For years, WordPress has been the de facto standard for content authoring on the web. The reasons for this are many, but principal among them is it’s clean, easy-to-use interface that gives content authors control over nearly every aspect of their content. WordPress isn’t going away, but hosting and maintaining it safely can be a challenge.
The Elusive Dashboard
There are lots of services out there that could have fulfilled our requirements, but all of these stored content on another platform, an approach we patently wanted to avoid. For that reason, services like Forestry, Contentful, and even Sanity with its installable api and hosted backend, were out of the equation.
Instead I looked into dashboard / content authoring UIs that we could build an API around. I saw that Meteorjs had an open-source project in this vane, but that there really weren’t that many active projects on NPM that we could utilise.
Then I discovered Strapi.
A Content Interface
Strapi quickly started looking like it was a product that could fit our requirements. A self-hosted, API-focused system with a well designed dashboard and a useable interface. I particularly liked that we could create content types on the frontend, designate the fields, and start using them straight away.
Strapi showed promise, however version 1 was depracated, v2 hadn’t made it out of the door, and v3 was still in Alpha release stage. This is a cause for concern, however the team were progressing with a good deal of focus on fulfilling key user needs. I decided I would get involved in the project and start using it for personal work.
Deploying Strapi on Heroku
Fortunately for me, there’s already a decent Strapi starter for Heroku, which is advertised right on the Strapi repo readme. One click and I had started my own Heroku instance, using mLab to host the MongoDB database, all connected up and ready to be used.
This is great for giving Strapi a spin, but I wanted this to be my content platform. To do that I needed to create my own fields and add some new content types. I added some, only to find they’d rolled back again afterwards. I tried uploading images, to find they disappeared after a few hours. What was happening?!
What I hadn’t realised is that Heroku’s file system is ephermeral, which means data stored there won’t persist. You application’s instance can be destroyed and rebuilt from the git store depending on Heroku’s, or your, needs. So making changes to the API, storing images locally, or even data, needs to be done differently.
The core issue was that I needed to clone the site locally, add my changes, then to Heroku’s Git repo, and push it to Heroku’s repo.
Cloning the Heroku build pack so you can work on it locally is a bit tricky. I found this helpful guide and worked through it, and eventually I was able to spin up my Strapi app locally.
I work on Linux, and I had to be careful when installing MongoDB locally. This is because I needed to add MongoDB via the APT package manager, and I inadvertently tried to install a version meant for older Linux OSes. So I broke my computer and had to re-install the OS.
After that, I decided to stick with the remote service mLab until I can decipher the Docker documentation and get it all running together inside a container.
Once done, I was able to add content types and fields, and add Cloudinary as an image storage provider, and push my changes to Heroku.
Querying the API
One last hurdle remained, which was to query the API from GatsbyJS. To start with, I found I kept geting 401 Unauthorised notifications. This is because every content type you define is private by default. You have to enable the public user, or submit auth details, in order to query the data. Here’s a handy guide on how to do that.
That was it, I now had a fully functional API hosted for free on Heroku. I could start the app (Heroku’s free tier means that you app will sleep until its needed), run Gatsbyjs, and get my data using the gatsby-source-strapi plugin.
Strapi - Ready for Production?
However, this is a product that’s very much in development, and there are certain inconsistencies to watch out for. Plugins and even features may change frequently. I had some serious issues with the date picker in the version I was using, and I couldn’t get the Cloudinary plugin to work so I instead created a text field and uploaded my images to Cloudinary independently.
However, it still met my requirements and proved to be a product I recommend investigating, and using if it meets your requirements. If you are after this type of thing I ask you to be generous with your support for the time and money the contributors have put into it. It takes not only serious programming chops but also a good investment in design for such a thing to be useable, and I think the Strapi team have achieved that.
It’s still a little rough around the edges as you might expect from software still in prerelease. But it’s filling a huge gap in the market and that’s pretty unique. Strapi is definitely shaping up to be a tool I am going to be using frequently in the future.