Looking to unify technical documentation, bridging computer- and user-generated content, using open source tools. The goal is to write (or generate) content in an output agnostic file format, which is then transformed into a final document. The figure below helps illustrate how the overall pieces connect.

Documentation architecture

The solution should be operating system independent.

Output Features

The final document must include:

  • Tables
  • Figures
  • Code Snippets
  • Auto-numbered captions (for tables, figures, and code snippets)
  • Cross-references (hyperlinked to tables, figures, and bibliographic citations)
  • Headings (up to seven levels; 1., 1.1., ...,
  • Appendices (up to seven levels; A., A.1, ..., A.
  • Auto-numbered headings and appendices
  • Table of Contents (hyperlinked)
  • List of Tables (hyperlinked)
  • List of Figures (hyperlinked)
  • Bibliography (books, articles, journals, whitepapers, websites [hyperlinked])
    • Variety of formats (APA, Chicago, IEEE, etc.)

Most importantly, stylization (through templates or coding) should be possible so that all the documentation can be re-generated with a new look and feel. ConTeXt, for example, excels at this.

Markdown and Pandoc offers much of this functionality, though I'm not sure if it handles cross-references, auto-captions, bibliographies, and code snippets.

Input Features

  • Cross-document variables (e.g., a server name is documented once, but referenced by application architecture and software requirements specifications).
  • Browser-based WYSIWYG editor (possibly Confluence)
    • Table editor
    • Transclusion (embedded excerpts to help single-source content)
    • Collaborative (ideally, real-time)
    • Revisions
    • Markdown (ability to view source, but predominately used like a modern word processor)
  • Computer-generated content is transformed into Markdown format:
    • Source code documentation (package descriptions, no hyperlinked content necessary); Javadocs, Doxygen, etc.
    • SNMP (names and IP addresses of network devices)
    • Diagrams (entity-relationships, UML, GraphViz, etc.)
      • Ideally, JPG, PNG, and SVG images could be imported
    • List of database surrogate keys and descriptions (dumped from database)


Is it even possible to generate a high-quality technical document that includes such a wide variety of artifacts using only Markdown as the source content?

Here are the pieces that I'd appreciate recommendations or suggestions on:

  • Including source code (e.g., Javadoc/Doxygen -> Markdown)
  • Possibility to reformat various *nix command outputs to Markdown (nmap, traceroute, ls, tree, df, SNMP output, etc.); the translation could be massaged using awk and sed, for example.
  • WYSIWYG editor (FOSS alternatives to Confluence)
  • FOSS that can handle churning the output features from Markdown source into the desired output formats (PDF definitely and MS Word optionally).
    • If Pandoc/ConTeXt cannot accomplish this feat, what can?
  • Software and/or data formats (e.g., Markdown, YAML) for integrating bibliographies and cross-references such that the document generator (e.g., ConTeXt) can use them (e.g., RStudio)?

If there is a single software package that brings together all these features, I'd be keen to know that, too.


Related questions include:



1 Answer 1


I am reasonably certain that will a little work you could put something very like what you are describing using Sphinx Docs. The one area that you might have problems with is Real Time Collaborative Editing.

  • Base format is Restructured Text, (rather than markdown), but inputs can be in markdown.
  • Multiple output formats
  • Multiple input sources including source code, wiki, on-line, etc.
  • Can invoke and post process multiple tools during build process
  • Cross Platform
  • Open Source
  • Produces really good looking documentation
  • All of your requested output features available
  • Templates - Yes
  • Produce multiple output format documents - Yes
  • Syntax highlighting of code fragments in multiple languages thanks to Pygments.
  • Extensive cross-references: semantic markup and automatic links for functions, classes, citations, glossary terms and similar pieces of information.
  • Good internationalisation support using gettext.
  • Extensible and actively developed.
  • Thank you. Looks like there's an XML builder, which could be used with ConTeXt. as well as what appears to be a ConTeXt builder extension. Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 15:41
  • In an example with an appendix, the heading numbers don't use letters. This could have been an oversight/misconfiguration of the engine used to render the PDF, though. Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 15:49
  • I have just run some tests based on docutils.sourceforge.net/docs/ref/rst/… and those work fine for auto-enumerated - even the Roman numerals. Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 5:57

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