Rebuilding My Blog Again, with Pelican

I've moved this blog from a Drupal CMS running on an AWS EC2 instance to a statically generated set of pages hosted on GitHub Pages. If you're curious about the reasons and the process, read on.

For several years, my blog has been running on Drupal 6. Drupal seemed like a good idea when I started, as it was a mature easy-to-use content management system, but I've been wanting to get away from it for a while. I spend more time maintaining Drupal then I do writing articles for the blog. When I started I had to do a lot of work to get Drupal configured and running well. There are always new versions and security updates to apply, and I really should have upgraded to Drupal 7 and then Drupal 8 somewhere along the way, but I haven't and now I can't update to newer versions of Ubuntu. The care and feeding of Drupal is too much work for the benefits it provides for my simple blog.

I decided to move to a static site generator, as I don't need dynamic features and I want to avoid the pain of setting up any more CMSes or blogging engines on any server.

My basic requirements for the new generator were these:

  • Provide a similar front page layout, with a list of ten "teasers" from most recent entries, a list of archives, an "About" page, and a few links to other stuff.
  • Support existing URLs for existing pages (so old links will work).
  • Support tags.
  • Be able to run the generator on my laptop and easily upload the generated static pages to my Apache web server, or S3, or GitHub Pages.
  • Let me write posts in Markdown format.

The Drupal 6 Database

My first step was to export the existing articles and metadata from the Drupal database on my blog server, and recreate it on my development machine. Looking at my Drupal configuration, I was able to find the database name and login information (which I forgot years ago). I used mysqldump to export the data.

mysqldump --user=$dbuser --password=$dbpass --tz-utc --databases "drupal6_undefinedvalue" > "drupal6_undefinedvalue.sql"

Then, after copying the file to my dev machine, I loaded it with the MySQL command source drupal6_undefinedvalue.sql.

Rather than reading Drupal source code or documentation, I just used a lot of MySQL "show tables", "describe", and SELECT commands to figure out the database schema. These are the tables and columns that I found useful:

  • node: metadata about all the Drupal "nodes", or pages
    • nid: node ID (primary key)
    • type: book, page, or story. My blog posts are all of type story.
    • title: the original title of the post
    • status: 0 for an unpublished post, or 1 for a published post.
    • created and changed: timestamps
  • node_revisions: the content of each node
    • nid: node ID
    • title: current title
    • body: main content
    • timestamp
    • format: foreign key into the filter_formats table
  • filter_formats: list of filter formats for posts
    • format: key
    • name: "Filtered HTML", "Full HTML", "Filtered Markdown", or "Full Markdown"
  • term_node: association of posts with tags
  • term_data: tags
  • url_alias: provides mappings from URLs like "node/288" to "2017/04/22/my-first-chess-program"

The body of a node_revisions record contains a special token <!--break--> between the "teaser" portion and the rest.

I wrote a Python script that could extract the relevant fields from these tables and print out the attributes I expected to see. If you want to see it, check out my drupal6tostatic repository.

Static Site Generators

The next step was to decide on a static site generator.

A "static site generator" (SSG) is a program that, given a bunch of input files and templates and configuration files and code, will generate a tree of static HTML pages that can be uploaded to a web server.

I briefly thought about writing my own SSG, but my goal here was to get my blog moved as quickly and painlessly as possible, so I decided to go with an off-the-shelf solution. The most popular SSG is currently Jekyll, but I don't like Ruby much and would prefer a Python 3-based tool. After a brief survey of the available Python SSGs, I decided to give these a try:

Cactus didn't work with Python 3. It almost worked, but the blog plugin wasn't compatible with Python 3, and after I fixed that, it generated an empty index page. With Python 2, it worked, but its blog plugin didn't support the directory hierarchy I wanted to maintain. Rather than fix these issues, I moved on to the next candidate.

