Posts Tagged rails

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.

Migration/upgrades

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.

 

Documentation

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?

 

Updates:

  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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Deploying a Rails 3.1 app – gotchas

Recently I had to build a new app as part of my research & development job at LivingSocial. My goal was to get the app up and running in just a few weeks, solid application architecture and graphic design included.
When you need to build an app quickly and you want it to have some solid foundations, Rails is quite useful.
I used Rails 3.1RCx so if we would to keep my app and push it to production, the engineering team wouldn’t have to update it and the transition should be seamless. I also quite like CoffeeScript and the app being quite heavy on JavaScript, the choice was easy. Furthermore, my coworker Bruce Williams is a fan of SCSS and he’s writing a PragProg book called “The Rails View” with other LivingSocialist: John Athayde. So you got the point, I’m using Rails3.1, but this post is about the challenges I faced when it was time to deploy and the solutions I found.

I’ll skip the intro to Rails 3.1 and how to use the new asset pipeline, refer to the Rails guide or one of the mainly posts referenced in this post (if I had properly read the guide, it would have saved me some valuable time, trust me, read it carefuly).

At that point last night, I had my app working great locally, Bruce created some awesome scss code using mixins and nested rules, the HTML was clean and working great, my CoffeeScript was brewing nicely, all was great until I tried to deploy to our QA environment.

JavaScript runtime dependency

The first thing you will notice is that you need the proper JavaScript runtime so the asset pipeline works properly. Not a big deal, you’ll find a lot of documentation about that. The problem is that you need to update your production environment or use depend on gem that will compile the required runtime (sounds dirty to me). So if you are deploying to many machines and you are using an image solution (EC2 AMI or other), you will need to update your image or spin new instances via updated chef/puppet recipes. In this case, the awesome team at LivingSocial had an image ready for me, so that wasn’t a big deal, but still, you need to take that in consideration as you are planning to update.

So the asset pipeline optimizes your asset management by processing/compiling asset files for you and optimizing their delivery. Instead of serving static files directly via public/images or public/javascripts you know serve them via the asset pipeline which will take care of compiling your CoffeeScript, grouping and minifying your JS and preprocessing all sorts of format. It also optimizes the caching process by giving a unique filename to each file based on the file metadata and gziping files. This is great, but you really, really, really don’t want to have your apps take care of that in production. Why wasting precious resources to serve assets when they can be prepared ahead of time. (by making Rails serve static assets, you are seriously reducing the throughput of  your app, please think of the children (or the dolphins/trees if you don’t like children))

Capistrano

Rails obviously has a preprocessor available as a rake task and you should update your deployment recipe to use that new feature. Here is my Capistrano code:

after 'deploy:update_code', 'deploy:compile_assets'
namespace :deploy do
  task :compile_assets do
    run "cd #{release_path}; RAILS_ENV=production rake assets:precompile"
  end
end

Well, my real code doesn’t hardcode the RAILS_ENV constant value, it’s in fact set in each env file, but I simplified it since most people only use 1 env outside of dev & test.

What that will do is compile all the files and dump them in public/assets/. But the file I had called bubble.png now becomes bubble-27543c671a3ab45141ee0d3216085009.png which means that my app is totally broken because images use in Bruce SCSS don’t load, my js files don’t load and the app is totally broken. Now this is least fun part, that I wish I had known before. This is where you go back and change your code so it uses magic to get the right file names.

Images

Fixing images was actually quite simple, in all my views, I just had to make sure I was using the image_tag helper everywhere.

CSS

SCSS files were a bit more tricky, I had to use the new scss preprocessor helpers you will find in the Rails guide (image_path and image_url). I first looked into using erb, but turned out it wasn’t needed and the end result is much cleaner.

Javascript/CoffeeScript

For the CoffeeScript files, I was referring to image assets in the code and of course all the links were broken. So I had to use ERB in my coffee which looked funky but it worked.

