Posts Tagged merb

Learning from Rails’ failures

Ruby on Rails undisputedly changed the way web frameworks are designed. Rails became a reference when it comes to leveraging conventions, easy baked in feature set and a rich ecosystem. However, I think that Rails did and still does a lot of things pretty poorly.  By writing this post, I’m not trying to denigrate Rails, there are many other people out there already doing that. My hope is that by listing what I think didn’t and still doesn’t go well, we can learn from our mistakes and improve existing solutions or create better new ones.


Migrating a Rails App from a version to the other is very much like playing the lottery, you are almost sure you will lose. To be more correct, you know things will break, you just don’t know what, when and how. The Rails team seems to think that everybody is always running on the cutting edge version and don’t consider people who prefer to stay a few version behind for stability reasons. What’s worse is that plugins/gems might or might not compatible with the version you are updating to, but you will only know that by trying yourself and letting others try and report potential issues.

This is for me, by far, the biggest issue with Rails and something that should have been fixed a long time ago. If you’re using the WordPress blog engine, you know how easy and safe it is to upgrade the engine or the plugins. Granted WordPress isn’t a web dev framework, but it gives you an idea of what kind of experience we should be striving for.


Stability vs playground zone

New features are cool and they help make the platform more appealing to new comers. They also help shape the future of a framework. But from my perspective, that shouldn’t come to the cost of stability. Rails 3′s new asset pipeline is a good example of a half-baked solution shoved in a release at the last minute and creating a nightmare for a lot of us trying to upgrade. I know, I know, you can turn off the asset pipeline and it got better since it was first released. But shouldn’t that be the other way around? Shouldn’t fun new ideas risking the stability of an app or making migration harder, be off by default and turned on only by people wanting to experiment? When your framework is young, it’s normal that you move fast and sometimes break, but once it matures, these things shouldn’t happen.


Public/private/plugin APIs

This is more of a recommendation than anything else. When you write a framework in a very dynamic language like Ruby, people will “monkey patch” your code to inject features. Sometimes it is due to software design challenges, sometimes it’s because people don’t know better. However,  by not explicitly specifying what APIs are private (they can change at anytime, don’t touch), what APIs are public (stable, will be slowly deprecated when they need to be changed) and which ones are for plugin devs only (APIs meant for instrumentation, extension etc..), you are making migration to newer versions much harder. You see, if you have a small, clean public API, then it’s easy to see what could break, warn developers and avoid migration nightmares. However, you need to start doing that early on in your project, otherwise you will end up like Rails where all code can potentially change anytime.


Rails/Merb merge was a mistake

This is my personal opinion and well, feel free to disagree, nobody will ever be able to know to for sure. Without explaining what happened behind closed doors and the various personal motivations, looking at the end result, I agree with the group of people thinking that the merge didn’t turn up to be a good thing. For me, Rails 3 isn’t significantly better than Rails 2 and it took forever to be released. You still can’t really run a mini Rails stack like promised. I did hear that Strobe (company who was hiring Carl Lerche, Yehuda Katz and contracted Jose Valim) used to have an ActionPack based, mini stack but it was never released and apparently only Rails core members really knew what was going on there. Performance in vanilla Rails 3 are only now getting close to what you had with Rails 2 (and therefore far from the perf you were getting with Merb). Thread-safety is still OFF by default meaning that by default your app uses a giant lock only allowing a process to handle 1 request at a time. For me, the flexibility and performance focus of Merb were mainly lost in the merge with Rails. (Granted, some important things such as ActiveModel, cleaner internals and others have made their way into Rails 3)

But what’s worse than everything listed so far is that the lack of competition and the internal rewrites made Rails lose its headstart.  Rails is very much HTML/view focused, its primarily strength is to make server side views trivial and it does an amazing job at that. But let’s be honest, that’s not the future for web dev. The future is more and more logic pushed to run on the client side (in JS) and the server side being used as an API serving data for the view layer. I’m sorry but adding support for CoffeeScript doesn’t really do much to making Rails evolve ahead of what it currently is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of CoffeeScript, that said I still find that Rails is far from being optimized to developer web APIs in Rails. You can certainly do it, but you are basically using a tool that wasn’t designed to write APIs and you pay the overhead for that. If there is one thing I wish Rails will get better at is to make writing pure web APIs better (thankfully there is Sinatra). But at the end of the day, I think that two projects with different philosophies and different approaches are really hard to merge, especially in the open source world. I wouldn’t go as far as saying like others that Rails lost its sexiness to node.js because of the wasted time, but I do think that things would have been better for all if that didn’t happen. However, I also have to admit that I’m not sure how much of a big deal that is. I prefer to leave the past behind, learn from my own mistake and move on.