Hyde didn't support Python 3. (The website says Python 3 support is "in progress".) I gave it a try anyway, and while I didn't hate it, I really want something that works with Python 3 and doesn't require a lot of configuration. (For every YAML file I see, I expect at least one hour of messing around with it.)

Pelican worked pretty well on my first try (except for a CRITICAL error when running pelican generate with a not-well-formed Markdown file) and it seemed to be the most well-documented and well-supported of the generators I tried. Out-of-the-box, it handled pagination and other desirable features that would have required configuration or additional coding in Cactus or Hyde.

So I decided to use Pelican as my site generator.

Python 3 Virtual Environment

To ensure I'd be able to easily run the Pelican generator on any machine, now or in the future, I set up a Python 3 virtual environment and installed the necessary packages:

python3 -m venv-pelican-blog                # create the environment
source venv-pelican-blog/bin/activate       # activate the environment
pip install pelican pelican-alias markdown  # install dependencies

And then before running any Pelican commands, I have to make sure I run the command source venv-pelican-blog/bin/activate.

Configuring Pelican

To support automatic redirects from old URLs to the new pages, I installed the pelican-alias plugin, and updated my generator script so that it would include an Alias: item for each old article.

I added an file to the content/pages subdirectory, so that would also appear at the top of the page as it does in the Drupal site.

I set the LINKS and SOCIAL settings in so that I would get lists of links similar to what was in the Drupal blog's "blocks".

I set the YEAR_ARCHIVE_SAVE_AS, MONTH_ARCHIVE_SAVE_AS, and DAY_ARCHIVE_SAVE_AS variables in to generate archive pages with paths identical to what was used in Drupal.

Theme and Styles

Finally, I wanted a theme similar to that of the WhiteJazz theme I had used with Drupal 6. Pelican comes with two built-in themes: simple, which is just plain text with no styling, and notmyidea, which is what the website uses. Rather than perusing all the other themes available for Pelican, I decided to try to replicate WhiteJazz myself, with the expectatation that I would give up in frustruation after a few hours and look for an off-the-shelf theme.

Thankfully, it turned out to be easier than I expected to create my own theme. I started by copying the simple theme files to a new directory, then updated the templates that didn't quite do what I wanted, and added some CSS. For the basic CSS, I chose Skeleton, a simple CSS framework which I had used before in my What's Good on TCM? site. It was easy to set up its grid to provide the basic layout of WhiteJazz. I then added my own CSS rules and template customizations, borrowing liberally from the WhiteJazz CSS and notmyidea templates, until I had what I wanted.

One problem I ran into was that the simple framework had an empty (0 bytes) tag.html template, and was missing other files related to tags. So I copied the missing files from notmyidea.

Publishing the New Site

I had already set up my personal repo as a GitHub Pages site. I set up a Makefile rule that would copy the output from Pelican to that local repo, commit the change, and then push that repo to GitHub.

So, all I have to do to regenerate the site and push it to the cloud is this:

cd ~/work/undefinedvalue-pelican
source venv-pelican-blog/bin/activate
make github

It takes about four seconds to run make github. After that, it takes a minute or so before the changes are actually visible on the site.

Finally, I went to my domain registrar and updated the address records so it now points to GitHub rather than to my old server, following the instructions on these pages:


I've wanted to do this migration for over a year, but feared it would take up a few weekends and be full of frustration. It was actually a lot easier than I expected. The hardest part for me was getting the CSS right. It feels good that I figured out how to do a full conversion by writing a few scripts and modifying some configuration files and templates.

One thing I miss is the simplicity of editing with Drupal. If I saw a typo on the site, I could just click an Edit button, fix it, and Save. Now if I see something wrong, I have to find the right input file in my tree of files, edit it, and then republish, and then wait a minute to see if it looks right. But I am very happy to no longer be dependent upon a MySQL database, an old version of a PHP-based CMS, and an EC2 web server.

If you want to see my Pelican setup, it's available here for all to see:

© 2003-2017 Kristopher Johnson