But to get that to work, you need to rename your coffee script and append erb at the end. For instance my feature.js.coffee script had to be renamed feature.js.coffee.erb. That made me cry a little inside, but oh well, at least its not a XML config file. Maybe soon we will start seeing code in filenames or filenames called my_feature.js.compressed.minified.coffee.erb.from_rails.mattetti.org
Also, be careful about the order of the file extensions, otherwise it won’t work. I thought I was done, ready to deploy my apps and this time the assets will show up properly. Turns out I was wrong :(

Rails asset precompilation env specific configuration.

My css looked good, the precompiling task had run fine but I was missing some js files. I scratched my head as I could only see some of my js files. I then realized that all my JS files were there but some of my CoffeeScript files were missing. The answer was given to me by Bruce who asked me if I had updated my “config.assets.precompile” setting. Sometimes I feel that Rails is trying to compete with Struts and here I was really surprised that by default Rails, in production mode only precompiles all static JS and application.js files, but none of the other dynamic js files. Now it does precompile all the scss files, but for a reason I just don’t understand, it’s not the case for the JS files. So, you have to go edit production.rb in the config/environments folder and add the other js files you would like Rails to precompile for you.

After making all these changes, I was able to redeploy my app and everything was working again. (you might want to tweak your apache/nginx config as explained in the Rails guide)

 

Conclusion

Don’t be fooled like me and expect that because you have an app running locally, deployment will work right away. Make sure to read about the new features and what’s needed. Overall, I think that the asset pipeline is a nice addon to Rails and if you don’t feel like using it, just can put/leave all your files in the public folder and everything will work just like before. I do have to say that I was surprised to see that even in a brand new Rails 3.1 project, Rails isn’t running in threaded mode by default. But that’s a different (old) story and I guess people still get more excited about asset management than framework raw performance ;)

 

 

 

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Discussion with a Java switcher

For the past 6 months, I have had regular discussions with an experienced Java developers who switched to Ruby a couple years ago. Names have been changed to protect the guilty but to help you understand my friend ‘Duke’ better, you need to know that he has been a developer for 10 years and lead many complicated, high traffic projects. He recently released two Ruby on Rails projects and he has been fighting with performance issues and scalability challenges.

Duke is a happy Ruby developer but he sometimes has a hard time understanding why things are done in a certain way in the Ruby community. Here are some extracts from our conversations. My answers are only based on my own experience and limited knowledge. They are probably not shared by the entire  community, feel free to use the comment section if you want to add more or share your own answers.

Threads / Concurrency

Duke: Why does the Ruby community hate threads so much. It seems to be a taboo discussion and the only answer I hear is that threads are hard to deal with and that Ruby does not have a good threading implementation. What’s the deal there? If you want concurrent processing, threads are important!

Me: This is a very good question and I think there are two main reasons why threads and thread safety are not hot topics in the Ruby world. First, look at Ruby’s main implementation itself. If you are using an old version of Ruby (pre Ruby 1.9) you don’t use native threads but green threads mapping to only 1 native thread. Ilya has a great (yet a bit old) blog post explaining the difference, why it matters and also the role and effect of the Global Interpreter Lock (GIL). Also, even though Rubyists like to say that they live in the edge, most of them still use Ruby 1.8 and therefore don’t really see the improvements in Ruby 1.9 nor yet understand the potential of fibers.

The other part of the explanation is that the Rails community never really cared until recently. Yehuda Katz recently wrote a good article on thread safety in Ruby and if you read his post and Zed Shaw’s comment you will understand a bit better the historical background. As a matter of fact, the current version of Rails is not multi-threaded by default and developers interested in handling concurrent requests in one process should turn on this option. Thread safety appeared for the first time in Rails 2.2 but from what I saw, most people still don’t enable this option. There are many reasons for that. First, enabling thread safety disables some Rails features like automatic dependency loading after boot and code reloading. A lot of Rails developers take these two features for granted and don’t understand that they are technically “hacks” to make their lives easier. I do believe a lot of Rails developers don’t understand how threads, thread safety, concurrency, blocking IO and dependencies work. They care about getting their app done and meet their deadlines. They usually use and know Rails without paying too much attention to how Rails extends Ruby. Imagine what would happen if their code wasn’t thread safe and Rails wasn’t not using a global lock by default. Now you see why things are not exactly as you expect and also why some Rubyists are getting excited about new projects like node.js which takes a different approach.

