Documentation tooling

This section provides details on how documentation for the research project, and the Hexatomic software as well as the infrastructure used to develop and provide it, is facilitated.


The requirements for documentation tooling are specific to our research project in some respects (e.g., pertaining to Javadoc), but all others can be applied to generic (research) software project setups. And those that are project-specific can probably be transferred to other use cases relatively easily.

Requirements summary

The requirements for documentation tools for sustainable software development are

  • (1) Sustainability
  • (2) Single tool toolchain
  • (3) Usability
    • (3a) Human-readable source format
    • (3b) Javadoc integration
    • (3c) Continuous integration capabilities
    • (3d) Maintainability
    • (3e) Maintainability (dependencies)
    • (3f) Usability of representations
  • (4) Different representation forms


The documentation sustainability section establishes that

[documentation] sustainability must be ensured by choosing sustainable tooling [...].

Software sustainability covers many aspects, including community parameters such as size, number and frequency of contributions; whether a code is open source; the programming language it is implemented with; ease of installation; its dependency tree, etc.

Accordingly, there is currently no canonic definition of software sustainability, as discussed in [1]. One of the definitions given in [1] seems operationable enough to use in the context of documentation tooling:

Sustainable software is software which is:

  • Easy to evolve and maintain
  • Fulfils its intent over time
  • Survives uncertainty
  • Supports relevant concerns (Political, Economic, Social, Technical, Legal, Environmental)

[1] D. S. Katz, 'Defining Software Sustainability', 2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 22-Nov-2018]

Single tool "toolchain"

One of the key motivations behind the choice of tooling is to have one single software which we use for all of our (textual) documentation. This makes maintainership transitions easier as it requires less learning effort from new maintainers, as well as contributors.


Human-readable sources

In the event of a failure in the documentation software, the documentation sources must be readable and well-structured enough to function as a fallback in place of, e.g., HTML- or PDF-rendered documentation.

We use a combination of hierarchical directory structures and human-readable source file formats to achieve this.

Javadoc integration

As Hexatomic is written in Java, we use Javadoc to document source code in situ. This way, we can generate API documentation in HTML directly from the source code via the javadoc tool. This specific API documentation format is used standardly across most Java software projects1 and is something that code contributors will expect to find.

In order to boost findability of the API documentation, it would be helpful to be able to integrate the Javadoc HTML in the text documentation for developers as easily as possible, ideally through native support for this by the documentation software.


For example, all release artifacts of open source projects that are hosted on "Maven Central", the main repository for the dominant build system for Java (cf. [2]), are uploaded through the Open Source Software Repository Hosting (OSSRH) system, which requires artifacts to include a bundled version of the Javadoc API documentation.

[2] S. Maple and A. Binstock, 'The Largest Survey Ever of Java Developers', Java Magazine, November/December, p. 20, 2018. Available: [Accessed: 30-Nov-2018]

Continuous integration capabilities

In order to embed documentation deeply in the project as well as the development workflow, editing documentation must be as easy as possible and should ideally not require more than making the actual change in the documentation without having to care about building the representation, deployment, etc.

The default way to achieve this for any kind of code, including documentation sources, is to employ a continuous integration (CI) system which polls the version control system where the code is held for changes, and reacts to these changes by starting the appropriate action, e.g., by building the code and deploying the artifacts.

The documentation software should therefore enable continuous integration of its builds and automated deployment of the documentation representations, either natively, or via the continuous integration system used in the project, or by simply not preventing the application of a CI system, to trigger builds and deploy artifacts through, e.g., a custom script run on the CI system.

In addition to providing an easy way to produce documentation, automated deployment will also ensure that the user-facing representation of the documentation can be up-to-date at all times.


The documentation software should be very easily maintainable.

This includes factors like easy updates to new versions of the software; no installation required or very simple to install; no or very few dependencies on other software, or ready-made packages that include all dependencies.

Usability of representations

The documentation representations produced by the documentation software should have a high level of usability.

While some of the features that make documentation "usable" for a reader may depend on a specific reader's approach to documentation as well as her own preferences, some factors of usability are more easily quantifiable, e.g., a representation's ability to display well on different devices - which is usually a feature of responsive or reactive design paradigms. Further factors include the existence and behaviour of a table of contents or menu, font choices, colour schemes, intuitivity of interfaces, simplicity, and a consistent style that users can "learn".

Different representation forms

The documentation software should ideally be able to produce representations in different formats, e.g., produce a HTML representation of the documentation, a PDF file, an EPUB file, etc.

Different representations are required to serve the purposes of different parts of the documentation. While API documentation may be read mainly during development work and should therefore be provided as hyperlinked documents in a website for quick accessibility and browsing, user documentation may be read in larger portions at a time, e.g., during preparation or evaluation phases, and should therefore also be available as a portable and potentially printable format such as PDF or EPUB.

Available tools

To find a tool that fulfills as many of the requirements as well as possible, and that is suitable for our project context, we have surveyed different documentation software.

These tools would be feasible to use as the single tool for text-based documentation (as compared to Javadoc) in our project (requirement (2)). At the same time, we only considered tools that use a human-readable source format as input to create documentation representations (requirement (3a)). This included only tools that use an easily human-readable text-based markup language, i.e., a Markdown dialect, reStructuredText, or AsciiDoc.

It also excluded other commonly used tools, e.g., Pandoc, if they are not mainly targeted at creating software documentation. Pandoc, for example, does not support out-of-the-box conversion to HTML beyond single pages.

Additionally, we have excluded tools which seemed too little known, i.e., which failed the "list test", the hypothesis being that if a tool would not be included in a sample of list websites ("Top 10 software documentation tools", "15+ Software Documentation Tools That Will Simplify Your Life", etc.) it would not have enough market share, which may imply a small user base and therefore not enough community incentive to keep it alive over the next few years.

Out of the whole section of generic static site generators (of which most documentation tools are a subset of), we have chosen Jekyll because it is natively supported by GitHub Pages, our chosen documentation hosting solution. The reasons why we use GitHub Pages are explained in another section (forthcoming).

We ended up with the following shortlist of tool options.

In our subsequent evaluation of the tools, we have not taken into account the specifics of the different Markdown dialects for our evaluation.