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Rethinking Sentry's Documentation

If you have searched for the Sentry or integration docs lately you might have noticed that some things have changed. There are now consolidated docs for Sentry and the raven clients right at docs.sentry.io:

New Docs Overview

This not only improves the ease with which you can get started error monitoring with Sentry, but also improve your bug tracking workflow with docs about integrating Sentry’s with other tools in your stack.

Evolving Documentation

Because of Sentry’s and the Raven clients’ root as a collection of Open Source projects, documentation was so far something that was bundled with the clients or the Sentry server. This lead to the situation that as a user it could be quite challenging to find all the relevant information as it was scattered around the place.

We finally wanted to tackle that problem and unite all the documentation in a central place. However, we also wanted to stay true to where we come from and make sure that the documentation for the individual components can be built separately. In addition to that, we wanted to be able to tag off the state of the documentation with Sentry releases and ship it out with the server tarballs.

Another slight complication was our requirement have two variants of the documentation for the cloud hosted version and the on-premise / Open Source edition of Sentry. While they are largely the same, there are some specifics that make it easier to treat them as separate projects.

Picking Technologies

Most of Sentry used the Sphinx documentation tool to build the documentation but some parts were just readme files in github repositories or the github wikis.

So we knew roughly what we wanted, but early experiments with Sphinx showed that it’s not entirely up for the task. We had problems getting the navigation to work the way we wanted and some of the design decisions in it made it very tricky to build composable docs. Unfortunately, looking around for alternatives it did not look like there were any tools around that were a better match for the task.

So we gave Sphinx another shot by extending it. While Sphinx suffers from a quite a few design missteps that made extension in the ways we needed very challenging, we managed to achieve our goal in the end by making some sacrifices.

Compared to stock Sphinx we lost the ability to generate PDF documentation and we can no longer build just the files that changed but need to rebuild the documentation from scratch. These are both two areas that would be nice to improve but will require some deeper changes in Sphinx itself.

The Components

So how does it work? The end result is structured in a range of different parts that all need to work together.

git: We heavily depend on the individual components being maintained as git repositories. The reason for this is that we want to treat the entire documentation in the end as a cohesive product, so we use git submodules to merge them together. We keep the documentation in the individual projects as a sub directory. The repos are then referenced as submodules in a master sentry-docs repository.

a push hook: Now that every piece of component has a repo and a documentation folder, we use a push hook to sync the referenced submodules to exactly the version we want. We do this rather than tracking a branch on the submodules so that we can tag off individual versions of the documentation with git releases.

a Sphinx extension: Another very important part is a Sphinx extension that adds custom support for the things we need. It’s referenced by a submodule from every single component so that the documentation can be built seperately. This extension we will go into detail a bit later.

A Simple Workflow

For the documentation author the process is quite simple. No matter which component you modify, the hook will automatically update the master sentry-docs repository and make a commit. Pushing updates to the production website then happens via our deployment tool, Freight. While currently a manual process we will be expanding the project in the future to automate all releases for docs.

New Docs Commits

Documentation Variants

It was very important for us to have at least two variants of the documentation for the on-premise and hosted edition of Sentry. We also have a third internal variant called the “self” variant which is used whenever a component’s own version of the documentation is built.

As Sphinx does not have a concept for this and it works against how it structures it’s internal “toctrees” (A tree of document and headline relationships), we had to solve this through a process of preprocessing.

We hook the preprocessing step of Sphinx to hide and show individual sub segments of the document. To give you an idea how this looks like you can have a look at the raw source of the quickstart document. The sentry:edition directive looks like any other reStructuredText directive, but is in an actual fact a preprocessing instruction that is resolved with some regular expression hackery. Because the syntax is heavily line and indentation based, we could implement this in a way where it feels and behaves exactly like any other rst directive.

