Github Pages, Travis, and Static Sites

Posted on 2014-09-01 in
  • github
  • ,
  • travis
  • ,
  • static
  • , and
  • meta

I recently switched my blog to being hosted on GitHub Pages instead of hosting the static site myself. Along with this change, I was able to automate the rendering and updating of the site, thanks to GitHub webhooks, and Travis-CI. As always, I'm using wok for the rendering and management of the site.

My work flow now looks like this:

  1. Write a post, edit something, change a template, etc.
  2. git commit.
  3. git push.
  4. Wait for the robots to do my bidding.

It is ideal.


For this to work, there are a few things that are needed. First, and most fundamental, the site needs to be fully static. A pile of HTML, CSS, JS, images, etc. Nothing server side at all. Otherwise it can't be hosted on GitHub Pages.

Next, the site has to be stored on GitHub, and it can't be the account's main GHPage repository. For example, I cannot use the repository mythmon/ This is because GHPages treats the branches in that repository differently. It should be possible to set up this this work flow on a repository like this, but I won't go into it here.

The master branch will be where the source of the site is, the parts a human edits. The gh-pages branch will hold the rendered output, and be generated automatically.

Finally, the site needs to be easy to render on Travis. This usually means that all the tools are easy to install with pip or npm or another package manager, and the process of rendering the output from a checkout of the site can be scripted. Any wok sites should fit these requirements.

Part 1 - Automation.

Before I can ask the robots to do my bidding, I have to automate the process they are going to be doing. Two commands are needed, one to build the site, and one to commit the new version and push it to GitHub.

My site uses wok, which is a Python library. Because of this, I wanted a Python task runner to automate the build process. It may have been overkill, but I used Invoke. Here is my invoke script,, with explanation interspersed.

If you're unfamiliar with Invoke, it is gives a nice way to define tasks, run shell commands, and run Python code. Make, shell scripts, Gulp, or any other task runner would work just as well.

Here's the code. First, some imports.

import os
from contextlib import contextmanager
from datetime import datetime

from invoke import task, run

These two constants are used to clone and push the repository. GH_REF is the repository's remote URL, without any protocol, and GH_TOKEN will be a GitHub authorization token from the environment. More on this in a bit.

GH_REF = ''
GH_TOKEN = os.environ.get('GH_TOKEN')

This is a simple context manager that lets me change into a directory, run some commands, then safely change out of it. I'm likely reinventing the wheel here.

def cd(newdir):
    print 'Entering {}/'.format(newdir)
    prevdir = os.getcwd()
        print 'Leaving {}/'.format(newdir)

Here is the first of the three tasks defined. This one makes sure that the output directory is in the right state. It should work even if the directory already exists, if it wasn't a git repo, if it has stray file lying around, or even if it is on the wrong commit or branch. This is generally useful outside of Travis as well.

def make_output():
    if os.path.isdir('output/.git'):
        with cd('output'):
            run('git reset --hard')
            run('git clean -fxd')
            run('git checkout gh-pages')
            run('git fetch origin')
            run('git reset --hard origin/gh-pages')
        run('rm -rf output')
        run('git clone https://{} output'.format(GH_REF))

This next task simply renders the site. It sets up the output directory by calling the above task, and then calls then trigger wok, the site renderer. Nice and simple

def build():

This last task is the bit that actually publishes to GitHub in a safe, secure, and automated way.

def publish():
    if not GH_TOKEN:
        raise Exception("Probably can't push because GH_TOKEN is blank.")

    with cd('output'):

The first thing it does is configure a user for git. GitHub won't accept pushes without user information, so I put some fake information here.

        run('git config ""')
        run('git config "Travis Build"')

Next it git adds ll the files in the output directory. The --all fag will deal with new files being added, old files being changed, and old files being deleted. It won't commit anything in the .gitignore, if you have one.

        run('git add --all .')

Now, make the commit. I thought for a while about what to put in the git commit message. At first I was going to put a timestamp, but I realized that git will do that for me already. Future improvements might note what commits this version of the site was built from.

        run('git commit -am "Travis Build"')

Finally, the script needs to push the resulting commit up to the gh-pages branch of GitHub, so it will be served. The first problem I faced was how to authenticate with GitHub to do this. The second was how to do that without revealing any secrets.

The solution to the first problem was GitHub token auth. By using the HTTPS protocol, and putting the token in the authentication section of the URL, I can push to any GitHub repo that token has access to.

The problem with this is that git prints out the remote when you push. Since my token is in the URL, which is the remote name in this case, it was printing secrets out in Travis logs! The solution is to hide git's output. It seems obvious in retrospect, but I revealed two tokens this way in Travis logs (they were immediately revoked, of course).

