March 24, 2008

Getting Started Tips

Filed under: hosting, IDE, rails, ruby — oomoo @ 11:30 am

IDE – Integrated Development Environment

There are many Integrated Development Environments (IDE’s) available for the RoR developer. The choices vary a little across operating systems, but most tools are thankfully cross-platform. I hear the majority of the developers working on the RoR “core” use Mac. I also see lots of posts (especially Ruby ones) by the Linux crowd. Very few posts are Windows-specific. Being technology-agnostic, I actually own Windows, Mac, and Linux computers and devices of all shapes and colors. since I am still heavily involved in desktop apps, The majority of my development work is still done on Windows.

On the Mac, many developers are satisfied to use the text editing programs that ship with the O/S. Having used true Integrated Development Environments for so long, I just cannot live without the ability to design-code-test-repeat in the same environment, call me spoiled. I started my development career programming for DOS, writing “C” programs that had to manually manipulate the video buffer just to show a “form”. I have also done a good bit of Unix/Linux administration, so I am comfortable working from a command-line. But, I must say that the need to have various interfaces and command-prompts for running Apache, MySQL, RAKE, and Ruby made me feel like I was taking two steps back in my efforts to move one step forward on the web.

I am so very grateful and forever in debt to the fine cadre of programmers and development shops that are creating really top-notch IDE tools for Ruby and Rails developers. I am just now starting to see a light at the end of the IDE tunnel.

Ruby In Steel (Visual Studio plugin) (Visual Form Designer)
Steel Sapphire’s “Ruby In Steel” plug-in for Visual Studio has put itself on the cutting edge with their “Visual Form Designer”. That’s right folks, the ability to visually design RoR “forms” right in the IDE. In technical terms, it “smooshes” your view, helper, javascript, and css into what the user will see as the final form. You can then drag-n-drop controls on the “form” visually design it, and still get into the code or html and make edits to those. When you are done, it saves all the changes back to their original parts.

I like the safety of this approach, because it gives you one layer of seperation between the “composite” (smooshed together) form and your actual code. This abstraction allows you to do cool things like export the composite out to your favorite HTML editor, then pull it back in. It is also good, because as it is in beta, the tool has lots of bugs left in it. This is a very ambitious project, so I’ll be patient…. is it done yet?

Even aside from the Visual Form Designer, this is a good tool for straight coding and debugging as well. My big gripe, of course, is that it runs inside Visual Studio, which is a pig and a hog and slow and complex and… well, you get the point. It’s hard to be all things to all people and do any one thing really really well. If you are a Microsoft hugger though, you will think all the “crap” is just the way it is for everyone. Well, not so my friend, which is why you should check out some of these other great tools.

Aptana Studio (with RadRails plugin)
I use Aptana Studio every day. It is fast, clean, and quite comprehensive. Oh yeah, it’s FREE. It’s based on Eclipse and handles all things AJAX with aplumb. It also handles development for Adobe AIR, PHP, and iPhone (and it has a completely javascript server-side) if you need any of those things.

Aptana automatically treats your Rails application and associated sub-directories as a “project”, so there’s no need to create/maintain a project file. The real-time debugging support is excellent as is the ability to find/install new “gems” directly from within Aptana.

Heroku is one of the most mind-bending development platforms I have come across. Heroku allows you to code, debug, and run your Rails application using nothing more than your FireFox browser. You can create code, upload/modify your database, and debug from any computer with an Internet connection. It is also “group aware” allowing your programming team to all collaborate within the same development space. Yes, there is source code control and the ability to backup your entire project to your PC anytime you like.

Heroku runs in the Amazon EC2 (elastic computing cloud) that means that server configuration does not exist. Just flip a switch and your Rails app is magically in “production”, nothing extra to configure, update, or support. The “elastic” in EC2 means that it should be quite scalable, allowing you to allocate resources as-needed. All this goodness is currently in Beta, so I don’t have any pricing or comparison statistics on the hosting side. But, even without the hosting, the ability to develop and test your complete Rails application from any PC is very exciting and perhaps the most unique play in the industry!

3rd Rail
3rd Rail is a Ruby/Rails-specific IDE from CodeGear (formerly part of Borland). It is a very nice IDE, but it is very “young” and seemed to lack some of the extra goodies incorporated by some of the more mature contenders. I have used Borland products many times during my development career and have always found them to be very solid and productivity driven. I will need to check back with 3rd Rail in a while to see how they are progressing.

I purchased Komodo when I was playing with Python and Django (as part of my journey to find Rails). Komodo is very well respected in the Python community. Although I have not used it, I saw that Komodo also has a RoR plugin. If you are using Python or want to use both Python and Ruby, you should check out Komodo.


Development Stack (Ruby, Rails, Apache, MySql, SqlLite, etc.)

If you are lazy (I prefer to think of it as “not expending unnecessary cycles”) or you just want a quick way of trying out this whole crazy Ruby On Rails thing, you will want to use a consolidated “development stack”. This simply means that there is a master installer/configuration tool that, with one download, will install and configure all the pieces that go into making a RoR web development platform work. Once the “master install” is done, you have a tightly integrated installation of Apache, Ruby, Rails, and MySQL (or SqlLite or some other open source database) which includes a nice little interface to start/stop all these pieces as needed.


InstantRails is the tried-and-true one of the bunch. It did go through a short period recently where it was no longer supported. This gave rise to BitNami picking up the mantle. But, then InstantRails was once again revived and updated for Rails 2.0. It remains my choice.


I tried BitNami a while back, but had troubles with the integrated install. Once InstantRails supported Rails 2.0, I must admit that I stopped trying BitNami. I may use it on a Virtual PC, just to see if they got all the wrinkles ironed out.


Books (be sure to get books covering Rails 2.0)

There are tons of books covering RoR. Here are a few I found very helpful. Each of them comes from a different viewpoint, so you will benefit by reading multiple books by different authors. You never know which one of them will explain a certain thing in just the right way to make your little lightbulb come on!

Why’s Poignant Guide To Ruby (http://poignantguide.net/ruby/) (fee and very entertaining)
Programming Ruby – The Pragmatic Programmer’s Guide (Dave Thomas) (known as “PickAxe”)
Agile Web Development with Rails (Dave Thomas)
Ajax On Rails (Scott Raymond)
Build Your Own Ruby On Rails Application (Patrick Lenz)
Ruby For Rails (David A. Black)
Beginning Ruby – From Novice to Professional (Peter Cooper)
The Rails Way
The Ruby Way
The Ruby Programming Language


Web Sites (there are also tons of blogs and such)

For in-depth examples and free code, nothing beats the really greats RoR blogs out there!

But, here is a tiny sampler of some of the more “authoritative” Ruby/Rails websites:

Official Rails Site: http://www.rubyonrails.com/
Official Ruby Site: http://www.ruby-lang.org/en/
Offiicial Blog: http://weblog.rubyonrails.org/
API Reference: http://api.rubyonrails.org/
Rails Wiki: http://wiki.rubyonrails.org/rails

PeepCode: http://peepcode.com/
Rails PodCasts: http://podcast.rubyonrails.org/
Rails Workshops: http://rubyonrailsworkshops.com/
Ruby Learning: http://rubylearning.com/

*As my daddy used to tell me (on an almost daily basis) “well son, you’re not gonna learn any younger”.


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