I have been repeating for years that blogs are not documentation out of themselves. While I have spent a lot of time over the years to make sure that my blog’s links are not broken, I also know that many of my old blog posts are no longer relevant at all. The links out of the blog can be broken, and it’s not particularly easy to identify them. What might have been true in 2009 might not be true in 2020. The best option for implementing something has likely changed significantly, given how ten years ago, Cloud Computing was barely a thing on the horizon, and LXC was considered an experiment.
This is the reason why Autotools Mythbuster is the way it is: it’s a “living book” — I can update and improve it, but at the same time it can be used as a stable reference of best practices: when they change it gets updated, but the link is still a pointer to the good practice.
At work, I pretty much got used to “Radically Simple Documentation” – thanks to Riona and her team. Which pretty much means I only needed to care about the content of the documentation, rather than dealing with how it would render, either in terms of pipeline or style.
And just like other problems with the bubble, when I try to do the same outside of it, I get thoroughly lost. The Glucometer Protocols site had been hosted as GitHub pages for a few years by now — but I now wanted to add some diagrams, as more modern protocols (as well as some older, but messier, protocols) would be much simpler to explain with UML Sequence Diagrams to go with.
The first problem was of course to find a way to generate sequence diagrams out of code that can be checked-in and reviewed, rather than as binary blobs — and thankfully there are a few options. I settled for blockdiag because it’s the easiest to set up in a hurry. But it turned out that integrating it is far from easy as it would seem.
While GitHub pages uses Jekyll, it uses such an old version that reproducing that on Netlify is pretty much impossible. Most of the themes that are available out there are mostly dedicated to personal sites, or ecommerce, or blogs — and even when I found one that seemed suitable for this kind of reference, I couldn’t figure out how to to get the whole thing to work. And it didn’t help that Jekyll appears to be very scant on debug logging.
I ended up settling for Foliant, which appears to be more geared towards writing actual books than reference documentation, but wraps around MkDocs, and it provides a plugin that integrates with Blockdiag (although I still have a pending pull request to support more diagram types). And with a bit of play around it, I managed to get Netlify to build this properly and serve it. Which is what you get now.
But of course, since MkDocs (and a number of other Python-based tools I found) appear to rely on the same Markdown library, they are not even completely compatible with the Markdown as written for Jekyll and GitHub pages: the Python implementation is much stricter when it comes to indentation, and misses some of the feature. Most of those appear to have been at some point works in progress, but there doesn’t seem to be much movement on the library itself.
Again, these are relatively simple features I came to expect for documentation. And I know that some of my (soon-to-be-former) colleagues have been working on improving the state of opensource documentation frameworks, including Lisa working on Docsy, which looks awesome — but relies on Hugo, which I still dislike, and seems to have taken a direction which is going further and further away from me (the latest when I was trying to set this up is that to use Hugo on Linux they now seem to require you to install Homebrew, because clearly having something easy for Linux packagers to work with is not worth it, sigh).
I might reconsider that, if Hugo finds a way to implement building images out of other tools, but I don’t have strong expectations that the needs for documentation reference would be considered for future updates to Hugo, given how it was previously socialized as a static blog engine, only to pivot to needs that would make it more “marketable”.
I even miss GuideXML, to a point. This was Gentoo’s documentation format back in the days before the Wiki. It was complex, and probably more complicated than it should have been, but at least the pipeline to generate the documentation was well defined.
Anyhow, if anyone out there has experience in setting up reference documentation sites, and wants to make it easier to maintain a repository of information on glucometers, I’ll welcome help, suggestions, pull requests, and links to documentation and tools.