Rendering equations server-side

I have been using MathJax as a client-side equation renderer to render equations on my blog for a long time.

The main problem about the client-side rendering is that it makes people that turn off JavaScript on their browsers (e.g. for privacy reasons) unable to see the equations in my articles. Another problem is that it is annoying to wait for the browser to render all the equations, especially if the site owner could have rendered them for you.

I actually have had some experience in server-side equation rendering in Jekyll. In a past post, I talked about how I used Jekyll and KaTeX to render equations in emails server-side. For the website of Sunniesnow (see here for a related post), I use jekyll-katex to render the equations server-side.

Then, I thought, what is stopping me to render equations server-side on my blog? I then started the migration.

The painful building

The easiest way to switch to server-side equation rendering is just to use kramdown-math-katex. Install the gem, add an option math_engine: katex into the Kramdown configurations of _config.yml, add the needed CSS to the theme, and… What is my computer doing? It is just stuck at building the site!

By adding the --verbose option to the jekyll serve command, I can see what it was doing. I can see that it is never stuck on any step, but rendering each article that has equations (especially those with a ton of ones) takes seconds. Because I have dozens of articles with equations, it takes minutes to build the site. It seems that although KaTeX has always been advertising itself as the fastest math typesetting library for the web, it is not fast enough for me to use it to render equations server-side.

A way to mitigate this issue is to use the --incremental option of jekyll serve. This makes the building much faster except the first time. I can also expect Jekyll to support lazy building in the future, which will entirely skip the building phase and build the files as needed on the fly.

I found another way to partially mitigate this issue. On my blog, I have been extensively utilizing the markdownify filter to render Markdown inside the templates, including the title of the posts, the excerpt of the posts, and something else. Those are rendered in multiple places, including the homepage, the archive page, the RSS feed, and the search page. Since now rendering Markdown is being very slow, I decided to cache the rendered Markdowns. A very simple strategy is as follows:

def markdownify input
	UlyssesZhan.markdown_snippet_cache[input] ||= Filters.instance_method(:markdownify).bind_call self, input

Also, for most of the time I actually do not need to see the Markdown styling in the titles and excerpts, so I can also disable the markdownify filter depending on the site configuration, like this:

def markdownify input
	return input if @context.registers[:site].config['avoid_markdown']
	UlyssesZhan.markdown_snippet_cache[input] ||= Filters.instance_method(:markdownify).bind_call self, input

If I do not want to modify the site configuration file, I can also utilize an environment variable. I can use a after-init hook to set the configuration item based on the environment variable.

Rendering archives has also been very slow even with this Markdown disabling trick (for some reason I do not know). I decide to use another environment variable to disable the rendering of archives. Change the line gem 'jekyll-archives' in Gemfile to this:

gem 'jekyll-archives', install_if: !ENV['JEKYLL_NO_ARCHIVE']

By using --incremental and these two tricks together, I can finally build the site in seconds if I only modify one post during jekyll serve.


It seems that I cannot cross-reference equations using server-side means. First, KaTeX does not support cross-referencing, and the current workarounds are not acceptable for my use cases.

I then looked at kramdown-math-mathjaxnode, which uses the MathJax Node library to render equations server-side. The MathJax Node library itself does support rendering equation numbers, but kramdown-math-mathjaxnode does not support cross-referencing either. What is worse is that it has not been maintained for years, which means I probably had to rewrite the plugin myself, but I did not have spare time.

Even worse, Kramdown is just not suitable for implementing cross-referencing. I briefly looked at Kramdown’s source codes, and I realized that if I was about to write a math engine for Kramdown to support cross-reference, I would have to refactor Kramdown a bit. Actually, cross-referencing is quite a non-trivial feature for markup languages because of references that cannot be resolved during the first compilation. In LaTeX\LaTeX, those references are resolved in the second compilation. I would need to refactor Kramdown to support a similar workflow to make it possible to implement cross-referencing.

Then, I looked at other Markdown engines. For Ruby, the only successful Markdown engine besides Kramdown that I know was Redcarpet (it used to be the default Markdown engine of Jekyll), and it was not designed with cross-referencing in mind either. Its developer even rejected to support math-related features a long time ago.

This is why I looked at non-Ruby Markdown engines. The first option that I came up with and also the option that I finally chose is Pandoc.

Pandoc is power in that its form of customization is filters, which transforms the whole parsed AST of the document. Because the whole AST is visible at once for a filter, it is then possible to implement cross-referencing by using a filter. Fortunately, someone has already written such a filter, and it is called pandoc-crossref. What is good about this approach is that it is independent of the math engine that I use: I can use MathJax or KaTeX, client-side or server-side, and it does not matter. The only drawback about it is that it does not support cross-reference a particular line in align or eqnarray environment, which is a feature that I have used in some of my posts. I have to reword those posts to avoid using that feature.

Now that we have a filter, we then need a way to let Pandoc render the math expressions server-side. Fortunately (again), someone has already written a filter for this purpose, and it is called pandoc-katex. Append this filter after the pandoc-crossref filter, and we are done.

The drawback about Pandoc is that it has no Ruby implementations, which means the only way to utilize Pandoc in Jekyll is to write a wrapper of it in Ruby and develop a Jekyll plugin for using that wrapper of Pandoc as the Markdown engine. Fortunately, someone has already done this: the wrapper is called pandoc-ruby, and the Jekyll plugin is called jekyll-pandoc.

