Nick Plante: How do I learn and master Sinatra?

by Satish Talim on July 17, 2009

Welcome to the sixth installment on the RL blog, of a mini series – “How do I learn and master Sinatra?” – by top Rubyists using Sinatra. The interview series will provide insight and commentary from these notable Sinatra developers, with the goal of facilitating and providing answers to the questions Ruby beginners face on how to learn and master Sinatra.

Satish>> Nick Plante, could you tell us something about yourself – your background, where you are based?

Nick PlanteNick Plante>> I’m Nick Plante, a freelance web app developer living in Portsmouth, NH — USA. I’ve been doing application development professionally for quite some time, but I don’t think I really ever enjoyed it all that much until I found Ruby, which was about 3 years ago now. I do client work for startups and small businesses and we work on incubating our own projects too. I’m also involved in a bunch of community stuff such as working as an organizer for the Rails Rumble event. In my spare time, I enjoy film, comics, travel, loud droning music, racquetball and mountain biking.

Satish>> Are there any pre-requisites for a person to start learning Sinatra?

Nick>> A basic understanding of HTTP verbs would be useful. It would certainly help to have a firm grasp on Ruby too. But honestly, it’s not really that important. Writing a Sinatra application is a good way to learn Ruby itself, if you’re focused on web-based projects. It’s not large enough to be overly complex or unwieldy, and is easily understood. For example, I’d recommend that a person learn Sinatra before attempting to use Rails for a project, and for a lot of people, Rails is their first experience with Ruby.

Satish>> How should one start learning Sinatra?

Nick>> Start by looking at the Sinatra official site; the README there is well written and very brief, and will teach you most of what you need to know. Sinatra isn’t a huge framework with all sorts of esoteric methods, so it’s easy to get started. I’d next suggest that you check out the list of Sinatra applications “in the wild”; many of these are open source (including several of my own projects).

I’m a firm believer that the best way to learn a framework is to find practical small-scope examples to look at, and there are plenty of these for Sinatra now — just check GitHub. Once you understand the basics, pick something you’re interested in that’s relatively minimalist and start coding. The docs and the community are there to help you when and if you need help.

Sinatra – quickly create tiny web apps and services

Satish>> Which area of Sinatra should a beginner pay particular attention to?

Nick>> Start with the basics; Sinatra’s RESTful syntax is a joy to work with. Stay practical. Once you’ve got that down, spend some time playing around with Rack itself. Understand how it works and how you can write and use middleware.

Satish>> Is the official documentation on Sinatra good enough for a beginner? Are there areas which need improvement or need to be re-written

Nick>> I think it’s fine. The micro-site / README is a great read and the Sinatra book is another option. Since Sinatra is relatively unopinionated about your choice of ORM, templating language, testing framework, javascript library, etc — you’ll get to make your own choices about what you use. The documentation there will probably be worse than Sinatra’s own ;-).

Satish>> Sequel, DataMapper, ActiveRecord – which one would you recommend to use with Sinatra and why?

Nick>> Whichever one you personally like the best, or are most familiar with. I’m a big fan of DataMapper for several reasons, although it’s documentation (see previous question) admittedly leaves a bit to be desired. If you’ve already got a background with Rails, ActiveRecord might be a better place to start. Use what you know and learn one new thing at a time. Once you’re comfortable with Sinatra try experimenting with something different to see how it works for you.

Sinatra Icon

Satish>> Is an understanding of Rack important while learning Sinatra? Why? Which area of Rack should one be really comfortable with?

Nick>> I don’t think you really need to know much of anything about Rack to start using Sinatra, other than how to write a rackup file (which is easy and well documented; you can pretty much copy and paste). However, if you do know Rack you’ve got a lot of advantages, and I’d recommend learning it. There’s some really powerful middleware out there like Rack::Cache that can save you from reinventing the wheel when you need the extras that aren’t already baked-in.

Satish>> How should one hone one’s skills in Sinatra?

Nick>> Practice makes perfect. Pick an idea you’re interested in and build it. You can also learn a lot by looking at other peoples’ work.

Satish>> What type of projects should a beginner work on to gain more expertise in Sinatra?

Nick>> Small ones that do one simple task and do it well. Focus on writing tight elegant code that leverages Sinatra’s RESTful DSL. Don’t forget to use Rack::Test to write tests for your application.

Satish>> Could you suggest some web services that a Sinatra beginner could develop himself / herself?

Nick>> Write a minimalist time tracker or a pastebin service or something else similarly small in scope. Sinatra is great for creating micro-apps; maybe spend some time thinking about how you could leverage the Twitter API. Also, consider building services that are entirely web APIs and don’t need a traditional HTML frontend. Sinatra really excels for that sort of thing.

Satish>> Anything else you would like to add?

Nick>> Whatever you do, just remember to have fun doing it. We’re all better developers when we’re working with technologies and tools that we enjoy, and creating things that we’re personally passionate about. For me, working on Sinatra-based apps is a lot of fun. It’s not the right choice for everything, and I definitely favor Rails for certain types of applications, but for creating small clean micro-apps it’s hard to beat imo.

Thank you Nick. In case you have any queries and/or questions, kindly post your questions here (as comments to this blog post) and Nick would be glad to answer.

Others in this series:

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Posted by Satish Talim

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