To give you an example of how these directives work, take this basic example from the quickstart:

.. sentry:edition:: hosted

    1.  `Sign up for an account <https://sentry.io/signup/>`_
    2.  :ref:`pick-a-client-integration`
    3.  :ref:`configure-the-dsn`

.. sentry:edition:: on-premise

    1.  :ref:`install-the-server`
    2.  :ref:`pick-a-client-integration`
    3.  :ref:`configure-the-dsn`

In addition, we had to replace the default HTML builders with builders that do not emit unreferenced documents. This allows us to just affect the final build artifact purely through the sentry:edition directives. If a document ends up unreferenced in a certain variant, it’s skipped for the final result.

Customizing the Sidebar

New Docs Sidebar

A lot of work went into the sidebar of the documentation. This looks like something that should not be that hard to achieve, but sadly due to how Sphinx ix structured, it required a significant amount of work. As mentioned before, Sphinx uses the concept of “toctrees” to structure the entire documentation. This tree gets merged and processed in one monolithic function within Sphinx and is also used to generate the navigation bars and local table of contents. We had to write a replacement for this in our Sphinx extension.

In our extension we take merge the toctrees like in Sphinx itself, but we split them up into subsection based on selectors. This allows us to have a split sidebar that otherwise functions exactly as you expect.

We extensively use hidden toctrees to structure the page how we want. Most of the index page is empty with the exception of the client list, but it also contains a hidden tree of documents that should appear. The sidebar then picks up on these and renders it.

Dynamic Elements

It was important for us that the documentation ends up in static HTML files that can be served up from anything. This has two benefits: it makes it easy and reliable to host, but it also allows us to ship the very same docs to customers and it works. However we still wanted to have some dynamic elements in the documentation.

New Docs Dsn Dropdown

Two parts are notable: we want the header to reflect the authentication status for getsentry customers and we want code examples to contain the correct authentication keys so that copy/paste becomes possible.

For this to work we perform a cross domain request to a specific API endpoint on getsentry which provides the information to render the correct header and API key information. To avoid visual problems with the header loading in a deferred way, we intercept all page navigation and replace them with dynamic loading. For that we perform an AJAX request to load the page content, parse the DOM to extract the areas we want to replace, and then perform a DOM swap of those elements. Lastly we scan over all code blocks to replace our DSN (API Key) markers with the value selected from the API key dropdown.

User Experience

Lastly for the design of the whole end product we use a combination of jQuery and Less managed through webpack and some traditional Jinja2 templates. For styling individual elements in the documentation we take advantage of the ability to assign CSS classes through the class directive in reStructuredText.

Additionally we wanted to ensure that the dynamic elements of the page didn’t cause a serious impact to the end user. To do this we implemented a basic layer on top of browser history API. We hook all anchor tags which link to the same domain and load updated content, both for the sidebar and main body.

Wizards

Another benefit of the documentation we have now is that we can define wizards through section selectors. This allows use to mark certain parts of the documentation relevant for a wizard that should be embedded in Sentry. In the near future when you create a new project in Sentry the application will guide you through setting up your project by directly extracting that data from within the documentation.

The wizard configuration looks like this now:

{
  "wizards": [
    "python-flask": {
      "name": "Flask",
      "client_lib": "raven-python",
      "is_framework": true,
      "doc_link": "integrations/flask",
      "snippets": [
        "integrations/flask#installation",
        "integrations/flask#setup"
      ]
    }
  ]
}

The snippets are a list of paths to the documents that define them and the ID of the section (headline). This allows us to sub select small parts of the overall document without having to maintain multiple similar documents with the same content.

Big Picture

So where would you find all these bits and pieces if you chose to build something like this yourself?

  • the overarching documentation repository with the design, the custom JavaScript and makefiles can be found at getsentry/sentry-docs
  • the Sphinx extension and a pre-commit hook for some sanity checks exists at getsentry/sentry-doc-support
  • the push hook unfortunately is currently proprietary because it has some secrets in the repository we did not split out yet. But that part is not very interesting.
  • for deploying we use our own freight.
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