A Field Guide To

Static Apps

Assembling Your Static App Stack

Once you've decided to build a static web application, there are still several important choices to be made in terms of your application's technology stack. While a simple static web application can be written entirely inside a single HTML file (with embedded CSS and JavaScript), complex applications benefit greatly from the wide variety of tools and services available for static web development. Static web applications generally utilize some combination of the following categories of tools:

Preprocessor Languages

Preprocessor languages are programming languages that are compiled into HTML, JavaScript, or CSS. They may offer a terser syntax, additional features, or other benefits over the base language. While some of these languages are written in JavaScript and can be parsed and run entirely in the browser, these languages are generally compiled into their target language before being deployed to a web host.

Examples: CoffeeScript, LESS, HAML, Dart

Build Tools / Site Generators

Static web applications are stored on the server and sent to the browser as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript files, but they don't necessarily begin that way. Build tools help developers perform important tasks such as combining multiple files into one, compiling preprocessor languages, or even packaging code into a mobile application.

Different tools will be created with different purposes. Some are built for a specific purpose while others can be used for just about any application you might build. When choosing a build tool, it makes sense to find something that fits your workflow, is actively maintained, and has an active user community.

Examples: Jekyll, Grunt, Yeoman, Harp, Roots, Brunch.io

Package Managers

Package managers allow developers to easily install open source or shared library code that is meant to work across multiple applications. Using a package manager, you can declare dependencies for your project that the package manager will automatically download and install into a usable location. This makes it easier both to add new libraries and update existing libraries in your projects.

Examples: Bower, Component

JavaScript Frameworks

Your JavaScript framework provides you with tools and methodologies to organize your application's logic and data structure as well as (often) ways to render templates and/or manipulate HTML on the page. Your choice of framework is one of the most defining aspects of your application as it has a huge impact on everything from project file structure to how your markup is written.

Different frameworks utilize different methodologies such as Model View Controller (MVC) or Model View ViewModel (MVVM). Each has its own strengths, weaknesses, and communities, and it is well worth your time to investigate options thoroughly before settling on one.

Examples: Angular, Ember, Backbone

UI Frameworks

A UI framework can help you quickly implement common interface patterns by providing sensible default styles and behaviors for your application. Useful both for rapid application prototyping and as a basis for production code, these frameworks give you elements such as buttons, grid layouts, well-styled forms, and more.

Examples: Bootstrap, Foundation

Static Web Hosts

Of course, you'll need a place to host your project once you're ready to bring it online. There are many options for static web hosting including traditional shared hosts, online storage with hosting, and new dedicated static web hosting services. When choosing a host, there are a few things (other than cost) to look for:

Examples: Divshot, Amazon S3, GitHub Pages

Back-End Services

Back-end service providers offer a way to implement a part of your application's business needs without having to host or build custom code for it. These services may provide database storage, user authentication, email delivery, or a variety of other services. Some back-end services try to offer a comprehensive package while others focus on a narrower slice of your application needs.

Examples: Firebase, UserApp, Hull

Third-Party APIs

If you're building a static web app and would like to integrate with data from a third-party API, you're in luck! Many API providers now offer either dedicated JavaScript libraries for direct browser integration or support static web apps through Cross-Origin Resource Sharing. Connecting to APIs in-browser saves you the duplicated infrastructure cost of proxying requests through your own servers.

Examples: AWS SDK for Browser, GitHub API, Keen IO

Custom Server APIs

As you build out your application, you may find there are pieces that can't be handled by an off-the-shelf third-party provider. That's ok, and totally in keeping with a static application mindset! When you run into these cases, it's best to build the functionality you need as a compact, independent, purpose-driven service that can be easily consumed by the browser and any other platforms you support.

Choosing a technology stack that works well for you will be vital to the productivity and maintainability of your project. What works well for one application may not work well for another, but one of the benefits of building static is that you have more flexibility to compose an ideal, modular stack that suits your needs.