Kerry Buckley

What’s the simplest thing that could possibly go wrong?

Defending Ruby and Rails in the Enterprise

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I consider myself fortunate that the previous two projects I worked on (the BT Web21C Portal and Mojo) were Rails-based (actually it wan’t just luck in the former case, as I had a part in selecting the framework). I love the expressiveness and flexibility of the Ruby language, the power and relative simplicity of the Rails framework, and the all-round awesomeness of tools like RSpec and Capistrano, and I don’t particularly relish the thought of going back to Java (although I’m told that Spring is much nicer than last time I used it).

At our recent release planning session, I was assigned to a new project, which involves (among other things) exposing a CLI-based configuration interface as a web service. In our initial discussions, the four of us more-or-less agreed on a few initial decisions:

  • The exposure should be REST. Fortunately the people developing the upstream system shared this opinion.
  • Rails is an ideal framework for RESTful web services.
  • Ruby seemed like a good fit for parsing the command responses too.
  • Asynchronous behaviour would be handled using queues (probably ActiveMQ).

Since we’d all been working on Rails projects when the new team was formed, we assumed that this wouldn’t be a particularly contentious route to go down, but unfortunately our director/architect/boss didn’t see things quite the same way. He had two main objections:

  • Rails may make sense for GUI applications, but why on earth would you use it for a service? All our other [SOAP] services are written in Java.
  • At some point the application will need to go into support, and we don’t have support/operations people with Ruby or Rails experience

I think the first point’s easier to address, as I’d argue it’s based on a misunderstanding: Rails isn’t really anything to do with GUIs, but is a framework for creating MVC web applications. Virtually all the heavy lifting Rails takes care of is in the controller and model areas, with the creation of the actual visible GUI being left to the developer to take care of with the usual mix of HTML, CSS and Javascript. The only thing Rails adds is the ability to insert dynamic content using ERB – similar to the role of JSP in Java EE.

A RESTful web service is, to all intents and purposes, the same as a normal web application, but (potentially) without the HTML. All the power that Rails brings to web application development is also harnessed when creating RESTful services.

The second point represents a much more fundamental strategy choice. If the company makes the decision that all development is going to use Java (the language as well as the platform), then we inevitably lose the flexibility to choose what may appear (in a local context) to be the right tool for the job. Personally I think that would be a shortsighted and ill-informed decision: if that were the strategy, we’d presumably all still be developing in C, or COBOL, or Assembler. Or we’d have gone bust. But then I’m not an architect (incidentally, according to Peter Gillard-Moss, that’s reason number 10 why I don’t deserve to be fired), so what do I know?

However, if Ruby is considered an acceptable technology choice for “normal” web applications, we’ll still need people with appropriate skills to support those, so the problem doesn’t go away. I suspect even for a Java specialist, supporting a well-written Rails application with good test coverage is probably easier than supporting some of the spaghetti-coded Java I’ve seen.

Anyway, our arguments obviously weren’t totally unconvincing, because we were given a couple of weeks to show what we could produce before getting a final decision. That time runs out on Monday, so if I’m unnaturally grumpy after that it’ll be because we’ve been told to chuck all our work so far away and start from scratch in Java. Or possibly FORTRAN.

Update, 16 June Well we made our case, and we get to stick with Rails. Celebration all round!

Written by Kerry

June 12th, 2008 at 9:42 am

Posted in Enterprise,Rails,Ruby

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