02 February 2010

 

So long, Blogger.com: I need a new blogging platform to publish static files

Blogger logoFor close to a decade, since October 2000, I've published this home page using Blogger, the online publishing platform now owned by Google. That entire time, I've used the original hacky kludge created by Blogger's founders back in 1999, where I write my posts at the blogger.com website, but it then sends the resulting text files over the Internet to a web server I rent, using the venerable FTP (File Transfer Protocol) standard—which was itself last formally updated in 1985. This is known as Blogger FTP publishing.

While often unreliable for various technical reasons, Blogger FTP works effectively for me, with my 13 years of accumulated stuff on this website. But I am in a small, small minority of Blogger users (under 0.5%, says Google). Almost everyone now:

  • Uses Blogger's own servers for their sites.
  • Or another hosted service that takes care of everything for them.
  • Or if they want to publish on their own servers, another tool like Movable Type, WordPress, or ExpressionEngine, which you install on your server and publish from there.

So, as I've been expecting for years, Blogger is now permanently turning off FTP publishing, as of late March 2010. And, in my particular case, that means I need to find a new blog publishing tool within the next month or so.

This has been coming for a long time

Blogger has all sorts of clever solutions and resources for people using FTP publishing who want to migrate to Google's more modern server infrastructure, but they don't fit for me. I have specific and very personal needs and weird proclivities about how I want to run this website, and putting my blog on Google's servers simply doesn't meet them.

That's sad, and a little frustrating, but I'm not angry about it—and I think it's misguided that many people commenting on this topic seem to be. I realize that I have been getting an amazing, easy publishing service for free for almost a quarter of my life from Blogger. It has enriched my interactions with thousands of people. Again, for free. (Actually, I did pay for Blogger Pro back in the day before the 2003 Google acquisition, but that was brief. And as thanks, Google sent me a free Blogger hoodie afterwards—I still wear that.)

The vast, vast, vast majority of users find the newer ways of publishing with Blogger meet their needs. And any of us who has used FTP publishing for years knows it's flaky and convoluted and something of a pain in the butt, and always has been since Ev and his team cobbled it together. I've been happily surprised that Blogger has supported it for so long—again, free.

Yes, it was a distinguishing feature of Blogger that you could use a fully hosted editing and publishing system to post to a web server where you don't have to install anything yourself. Very nice, but I think there are good technical reasons that no other service, free or paid—whether WordPress.com, TypePad, SquareSpace, or anything else—ever offered something similar.

I applaud the Blogger team for trying to do the best they can for us oddballs. And it serves as a reminder: Blogger FTP can go away. Gmail could go away. Facebook could go away. Flickr could go away. Twitter could go away. WordPress.com could go away. If you're building your life or business around free online tools, you need some sort of Plan B.

I've had this possibility on my mind at least since the Google takeover, seven years ago. Now I have to act on it. But I'm thankful for a decade of generally great and reliable free service from Blogger. I haven't had ten free years of anything like it from any other company (online or in the real world), as far as I know.

Getting nothing but static

One other thing I've always liked about Blogger's FTP publishing is that it creates static files: plain-text files (with file extensions like .html or .php or .css, or even no extensions at all). It generates those files from a database on Google's servers, but once they're published to my website, they're just text, which web browsers interpret as HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) to create the formatting and colours as such.

Most other blogging tools, including Blogger's hosted services, generate their web pages on the fly from a database. That's often more convenient for a whole bunch of reasons, and I'm happy to run other sites, such as Inside Home Recording and Lip Gloss and Laptops, with a database-dependent tool such as WordPress.

But this site is my personal one—the archive of most of my writing over the past 25% of my life. And I'm a writer and editor by trade. This website is my thing, and I've worked fairly hard to keep it alive and functional, without breaking incoming links from other sites, for well over a decade now. I've always wanted to keep it running with static files, which is one reason I didn't migrate from Blogger to WordPress four or five years ago. Over on Facebook, Gillian asked me why I'm so hardheaded about it. (She's a database administrator by trade.)

I'll be blunt about the most extreme case: I have cancer. I may not live that long. But I'd like my website to stay, even if only so my kids can look at it later. If necessary, if I'm dead, I want someone to be able to zip up the directory structure of my blog, move it to a new server, unzip it, and there it is, live on the Web. I don't want to have to plan for future database administration in my will.