The other thing to keep in mind is that at least 90 to 95% of the Rails apps out there don’t get more than a dozen requests/second (a million requests/day). You can scale that kind of load pretty easily using simple approaches like caching,  optimize your DB queries, load balancing to a couple servers. As a matter of fact, compared to the amount of people using Rails on a daily basis, only a very little amount of people are struggling with performance and scalability like you do. This is not an excuse but that explains why these people don’t care about the things you care about.

Rails is slow

Duke: I don’t understand why Rails developers are not more concerned about the speed/performance penalty induced by Rails.

Me: Again, Rails is fast enough for the large majority of developers out there. As you know, as a developer you have to always make compromises. The Rails team always said that development time is more expensive than servers and therefore the focus is on making development easier, faster and more enjoyable. However to get there, they have to somewhat sacrifice some performance. What can be totally unacceptable for you is totally fine for others and your contribution is always welcome. This is probably the root cause of the things you don’t like in Rails. Rails was built for startups, by startup developers and you don’t fall in this category. People contributing new features and fixes are the people using Rails for what it is designed to do. There is no real ‘Enterprise’ support behind Rails and that might be why you feel the way you feel. Since you find yourself questioning some key Rails conventions and you are struggling with missing features, it looks  to me that you chose the wrong tool for the job since you don’t even use 70% of the Rails features and are dreaming of things such 3 tier architecture. Sinatra might be a better fit for you if you want lower level control, less conventions and less built-in features.

Object allocation / Garbage Collection

Duke: I recently read that Twitter was spending 20% of its request cycles in the GC, am I the only finding that concerning?

Me: Most people don’t realize how the GC works and what it means to allocate objects since Ruby does that automatically. But at the same time, most of these people don’t really see the affect of the Garbage Collection since they don’t have that much traffic or they scale in ways that just skips their Ruby stack entirely. (Or they just blame Ruby for being slow)

If you are app deals with mainly reads/GET requests, using HTTP caching (Rails has that built-in) and something like Varnish/Rack-cache will dramatically reduce the load on your server apps. Others don’t investigate their issues and just add more servers. As mentioned in a previous post, some libraries like Builder are allocating LOTS more objects than others (Nokogiri), use the existing debugging tools to see where your object allocations occur and try to fix/workaround these. In other words, Ruby’s GC isn’t great but by ignoring its limitations, we made things even worse. My guess is that the GC is going to improve (other implementations already have better GCs) and that people will realize that Ruby is not magic and critical elements need to be improved.

Tools

Duke: I really have a hard time finding good tools to help scale my apps better and understand where I should optimize my code.

Me: It is true that we area lacking tools but things are changing. On top of the built-in tools like ObjectSpace, GC::Profiler, people interested in performance/debugging are working to provide the Ruby community with their expertise, look at memprof and ruby-debug for instance. Of course you can also use tools such as Ruby-prof, Kcachegrind, Valgrind and GDB. (1.9.2 was scheduled to have DTrace support but I did not check yet). Maybe you should be more explicit about what tools you miss and how we could solve the gap.

ActiveRecord

Duke: ActiveRecord doesn’t do what I need. How come there is no native support for master/slave DBs, sharding, DB view support is buggy,  suggested indexes on queries is not built-in and errors are not handled properly (server is gone, out of sync etc..)?

Me: You don’t have to use ActiveRecord, you could use any ORM such as Sequel, DataMapper or your own. But to answer your question, I think that AR doesn’t do everything you want because nobody contributed these features to the project and the people maintaining ActiveRecord don’t have the need for these features.

What can we do?

We, as a community, need to realize that we have to learn from other communities and other programming languages, this kind of humorous graph is unfortunately not too far from reality.

