Matt RaibleMatt Raible is a Java Champion and Developer Advocate at Okta.

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Over 10 years ago, I wrote my first blog post. Since then, I've authored books, had kids, traveled the world, found Trish and blogged about it all.

[OSCON] Monday Afternoon

Ruby on Rails - Enjoying the ride of programming
Presented by David Heinemeier Hansson, OSCON 2005

About David: started doing Ruby in June 2003. Involuntary programmer of need, served 5 years in PHP. Spent 7 months in a Java shop.

Prerequisites of play: Ruby 1.8.2, dated December 25th. A database, pick one of 6. The RubyGems miner. Some gems called Active and Action.

Directory structure that Rails creates is more for convenience than anything. By picking conventions for you, it makes things easier. It might feel like flexibility is being ripped away from you - but you can change the defaults. However, by following the default settings, things will just work and life will be much easier for you as a developer.

I did a bit of playing on my PowerBook while listening to David's talk. I have Tiger installed, but found that Ruby 1.8.1 was installed on my machine (in /sw/bin/) thanks to Fink. My running "rm -r /sw/bin/ruby" and restarting iTerm, the default changed to /usr/bin/ruby, which is 1.8.2. From there, I downloaded and installed the Rails Installer.

I hate to admit it, but this talk is pretty boring so far. Probably because I've read David's blog for the past 6 months and watched most of the Rails videos. I haven't really learned a whole lot in the first 45 minutes of this talk. To be fair, the content of the talk seems to be properly targeted - there's been a fair amount of questions and everyone seems to be interested. Almost all of the seats are filled in the room; 3-4x as many folks as Dave Thomas's Ruby talk.

One interesting thing I've learned today is many features of Rails (i.e. Webrick) are actually a part of Ruby, not Rails. In addition, Ruby seems to have frequent releases and more features are added to the language each time. I guess that's the advantage of having a language that's not developed by committee.

When creating model objects in Rails, the default is to use a plural form of the object for the database table name. For example, a comment model will map to a comments table. Dave Thomas did mention in this morning's session that Rails isn't smart enough to figure out "sheep" - it gets maps to "sheeps". Apparently, you can easily override this behavior by specifying use_plurals=false somewhere. Another convention built-in to the framework is that the primary key is named "id" and its an auto-incrementing field.

"The database is a data bucket. I don't want any logic in my database, I want it all to be in my data model."

Rails doesn't handle composite primary keys. Rails is mostly designed for green-field development, where you get to control your database and its schema.

There are a number of key properties you can use in your database tables (a.k.a. your model objects) that will automatically get updated if you name them properly. Their names are created_at (datetime), created_on (date), updated_at and updated_on. There are also a number of time-related helpers, i.e. distance_of_time_in_words_to_now(date) » less than a minute ago.

Rails also has the concept of filters, which you can apply to a group of controllers. To use a filter, you define the filter method in controllers/application.rb and then you have to add a before_filter clause in each controller you want it to be applied. While it's cool that Rails has filters, it would be nice if you didn't have to configure the controllers that filters are applied to in the controller. To me, it seems more appropriate to be able to configure the where the filters are applied externally to the controllers. It seems more natural to me that you'd put something like apply_to_controller => { :controller1, :controller2 } in application.rb.

For doing page decoration with Rails (i.e. SiteMesh), you simply create a decorator in views/layouts. If you want a particular decorator to apply to a particular controller, you just name the file the same as the controller's URL. For example, if you have a posts controller (really a PostController.rb file), you'll create a decorator named posts.rhtml to decorate all the HTML rendered from the PostController - regardless of whether you're rendering from a method or from a view template. To have a decorator apply to all controllers, you can simply create a file named view/layouts/application.rhtml. This seems like something that SiteMesh could easily do as well - for example defaulting to /decorators/default.jsp (or something similar).

One thing I like about Rails is it's flash concept and how easy it makes it to display success messages. In my experience with Java web frameworks - many make this more difficult than it should be.

Testing Rails Applications

When running tests, Rails automates the creation of a test database instance that mirrors the schema of your development database. One slick thing in a Rails project's Rakefile is that you can run all the tests that you've touched in the last 10 minutes. I think one of the most unique thing about Rails/Ruby vs. Java is all that almost all of the files (Rakefile, code generation scripts, etc.) are written in Ruby.

Controller tests have a "mini-language" for simulating a browser when testing controllers. For example:

def test_login 
  get :login
  assert_response :success<
  assert_template "login" 
  post :login, :password => "secret!"
  assert_response :success
  assert !session[:authorized]
  post :login, :password => "secret"
  assert_response :redirect
  assert session[:authorized]

In the Controller tests, you can set cookies, parameters and mimic almost everything the browser can do. You can also test that your model objects have been manipulated appropriately. For example:

def test_create_post 
  post :create, :post => { :title => "This is my title", :body => "1" }
  assert_response :redirect
  assert_kind_of Post, Post.find_by_title("This is my title")
  post :create, :post => { :title => "", :body => "1" }
  assert_response :success # something was rendered, regardless of error messages
  assert_equal "don't leave me out", assigns(:post).errors.on(:title)
  #or assert_equal 1, assigns(:post).errors.count

The find_by_title method is a dynamic finder, where ActiveRecord creates find_by methods for each attribute of the model object. Another cool feature of testing is you can add a line with "breakpoint" in it - and the test will stop executing there - giving you access to all the variables at that point.