Technical debts

Here I’d like to stop to give a huge props to Aaron “@tenderlove” Patterson, the man who’s actively working to reduce the technical debts in the Rails code base. This is a really hard job and definitely not a very glamorous one. He’s been working on various parts of Rails including its router and its ORM (ActiveRecord). Technical debts are unfortunately normal in most project, but sometimes they are overwhelming to the point that nobody dares touching the code base to clean it up. This is a hard problem, especially when projects move fast like Rails did. But looking back, I think that you want to start tackling technical debts on the side as you move on so you avoid getting to the point that you need a hero to come up and clean the piled errors made in the past. But don’t pause your entire project to clean things up otherwise you will lose market, momentum and excitement. I feel that this is also very much true for any legacy project you might pick up as a developer.


Keep the cost of entry level low

Getting started with Rails used to be easier. This can obviously argued since it’s very subjective, but from my perspective I think we forgot where we come from and we involuntary expect new comers to come with unrealistic knowledge. Sure, Rails does much more than it used to do, but it’s also much harder to get started. I’m not going to argue how harder  it is now or why we got there. Let’s just keep in mind that it is a critical thing that should always be re-evaluated. Sure, it’s harder when you have an open source project, but it’s also up to the leadership to show that they care and to encourage and mentor volunteers to  focus on this important part of a project.



Rails documentation isn’t bad, but it’s far from being great. Documentation certainly isn’t one of the Ruby’s community strength, especially compared with the Python community, but what saddens me is to see the state of the official documentation which, should, in theory be the reference. Note that the Rails guides are usually well written and provide value, but they too often seem too light and not useful when you try to do something not totally basic (for instance use an ActiveModel compliant object). That’s probably why most people don’t refer to them or don’t spend too much time there. I’m not trying to blame anyone there. I think that the people who contributed theses guides did an amazing job, but if you want to build a strong and easy to access community, great documentation is key. Look at the Django documentation as a good example. That said, I also need to acknowledge the amazing job done by many community members such as Ryan Bates and Michael Hartl consistently providing high value external documentation via the railscasts and the intro to Rails tutorial available for free.


In conclusion, I think that there is a lot to learn from Rails, lots of great things as well as lots of things you would want to avoid. We can certainly argue on Hacker News or via comments about whether or not I’m right about Rails failures, my point will still be that the mentioned issues should be avoided in any projects, Rails here is just an example. Many of these issues are currently being addressed by the Rails team but wouldn’t it be great if new projects learn from older ones and avoid making the same mistakes? So what other mistakes do you think I forgot to mention and that one should be very careful of avoiding?



  1. Rails 4 had an API centric app generator but it was quickly reverted and will live as gem until it’s mature enough.
  2. Rails 4 improved the ActiveModel API to be simpler to get started with. See this blog post for more info.

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Ruby authentication of CouchDB requests

CouchDB is an awesome technology. I’m lucky enough to work on quite a big project where we decided to switch from MySQL to Couch for various reasons.

One of the many things I like with Couch is that it handles attachments and can replicate them as well as serve them for you using the Erlang based builtin webserver. (you can load balance your dbs and do some other really cool stuff)

Let’s take a use case. Let’s imagine that you have a web app with logged in users. Every user can have their own avatar.

No big deal, you get the user to upload his/her avatar to your app and add it to the user document in the database. To serve it from the database, you just need to create a proxy in nginx/apache and redirect the virtual avatar url to the protected DB making sure the request is a GET request.

Add to that a caching solution like varnish or memcached module for nginx and all your db goodies get cached and served by the cache (server/client) until they get modified.

Now, the problem is when you want to serve authorized attachments. Let’s imagine that we want to let our users upload private files, files that should be accessible only by the owner or users designated by the owner.

In this case, a simple nginx rewrite wouldn’t work. We need to authorize attachment requests. Here is a cool way of doing that using nginx and merb’s router. (Expect Rails3 router to do the same).

Let’s start by setting up nginx and create a proxy for couchdb:

Now that this is done, we are going to use Merb’s awesome router to handle the incoming requests. The cool part of this is that we won’t be dispatching requests so, going through the router is almost free. (check on the Merb router benchmarks for more info). Let’s edit our router and set a special route for our assets.

