Ruby, Sinatra, Dreamhost, Haml, git – a smooth web app workflow … eventually

I have spent many years developing web applications in Java for corporate clients. During that time I have used a wide range of frameworks, APIs and other useful stuff. I have written my own versions (sometimes several) of many of these components, learned the tools well, and become very productive and effective.

However, it has been almost impossible to take that expertise, hard work, and custom code and easily/cheaply turn it into usable web applications for general public use. Low-cost hosting providers have generally shunned Java support. The most reasonable one I have found is LunarPages who actually support both ad-hoc JSP and deployment of custom web applications as war files, even though you have to search pretty deep in their web site to find out, and pay an extra dollar or two a month for the privilege.

So for my own projects I have been looking for an alternative for a long time. A way of developing and testing web apps on my various development boxes (currently running Ubuntu, MacOS X and Windows XP) and easily deploying to a low-cost hosting provider.

By far the most popular web development language is PHP. It’s available pretty much everywhere. It’s so focussed on web app development that the primary unit of coding is the web page. Believe me, I have tried to like PHP, but it’s just so clumsy. After a few paces the application begins to get tangled, development speed drops, and bugs creep in. Its web focus makes it tricky to unit test, and end-to-end testing seems to require a full-fat HTTP server. Not for me.

Beyond the traditional stomping ground of PHP, perl, and other CGI fodder is the new range of “trendy” languages. Ruby, Python, Erlang and even the venerable smalltalk are trying to position themselves as the thinking-person’s web development tool.

Erlang syntax is a bit too odd for me right now, although I may come back to it later. Smalltalk is interesting, but carries with it so much history and is hardly a popular choice for low-cost hosting providers. That leaves a short-list of Python and Ruby.

As languages I like both Python and Ruby. They have broadly similar design goals, both have keen developer communities with plenty of open source resources, and both are commonly found on linux-based web hosts. In order to decide between them I took a look around their frameworks and APIs.

Python has Google on its side. It’s the “native language” of the hugely-scalable Google AppEngine. However, a scan around the web looking for ways of writing web applications led largely to two: Zope and Django. (for balance, there are plenty of others, but these are the standout examples). Zope is old and sprawling. It has some great ideas but is hardly an obvious choice for small, tactical web apps. Django is a bit lighter, but still seems to assume a lot and require a lot of relatively fiddly config.

In the Ruby world the blindingly obvious choice for a web application framework is Rails. Sometimes it seems as if “Ruby” is just another way of saying “Rails”. However Rails, like Django, assumes a lot about the eventual application. Rails also makes a lot of use of code generation, which I simply do not like. I would always prefer that a framework eliminate boilerplate rather than just generate it for me. Looking a little further beyond Rails I came across some really interesting alternatives, and the one which really sparked my interest is Sinatra. For me this one framework made the difference. It’s so streamlined that a basic web app is as simple as:

require ‘sinatra’
get ‘/’ do
‘Hello world!’

Best of all, simply running the above file using ruby hello.rb starts up a web server and begins serving pages on port 4567. No extra config or faffing.

Looking around for low cost hosting I found that the provider I already use (Dreamhost) supports Ruby web hosting using Passenger. An ssh to the Dreamhost server for “gem install sinatra” followed by a little bit of FTP and my first Ruby/Sinatra application was live!

A key part of any web application is the pages, and a key part of generating pages is a good template language. As a general-purpose templating language, I still prefer my own Stringtree Templater, part of the Mojasef Java framework. So far I have not found a similar templating solution for any other language. However, for the limited and specific requirement of generating web pages, I am becoming quite fond of Haml. It’s not at all a general templating solution, but it does massively simplify the generation of web pages.

Finally, after years of CVS and Subversion, I have made the jump to distributed version control. Not only is it more trendy, but the ability to work on multiple code branches, on multiple machines, with or without an internet connection, and easily share, identify and merge when necessary has been a key benefit. Occasionally I wonder if one of the other distributed VCS (Mercurial, Bazaar, darcs, etc.) would have been a better choice, but I needed to settle on one and get to grips with it. So I chose git.

There have been a few speed-bumps. Attempting to learn git from manual entries and simplistic tutorials gives very little help on deciding what is worth doing. After about a week of following the techniques in A Git Workflow for Agile Teams, though, I began to get comfortable. Add to that some lovely web deployment tricks from A web-focused Git workflow and a selection of GUI tools ( Git Cola, GitX, and Git GUI ) to get round all that tedious “git add” stuff and simplify infrequent operations, and git becomes a very useful and productive tool.

The upshot is that I currently feel very productive.

My toolbox has a few other things in it, but they are still candidates for change if I find anything better. I am managing my projects and git repositories using Unfuddle but it has a few shortcomings including a ticket system which is a pale and clumsy cousin of bugzilla. For editing I use generic syntax-highlighting text editors (gedit on Linux, TextEdit on Windows and Smultron on Mac) but none of them have the nice autocompletion and refactoring tools I grew addicted to in Eclipse. Suggestions welcome!

Finally, a few spare links relating to the tools mentioned above.

Sinatra: 29 Links and Resources For A Quicker, Easier Way to Build Webapps

HAML reference


Mini reviews of 19 Ruby template engines

The Forgotten Ruby Web Frameworks


  1. Great post, Frank. I’m glad you found Sinatra – isn’t it great? Since you’re using git, you should check out Heroku as a hosting option

    Heroku and Sinatra together make it incredibly easy to get a simple webapp running public on the Internet.

  2. Dreamhost is horrible for ruby hosting. Good luck getting an ORM To work. They kill the process when they identify Active Record or others and then force you to get a private server.

  3. Interesting. I’ve not seen that behaviour myself, although that may just be because I don’t use ActiveRecord for persistence on any of the applications I have deployed at Dreamhost so far. I have used both sqlite3 and pstore for relatively low-volume storage without any significant problems.

    I have found their generic hosting to a pretty good bargain, but the private servers are not such a good deal, especially as they seem to push an “all or nothing” approach rather than some sites on a PS and some on regular hosting.

    Do you have any suggestions for better/cheaper ruby hosting?

  4. As editor, I suggest the excellent Komodo IDE from Active State.

    It is a state-of-the art editor for scripted languages. You can get a 30-day trial. Works on Nix, Win and Mac.

    I used the free version, Komodo Edit, for years now and I hope to be buying the full featured Komodo IDE ASAP.

    It is very easy to write plug-ins and there are lots of them ready for download.

    Note: I don’t have anything to do with ActiveState. For me, talking about Komodo IDE is just a sign of my gratitude to them, for they provide me a great free tool for years.

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