The main reason for integrating JavaScript into Rails is so developers don't have to write JavaScript. For most developers, writing JavaScript is a pain because of browser incompatibilities and such. Rails ships with 4 JavaScript libraries, including Prototype and It's easy to include the default JavaScript libraries in Rails:

<%= javascript_include_tag :defaults %> 

Both the link_to and form_tag methods have a "remote" equivalent (i.e. link_to_remote) that allows you to hook into Ajax, and by defining a :complete callback, you can call fade effects and the like. You can override many of the lifecycle stages of Ajax, but the most common is the :complete callback. In a Controller, it's easy to distinguish Ajax calls from non-Ajax calls using:

if request.xml_http_request?
  # do logic, for example rendering partials

Partials seem to be a pretty cool feature in Rails. They're actually just parts of a page that you include in a parent page with render :partial => "viewName". The slick thing about partials is you can actually populate their model and return them in a controller after an Ajax call.

The Ajax demos that David just showed are pretty cool. He was able to easily show how to delete a comment in his "weblog app", as well as add a new comment - w/o refreshing the page. The slick part of the add was he was easily able to add the new comment id to the Ajax response header, and then grab it in a callback and use the id to reference a <div> and use the yellow fade technique to highlight and fade the new comment.

That's the end of Dave's talk, and the first day at OSCON. Thanks to Dave and David for showing me the cool features of Ruby and Rails.

Posted in Open Source at Aug 01 2005, 05:02:31 PM MDT 5 Comments

[OSCON] Monday Morning

Facets of Ruby
Presented by Dave Thomas, OSCON 2005

I'm sitting in Dave Thomas's session on Intro to Ruby at the Oregon Convention Center. It looks like someone finally figured out the main problem with conferences - lack of power outlets. Kudos to O'Reilly - they've put power strips at the base of every table in this room. With the high-speed wireless and unlimited power, this conference is getting off to a great start.

Is programming still fun?

Round about 2000, programming started getting tedious for Dave - after having fun for the past 25 years. When we program, we combine all the problems of the artistic side of the race with all of the problems of the scientific side of the race. The only way to be successful at it is to enjoy doing it.

Is programming productive?

It has to be to enjoy it. The most satisfying thing about programming is watching it run. That's why scripting languages are so great - because you can see it run now. Myth: a good programmer can be a good programmer in any language. Language and tools make a difference - a good programmer knows which language to choose for a particular problem.

This session is not going to be a syntax session. Damn, sounds like I won't really learn how to program Ruby in this session.

Ruby, the Language

Born in Japan in 1994. Father: Invented by Yukihiro Matsumoto (Matz). Mother: Ada, Smalltalk, CLU, Perl, Lisp. Grew very rapidly in 2000, outpaced Python in 2000. Became international star in 2004.

Dave and Andy are language freaks and downloaded Ruby 1.4 shortly after finishing The Pragmatic Programmer. It passed the 5-minute test, the 1/2-hour test and Dave ended up playing with it all morning. The first Pickax book was 500+ pages long, and they wrote it because there wasn't much English-language documentation on Ruby. Ever since Rails, Ruby's adoption has grown exponentially.

Ruby is a multi-paradigm language: procedural, object-oriented, functional, meta-programming. You can write procedural code, but you'll be using OO concepts at the same time. You can do all of these at the same time.

Ruby code example:

# Generate Fibonacci numbers up to a given limit

def fib_up_to(max)
  f1, f2 = 1, 1
  while f1 <= max
    puts f1
    f1, f2 = f2, f1+f2


Methods start with def and end with end. The parenthesis around the method arguments are optional.

Now Dave is ragging on Java Programmers and how they discount Ruby because of its duck typing. In a Java program, most things are dynamically typed too. This is because most objects are stored in collections and whenever you pull things out of a collection - you have to cast from Object to the real type. The argument is that you don't have to have static typing. Dave hates Generics because he thinks they should've just done automatic casting.

The basic gist of Dave's argument is that we use dynamic typing (using casting) in Java all the time and you don't see Runtime exceptions all of the place. So the biggest proponents of static typing are actually using dynamic typing all of the place.