In that worst case I won't need to update my site anymore, but I think static files on a generic web server are more reliable in the long run. To make a bulk change, a simple search-and-replace can update the text files, for example, to note that it's not worth emailing me, since, being dead, I'll be unable to answer.

On other blogging and content management systems I've worked with, I've had MySQL databases die or get corrupted. Restoring from MySQL backups is a pain for non-techies, or even for me. I've blown up a WordPress site by mis-editing one part of one file, and I've been able to fix it—but I don't want someone else to have to do that.

Right now, if Blogger died entirely, my site would still work exactly as-is. If my web host went belly-up, anyone with a teeny bit of web savvy and access to my passwords and one of my computers could redirect penmachine.com to a new server, upload the contents of one of my backup directories to it by FTP, and (other than visitors being able to post new comments) it would be up and live just like it was within a day or two.

In addition, tools like WordPress are brittle. I like using them, but there are security updates all the time, so the software goes out of date. That's fine if you're maintaining your site all the time, but if not, it becomes vulnerable to hacks. So if a database-driven site choogles on without updates, it's liable to get compromised, and be defaced or destroyed. That's less likely with a bunch of HTML files in directories—or at least I think so.

Betting on text

Plain text has been the language of computer interchange for decades. If the Web ever stops supporting plain text files containing HTML, we'll all have big problems. But I don't think that will happen. The first web page ever made still works, and I hope and expect it will continue to. My oldest pages here are mild derivatives from pages that are only five years younger than that one. They still work, and I hope and expect that they will continue to.

At worst, even a relatively non-technical person can take a directory dump backup of my current website and open the pages in a text editor. I can do that with files I've had since before the Web existed—I still have copies on my hard drive of nonsensical stories from BBSes I posted to in the '80s (here's an HTML conversion I made of one of them). I wrote those stories with my friends, some of whom are now dead, but I can still read what we wrote together.

Those old text files, copies of words I wrote before some of the readers of this blog were born, still work, and I hope and expect they will continue to. Yeah, maybe a SQL backup would be wise, but I'll still place my bets on plain text. Okay, I'm weird, but there you go.

Suggestions

Okay, so I need a new blogging platform. Probably one I can install on my server, but definitely one that generates static files that don't depend on a live database. Movable Type does that. ExpressionEngine might. More obscure options, like Bloxsom and nanoc, do so in slightly more obscure ways.

If you know of others I should look at, please email me or leave a comment. However long I'm around, I'll remain nostalgic about and thankful to Blogger. It's been a good run.

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Comments:

I still think you're being hard headed. Use WordPress, then use a separate script to crawl the site and archive it in straight HTML.

It's unfortunate that you've had DBs go corrupt in the past. Files can go corrupt as well. It speaks to good backup practices.

Why do I use dynamic platforms? Because the interactivity that we can capture is so much richer.

A hosted option like WordPress.com might be the best way to go. At $10 / year for mapping your domain, that might be the most stable option.

At the same time, a spider script as I mentioned above could still make your own copy on your own server. Your argument about maintaining a system applies to a server you pay for whether it is running something dynamic or just straight HTML - stuff can go wrong. The double method I propose might be a better match.

I would happily pay $10 to keep penmachine on the air for a year at WordPress.com ...
 
Well, the other issue is that there is a whole bunch of other crap on my server besides the blog, so hosted services at wordpress.com (or Google, for that matter) probably won't do the job.

Yeah, okay, I could crawl the site and republish it static with a script. But that sounds suspiciously like another hacky kludge I might regret in a few years. :)

Anyway, it's not like a shift to, say, Movable Type would be a big radical dangerous move. I'll see what suggestions I get and figure something out.
 
Oh, and I agree, I am being hardheaded. But there you go.
 
I thought MarsEdit could save in HTML, but I can't find anything specific about that. May be worth a look the free trial.

I wonder if you couldn't create an Automator or other AppleScript that could read in RSS and output HTML, then upload via FTP? Definitely hacky, no doubt about it, but might be an interesting exercise.
 
Oh sure, RSS-scraping scripts would work, but I'd prefer not to resort to that when proper native publishing tools exist.

