Evaluating Ruby

10 May 2006

If you're reading this I assume you're aware of the fact that there's been a huge amount of fuss about the Ruby programming language, and in particular the Rails framework for developing web applications. Some see it as the future of programming, others as a dangerous diversion.

I started with ruby several years ago. The pragmatics got me interested and it soon became my preferred scripting language. Over time it grew to handle much of the production of this website - in particular this bliki. I like the language a lot.

There's a jump between my personal liking and whether it's something that should be used by our clients. We can evaluate its suitability for client projects based on its features - and this leads to many arguments about the pros and cons of dynamic typing, convention over configuration, processes versus threads, and the like. Such discussions are useful but I remain wary of them. Too many things are hard to judge that way - hence we spend so much of our time on client projects being slowed down by technology that sounded good on a golf course. My preference is to make this judgment based on experience - find people who have a track record for delivering in the mainstream environments and who have tried using Ruby.

Some of this can be seen with public writers. Ruby has attracted many people who have good experience elsewhere but feel Ruby gives them an additional edge, names like the both the Prags, Justin Gehtland, Bruce Tate et al should be enough to make Ruby worth looking at. But parochial as I may be I've been keeping my ear closest to ThoughtWorkers: people whose history I know and whose projects I can more easily check up on.

It's still early days yet, but I now have a handful of project experiences to draw on. So far the results are firmly in favor of Ruby. When I ask the question "do you think you're significantly more productive in Ruby rather than Java/C#", each time I've got a strong 'yes'. This is enough for me to start saying that for a suitable project, you should give Ruby a spin. Which, of course, only leaves open the small question of what counts as 'suitable'.

One thing to mention is that although we have a couple of what I might call typical web projects that fit in well with what's currently talked about as prime Rails territory, there are also elements that are different.

  • A kiosk device where consumers are directly manipulating a touch screen. Rails is present here, as the UI is a very Ajaxian web front end. But there's also communication with hardware devices, crypto, odd networking stuff - all on an appliance like Linux box.
  • A lot of SQL manipulation in batch processes where Ruby is used to specify what's needed and the resulting Ruby expressions are converted to SQL to carry out the real work. There's a splash of Rails on the front end - but again it's not the typical Rails app.
  • A project that looks like a standard web app in many ways, but involves a great deal of munging data from different formats and some very fancy graphs and charts (using Ploticus).

In all these cases, those involved said they are getting functionality, and value, faster out of the door than they had in other platforms. This suggests to me that if you're looking for delivery speed and productivity you should take a serious look at Ruby.

There are still some open questions. In particular it's still too early to see what happens in later enhancement stages, particularly when you get team changes. Some people think that the dynamic nature of Ruby and the lack of tools will be a problem, others that the simplicity that Ruby encourages will make up for the difference. Such is the nature of the question that we can't really tell yet - I'll update you when I find out more.

Cedric Beust argues effectively that even if Ruby is a superior platform it may not become mainstream. I certainly understand that argument, like many an ex-smalltalker I've long known of more productive platforms than the current mainstream enterprise choices. If it's important to you that you are only using mainstream platforms, you'll need to wait longer to see what happens. There are plenty of course, who don't care about following the mainstream.

There's also plenty of projects where development productivity is swamped by political and other communication factors. Here Ruby's advantage would be significantly attenuated.

But overall these experiences, from trusted colleagues mean I'm increasingly positive about using Ruby for serious work where speed, responsiveness, and productivity are important.