Bringing your expertise and knowledge to the Ruby community is important. Looking further than just our own little will push us to improve and fulfill the gaps. Let the community know what tools you are missing, the good practices you think we should be following etc…

Take for instance Node.js, it’s a port of Ruby’s EventMachine / Python’s twisted. There is no reasons why the Ruby or Python versions could not do what the Javascript version does. However people are getting excited and are jumping ship. What do we do about that? One way would be to identify what makes node more attractive than EventMachine and what needs to be done so we can offer what people are looking for. I asked this question a few weeks ago and the response was that a lot of the Ruby libraries are blocking and having to check is too bothersome. Maybe that’s something that the community should be addressing. Node doesn’t have that many libraries and people will have to write them, in the mean time we can make our libs non-blocking. Also, let’s not forget that this is not a competition and people should choose the best tool for their projects.

Finally, things don’t change overnight, as more people encounter the issues you are facing, as we learn from others, part of the community will focus on the problems you are seeing and things will get better. Hopefully, you will also be able to contribute and influence the community to build an even better Ruby world.

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Au Revoir Rails community

Time really flies!

Back in December 2005, Ruby on Rails 1.0 was released to the masses. I remember that was when I first got interested in Rails. Six months later, I was doing Rails development full time.

Rails pushed me to contribute to the project, to write plugins, to improve my Ruby knowledge, to release gems and to become a better engineer overall. I then joined the Merb project, focusing on problems I was facing in the various client projects I had back then.

The competition between Rails and Merb turned into a constant confrontation, splitting the Ruby community into two camps. A resolution was later achieved by merging the two teams and focusing our energy on Rails 3. This is how I became a part of the Activism team with Gregg and Ryan. In this new role I was given the opportunity to meet lots of different people from various backgrounds and different communities. I really had a lot of fun.

However, things have changed for me. I won’t be at Rails Conf 2010 because in a few weeks I will become a father for the first time. And with that, an obvious priority shift. My day job working on Playstation games is also quite time consuming and the little free time I manage to get to work on my own projects is spent on my MacRuby book. The disconnect between the Rails community and myself is probably more evident now than ever. The challenges encountered by most Railists are so different from the ones I face daily that I think others would do a much better job than I at advocating for Rails. So this is why I believe it’s time for me to step away from the Rails community, kick back and relax (and get ready to change a lot of diapers).

This is an “au revoir“, not an “Adieu“. I will continue to keep an eye on Rails 3 and the fast growing ecosystem.

I will still be writing Ruby for a living and will hopefully keep contributing to the projects I use. And I plan to keep on attending to Ruby conferences around the world just as soon as my kid is old enough to travel with me ;)

Finally, with the imminent release of Rails 3, I hope to see even more people stand up and advocate for Ruby on Rails the way Gregg Pollack, Ryan Bates and many others have done so far.

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RailsSummit – an amazing adventure

I have had the opportunity to go to and speak at many conferences but this year was the first time I had the chance to go to RailsSummit in São Paulo, Brazil.

I was really looking forward to this trip and I have to say it went beyond my expectations. I had really good feedback from people like the Phusion guys (Ninh & Hongli), Gregg Pollack and others.

For those who don’t know, RailsSummit is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, Ruby event in Latin America. It’s organized yearly by Locaweb, the #1 hosting company in Brazil (props to Akita & Cristiane for their work).


As part of my involvement in the Ruby community I have met a lot of Brazilians always willing to help and especially giving time to translate content. (A good example would be the Portuguese version of the Rails wiki or José Valim GSOC contribution) However, I did not realize how fast Rails was growing over here.

To come back to the conference, I have to say it was one of the best conference I have gone to. Chad Fowler, who gave the opening keynote, later told me that it reminded him of the first Ruby conferences in the US . For me, what made a huge difference was the fact that it was a very positive conference. People were happy to be here, eager to share and you could feel the passion. Unfortunately, I missed the first few Ruby conferences, but I can totally imagine how must have been. Passionate people, not trying to push their products but instead, share the cool stuff they’ve been working on. This is exactly the feeling I had during this conference.

Maybe it’s because I don’t understand Portuguese well enough or maybe it’s just a cultural thing, but the people at the conference were just super friendly and always willing to help. I was really glad to meet those who have been using some of my work, some new people to Ruby and people who don’t do Ruby but were just interested in knowing what was going on in the Ruby world.

