Using Rust to Build a Blog Site


Rust comes with batteries included
(source: Wikimedia Commons)

After “Hello World,” blog sites are the world’s second most unneeded application. If you want to write a blog, use Medium, Wordpress or just Twitter. The world doesn’t need another blog app.

However, like Hello World, building a static site generator is a great way to get your feet wet in a new programming language. Recently I rewrote the script I use to generate this web site using Rust: I needed to update and fix my script, but really I was looking for an excuse to write Rust. Despite its reputation as a difficult to learn, expert level language, Rust turned out to be a great choice for the simple task of generating a few HTML files, quickly and reliably. Why? Not because of its sophisticated borrow checker or support for safe concurrency.

Rust was a great choice for me because I didn’t have to write most of the code. Rust’s dependency management and build tool, Cargo, allowed me to glue together open source Rust libraries called “crates” which do most of the work. The Rust community’s crate registry, crates.io, has over 29,000 crates available. Downloading, compiling and using them is dead simple. And writing a blog site using Rust turned out to be simple too.

My Cargo.toml File

I needed a few important features to generate this web site. I wanted my script to work like this for each blog post:

For each blog post, My new Rust script had to: parse the markdown source file and convert it to HTML markup, highlight the syntax of my code snippets using <style> tags and CSS, and use a template to insert the HTML for each post into the surrounding web layout/design. Sounds like a lot of work, right?

Wrong. Other Rust developers smarter than me had already implemented all of this. All I had to do was find the crates I needed and add them to my Cargo.toml file:

[dependencies]
maud = "*"
pulldown-cmark = "*"
syntect = "3.0"

Pulldown-cmark is a markdown parser crate, Syntect is a color syntax highlighting crate, and Maud is an HTML template crate. Actually, to be honest I ended up adding a few other crates to get my script to work:

[dependencies]
maud = "\*"
pulldown-cmark = "\*"
regex = "\*"
lazy_static = "\*"
syntect = "3.0"
chrono = "\*"
clap = "\*"
ordinal = "\*"

I’m not sure why, but the Rust standard library is very minimal. Features that are included in other languages, like regular expressions or date/time parsing, are handled by crates (e.g. regex and chrono).

In any case, all I had to do was build my project and Cargo downloaded everything I needed:

$ cargo build --release
    Updating crates.io index
  Downloaded chrono v0.4.7
  Downloaded clap v2.33.0
  Downloaded maud v0.19.0
  Downloaded lazy_static v1.2.0
  Downloaded pulldown-cmark v0.2.0
  Downloaded ordinal v0.2.2
  Downloaded regex v1.1.0
  Downloaded syntect v3.0.2
  Downloaded libc v0.2.44
  Downloaded num-integer v0.1.41
  Downloaded num-traits v0.2.8
  Downloaded time v0.1.42

etc…
   Compiling syntect v3.0.2
   Compiling blogc v0.1.0 (/Users/pat/apps/patshaughnessy.github.io)
    Finished release [optimized] target(s) in 2m 27s

It couldn’t be easier! During the rest of this post, I’ll show you how I used these three crates: Pulldown-cmark, Syntect and Maud.

Pulldown-cmark

Now that my blog app included the Pulldown-mark crate, using it was just a matter of pasting in a few of lines of code from the helpful example on docs.rs:


let parser = Parser::new(&markdown);
let mut html = String::new();
html::push_html(&mut html, parser);

The first line created a Parser struct, passing in a reference to my markdown string. Then I created an empty, mutable target string, called html. Last, I called the push_html function which parsed the markdown source, converted it to HTML and saved it into html. I didn’t have to do any work whatsoever.

In fact, the only real work for me had to do with “header” strings present at the top of each post source file. For example, the 2017-12-15-looking-inside-postgres-at-a-gist-index.markdown file starts with:

title: "Looking Inside Postgres at a GiST Index"
date: 2017/12/15
tag: the Postgres LTREE Extension

etc…

Here the first three lines are metadata values about the post and not part of the post content. So before calling Pulldown-mark, my script parses and removes these header lines:


fn other_lines(lines: &Vec<String>) -> Vec<String> {
  lines.iter().skip_while(|l| is_header(l)).map(|l| l.to_string()).collect()
}

Above the lines parameter is an array of strings, each a single line of text in the markdown source file. (More precisely, it’s a reference to a Vec<String>, not an array.) The code is fairly readable: other_lines creates an iterator over the lines, skips the first few header lines, and then collects the remaining lines into a second array which the function returns.

Here’s the complete html_from_markdown function, which calls other_lines, joins them together into a single large string, and then passes that to Pulldown-mark:


fn html_from_markdown(lines: &Vec<String>) -> Result<String, InvalidPostError> {
  let mut markdown = String::new();
  for line in other_lines(lines) {
    markdown.push_str(&line);
    markdown.push('\n');
  }
  let parser = Parser::new(&markdown);
  let mut html = String::new();
  html::push_html(&mut html, parser);
  Ok(with_delim_removed(with_highlighted_code_snippets(&html)))
}

Syntect

If you read the code above carefully, you’ll notice html_from_markdown calls with_highlighted_code_snippets before returning the HTML for each post. This function performs color syntax highlighting.