We are using a deferred route which gets executed instead of dispatching the request.

If the attachment route is being matched then we are checking what environment we are currently running in. If we are in production or staging environment then we are sending back a rack response to the webserver. The response is just a forward to the proper couchdb document behind the proxy. Of course, before allowing that to happen, we could authenticate the logged in user, log the request and do a couple of other things. You have full access to your models from the router, so authenticating a session isn’t a big deal. You could even create temporarily urls like AWS s3 does.

If we are not in production or staging mode, then just redirect the request to couch since we assume you have access to the local db. This way, your asset urls will be working in production and dev. In real life, you’ll want to apply the authorization before choosing how to deliver the document/attachment tho as you want it work the same way in development and production.

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RailsConf 2009

RailsConf 2009 has now finished.  This time last year, no one would have ever guessed that the Merb and Rails teams would join forces and focus on what will hopefully be known as one of the best Web Frameworks.

It was encouraging to see so many people excited about what’s being ported over from Merb and the new options available to people who are currently limited by the existing stack. For those interested in pushing Rails further and doing stuff out of the norm, here are my slides. Arthur Zapparoli from Brazilian Rails squad recorded most of the talk and told me he will upload the video ASAP. You can also read Yehuda Katz’ blog which covers what he talked about.

It was really great to meet a lot of new people as well as people I only knew via IRC/IM/twitter.

It was a great honor to finally meet Dan Kubb (DataMapper), Ninh Hernandez-Búi & Hongli McLovin Lai (Phusion), Peter Cooper (RubyInside), Raimonds Simanovskis (Oracle adapter for AR), Arun Gupta (Sun/Glassfish),  Jeremy Hinegardner (crate), Michael Maxilien (IBM), Dana Jones (railsbridge), Zach Zolton & Geoff Buesing (CouchRest) and of course the Brazilian crew (lots of awesome .br guys came this year, I’m looking forward to RailsSummit) and last but not least, the French speaking crew (I’m glad to see Ruby is picking up back home). (I know I’m forgetting people… sorry about that)

It was also really nice to talk with some experts like Dave Astels, Aslak Hellesøy, Rich Kilmer, David Chelimsky, Ryan Brown, Derek Neighbors etc.. to get their feedback on various projects I’m working on.

Leaving Vegas, I feel like the Rails community is expanding quickly (it was the first RailsConf for 1/4 to 1/5 of the attendees) and that the community is organizing itself to welcome a new audience (better documentation, great initiatives like, willingness to help), as well as trying to be more available to the ‘Enterprise’ world.

These feelings were enforced during our Rails Activism BOF and after talking with 3rd party developers and sponsors really trying to solve problems that newcomers to Rails are now facing. This is an exciting time.

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Merb 1.0.10 (minor release)

We just pushed a really tiny update because of a bug in 1.0.9 affecting people using: Merb::Config[:max_memory]

Merb::Config[:max_memory] has been fixed and now polls for memory usage every 30s instead of 0.25s. (memory is set in KB)

This new version also uses DataMapper.repository instead of Kernel#repository (DM and Vlad related bug fix)

We are still on schedule for Merb 1.1 which is planned for early April. (If you install Merb from our edge server, the latest version should already be Ruby 1.9 compatible)


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Merb 1.1 roadmap

Yesterday, Carl Lerche, Yehuda Katz and myself had a meeting to discuss Merb 1.1′s roadmap.

Key items on the agenda were:

  • Ruby 1.9
  • Mountable apps
  • migration path to Rails3

After spending some time arguing back and forth, we decided that few things had to happen before we could migrate the current slices to pure mountable apps. Freezing the releases while waiting to get that done doesn’t seem like a good idea.