The schedule was pretty packed and the discussions very interesting, you could certainly feel the excitement in the air. Ruby seems to catching up quickly over there. Brazilian Rubyists seem to be very pragmatic and a good illustration of that was certainly made by Vinicus Teles, Brazil Agile XPert, who shared tips on how to release a successful product.

I stayed a few days after the conference and went to visit the Rubyists in Rio. Rio is a great city. It has some of the best soccer players in the world and some seriously talented software developers. Ruby & Rails are not just the new trendy startup secret to success, companies like globo.com, currently the largest TV network in Latin America and the fourth largest in the world, also started using Ruby and Rails. I had the opportunity to visit their office and meet their teams. It’s very exciting to see how they use Agile/XP and Ruby and how they seem to be so successful. But I will keep that for another post.

Overall, even though the actual traveling to/from Brazil was a bit long, RailsSummit was a blast. I really hope to be able to come back next year, and by then, hopefully my Portuguese will have improved.

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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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Merb/Rails merge, or Why should merbists be happy?

December 23, 2008, was an important day for the Ruby community. People who used to argue and not get along, have decided to sit down, talk and evaluate their differences. The end result is a strong collaboration of two teams who share the exact same goal.

Overall, the news was very well received, just look at the tweets out there and the comments on Yehuda’s and Rails’ blogs.

Interestingly enough, the Rails community really embraced this decision and just got totally excited about the perspective of merging merb’s philosophy and expertise into Rails. If you re-read David’s blog post you can see that it’s a real homage to Merb.

The rest of the internet sounds pretty happy about the news, here are few posts:

Even Zed the entertainer thought it was a good thing:

“I honestly didn’t think that would ever happen. I just assumed that Merb
would eventually wipe out Rails by being the better framework, or they’d
wipe each other out soon.

So, congrats are in order. You guys are finally grown-ups and now have
the chance to make something better.”

Some merbists like Jade Meskill really understood what we are trying to do while some other ones got really mad at us.

I think a pattern emerged from the negative reactions:

  • Why merge when we are about to win?!
  • What does Merb win by being merged into Rails?
  • Why not merge Rails into Merb?
  • You are killing innovation by killing the competition
  • You screwed us over and now I have to go “back” to Rails
  • Rails 3.0 won’t even be as good as Merb 1.x
  • The Rails team won’t let you do what you have to do to merge Merb into Rails
  • DHH is a jerk

Let me quote Yehuda:  “Calm yourselves ;).

Why merge when we are about to win?!

This is probably the most rational argument. This is also something the Merb core team considered for a little bit.
Merb is gaining huge momentum and the target audience was very reactive to what we did.
People such as Yellow Pages, Wikipedia and even Adobe started using or looking seriously at Merb because of its focus on modularity and performance.
We started building an elite community and we were pretty proud of that.

But take a moment to think about it. Our goal has never been to hurt or compete with Rails. Our goals were to get modularity, performance and a strong API. If the Rails team really wants that, and will work on it, why should we work against each other?
It’s not about winning or losing. It’s all about the long term plan of your framework, about the people involved and the community behind it. We had to take ourselves out of the equation and consider what would be good for the Ruby community.

What does Merb win by being merged into Rails?

People seem to easily find things we might lose but have a hard time finding things we are gaining.
Looking at it on the very short term, this is probably correct. The merb team will have to learn how to work with the Rails team.
We need to understand the reasons behind every single aspect of the code and find ways of merging things nicely.
On top of that, we still need to work on merb as promised. (see Wycats’ post)

However, in the long term we get all the benefits of Rails:
- stability
- community
- traction
- experience
- don’t have to always justify why use Merb instead of Rails

But more importantly, we extend our team.