The code snippets in each of my blog posts appear inside of <pre>…</pre> tags. And I use a “type” attribute to indicate the programming language of the snippet. For example:

<pre type="ruby">
puts "This is Ruby code I’m writing about…"
</pre>

Like parsing markdown, syntax highlighting is a very complex task: The Syntect crate has to parse the given code snippet, determine the semantic meaning of each keyword in the snippet based on the provided programming language, and then insert the proper color information. Thank goodness I didn’t have to write that code!

But using Syntect was easy:


pub fn highlighted_html_for_language(snippet: &String, attributes: String) -> String {
  lazy_static! {
    static ref SYNTAX_SET: SyntaxSet = SyntaxSet::load_from_folder(syntax_path()).unwrap();
    static ref THEME: Theme = ThemeSet::get_theme(theme_path().as_path()).unwrap();
    static ref RUBY_SYNTAX: &'static SyntaxReference =
      SYNTAX_SET.find_syntax_by_extension("rb").unwrap();
    static ref RUST_SYNTAX: &'static SyntaxReference =
      SYNTAX_SET.find_syntax_by_extension("rs").unwrap();

etc...

  }
  if attributes.contains("ruby") {
    highlighted_html_for_string(&snippet, &SYNTAX_SET, &RUBY_SYNTAX, &THEME)
  } else if attributes.contains("rust") {
    highlighted_html_for_string(&snippet, &SYNTAX_SET, &RUST_SYNTAX, &THEME)

etc...

First I used a lazy_static block to initialize a few constant values. (lazy_static is another crate I didn’t have to write!) Rust executes this block once the first time it’s encountered and then never again. The values are:

  • SYNTAX_SET: These are the Sublime syntax files describing each programming language I need to colorize. vim is my editor, but I use Sublime for color syntax highlighting :) I just downloaded these files for the languages I needed and checked them into my app.

  • THEME: These are the Sublime “theme” files, which select the colors to use for each type of code keyword. I found and adapted one of these files. They play the role of a CSS file, but use XML syntax. Weird, but not hard to figure out.

  • RUBY_SYNTAX, RUST_SYNTAX, etc. The lazy block also looks up the syntax language file for each language.

Later my highlighted_html_for_language function checks which programming language my post displays, and calls syntect::html::highlighted_html_for_string with the proper values:


  if attributes.contains("ruby") {
    highlighted_html_for_string(&snippet, &SYNTAX_SET, &RUBY_SYNTAX, &THEME)
  } else if attributes.contains("rust") {
    highlighted_html_for_string(&snippet, &SYNTAX_SET, &RUST_SYNTAX, &THEME)

etc...

attributes is the array of HTML attributes from the <pre> tag surrounding the code snippet in my post source. My app uses regular expressions to find the <pre>…</pre> HTML blocks, parses the attributes and provides them to highlighted_html_for_language.

Maud

Now my script has HTML for each blog post. All I have to do now is save it in a series of HTML files. But first I needed a template engine for Rust, like ERB for Ruby or Mustache for node.js.

This turned out to be one of the most fun parts of this project. I rewrote my HTML markup using Maud @ directives, like this:


@if let Some(ref t) = post.tag {
  div class="header" {
    "More on " (t)
  }
  div class="links" {
    ul {
      @for (link_url, link_title) in recent_links {
        li {
          a href={ "/" (link_url) } {
            (link_title)
          }
        }
      }
    }
  }
}

Maud doesn’t parse the layout code at runtime, like ERB does in Ruby. Instead, the @if and @for directives above are macros. In fact, all of the HTML elements that appear above, like div and ul, are macros also. This means my Maud layout code is actually Rust code! And that means the Rust compiler will check it and make sure it’s valid before it ever runs.

Converting my old ERB templates into Rust macros was a bit tedious, but it was a great way to review and clean up my HTML. In fact, I found a number of mistakes and errors in my HTML code that had been there for 10 years or longer. It was like showing my dirty laundry to the Rust compiler. By the time the compiler was done and let me compile my layout, it was very clean!

What It Worth It?

It took me several months on a spare time basis - an hour here an hour there - to rewrite my blog in Rust. An experienced Rust developer working full time could have done it in a day or two probably.

What did I get for all this effort? Now I have a script that compiles all 146 of my markdown posts very quickly. My old Ruby script took 7.7 seconds to do this, while the new Rust script only takes 0.28 seconds! That’s over 27 times faster! In fact, the Rust code is so fast at parsing and compiling the markdown files that I don’t check which files need to be recompiled by comparing timestamps, i.e. what a Makefile would do during a build process. And I don’t process the posts in parallel. Why bother? By the time I pressed ENTER and looked up Rust was almost done building all 146 files in sequence, one after the other.

But what else did I get? The biggest improvement to my blog script, actually, wasn’t the performance. It was the error handling I added. I didn’t mention this above, but using the Rust standard library required me to use the Result<T> generic type. This, in turn, forced me to think about what might go wrong and what to do when it did go wrong. I’ll cover this in my next article. I ended up with a script that was much more reliable and resilient to silly mistakes in my source files, and that gave me helpful error messages… all the while running 27 times faster.

However, the biggest benefit to rewriting my blog in Rust was that I clawed my way up the Rust learning curve a bit. But that wouldn’t have been possible without crates.io and Cargo. Using code from smarter, more seasoned Rust developers gave me a chance to build a useful app, even as a beginner. Cargo found, downloaded and compiled open source code from experts with just a few simple commands.