsby.js on a Craft CMS project. If you want to learn more about that particular pairing you may want to read that post. But, for the sake of this one, I'll briefly summarize the tech stack:

Craft CMS handles the backend (content). Gatsby.js, GraphQL, and React handles frontend. The on-paper benefits sound like a great approach for building a website:

  • Craft CMS: The best CMS out there (in my opinion)
  • React: One templating language for static-generated content and client-side interactivity
  • GraphQL: A centralized dataset accessible from a single API
  • Performance: Serving a compiled, static version of the site is extremely fast

If this were a web framework's website you'd see a column of ✅s next to another framework's pitiful column of ❌s.

But, there's always a catch

There's no such thing as a free lunch and that goes double for programming.

If you've ever set up a system like this it's tempting to think that—once it's established—the hardest part is over. But, it's not.

The hardest part isn't setting it up. It's coming back to it a year later.

A year later you're more likely to be mired in:

  • Time-consuming training and documentation for team members
  • Out-of-date dependencies
  • Updates that cause breaking changes across your stack
  • Workflows that make trivial updates time-consuming

You wind up with a great deal of complexity that prevents you from adding the features your client needs ASAP. While your stack is conceptually well-separated and tidy, the separation itself becomes your greatest liability to be productive.

Low abstraction trends

Maybe you've heard, but there's a post or two about Tailwind and its controversial approach.

I'm not going to proselytize a framework or tool. But there's an obvious influx in tools like Tailwind that aim to reduce overhead and abstractions.

Tailwind does this by encouraging you to style your components directly in your templates:

<!-- High Abstraction -->
<div class="card"></div>

<!-- Low Abstraction (Tailwind) -->
<div class="bg-white rounded-lg p-4"></div>

React (by way of JSX) allows you to put your structure and interactions into a single file. (And, if you inline your styles, you can collocate everything).

<button onClick={() => alert('I think you are great!')}>
  What do you think about me?

Developers find value in these types of low-overhead tools because:

  1. They can collocate a component's structure, functionality, and styling into a single file
  2. Detecting "leakage" can be easier because changes to structure, functionality, and styling can occur in this single file

Shortening the stack

Revisiting our Gatsby.js example, there's a similarly large distance between the content being stored and the views being presented. It's separated by tools, by protocol, and even by language. All of these bridges require connectors—any of which can fail for any number of reasons and require intervention.

But, if we were to reduce the stack from Craft CMS, Gatsby.js, GraphQL, and React to just Craft CMS and Twig (Craft's templating language) it eliminates a massive set of complexity and overhead.

Not only does it reduce a large number of dependencies, but it eliminates all of the connecting protocols and an entirely different language to keep the stack working. It means fewer bridges to cross, fewer competing dependencies, and a dramatically simpler stack to revisit a year later.

Wrapping up

I do want to be clear in stating that this isn't an indictment against Gatsby.js, Craft, or a pairing between the two. Rather, I hope it causes you to consider all technical challenges not as something that needs to be solved once, but sustained indefinitely.

When you're building something it's not quite appropriate to ask "will this be hard to set up?". You're smart and I believe you can set it up!

Instead, ask yourself: "Will this be harder a year later?"