Most people using a framework might not realize what it is to work on a big Open Source project.
When you work on an OSS project, people come and go, and that’s why you usually have a core team of people you can rely on.
Merb has a lot of contributors but a small core team of 5 people (Yehuda, Carl, Daniel, Michael and myself).
Managing a project, such as merb, requires a tremendous amount of time and patience. Rails has the same problem with its core team of 6 people. People have lives, business, projects etc…

Joining two teams of experts in developing web frameworks in Ruby is like if in the next Soccer World Cup, the French and Italian teams would go on the fields at the same time to beat other teams. 22 players on 1 side, training and learning together. American readers, please imagine the Giants and the Colts facing the Green Bay Packers (I was told I don’t like the Packers).

Long term, you will get better quality and more frequent releases. We also have different world views and backgrounds which means we will learn a lot from each other, again that means better code for you guys :)

Why not merge Rails into Merb?

That’s actually a good question. We discussed maybe using merb-core as a base for Rails 3.0
The truth is that Merb 2.0 would probably be as big as Rails but more modular.
So we have the choice to keep on building on top of Merb 2.0 or deconstruct Rails.
As the Russians say: ‘ломать — не строить’, it’s always easier to take things apart ;)

Rails already has a test suite, it has already been tested on the wild for a while and its internals are known to many developers. Taking apart the code to make it faster, cleaner and more modular is arguably easier than reinventing the wheel. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter from which end you start as long as you end up with the same result.

Some people even asked to come up with a new name for the merged project. Meails, Mr Ails, Reverb, Reab were suggested. While I thought it was a joke, some people were really serious. Can you imagine if during the recent bailout, banks changed names every time they were purchased by another bank? People would be super confused and would not even know where to send their mortgage payments.
On top of that, Rails has a huge user base compared to Merb and has an immense brand recognition in the world at large, it would be foolish to throw that away.

Let’s not be chauvinistic and see what’s best for all.

You are killing innovation by killing the competition

Again, a good point but my question to you is: Should we stay in the competition just for the sake of it?

Rails clearly told us: we want what you have and we would love you to work with us. So the options were:

  • tell them to go to hell and let them try to redo what we already did and know how to do.
  • accept to work with them and make Rails a better framework.

Option 1 would keep the competition alive, but now you have 2 groups of people trying to do the same thing and being better at different aspects. The community gets confused and communication breaks.

Option 2: we lose the Merb vs Rails competition, but we double the amount of people working on Rails and therefore increase the change to make it better faster.

We went for option 2 and we know there is already some competition out there and there will be more coming up soon. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect us not to merge because we want to keep the competition going.

You screwed us over and now I have to go “back” to Rails

Yehuda will blog about some more detailed examples as we are making progress, but you need to stop thinking that Merb will just be absorbed into Rails.
If Rails just wanted to add some “Merb flavor” to Rails, they would have just taken whatever they needed and would not be interested in a merge.
See Rails 3.0 as a new generation of Rails, whatever we promised you for merb 2.0 plus all the goodies from Rails. Rails users will still have their default stack and all choices will be made for them (like in the current Merb stack). The difference for standard Rails user will be better performance, a static API and an option to go off the “golden path”.
Merbists won’t lose the stuff they like in Merb, stacks, full support for DataMapper, Sequel and other ORMS, jQuery or other JS library, opt-in solution using just rails-core, better core isolation, built-in RSpec and webrat support, slices, merb-cache, merb-auth and all the other key plugins that will be ported over.

To be able to achieve all of that, we will have to make some infrastructure and code modifications.

Rails internals should end up:

* way less magical (even Merb uses some magic, but we’ll make sure to keep it to a minimum)
* returning shorter and cleaner stack traces
* cleaner (required for the new API)
* better isolated (required to increase the modularity)
* alias_method_chain won’t be available at the public API level (we probably still will need some chaining mechanism internally, but that’s a different story)

So, no, you don’t have to go “back” to Rails. In fact, imagine you could do exactly what Rails does but with the performance and modular architecture of Merb. That’s what you will get with Rails 3.0.

