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Bringing Ruby to the Enterprise

Is Ruby Ready?

The Ruby language is generating a great deal of buzz in the software community these days. Developers are becoming interested in Ruby for a various reasons such as its promise of increased productivity, the power of the language itself, or simply its ease of use. At the same time, many who are new to Ruby wonder if it's capable enough to be used in enterprise software development.

This article is written for developers and IT staff who are considering using Ruby in an enterprise environment. It gives a broad overview of the features of the language from a developer's perspective and highlights the key advantages of choosing Ruby in the enterprise.

Introduction to Ruby
Ruby is a modern object-oriented language that shares many of the features of Smalltalk, Perl, and Python, while being incredibly flexible. One of its strengths is its very simple syntax, which makes it highly readable and maintainable. Ruby is also widely considered fun to program in. Much of this relates to the "principle of least surprise." That is, the language was designed to be very natural, to minimize inconsistencies (e.g., everything is an object), and to be concise. These features contribute to its ease of use and enhanced productivity over other platforms. Ruby also has good support for testing, an important facet of agile development methods.

While interest in Ruby has only taken off recently, it's a very mature language that's been around for over 10 years. It's highly portable and available on a wide range of operating system platforms.

The Case for Enterprise Ruby
Enterprise software can be defined as software that processes large amounts of business-critical data. Even a short-term enterprise software outage can cost a business large sums of money. As a result, enterprise-grade software is usually seen in terms of non-functional requirements such as scalability, availability, and reliability.

Applications in an enterprise are often initially created in isolation, whether out of business urgency, expedience, or the difficulty of coordining business units. As a result, an enterprise can find itself with lots of data silos that need processing and correlation. These heterogeneous distributed systems often need to be integrated later in their lifecycle though they may not have been designed with integration in mind.

The recent success of the Ruby platform in the rapid development of database-backed Web sites has brought the Ruby language into the spotlight. It's also brought to the forefront the question of whether Ruby is suitable for enterprise development.

Though the Ruby language has been around for a long time, it's seen limited adoption in enterprise environments. Many still consider it to be a leading-edge technology that lacks support for some common enterprise integration technologies. There's also a lack of "best practice patterns" for implementing an enterprise solution with Ruby.

It spite of this, there are many reasons why it's desirable to use Ruby for enterprise software development. Ruby began as a scripting language, and as such, it's well suited to acting as "glue code" in integrating applications. Scripting languages got their start as a way to coordinate tasks rapidly and flexibly between processes. It follows that Ruby should be capable as a technology for integrating components and services in the enterprise.

Ruby is also a good platform for data manipulation, an important element of enterprise software. Many of Ruby's features in that area build on the features in Perl, a language with excellent support for generating reports. XML data manipulation is another place where Ruby shines. (see Table 1)

Productivity also tends to be higher with Ruby than traditional enterprise platforms. Dynamic languages like Ruby can be good tools for rapid prototyping. With a scripting language, the development process follows a fast write-run-test cycle that's a natural fit for the iterative approach of agile development methods. Ruby code also tends to be far more concise than similar code developed in other languages. At the same time, the intent of the code is typically clearer. Faster development and easier maintenance are features that directly impact the bottom line.

Ruby is a platform that can be used on any application tier. The Ruby on Rails Web application framework provides a robust servlet container on the presentation tier. For pure server applications, object-relational mapping tools are available to layer on top of drivers for database access. Ruby has frameworks to produce and consume Web Services. There are also options available for creating messaging solutions for enterprise application integration. (see Table 2)

A Guide to the Ruby Platform
A programming language is nothing without a platform of supporting frameworks and libraries and Ruby is no exception. This section provides an overview of Ruby frameworks for building enterprise Web applications and Web Services, and enterprise applications that require database and application integration support.

Ruby on Rails is a full-stack Web application framework that prefers convention over configuration files, putting ease of use in common situations ahead of ultimate flexibility in all situations. Conventions increase productivity by freeing the developer from explicitly having to spell out every intention in configuration files.

A primary selling point of Rails is the claim that its users gain a big productivity spike over standard Java in developing Web applications. This fact is attributed to both the simplicity of using the Rails framework, as well as the vastly reduced line-of-code count between Ruby and Java code when doing identical functions. Rails is also more productive than other frameworks because its templating language is itself Ruby, which obviates the need to learn a specialized framework language.

Scalability with Rails can be addressed in two main ways. First, since Rails can run in multiple processes on a single machine via FastCGI fronted by a Web server like Apache, it scales fairly linearly with increases in computing power on a single machine. Rails also scales well across machines using the standard Web server infrastructure techniques of keeping the application servers stateless and using load balancers between the Web server and app server tiers.

Rails comes bundled with ActiveRecord, an object-relational mapping (ORM) library, for database access. ActiveRecord can also be used outside of Rails. ActiveRecord's strength is in mapping database schemas that are either created from scratch or are similar to the kinds of schema that it works best with. In these instances, ActiveRecord is among the simplest ORMs to use. It includes a powerful data validation system and impressive support for automating database schema migrations.

More Stories By Brad Banister

Brad Banister is a principal consultant in the service-oriented architecture practice at MomentumSI. His current research is in applying agile methods and technologies in the implementation of service-oriented architectures.

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