So, you're new to Ruby!

This guest post is contributed by Javier Cicchelli, a Software Engineer at Rock & Code, the Software and Marketing communications shop that rocks! Currently, they are doing their dirty deeds and conducting their high voltage operations in the (in)famous Red Light District in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Some four years ago, he started developing all the symptoms of a peculiar case of programmer’s schizophrenia. It all happened when he got a copy of the first edition of “Agile Web Development with Ruby on Rails” by Dave Thomas and David Heinemeier Hansson. Because of this book, he began spending a lot of his nights hacking with this amazing new technology. Back then, he was using C# and VB.NET at work and at some point, he simply started feeling somehow uncomfortable with it. Indeed, he was quite disappointed with the way the .NET framework and its languages was evolving. So in order to vent out his frustration, he unconsciously turned to the only relief he had: Ruby. Indeed, the more vexed he got with .NET, the more he was getting into Ruby. At that point, he discovered the vibrant Ruby community in the Ranstad region. An year ago, he got enough courage to quit his daily job and found his company, Rock & Code. He did so, determined to use all those new technologies available and simply rock development to the top.

Julio Javier

So… you’re new to Ruby!

Now that you know a bit more about me, let’s get down to business and dive in. First of all, welcome to Ruby! There might be multiple reasons why you are reading this entry; you might want to get your hands dirty with Ruby, you could be just curious as to what this whole Ruby thing is all about, or you might be simply bored with the rest of the technologies out there and you are in a search for a new technological medicine. The good news is that if you get hooked on Ruby and you decide to explore it further, there are plenty of useful docs, tons of blog entries and numerous nice fellas that can help you along the way. I have been there, I have done that. In addition, every single day, I learn something new by reading Ruby-related books and blog posts and by spending some time talking with fellow rubyists on mailing lists, IRC and Twitter. In order to add certain value to my article, I will attempt to cover the basic stepping stones for Ruby beginners.

What did I get myself into?

Before going any further, you should be warned what you are about to mess with.

In a nutshell, Ruby is an extremely high-level programming language created in Japan by Yukihiro “Matz” Matsumoto almost 20 years ago. It is heavily influenced by some of the most popular Scripting, Object Oriented, and Functional languages. It is built on C and its utter goal is to make programming fun again by obfuscating its vast complexity into natural syntactic sugar for the masses. Devised mainly as a Object-Oriented language, Ruby considers (almost) everything as objects that can have attributes and methods. Even though it might seem restrictive as it supports simple inheritance only, Ruby considers that modules containing methods could be plugged-in into classes or objects and, therefore, it could use these methods as if they were its own. This is a concept known as “Mixin”. Furthermore, this language provides you with a great deal of flexibility, which means you are able to alter any class, module or object on-the-fly by adding, modifying or removing functionality dynamically. In addition, its support for blocks gives greater flexibility and expressiveness to your methods in a functional fashion. Moreover, it does not require you to specify the types you are going to use in your code in advance. Nor does it require you to handle the memory allocation yourself. Ruby is not the kind of language that limits you and allows you to write your code in just one way. In fact, you can write your code in either an imperative, a procedural, an object-oriented or even a functional fashion.

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Even though Ruby is mainly used for creating web applications due to the widespread popularity of Ruby on Rails, it is actually a general-purpose programming language and it can be used in almost any kind of industry. Little by little, Ruby has been gaining a lot of momentum and it has been slowly but surely incorporated into the enterprise world. The fact that it makes developers happy is reflected in the way software has been produced. Indeed, if every member of a development team is able to quickly write simple code that is close to the natural language and it describes the domain of the problem, this will certainly have positive impact on the way this code is read, understood and maintained. Any beginner with basic notions of Object-Oriented programming should be able to catch up quickly, regardless of the kind of project.

Logically, there is always a price to pay and this is no exception: interpreted languages are usually much slower than their compiled counterparts and making developers happy has a direct impact on the overall performance of the interpreter. In addition, the way the interpreter uses multi-core processors, handles threading, and implements the memory garbage collector strategy usually raise concerns among some developers and industries which requires extremely high processing capabilities. Another problem is the lack of an established GUI that would allow developers to create cross-platform applications for either desktop, server and mobile environments. As you can imagine, these disadvantages are usual referred to when somebody starts the typical war of words “Ruby vs. (fill in the blanks with your language of choice)” on Hacker News or any similar site. Evidently, this somehow undermines the importance of Ruby as an important player in the field of Programming Languages of the decade.

Because of the Open Source nature of Ruby, a handful of great hackers and a few courageous people have forked the MRI (the de-facto Matz Ruby Interpreter) in order to propose their own solutions to the aforementioned cons. In the meantime, they have added some real value for developers of a certain niche platform. For example, REE optimizes the garbage collector of the MRI for web applications and Rubinius is a reimplementation of the MRI as a virtual machine a la Smalltalk, which aims at solving most of the known disadvantages of Ruby. Still other projects such as JRuby, IronRuby and MacRuby emphasize on a really tight integration with the Java, .NET and the OSX platforms.

Still, Ruby has a really friendly and thriving community behind its back that is systematically pushing its development and evolution forward. If you ask me, Ruby certainly has a couple of aces up its sleeve.

How to install Ruby on my machine?

