Database Powered Websites

For the last, call it 8 years, having a website, dynamically generated with most of the content pulled on (nearly) every reload from a database. MySQL or PostgreSQL, or some such. It's a great model, in a lot of ways, because it represents the (near) ultimate separation of content and display, it means that static pages don't have to be generated whenever you generate new content. Dynamic, database driven websites were going to the future, and I think history has proven this argument.

At the same time, I think a further analysis is required.

Just to be super clear the advantages of database driven websites are that:

  • Pages don't have to be regenerated when content changes.
  • Content is more customizable and can be pulled together in ad-hoc settings.

I would argue however, that there are some fundamental weaknesses that this system of deploying websites promotes:

  1. Database driven websites increase the complexity of web-site software by a magnitude or two. I can in my sleep hack together a static website (most people can); working with database requires a much more specialized system that is harder for website owners to maintain. While separating content from display is often an effort to make systems easier to understand and change, in point of fact, databases make website maintenance a specialized task.
  2. Database driven websites have a lot of overhead. Because pages need to be regenerated regularly, they require beefy hardware to work correctly. On top of this database systems need to be cached in such a way, that they're not quite as dynamic as they once were.
  3. Databases are mostly server-based technologies, which means a lot of the dynamic client-side scripting (EMCAscript/JavaScript and AJAX/AHAH) that are all the rage these days (and what people most often mean when they say "dynamic") aren't nearly as dependent on databases as what's going on in that space.
  4. Given the very structured nature of databases, websites often need to develop their content structure with near prescience regarding what's going to happen in their site for the next five years. This is complicated, difficult, and often means that the same content-system needs to be redeveloped (often at great cost) far too often.

In light of this I've been thinking, increasingly, that the future of websites will likely be powered by a much different kind of website software. Here are some observations about the future of the web:

  • Structured data formats, and plain text files are the future. Stored in/with formats like yaml, we can (very easily) have flexible structures can adapt to the changing needs of a website owner.
  • Some very large sites (eg. facebook, wikipedia) will likely always be powered by databases, because in situations where a single website has > 100,000 pieces of content databases begin to make sense. Remarkably, single websites so rarely have that much content. Particularly if engineered correctly.
  • Most content on the web doesn't change very often. We regenerate pages thousands and thousands of times a day that would be unlikely to be update more than a dozen times a day.

This is not to say that there aren't several challenges to the prospect of websites powered by static-site generators/compilers. They are:

  • Some content will likely always be compiled using some very basic server-side includes, and dynamic content will continue to be generated using java script or something similar.
  • Authentication and web-based security will likely also need to be built into webservers directly (the direction, I think things are going in anyway) and complicated access control (for intranets, say) may still require databases.
  • Web-based interfaces for editing (ubiquitous, in page, "edit this" links). and commenting systems often need more dynamic functionality than other content. We need to both figure out a way to do commenting/annotation in a static-based system and find a way to do commenting in a more socially productive manner (existing locally hosted commenting systems, are I think fundamentally broken).
  • Concurrent Editing. Wiki engines address this to some degree, and I think we need additional productive ways of addressing this in a truly user friendly manner, that doesn't rely on over powered databases for what is probably an edge case.

Thoughts? I'm not describing technology that doesn't exist, but I am suggesting that the current "way of doing things," isn't the future of how we will "do content on the web." The tools are out there, all that's missing is a simple, user friendly, method for pulling all this content together.

I'm really interested in seeing what people are coming up with.

comments powered by Disqus