Therefore, here is the plan for Merb 1.1:

  • Ruby 1.9 full compatibility (with the very appreciated help from Maiha and Genki (preview of their work there)). Because Merb depends on different gems, we also need to work with 3rd party developers to make sure Merb’s dependencies are Ruby 1.9 compatible
  • Merb helpers (fixes, enhancement and missing helpers)
  • Make Merb controllers, rack endpoints. This is a fully transparent change for the framework users. By making this switch, we offer more flexibility to the router (you can mount a sinatra app for instance) and we adopt the same approach as Rails 2.3 making the transition to 3 much easier and facilitating the implementation of mountable apps. Again, this is an internal change and you won’t have to change anything in your application.
  • Router optimization, Carl has been working on few tricks/optimizations for the router that will be available in 1.1
  • Namespacing. If we want to make every single application, a potential mountable app, we need to namespace our applications. This is something we already do with slices, but currently generated applications are not namespaced. We are planning on doing that for 1.1 (backward compatible) to make mountable apps easier.
  • ActiveORM. ActiveORM is an ORM abstraction layer developed by Lori Holden (AT&T interactive) which helps with helpers and other parts of your code accessing your ORM directly. For instance, the errors_for method need to be implemented differently depending on the underlying ORM. ActiveORM offers mapping for the 3 major Ruby ORMs: ActiveRecord, DataMapper and Sequel but let you hook to it if you want to extend ActiveORM to support your own ORM.

There is plenty to do but we decided to still try to have an expected release date: around the end of March. As always in the OSS world, this is something we hope for, not a promise ;)

What about Merb 1.2?

1.2 will focus on mountable apps and we hope to get started on a separate branch before we release 1.1. However, mountable apps are hard to spec and we need a better feedback from the community. Tell us what you like with slices and what you don’t like. Let us know how you would like the new mountable apps to work. Be as precise as possible. (you can leave a comment here or on the mailing list)



Meet the merbists: Hampton Catlin

Matt Aimonetti interviewing Hampton Catlin
Meet today’s merbist: Hampton Catlin
I’m personally looking forward to seeing Hampton’s work migrated to Rails 3 in a few months.


Matt Aimonetti: Hi Hampton, could you please introduce yourself and tell us what you do for a living.
Hampton Catlin: I’m Hampton Catlin. I’m “The Haml Guy” as I’m apparently termed all the time when introduced. I’m an early Rails hacker who has done a lot more than Haml, but whatever. These days, I’m doing a ton of iPhone development and am currently heading Wikimedia’s efforts for a new mobile platform… based on Merb!


Matt Aimonetti: How did you get started with Ruby, what’s your background?
Hampton Catlin: Well, everyone is welcome to laugh. But Slashdot introduced me to Ruby. I got into it about two months before Rails because the hotness (it was an obscure project at the time) and I grabbed a copy of the Pickaxe and never looked back. Prior to that I was working a crappy job getting people coffee at a bank. And then prior to that I was doing research for Nasa at my university with Java beuwolf clusters. It sounds fancier than it was.


Matt Aimonetti: You chose to learn and use Merb, could you please let us know why and how that happened?
Hampton Catlin: I had known of Ezra for a while and Yehuda. And so when I heard about the project, I was very interested. At the time I was looking forward to using a “Rails Light”. Of course, we know Merb is much more than that, but that was the original attraction.

Also, at some point I got really upset by the use of global variables in both of the frameworks, so I did some major patching to Merb to change over to module based constants. Aka, Merb.root instead of MERB_ROOT. I was ranting about it enough that I decided to do something about it. Also, I did some patches that messed up Merb with some weird documentation stuff. Sorry, Ezra.


Matt Aimonetti: Do you have some Merb projects available online we can look at? what was your experience so far?
Hampton Catlin: My most successful iPhone app (which was recently purchased by Wikimedia) was an app to browse Wikipedia. I chose Merb because I knew that I wanted something a little more bare bones than Rails, and it turned out to be a really good choice. And now, I’m getting a chance to extend that work into an entire platform for Wikimedia mobile. I am still looking for help with it….
Its not live yet with wikipedia, but that’s the code that you can help with! :)


Matt Aimonetti What is your favorite aspect of the Merb framework?
Hampton Catlin: Its modular design. Its as complex or as simple as you would like it to be. Also, its easy to run Haml, and the more people that use Haml, the harder my nipples get.


Matt Aimonetti Could you please mention an aspect of Merb you hope to see being improved in the near future?
Hampton Catlin: Honestly, everyone is wild about gems, but I’m not particularly. I find gem management a bit cumbersome. I’m most likely doing something wrong or not doing it the right way. But yeah, I still find it cumbersome. I’d like to pair the excellent Gem support with better library creation support. I think both are needed. I don’t want to throw stuff in my /lib folder or randomly in my project. I want some structure and some simplicity. Somewhere between plugins and base libraries. I think this is where Merb *could* shine.