        # Hide output, since there will be secrets.
        cmd = 'git push https://{}@{} gh-pages:gh-pages'
        run(cmd.format(GH_TOKEN, GH_REF), hide='both')

To run these tasks, I use invoke build and invoke publish, to build and publish the site, respectively.

Part 2 - Travis

As you can tell, the bulk of the work is in the automation. A lot of thought went into the 60 or so lines of code above. Now that it is automated, it is easy to make the robots do the rest. I chose Travis for my automation.

I went to the Travis site, set up the repository for the site, and tweaked a few settings. In particular, I turned off the "Build pushes" option, because it isn't useful to me. There isn't any risk of revealing secrets in PRs, because Travis doesn't decrypt the secrets in PR builds. The other setting I tweaked is to turn on "Buildon if .travis.yml is present". Since I was doing all this work on a branch, I didn't want my master branch to be making builds happen, and I think this is a generally good setting to set on Travis.

So that Travis knows what tools it needs, I added a requirements.txt file to my repository, which Travis understands how to use, if you set the language to Python. Then I added a .travis.yml to tell Travis how to build my site.

I wrapped the secure token here. And yes, it is fine. It is encrypted, as I'll explain below.

language: python
- '2.7'
- invoke build
- invoke publish
    secure: LXYt0XENsCV58GD2g2jB27Hil9O80DXdnyM6palKLNcYa7z/hqvqtkCwW9Wmj5jqLXj

Basic simple stuff. Since the The script command (invoke build) builds the site, using the big script above. Similarly, the after success command invoke publish uploads the site to GitHub (but only if the site actually builds).

Woah, hold on. What's all this junk at the end? That "junk" is the magic to safely pass secrets to Travis builds in a public repository. It is a line that looks like GH_TOKEN=abcdef1234567890, encrypted using a public key for which Travis holds the private key. In "safe" builds (builds on my repo that are not from PRs) Travis will decrypt that token and provide it to the build. The invoke script then picks up the environment variable and uses it when it pushes to GitHub. Pretty slick.

To generate this encrypted line, I used the [Travis CLI tool][traviscli] like this:

$ travis encrypt --add
Reading from stdin, press Ctrl+D when done

That is, I ran the command, typed the name of the environement variable, followed by an equals sign, and then the value, then I pressed enter, and then Ctrl+D. This is a normal interactive read from stdin. After doing that, my .travis.yml file contained the encrypted string, and I was ready to commit it.

I got the value for that environment variable from GitHub's personal API token generator.

Part 3 - DNS

I could be done now. At this point, when I push a new version of my site to GitHub, it fires a webhook, Travis builds my site, pushes it back to GitHub, and then GitHub serves it with GitHub Pages.

This didn't work for me for a couple reasons. First, I like my URL, and didn't really want to change. Second, my site assumes it as at the root of the server, and can't deal with GitHub's insistence of putting this site at The content of this site is there, but it's all unstyled, because of broken links to the CSS, and none of the links work. Maybe someday I'll fix this.

So I have to do some DNS tricks and tell GH pages to expect another domain name for my site.

Telling GitHub.

So that GitHub knows what site to serve when someone visits, I had to add a CNAME file to the gh-pages branch of the site. Luckily with wok that was pretty easy. I made the file media/CNAME which wok put in the root of the gh-pages branch and gave it the contents It takes some minutes for GitHub to recognize this change, but after that it works well.

Setting up DNS

You may have noticed that I say www.mythmon.comthere, instead of the nice`. I would prefer the latter, but it isn't to be with GHPages.

The recommended way to use custom DNS with GHPages is to make whatever domain name that should serve the site use a CNAME to So for me, I have IN CNAME in a Bind config. The problem is, according to RFC 1912, "A CNAME record is not allowed to coexist with any other data." Since the root of a domain has to have some other records (NS, SOA, possible MX or TXT), you can't have a CNAME to GitHub at the root. :(.


The problem with this is that I have used to reference my blog in the past, and cool URIs don't change. So I needed to find a way to make the old adadress work.

First I tried making have an A record to the IPs of the GHPages servers. This isn't recommended, but it does work if that is the primary DNS name of the site. However, since in the CNAME file above, I wrote down (with the recommended DNS CNAME setup), this didn't work. It gave "No such domain" errors. Bummer.

The solution I ended up going with is less nice. I pointed the root record at the server I used to host the site on, which is still running nginx. I put this in my Nginx config:

server {
    listen       80;
    return 301 $scheme://$request_uri;

This causes Nginx to serve permanent redirects to the correct url, preserving any path information. Not the best experience, but it works.

That's it.

Now the site works. It gets served from a fast CDN, I don't have to worry about re-rendering the site, and I get to make blog posts with git. The robots do the tedious work for me. It is ideal.

If you have any comments or questions, I'm @mythmon on Twitter.