Java, Ruby, Web Applications, Work

Working with Rails

I have recently struggled to try and get a prototype web application done with Ruby on Rails. It has been a really great experience and like all such experiences consists of both good and bad moments. Things that are particularly striking coming from a Java Web environment:

  • Integrated console
  • No recompile/build/deploy cycle
  • No mix and match components
  • No real programming language skill required.

It is also remarkable how quickly people revert to the level of thought, planning and execution that you might use for a shell script. Even I have found myself getting caught up in “playing” with the app interactively rather than being focussed on creating behaviour and functionality in a structured way.

Elaborating on these points; in Java web development the first issue is usually building up your component stack. Some people just choose Spring  but those people are idjits! If you are working purely in a web tier without any need for any backend interaction then it is probably a good bet but generally you want to put some thought into how you are going to assemble your various stacks. You tend to have to choose your MVC web framework, your persistence framework and your service framework (if appropriate). You often have to give some thought to your caching and messaging frameworks if they are relevant.

With Rails you just use the appropriate Active Module or Rails built-in features. If there is something that is going to ease some pain for you then it is going be operating as a plugin. That’s it, no framework holy war. It also means that there are a lot of applications that are just not going to be suitable for a Rails application as all those Java components have various strengths for different environments. I certainly wouldn’t want to tackle a legacy database with ActiveRecord for example. Not that it couldn’t be done but I wouldn’t want to do it.

The zero-turnaround is impressive after the build-deploy-check cycle. It was a wow factor last year when I saw the Phobos framework being demonstrated by Sun and its not lost any of its shine. By separating its deployment environments so ruthlessly Rails is able to deliver a really positive developer experience.

The interactive console takes a bit of getting used to in terms of faking browser requests but once you get used to doing so it is another tool that you wonder how you’ve managed without for so long. It’s much more intuitive to use than setting up a remote Java debugging instance (although admittedly you do similar tasks in both). It allows you to scratch those itchy “why?” questions.

And finally that lack of programming skill? A bit controversial perhaps? Well I feel that in recent weeks what I have been learning is how to manipulate Rails. The fact that it is implemented on Ruby may allow a lot of features to be implemented in the way they that they are but you are very rarely called upon to show Ruby madskillz. Instead the majority of the time you are simply plugging little customisations into the Rails framework. It is called Rails for a reason after all, when you are on them you are amazingly productive but if you can’t package your problem into a Rails solution then you are out of luck, you’re going to have to develop your own solution and that is going to be hard work. I have been trying to develop my Ruby skills (that is a whole other story) but the truth is you can bang out something that is acceptable with very little Ruby knowledge. You can go a lot of the way purely by mastering Ruby’s hash syntax.

So have I been converted? Well for all its problems I do have a hankering to get back to my great big Java applications with their holy wars and heavyweight processing. After all being on the Rails is fine for getting things done quickly but it can feel claustrophobic. I am also really glad that after getting distracted by the whole JSF controversy the challenge Rails presents to the status quo of web development means that a lot of the Java frameworks are starting to respond to the real problems faced in web development and ensuring that the easy stuff should be easy.

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