Also, resource handling. I wrote make_resourceful for Rails and I keep needing to do something similar for Merb. m_r is not very popular because I haven’t really put much time into spreading the word. Mostly, I just use it. However, there are about 60 other Rails developers in the world that use it extensively. So, its a small, close-knit group of developers using the tool. And, I think something like it could be much more elegantly mixed into Merb. Obviously its a plug-in, but I think its a low hanging fruit. “current_object” as a method should ALWAYS be around when its logical.


Matt Aimonetti Thank you for your time. Anything else you would like to add?
Hampton Catlin: Buy my book. Buy my book. Buy my book. Buy my book. Buy my book. Buy my book. Buy my book. Buy my book. Buy my book. Buy my book. Ok, not really. My book isn’t very good. But, I just wanted to make a “The Critic” reference.


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Presenting the Rails Activists

Today is Monday. I usually don’t like Mondays.
Being Monday goes with waking up early, going back to work, and lots of deadlines.

However, today is a special Monday. It’s the first Monday of the year and I have a special announcement!

During the Rails/Merb merge announcement, it was mentioned that I will be joining the soon to be created “Evangelism team”.

A few people asked me what being a “Rails Evangelist” means. To reassure my parents and close friends, no, I didn’t join a new cult worshiping locomotives. However, I still think that public transportation should be improved, especially in this time of crisis (but that’s a different topic).

A technical evangelist, is usually someone who knows and uses a specific technology and thinks others should look into it. This is something I’ve been doing for Merb while being part of the core team. I initiated and helped organizing MerbCamp, re-did the wiki, started working on the merb-book, spent time looking for and listening to users, spent time with third party developers and people pushing Merb to a new level (YellowPages, Wikimedia and many others).

This interaction with the end users and the third party developers is something the entire Merb team valued a great deal and I always felt it was something the community really appreciated.

As part of the merge, it was agreed that we would push things further and have a team within the Rails team to take care of “communication”. Rails is a bigger project than Merb and communication between the dev team and the users isn’t always something easy to do.

That’s why we have formed a separate team that will help communicate and support the community better. We now even have an official page on the Rails website itself :)

The Rails Activists

The A-Team just got announced on the Rails blog.

Instead of being called “evangelists”, we are going to be called “activists”. I think part of the argument was that the E-Team doesn’t sound as good as the A-Team.

We started with team of 4. You might not know them yet but they all are brilliant people and I’m really glad to be working with them.

Gregg Pollack, from Rails Envy. You might remember Gregg from the Rails vs * commercials or from the Rails Envy podcasts. I’ve known Gregg for a little while and he’s someone you can rely on and always full of energy/new ideas.

Ryan Bates
, mainly known for his Railscasts. I only met Ryan once in person, but I’ve always been impressed by his work (don’t tell anyone, but I secretly dreamt of having something like Railscasts but for Merb :) )

Mike Gunderloy. I actually did not know Mike but I have read and enjoyed his blog and have seen his work on the Rails guides. Mike is an experienced writer and developer. He joked the other day saying that he started programming before any member of the Rails team was even born. Mike is a great addition to the team and I’m looking forward to learning from his experience.

Gregg and Ryan also covered the event, you might want to check their blog posts (Gregg’s and Mike’s)

So what are we going to do?

Pretty simple. We’ve boiled it down to 2 sentences:

The mission of the Rails Activists is to empower and support the worldwide network of Ruby on Rails users. We do this by publicizing Rails, making adoption easier, and enhancing developer support.

if you prefer a few more details, here are some of the tasks we are going to work on:

  • Public Relations with media of all sizes
  • Ombudsman work to ensure good user-to-user support
  • Community Leadership at events and conferences
  • Media Organization to help create good promotional opportunities
  • Website maintenance
  • Documentation efforts
  • Developer support

Do we need help?

Absolutely! The idea is not that we are going to do all the work. The concept of this new team is to help organize the community. We are going to build a Rails Network, a network of people involved in local Rails “evangelism”/activism, people contributing and/or translating documentation, third part developers etc…

First thing would be to join the mailing list and share your suggestions, comments, concerns, etc., with us.

Secondly, we have already set up some forums to hear your feedback.

To start off, we are asking people to let us know what they would like to see happening in the Rails3 timeframe.
We have other forums for more general feedback, but we need to work with deadlines so we can prioritize accordingly. Using the Rails3 milestone should help us focus on a short/medium term deadline. Long term and not specific suggestions are welcome in the other forums.

Finally, contact us. You can find multiple ways to do so on the activism team web page.

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