The difficulty with stuff like MarsEdit or even Apple's iWeb, which also publishes static files, is that they run on a single local computer, generating files there for upload. I like to be able to blog wherever I am, on a laptop, on a public computer, from an iPhone, whatever. Those tools make that difficult because they assume that you're always building your blog from your main machine.

The more I think about it, the more I like the way Blogger's FTP model works, at least at a theoretical level. Google maintains and upgrades the publishing software on their servers, so I don't have to install or update that, which gives me the benefits I like from a hosted solution. But the resulting blog files are static and live on my server, which gives me the benefits I like from publishing plain text to the Web from a fairly generic server platform.

Unfortunately, as far as I know, nobody else offers anything like that, and now Blogger won't anymore either. So I'll be going with what to me is a second-choice approach, which is to install and maintain the publishing software myself, but still have the published files coming out of it being static.

Right now Movable Type 5 is looking like the best option for that, but I'll keep looking. Actually, checking out the different options is a fun little distraction for me as I proceed through more chemo and such. I haven't learned a new blogging platform since I started working with WordPress for some other sites back in 2006, so it's fun.

Man, I am a nerd.
 
i, too, have to find an alternate process. blogger ftp was working great. i already have a site that i maintain using wordpress and i live in fear that something will go wrong as i would have no clue how to fix it.

i was contemplating going back to native html and doing my own ftping, but as you say it would be nice to be able to do it from any computer, not just the one your files are already on.

hope you find a solution that works for you.

cheers,
nocurling
 
http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/really-static/

might also meet your needs. It looks well maintained, but I've never used it.
 
Lloyd, you are the MAN. I'll definitely look into that!

Why Really Static doesn't show up when I Google "WordPress static files," I don't know.

Thanks. That may solve my problem right there. See, whining really does help sometimes, right?
 
Have you any ideas about converting the masses of old and archived pages into your new software of choice? I have a couple of years worth of stuff FTP'd to my own site for SEO reasons and the thought of losing access to it from a user viewpoint is galling - they will be there in the background but lost from navigation should I move to Wordpress or similar.
 
Export from Blogger and import to WordPress is pretty simple, but actual existing static pages are a different matter. Assuming you're running your own server, it's a simple matter to link to whatever main page or index of your existing files you have from within WordPress or whatever and just carry on from there. That's what I plan to do.

Just because you move to a new blogging platform doesn't mean your old stuff disappears -- in fact, the benefit of having it there as plain text means you can link to it just as anyone else can, and as you could before you made the change.

Here's a concrete example. My wife's site Lip Gloss and Laptops moved to WordPress several years ago, but the old home page and archives (generated via Blogger) are still there, and still just as accessible as they always were.
 
Hmm... I wish I knew what you meant; I faced the "ftp" message today and have no idea what that means for me.

What do you think is the best option for someone who uses blogger, but has been using an ftp to transfer to another domain name?

(I assume that is what I am doing: http://www.shrm.ca/blog) I am willing to buy a domain name for the blog, specifically. Would this be an easy solution?

Sorry if these are stupid questions!

I'm sorry to hear you have cancer. My mom was just diagnosed with breast cancer this month and will be having a mastectomy. This has been such a shock. Do you have any websites you would recommend for education or encouragement?
 
Blogger has lots of solutions for you, but this post outlines a straightforward version. Essentially you can move your blog to blog.shrm.ca (or even simply www.shrm.ca) and be done with it. Should work fine. It's not what I want in my esoteric needs, but for most people it's perfectly good. More at the FAQ.
 
Hi Derek !
I've got exactly the same problem as you with my FTP blogger.
I've always been looking for a replacement and found out a few solutions that did not convince me at that time (some don't even exist anymore).

My needs are similar with an addition :

* Flat files
* No DB
* Markdown syntax
* Longlasting
* Minimalist like Hello! is for CMS

The problem could come from the comments. How to have working comments integrated into the system. Recently I came across the promising Thingamablog but there are no comments indeed.

Now I'm really curious about what solution you will eventually end up with.

It seems it doesn't really exist now.

Good luck for everything,
Tristan
 
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I forgot to say that the most promising solution I found out was pivotx but I thought it was quite a big package.
 
I came across your site looking for solutions for my own page. Thought I'd mention another ftp-based blog service with static pages I found today is thingamablog. I'm giving it a try. Fingers crossed - good luck!