Rails has lost something

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Tony of Unlimited Novelty has posted a very long defense of Rails which fails to defend Rails. When I read this essay, I thought “Rails is a strong framework with many interesting features, but it is no longer the source of cutting edge ideas.”

Jose Valim, (now former) Rails core member, published a small, simple gist illustrating how to build barebones apps on ActionController::Metal (one of the most forked gists I’ve ever seen) which is further documented in his book Crafting Rails Applications. In just 50 lines of code you can strip Rails down to its core, making it ideal for use in modern client-heavy HTML5 applications. The funny thing about this gist is that while the idea of a 50 line Rails app seems pretty impressive, the basis of that gist is what Rails 3 puts into your config/boot.rb, environment.rb, and application.rb, just combined into a single file. Did I just blow your mind? Sadly, all the (in my opinion completely undeserved) bad press seems to have made Jose emo as well, and he has stepped down from Rails to pursue his Elixir language.

ActionController::Metal-based applications (along with apps written in Clojure) were the basis of our backend at Strobe, where we sought to ease the pains of people building modern client-heavy HTML5/JS applications with frameworks including SproutCore/Ember, Backbone, and Spine. ActionController::Metal provided a great, fully-featured, mature, and modular platform for us to build applications on top of, and Strobe’s ActionController::Metal stack for client-heavy HTML5/JS applications is available on Github. The apps we built with the Strobe ActionController::Metal stack talked only JSON and our frontend was an HTML5/JS application written with SproutCore.

Before Strobe, I worked at a company building rich HTML/JS applications for digital television. Our backend was written in Rails. Our frontends were Flash and HTML/JS applications, the latter of which were single-page client-heavy HTML/JS apps that were packaged in .zip files and installed onto digital televisions and set top boxes, a sort of weird hybrid of web technologies and installable applications. Our Rails application didn’t have any views, but provided only a JSON API for the HTML/JS frontend to consume.

Rails was great for this, because it provided the sort of high level abstractions we needed in order to be productive, ensure our application was well-tested, and above all else provided the necessary foundation for clean, maintainable code. I was doing this in 2008, and even then this was already considered old hat in the Rails community. In case you’re not paying attention, that’s one year before Node even existed.

Modern HTML5/JS apps depend on beautiful, consistent RESTful JSON APIs. This is a great way to develop rich interactive applications, because it separates the concerns of what the backend business logic is doing from the view layer entirely. Separate teams, each specialized in their role, can develop the frontend and backend independently, the frontend people concerned with creating a great user experience, and the backend people concerned with building a great API the frontend application can consume.

Rails is great for JSON APIs.

And yet this meme persists, that somehow Rails is actually bad at JSON APIs. Those who propagate this meme insist that Rails has lost its edge, and that only Node understands the needs of these sorts of modern client-heavy web applications.