Why Sphinx and reStructuredText ?

The first school of thought on documentation, is the one we subscribe to in Varnish right now: “Documentation schmocumentation…” It does not work for anybody.

The second school is the “Write a {La}TeX document” school, where the documentation is seen as a stand alone product, which is produced independently. This works great for PDF output, and sucks royally for HTML and TXT output.

The third school is the “Literate programming” school, which abandons readability of both the program source code and the documentation source, which seems to be one of the best access protections one can put on the source code of either.

The fourth school is the “DoxyGen” school, which lets a program collect a mindless list of hyperlinked variable, procedure, class and filenames, and call that “documentation”.

And the fifth school is anything that uses a fileformat that cannot be put into a version control system, because it is binary and non-diff’able. It doesn’t matter if it is OpenOffice, LyX or Word, a non-diffable doc source is a no go with programmers.

Quite frankly, none of these works very well in practice.

One of the very central issues, is that writing documentation must not become a big and clear context-switch from programming. That precludes special graphical editors, browser-based (wiki!) formats etc.

Yes, if you write documentation for half your workday, that works, but if you write code most of your workday, that does not work. Trust me on this, I have 25 years of experience avoiding using such tools.

I found one project which has thought radically about the problem, and their reasoning is interesting, and quite attractive to me:

  1. TXT files are the lingua franca of computers, even if you are logged with TELNET using IP over Avian Carriers (Which is more widespread in Norway than you would think) you can read documentation in a .TXT format.

  2. TXT is the most restrictive typographical format, so rather than trying to neuter a high-level format into .TXT, it is smarter to make the .TXT the source, and reinterpret it structurally into the more capable formats.

In other words: we are talking about the ReStructuredText of the Python project, as wrapped by the Sphinx project.

Unless there is something I have totally failed to spot, that is going to be the new documentation platform in Varnish.

Take a peek at the Python docs, and try pressing the “show source” link at the bottom of the left menu:

(link to random python doc page:)

Dependency wise, that means you can edit docs with no special tools, you need python+docutils+sphinx to format HTML and a LaTex (pdflatex ?) to produce PDFs, something I only expect to happen on the project server on a regular basis.

I can live with that, I might even rewrite the VCC scripts from Tcl to Python in that case.

Poul-Henning, 2010-04-11