Although the math rendering problem is solved, a somewhat unrelated problem arises: Pandoc does not use Rouge to highlight code blocks, but I like Rouge. Unfortunately, no one has written a Pandoc filter to use Rouge to highlight code blocks for me; but fortunately, I can write one myself quickly because it is easy enough, especially if I utilize Paru, which contains an API library to help me with writing Pandoc filters in Ruby.

Paru is actually an alternative to pandoc-ruby. Now that I also use Paru, I started to wonder if I should use pandoc-ruby at all. Considering that jekyll-pandoc has not been maintained for years, I decided to write my own Jekyll plugin to use Paru as the Markdown engine, and the simple plugin is called jekyll-paru.

Tedious work of reformatting the old posts

Using kramdown-math-katex is the only option that I do not need to adjust most of my posts. Another option, jekyll-katex, is not compatible with the markup that I use to write equations. I could not either just wrap the whole {{ content }} inside the {% katexmm %} block (due to some errors that I do not know), and the error messages then were impossible to utilize to help me locate the incompatibilities.

For the option that I finally use, Pandoc, I also have to adjust most of my posts. The major incompatibility is that I need to change all \label and \ref to the format recognizable by pandoc-crossref. Another incompatibility is that I need to use {target=_blank} instead of {:target="_blank"} to indicate a link to be opened in a new tab (as well as other HTML attributes that I use this syntax to embed in Markdown). Also, Pandoc does not allow blank lines inside math display blocks, which I have used in some of my posts (by the way, LaTeX\LaTeX does not allow those blank lines either, which is pretty annoying).

I then wrote a simple script that use regular expressions to help me with this refactoring task. However, because of the diversity of the syntaxes that I used, I still need to check the posts manually after I ran the script. This makes the refactoring task still very tedious.

The much more complicated GitHub Actions workflow

Now, to build my site, the machine needs pandoc, pandoc-crossref, and pandoc-katex, none of which are Ruby Gems. I need to set up Haskell environment and Rust environment to install them. In GitHub Actions, I can use haskell-actions/setup to set up Haskell environment and cargo-install to install Cargo packages.

I do not know how I managed to make the GitHub Actions workflow file work expectedly at one shot, but I did.

Table of contents and searching

I have been using jekyll-toc to generate the table of contents for each post. The problem with using it now is that it strips the HTML in headings and only keeps the text, so headings with math expressions will not be rendered with nice math typesetting. It was not a problem previously because the client-side math rendering script will render the math expressions in the table of contents. Now that I switched to server-side math rendering, I had to patch jekyll-toc to make it work.

The search functionality was implemented by myself. It is a simple client-side searching powered by Lunr. I also had to refactor the search functionality a bit to make the search results be rendered with math expressions (which were previously also handled by the client-side math rendering script).

Updating the theme

The reason that I updated the theme is actually quite dramatic. This originated from me trying to use kramdown-math-katex. To ensure that the KaTeX CSS has the correct version with the KaTeX renderer used by katex-ruby, I decided to @import the SCSS file found in the repo of katex-ruby into my theme. I found that the SCSS file utilizes a function asset-path to load the fonts, but my CSS pre-processor does not support it, so I tried to extend my CSS pre-processor.

Jekyll uses jekyll-sass-converter to render CSS files, which once (v2) used sassc, but now (v3) uses sass-embedded. The former does not support extension of custom SCSS functions, but the latter does. Therefore, I need to upgrade my jekyll-sass-converter to v3. I actually could have upgraded it earlier because I have been using Jekyll v4 for a long time, but I deliberately kept using jekyll-sass-converter v2 because jekyll-action, which I used, had an issue about using sass-embedded. However, I have long ago migrated from jekyll-action to GitHub’s official upload-pages-artifact, so I can now upgrade jekyll-sass-converter to v3.

Then why does this have anything to do with the theme I used (which is Minima)? After I upgraded jekyll-sass-converter to v3, I found that there are some deprecation warnings in the SCSS files (they are actually already fixed, but I do not know why the issue is still open). This was also when I noticed that Minima has not released a new version for 4 years, and the last stable release is v2.5.1.

Then, how did I upgrade to Minima v3? I actually just tried to use the master branch of the Git repo of Minima, and I found that it was great.

Placeholder files for customization

I am glad to see Minima v3 introduced the include custom-head.html which allows for custom additional HTML metadata and the SCSS file minima/custom-variables.scss and minima/custom-styles.scss which allows for custom SCSS rules to override the default ones.

Although it took me some time to migrate my already present SCSS files and HTML metadata to the new structure, I am glad that Minima adopted this new structure that is more useful and more modern.


Another feature that I really like about Minima v3 is the support of skins. Minima now comes with several pre-defined skins which I can choose from. The default skin called classic is the one that originated from Minima v2, based on which I wrote my own skin.

I still remember a long time ago I tried to make my site support dark theme. It was such a pain because there are so many colors hardcoded in the theme so that I have to rewrite a large part of the SCSS files provided by Minima to support dark theme. Now, Minima v3 has a pre-defined skin called auto, which adaptively looks the same as classic or dark based on the browser’s prefers-color-scheme. I can now implement my skin based on auto (select my skin in the site’s configuration file and @import the auto skin in my skin’s SCSS file), and the codes are now much cleaner.