Back to the code: in Ruby, you don't need parenthesis around conditionals (for instance in the while statement above). The main reason we have parenthesis is because of Fortran. There's no reason for them. You can put parenthesis and semi-colons in your code, but you don't need to. In this code example, the variables are scoped for the duration of the method. puts (pronounced "put s") just prints the value of a variable to the console.

class Song
  def initialize(a_title)
    @title = a_title
  def title

Instance variables in Ruby start with an @ sign. The first time you use them, they spring into existence. If you access an instance variable and it's value hasn't been set - it's value is nil. Using the return keyword at the end of a method is optional - the default is to return the last line of a method. You can change the "title" method to use

attr_reader :title 

The attr_reader call is actually a method of Class:class. The attr_reader will dynamically add an accessor (that looks like the title method above). To create a setter, you can use attr_accessor and it'll create both a getter and setter.

Ruby is a single Inheritance language.

class KaraokeSong < Song

  attr_reader :lyric

  def initialize(a_title, a_lyric)
    @lyric = a_lyric

Unlike Java, the super call can happen in any line, or not at all. To solve the single-inheritance problem, you can use mixins and apply them to any class.

Blocks and iterators are pervasive in Ruby, and look to be very easy to use.

3.times { puts "Ho!" }

hash.each { |key, value|
  puts "#{key} -> #{value}"

To do method calls with blocks, you use the yield keyword.

You can use blocks to simplify Resource Management and automatically close resources."myfile.dat") do |f|
  name = f.gets
  # whatever

When the above code hits end, the file is automatically closed.

Duck Typing

Strongly-typed objects, untyped variables and methods. Types are implicitly determined by the things that an object can do. Duck typing is great for testing, refactoring and maintenance. This is very similar to concepts in Smalltalk. There is a strong commitment to unit testing in Ruby - which makes duck typing even easier to use. Duck typing makes things very easy. For example, you can have a method that takes a file as a parameter - and writes data to it. You can test this method by passing in a String (which also supports << for appending) and verify that your method's logic works.

Duck typing is useful in regular code for reducing coupling and increasing flexibility. Ruby community now differentiates the type (what it can do) of an object and the class (what generated it) of an object.

The Road to Metaprogramming

Metaprogramming is really, really powerful in Ruby. Library writers use it, but most developers don't use it. The ActiveRecord framework is an example of metaprogramming. Rather than being an O/R Mapping tool, it's more of a database table wrapper. The belongs_to, has_one, has_many and other validation_presence_of method calls can be written by you. Allowing you to write DSL (domain-specific languages) that appear to be a part of the Ruby language.

4 steps to metaprogramming:

  1. Classes are open: in Ruby, you can always add methods, attributes, etc. to existing classes. For example, you can add an encrypt() method to the String class. Isn't this dangerous? What if someone changes the logic of + for math expressions. No, because if one of your programmers overrides methods that breaks things - you take them out in the parking lot and beat them with a rubber hose! The language shouldn't prohibit us from doing powerful things.
  2. Definitions are active: code executes during what would normally be compilation. As the class if being defined, the code is being executed. For example, you can check if an environment variable is set - and create methods (i.e. log.debug()) accordingly. This can be great for caching.
  3. All method calls have a receiver: Methods are executed on objects. There's always a current object: self. Methods with no explicit receiver are executed on current object.
  4. Classes are objects too: You can easily add methods to classes.

Many more Ruby features: Reflection and ObjectSpace, Marshalling and Distributed Ruby, Tk, Gtk, Fox, networking, databases, etc. Garbage collection, Threads (like Java green threads), Modules and mixins. ObjectSpace - allows you to reflect on all of the objects that exist at runtime. Marshalling allows you to serialize into binary or text formats. No XML - uses YAML instead. Unlike XML, it's readable and looks more like a properties file. Modules (and their methods) can be easily included into a class simply by using "include ModuleName".

Now Dave is going to write a program to extract book sales ranks from Amazon pages, publish them as an RSS Feed, store them in a database, and access via a web application (using Rails). Since this is likely to involve a lot of live coding, I probably won't blog the code Dave writes.

Web Applications in Ruby can be done with Simple CGI, FastCGI, mod_ruby and frameworks (like Rails). Iowa, CGIKit, Nitro and Ruby on Rails are all web frameworks in Ruby. Iowa is a Ruby implementation of Apple's WebObjects. Dave's quote: "Apple really screwed up with WebObjects, they could've owned the market on web frameworks."


  • Use Ruby because it is Lightweight. A Ruby download is under 10 MB. Ruby Gems allows easy package management for downloading libraries and documentation.
  • Use Ruby is Transparent. It's nice and easy to read - and it only takes a couple of hours to learn its syntax.
  • Portable - runs on PDAs and Mainframes.
  • Open Source - MIT/Artistic style license. 1.8.3's regular expression engine is LGPL, 1.9's engine will be BSD-style license.
  • Easy to Learn - uses the Principle of Least Surprise. Things seem to work as you'd expect. Dave knows people that've downloaded Ruby and put web applications on line in the same morning - w/o any prior knowledge of Ruby.
  • Fun! It's enjoyable to program in.

Ruby Resources

Posted in Open Source at Aug 01 2005, 11:20:05 AM MDT 9 Comments