Julia Evans

Hosting my static sites with nginx

Hello! Recently I’ve been thinking about putting my static sites on servers that I run myself instead of using managed services like Netlify or GitHub Pages.

Originally I thought that running my own servers would require a lot of maintenance and be a huge pain, but I was chatting with Wesley about what kind of maintainance their servers require, and they convinced me that it might not be that bad.

So I decided to try out moving all my static sites to a $5/month server to see what it was like.

Everything in here is pretty standard but I wanted to write down what I did anyway because there are a surprising number of decisions and I like to see what choices other people make.

the constraint: only static sites

To keep things simple, I decided that this server would only run nginx and only serve static sites. I have about 10 static sites right now, mostly projects for wizard zines.

I decided to use a $5/month DigitalOcean droplet, which should very easily be able to handle my existing traffic (about 3 requests per second and 100GB of bandwidth per month). Right now it’s using about 1% of its CPU. I picked DigitalOcean because it was what I’ve used before.

Also all the sites were already behind a CDN so they’re still behind the same CDN.

step 1: get a clean Git repo for each build

This was the most interesting problem so let’s talk about it first!

Building the static sites might seem pretty easy – each one of them already has a working build script.

But I have pretty bad hygiene around files on my laptop – often I have a bunch of uncommitted files that I don’t want to go onto the live site. So I wanted to start every build with a clean Git repo. I also wanted this to be fast – I’m impatient so I wanted to be able to build and deploy most of my sites in less than 10 seconds.

I handled this by hacking together a tiny build system called tinybuild. It’s basically a 4-line bash script, but with extra some command line arguments and error checking. Here are the 4 lines of bash:

docker build - -t tinybuild < Dockerfile
CONTAINER_ID=$(docker run -v "$PWD":/src -v "./deploy:/artifact" -d -t tinybuild /bin/bash)
docker exec $CONTAINER_ID bash -c "git clone /src /build && cd /build && bash /src/scripts/build.sh"
docker exec $CONTAINER_ID bash -c "mv /build/public/* /artifact"

These 4 lines:

  1. Build a Dockerfile with all the dependencies for that build
  2. Clone my repo into /build in the container, so that I always start with a clean Git repo
  3. Run the build script (/src/scripts/build.sh)
  4. Copy the build artifacts into ./deploy in the local directory

Then once I have ./deploy, I can rsync the result onto the server

It’s fast because:

  • the docker build - means I don’t send any state from the repository to the Docker daemon. This matters because one of my repos is 1GB (it has a lot of PDFs in it) and sending all that to the Docker daemon takes forever
  • the git clone is from the local filesystem and I have a SSD so it’s fast even for a 1GB repo
  • most of the build scripts just run hugo or cat so they’re fast. The npm build scripts take maybe 30 seconds.

A tiny interesting fact: I tried to do git clone --depth 1 to speed up my git clone, but git gave me this warning:

warning: --depth is ignored in local clones; use file:// instead.

I think what’s going on here is that git makes hard links of all the objects to make a local clone (which is a lot faster than copying). So I guess with the hard links approach --depth 1 doesn’t make sense for some reason? And file:// forces git to copy all objects instead, which is actually slower.

bonus: now my builds are faster than they used to be!

One nice thing about this is that my build/deploy time is less than it was on Netlify. For jvns.ca it’s about 7 seconds to build and deploy the site instead of about a minute previously.

running the builds on my laptop seems nice

I’m the only person who develops all of my sites, so doing all the builds in a Docker container on my computer seems to make sense. My computer is pretty fast and all the files are already right there! No giant downloads! And doing it in a Docker container keeps the build isolated.

example build scripts

Here are the build scripts for this blog (jvns.ca).


