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static vs. dynamic content: a footnote

My colleague Blake recently wrote an article on the occasion of the decommissioning of NewsDelivery, a dynamic content display engine that until recently ran all the news stories on CBC.ca. I can’t speak for any of our alumni, but I think all of us at CBC.ca have learned one lesson:

Large websites should never, ever use dynamic rendering for content rendering.

It’s amazing how many content management systems still do not grasp this principle. On a busy site, especially one that is liable to be Slashdotted or visited heavily (say, on 11 September 2001), you do not want to be executing Java/ASP/Smalltalk/FORTRAN/whatever code every time someone visits a story. In short, you do not want CPU usage to rise proportionally to the number of visitors you have.

What you do want is to make the content rendering "system" as simple as possible; in the ideal case, you can barely call it a system. For content rendering, CBC.ca now mostly uses a bare Apache instances with server-side includes, meaning that aside from the core Apache engine, no other code needs to be executed every time you view a story.

This seems like a very simple principle, but many other news sites are still not grasping it. I can almost guarantee that if there is another 9/11-scale of event, sites that use a servlet-based dynamic execution system like The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star will fall over under heavy load far sooner than CBC.ca. But I don’t really blame those organizations for choosing, for example, Fatwire Content Server (as in the Star’s case) because a news organization’s primary need is to create content. Displaying it is a whole separate problem entirely and the shame should be on the vendor for closely tying the two together.