Henrik Sommerfeld
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Netlify CMS with Gatsby - Best Option with Some Quirks

When I needed a CMS for a Gatsby site, my choice became Netlify CMS. I’ll talk about my criteria, pros and cons.

This was a personal website made for a non-technical person (why I needed a CMS at all in the first place) who associates websites with WordPress. She, my wife, is fairly tech savvy, but wouldn’t accept editing markdown or other “complicated things” 🙃 My hypothesis was that I could somewhat compensate for unintuitive features with some “on site training”.

Criteria

  • Easy to set up authentication/authorisation
  • Use Markdown for storage in a location I decide
  • Customisable, for good user experience
  • Good developer experience
  • Cheap (ideally free)

So, the things I needed were the above. Pretty much all hosted services tick the first checkbox of easiness to create an account and managing identity. That’s the thing you need a server for, which you might not already have when your site is static.

But looking at the available headless CMS options, like on headlesscms.org, there aren’t many alternatives if you want a Git based CMS that is open source. One of the things I was aiming for was using Markdown for content, since I imagine that will be easier to migrate in the future than the experience I had migrating this content from WordPress (and especially WordPress.com). I can also mention that TinaCMS wasn’t released at the time I did the initial research.

Anyway, since I had previous great experience with Netlify, Netlify CMS was already at the top of my list. After reading the post Gatsby and Netlify CMS: First Impressions, I decided to start with the one click installation button that Netlify provides.

Sometime later when I have the site up and running, I can reflect on my Netlify CMS experience. I’ll start with the positive.

Pros 😄

  • Deploys with the website (no external hosting)
  • Free with Netlify hosting up to 5 users
  • Easy to add route specific edit link
  • Instant previews that you can code yourself
  • Easy to configure page types and fields
  • Possibility to add custom editor controls

Netlify CMS is just an extra dependency (Gatsby plugin) that lives together with your site. When you add a field to a page, the site changes and CMS changes required, can go in the same commit and deploy. That’s great, automatically in sync.

When hosting your site on Netlify, you can add up to 5 additional users that can log in to the CMS as editors/admins. This is configurable through your account on netlify.com as easily as any other setting.

Adding a link on the site that takes you to the edit mode of that specific page is a matter of just using the right URL. Maybe not the most important feature, but a small thing that makes a site owner’s life a bit easier.

The preview of a page you’re editing is shown right next to the rich text editor as you type. How these previews should look is up to you (the developer). It took me some fiddling to figure out how I could reuse the styling from the Gatsby site, where I’m using styled components, but it’s great that this is just a matter of coding.

Pages and their fields can be configured in a YAML file, see the documentation for Collection Types. Apart from being a YAML file (that’s easy to mess up), it works as expected. Adding custom editor controls (called widgets) is also documented at Creating Custom Widgets.

Cons 🙁

  • Saving changes locally requires extra configuration
  • Many open issues on GitHub
  • Rich Text Editor in need of love
  • Only possible to preview the part you’re editing
  • Easy to break preview with Gatsby
  • Bad HTML makes automated UI testing harder

Bad Default DX

There are a couple of downsides as well. The first and most obvious one is that by default all changes done through the CMS’s UI, even running on localhost, is done against your remote Git repository. This was a big hurdle for me initially before I got the local configuration to work and I seriously started to look for other alternatives. I cannot see how anyone could live with this during development, I think it’s very unintuitive and I’m not alone.

There are a fairly high number of open issues on GitHub for this code base. Some things are small and can be worked around in Gatsby, but it absolutely doesn’t feel as polished as some of the commercial alternatives.

Example: I have a tags field which is entered as a comma separated list and saved as a list in markdown. If I don’t have any tags in a post, Netlify CMS saves this as a list of one item with the value of an empty string. When Gatsby then tries to create a route for each tag and the tags provided are [""], it’s a problem. Of course, it’s possible to compensate for such things, but small things like this is something you will need to handle.

Rich Text Editor

The Rich Text Editor could be improved in a number of ways. It uses an older version of Slate that has some issues solved in later versions, but an upgrade seems complicated. Also, there is no way to customise the editor. Take a look at this screenshot (the red lines are my hints).

Inserting an image is accessed by expanding extra controls. Yet there are two always visible buttons for adding code. Who needs a Rich Text Editor? People who want to add code or people who want to add images? 🤔 All right, those aren’t mutually exclusive, but admit it’s a bit strange.

Previews

Previews only have access to the data you enter in the current edit view, it can’t show the whole website. A consequence of that is that it’s quite easy to break the previews when developing the website (and not looking in the CMS). You want to render the same React components for previews as you do on the website, but you can’t have components with GraphQL queries. I have broken the previews a number of times during development and not realised it until quite some time later when I was checking the CMS. The text “Error: The result of this StaticQuery could not be fetched” is all too familiar to me. If only Cypress could fix this issue (open since May 2016), I could at least write tests to see if I have messed up the previews.

One more thing can be said about testability. If the HTML had been better, it would have been easier to write automated tests, since I wouldn’t have to use brittle selectors. On the other hand, I have yet to see a CMS with good HTML and I have a pretty extensive test suite that edits pages and creates a new blog post through the CMS and verifies it on the website.

Conclusion 🙂

All in all, I think Netlify CMS is a great choice given the criteria I had in this case. If I had a bigger budget and harder requirements on editorial features I might have come to another conclusion, but I’m perfectly satisfied for this use case.

Given that the product owner/solo editor/site admin/my wife had such a strong bias towards WordPress before I showed Netlify CMS, I was positively surprised how easy it was to sell it to her. Not being able to quickly preview the whole page wasn’t a problem at all and she instead commented on how great it was to see the preview update immediately as she typed. The web interface was also complemented in comparison with the WordPress editor: “there’s a lot less going on here”.

Finally, I have to say that I love the kind of services (primarily from Netlify, GitHub and Gatsby in this case) that have generous free tiers that I can use and learn about for personal use to then be aware of during architectural discussions at work. I hope such business model is sustainable even though there are leechers like me, thank you!

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