FROM ubuntu:20.04

RUN apt-get update && apt-get install -y git
RUN apt-get install -y wget python2
RUN wget https://github.com/gohugoio/hugo/releases/download/v0.40.1/hugo_0.40.1_Linux-64bit.tar.gz
RUN wget https://github.com/sass/dart-sass/releases/download/1.49.0/dart-sass-1.49.0-linux-x64.tar.gz
RUN tar -xf dart-sass-1.49.0-linux-x64.tar.gz
RUN tar -xf hugo_0.40.1_Linux-64bit.tar.gz
RUN mv hugo /usr/bin/hugo
RUN mv dart-sass/sass /usr/bin/sass


set -eu
sass sass/:static/stylesheets/


set -eu
tinybuild -s scripts/build-docker.sh \
          -l "$PWD/deploy" \
          -c /build/public

rsync-showdiff ./deploy/ root@staticsites:/var/www/jvns.ca
rm -rf ./deploy

step 2: get rsync to just show me which files it updated

When I started using rsync to sync the files, it would list every single file instead of just files that had changed. I think this was because I was generating new files for every build, so the timestamps were always newer than the files on the server.

I did a bunch of Googling and figured out this incantation to get rsync to just show me files that were updated;

rsync -avc --out-format='%n' "$@" | grep --line-buffered -v '/$'

I put that in a script called rsync-showdiff so I could reuse it. There might be a better way, but this seems to work.

step 3: configuration management

All I needed to do to set up the server was:

  • install nginx
  • create directories in /var/www for each site, like /var/www/jvns.ca
  • create an nginx configuration for each site, like /etc/nginx/sites-enabled/jvns.ca.conf
  • deploy the files (with my deploy script above)

I wanted to use some kind of configuration management to do this because that’s how I’m used to managing servers. I’ve used Puppet a lot in the past at work, but I don’t really like using Puppet. So I decided to use Ansible even though I’d never used it before because it seemed simpler than using Puppet. Here’s my current Ansible configuration, minus some of the templates it depends on.

I didn’t use any Ansible plugins because I wanted to maximize the probability that I would actually be able to run this thing in 3 years.

The most complicated thing in there is probably the reload nginx handler, which makes sure that the configuration is still valid after I make an nginx configuration update.

step 4: replace a lambda function

I was using one Netlify lambda function to calculate purchasing power parity (“PPP”) for countries that have a weaker currency relative to the US on https://wizardzines.com. Basically it gets your country using IP geolocation and then returns a discount code if you’re in a country that has a discount code. (like 70% off for India, for example). So I needed to replace it.

I handled this by rewriting the (very small) program in Go, copying the static binary to the server, and adding a proxy_pass for that site.

The program just looks up the country code from the geolocation HTTP header in a hashmap, so it doesn’t seem like it should cause maintenance problems.

a very simple nginx config

I used the same nginx config file for templates for almost all my sites:

server {
	listen 80;
	listen [::]:80;

	root /var/www/{{item.dir}};
	index index.html index.htm;
	server_name {{item.server}};

    location / {
        # First attempt to serve request as file, then
        # as directory, then fall back to displaying a 404.
        try_files $uri $uri/ =404;

The {{item.dir}} is an Ansible thing.

I also added support for custom 404 pages (error_page /404.html) in the main nginx.conf.

I’ll probably add TLS support with certbot later. My CDN handles TLS to the client, I just need to make the connection between the CDN and the origin server use TLS

Also I don’t know if there are problems with using such a simple nginx config. Maybe I’ll learn about them!

bonus: I can find 404s more easily

Another nice bonus of this setup is that it’s easier to see what’s happening with my site – I can just look at the nginx logs!

I ran grep 404 /var/log/nginx/access.log to figure out if I’d broken anything during the migration, and I actually ended up finding a lot of links that had been broken for many years, but that I’d just never noticed.

Netlify’s analytics has a “Top resources not found” that shows you the most common 404s, but I don’t think there’s any way to see all 404s.

a small factor: costs

Part of my motivation for this switch was – I was getting close to the Netlify free tier’s bandwidth limit (100GB/month), and Netlify charges $20/100GB for additional bandwidth. Digital Ocean charges $1/100GB for additional bandwidth (20x less), and my droplet comes with 1TB of bandwidth. So the bandwidth pricing feels a lot more reasonable to me.

we’ll see how it goes!

All my static sites are running on my own server now. I don’t really know what this will be like to maintain, we’ll see how it goes – maybe I’ll like it! maybe I’ll hate it! I definitely like the faster build times and that I can easily look at my nginx logs.

Some ways DNS can break Reasons for servers to support IPv6