Although some Operating Systems have some version of the MRI interpreter already installed, I would highly recommend that you use RVM to install, administer, and use multiple Ruby interpreters and set of gems very easily. This utility, written by Wayne E. Seguin, aims at addressing the most common, yet painful issues of developing, testing ,and deploying on Ruby, especially if you are looking forward to supporting different versions of Ruby. It does not really matter if you are working on your development or production environment. The RVM resolves complex issues regarding different versions seamlessly and it provides you with a simple and concise API that does not interfere with your tasks at hand. Definitely, this is a tool worth studying carefully because it will surely save you lots of work and time. It is also good for your mental health.

Unfortunately, RVM is not supported out-of-the-box on Windows environments and as far as I know, I do not think there is any alternative to this environment so you should stick to the Ruby Installer executables for the moment, which will install the MRI on your machine. Unfortunately, it will not give you the great deal of functionality described above. If any of you knows of a similar solution for Windows environments, please write a comment below. Lots of people will surely be interested in this.

Even though it is not specifically related to Ruby, Git is definitely one of the most powerful tools at your disposal today. It is a quick, efficient, and easy-to-use distributed version control system that allows you to manage the changes of your code over time. Basically, you have a local copy of your project with the history of your changes and you can import those changes into another repository as branches that can be merged with the local content. Git was created for non-linear development, so it allows you to create convenient branches, produce quick merges, and visualize the changes over time. Unlike RVM, Git is very well supported by every major environment out there so rejoice!

Ok… now what?

Probably it is the most common question you may ask to yourself right after installing on your machine whatever versions of the Ruby interpreter you have chosen.

Whether you’re an adventurous developer or not, I highly recommend that you read the “Why’s (poignant) Guide to Ruby” by the now missing in action Why the Lucky Stiff. This is the most unorthodox, yet extremely didactic programming book I have ever had the pleasure to read so far. No matter how experienced you are in the art of coding, read it and enjoy! This book is the very embodiment of the spirit of the Ruby language and its community. Simply awesome. Of course, there are hundreds of books about Ruby out there, mostly for beginners, but really, take my piece of advice and try this one first. You will not regret it!

One of the best things you can do while reading either a book or a post blog related to Ruby, is to test the code on the IRB, the interactive Ruby shell. This tool (or its equivalent on the different versions of the interpreter) executes every piece of code you insert in it, one line at the time. Believe me, trying every code example you may find in your way would really give you a better understanding of how Ruby works. On top of it, it is real fun!

What can I do with Ruby?

Although the main use of Ruby is focused on web development due to the popularity of the Ruby on Rails framework, you are able to easily create almost all the types of software for work and have tons of fun in the mean time. From tiny libraries and DSLs to complex frameworks and applications, Ruby is a general-purpose programming language that does not get in the way between your requirements and the actual implementations.

In any case, the best way to understand what you can do with this language is by adopting an empirical approach. Experiencing the pros and cons of the Ruby language yourself would allow you to become an expert in it.

Which way to go from here?

If there is something that Ruby normally offers to its developers, this is a whole range of choices, lots of choices… sometimes too many choices. Apart from the choices you may have to make in order to settle on with a text editor, some databases engines, a particular web server, etc., Ruby does not have just one version of the interpreter. Nor does it provide only one way of doing things. As you may have already guessed, neither do the developers out there.

There are many techniques, resources, and approaches to write Ruby code and since most of the Ruby code is mostly open source and it is available on Github (this is where Git comes along!), you can take a look at this treasure trove and learn a lot from it. Just remember: do not be overwhelmed by the huge number of choices that awaits you.

Should I write tests all the time?

Ruby has certainly taken testing back from obscurity and it has re-introduced it to the forefront of development. This is the time I confessed something: before learning Ruby, testing was the task that I was always trying to avoid because writing tests on .NET using NUnit is not the most exciting task in the world. Nonetheless, testing in Ruby using any library, regardless of whether you are using Test Unit, Rspec, Cucumber or else is not an easy task either. Usually, it takes a lot of time and quite a substantial experience to learn to write really good tests. It is certainly an overhead in your development. So, if you plan to play with the language, develop proofs of concept, and try out code, I really do not recommend that you dive into testing right away. Take your time to learn the language first. When you start writing your own libraries or collaborate on somebody else’s project, then you should take a look at the existing testing libraries, make an educated choice, and be really patient.

In any case, you should realize that Testing is really important. You should always ensure that your code verifies and validates both inputs and outputs, fails when it has to fail, and works when it has to work. Indirectly, testing is a form of documenting your code, because it basically shows how your code should work in a somehow realistic environment. In my opinion, testing is a long-term investment in your code for you and the people involved in your project. If you are really interested in how testing can help you structure the way to develop Software, then you should take a look at the TDD and BDD techniques.

I think that my explanations have given you enough food for thought. Now you are prepared to start your quest in the land of the Rubies. Fear not! Be confident and ready to experiment. You will not regret it. I promise you will have lots of fun sticking around! My final piece of advice to you is that you should really know your tools very well, no matter what kind of a text editor, database, framework, library, DSL or anything else you choose to work with.

Thanks a lot for the attention, boys and girls! I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it. I wish you good luck in your Ruby adventure. Most probably, our paths will cross along the way. If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to post them as comments here. In the meantime, stay tuned for the other great blog entries of the Ruby Gurus series and enjoy learning Ruby on RubyLearning!

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