Rails Yet To Make Dent in the Enterprise

The eardrum-rupturing buzz around Ruby on Rails (RoR or just "Rails") among Web developers is understandable. Even the luminaries are singing its praises. James Duncan Davidson, creator of Tomcat and Ant, has described RoR as "the most well thought-out Web development framework I've ever used." Tech book publishing titan Tim O'Reilly thinks it's "a breakthrough in lowering the barriers of entry to programming." Agile programming expert Martin Fowler calls Rails "a standard to which even well-established tools are comparing themselves to."

So why is this free, open, easy-to-use, passionately advocated Web-app framework having such a hard time gaining serious traction in the enterprise?

That was the question confronting panelists at the recent QCon San Francisco developer conference. The event featured a session entitled, "When Is Rails an Appropriate Choice?" hosted by UK-based Rails developer James Cox.

"People have strong opinions about Rails, and there's a lot of trash talk about it," Cox observed. "Is it all FUD [fear, uncertainty, and doubt] or is it real?"

"The reason we see all of this backlash is because the Rails marketing machine has been awesome," panelist Ola Bini replied. "Every developer on the face of the earth has heard of Rails by now. The other language communities haven't been as good at marketing their frameworks, and as their languages seem to get sidelined, this kind of reaction is only natural."

Bini, a Swedish developer, currently working for ThoughtWorks, is the author of "Practical JRuby on Rails Web 2.0 Projects: Bringing Ruby on Rails to Java" (Apress, 2007). He was one of the core developers of JRuby.

Cox characterized JRuby, a Java implementation of the Ruby interpreter, as "the biggest back door into the enterprise," but did his best to keep it out of this panel discussion.

"When the criticisms are directed at Rails in general because it's written in Ruby, and because it's a dynamic language, then it's FUD," said Obie Fernandez. "When it's directed at Rails because it's not appropriate for the enterprise or for applications with large domain models, then I think there's more of a gray area."

Fernandez is an independent consultant specializing in the marketing and development of large-scale Web-based applications, and the editor of the Addison-Wesley Professional Ruby Series. A well-known Rails advocate, he wrote "The Rails Way" (2007) edition for that series.

"I think there are many types of apps where Rails would not be your first choice as your main development environment," Fernandez added, "things like financial apps with large, complex domain models, for example. And yet, if I were a practical enterprise architect, I would permit my Web group to work in Rails and consume other parts of my system that were written in harder languages by Web services."

"Some of the critics want to have it both ways," said Charles Nutter, co-lead developer on the JRuby project, and now full-time JRuby guy at Sun Microsystems. "They say that Rails has this problem or that problem, while they're modifying their own frameworks to work in very similar ways. In the cases where they are the most vehemently against Rails, I suspect that they can see the value, but they can't make the changes necessary to use it. They're stuck. They see people moving away from their framework of choice, and they lash out, as anyone would."

Nutter pointed to Grails, the Web framework based on the Groovy programming language, as an example.

"It ends up being basically Rails that runs on top of a bunch of Java libraries," he said. "More and more, people are learning the core principles of Rails and applying them to their own domains and frameworks."

So, what's the ardent Rails devotee to do?

"Rails is something of a new paradigm for Web development," said Josh Susser, a San Francisco-based freelance developer specializing in RoR Web apps. "It has its own particular strengths. People who don't value those strengths aren't going to get it. It's like trying to explain to a vegetarian why Kobe beef is so good. You can convince those people, but you need a track record. Rails is still a fairly new technology, so it doesn't have the track record of, say, PHP. We're just going to have to wait a couple of years for the success stories."

The San Francisco conference was the first U.S. edition of QCon, a relatively new developer conference series. The first conference was held in London in March. QCon San Francisco was sponsored jointly by the InfoQ online developer community and the Denmark-based ISV Trifork, organizers of the 10-year-old JAOO conference series. QCon San Francisco drew an estimated 400 attendees.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].