Rails 3.0 won’t even be as good as Merb 1.x

I think I mainly replied to this question in my previous answer.
There is no reason why Rails 3.0 won’t be better than Merb 1.x.  Actually, I believe our API will actually be even better. With the help of David, the existing Rails core team, and the Rails community, we will be able to define an awesome API that will change the way ruby web development will be done.
The merb API is great but we already know some of its limitations and we don’t have as many plugin developers to work with. Working with plugin developers is something I’m personally excited about. As a Rails developer I have been really frustrated when using 3rd party plugins and trying to develop my own.
Having a well tested, developed against, public API will make all the Rails 3.0 plugins so much better. And because Merb plugins already use an API, we will be able to port all the plugins over, so it will be at least as good as 1.x
Also, we are going to work on real app benchmark tests to make sure the performance gain is at least as good as what we have with Merb.

Migration will be easy and well documented. We are not giving up on the Merb book and it will be very useful to explain the Merb way to new comers wanting an idea of the new stuff in Rails 3.0. It will also be the best source of information to migrate your app to Rails 3.0.

Talking about migration, we promised to give you a sane migration path when it will be time to migrate.
Again, don’t freak out because we are changing the name, the spirit of Merb will keep on living.

The Rails team won’t let you do what you have to do to merge Merb into Rails

In all honestly, I was worried about that. I was wondering if all of that was not an evil scam planned by DHH to kill Merb as it was getting a good momentum. I like conspiracy theories and it sounded pretty good.
To my surprised, after a few private conversations with David, I realized that he was genuinely interested in making Rails better for people and fulfill the needs of people who need more flexibility.
Just re-read his blog post http://weblog.rubyonrails.org/2008/12/23/merb-gets-merged-into-rails-3. After what he said, how can he back up and just keep Rails the way it is? And why in the world would he want that to happen?
It’s a team effort and we have already spent hours and hours discussing some details. I can promise you that the Rails team is very excited about the new stuff that’s coming up. But don’t forget that it’s a merge and we are reconsidering some of the stuff we did in Merb to better re-implement them in Rails 3.0.
So far, I haven’t seen any of the Rails core team member tell us, no you can’t do that because that’s not the way it’s done in Rails or because we just don’t like it.

DHH is a jerk

Recently, in an interview I gave to rubylearning.com http://rubylearning.com/blog/2008/12/18/matt-aimonetti-why-on-earth-would-you-ignore-merb/ I mentioned that a big difference between Merb and Rails was the way we were dealing with the user base.
I quoted David from an Interview he gave to InfoQ http://www.infoq.com/interviews/David-Hansson back in 2006.

As part of the merging evaluation process we literally spent hours talking back and forth. I had a seriously hard time believing that Rails and David honestly wanted to change their world views. How can you go from saying what you said in 2006 to adopting what Merb is pushing for: letting the framework bend to make what each developer wants if he doesn’t want to follow the “golden path”?

Interestingly enough, David recently addressed this point on his blog. http://www.loudthinking.com/posts/36-work-on-what-you-use-and-share-the-rest

“I wanted to take a few minutes to address some concerns of the last 4%. The people who feel like this might not be such a good idea. And in particular, the people who feel like it might not be such a good idea because of various things that I’ve said or done over the years.”

First thing first, David addresses the minority of people worried about his image and what it means for them.
So, David actually cares about hard core merbists and he wants them to join the fun. I personally see this as something very encouraging!

A recurring theme we hear a lot is that Rails becomes whatever DHH/37signals needs/wants. If DHH needs something new, it will make it to Rails, if he doesn’t need it, it won’t.

David has a very simple and almost shocking response: DHH != Rails

David is really happy with Rails. Rails satisfies his needs but he knows that some people out there need/want something more/different.

“I personally use all of those default choices, so do many other Rails programmers. The vanilla ride is a great one and it’ll remain a great one. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the only one. There are lots of reasons why someone might want to use Data Mapper or Sequel instead of Active Record. I won’t think of them any less because they do. In fact, I believe Rails should have open arms to such alternatives.”

So, you can still think whatever you want about David. What’s important is that Rails is more than David. It’s an entire team of people with different needs and different views.

DHH isn’t a dictator and based on concrete examples such as the “respond_to vs provides” discussion, I can reassure you that David has been very receptive to arguments and never tried to force any decision because he thought it was better.

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