One year with Rails

One year since I picked up ‘Agile Web Development with Rails’ and coded my first Rails model/controller/view: seems so long ago now.

Things I’ve mastered in the past year:

  • Test driven development using unit and functional tests.
  • Master-detail forms using Ajax to add and delete rows, fetching product details in JSON for codes entered into a line item.
  • Prototype and jQuery, including jQuery UI datepickers.
  • Loading and parsing XML data files using Nokogiri.
  • Building complex reports using nested views in PostgreSQL, maintained using rails_sql_views.
  • Creating formatted, multi-tab Excel spreadsheets using Spreadsheet gem.
  • Creating pixel-perfect PDF reports using JasperReports loaded using Java-Ruby bridge.
  • Hosting using Apache with Passenger, Mongrel, Thin and Unicorn.
  • Monitoring using ScoutApp.
  • Upgrading a production app from Rails 2.3.4 to Rails 3.0.9.
  • Switching from ERB to HAML.

Using Apache with Mongrel or Thin and Rails 3

When using mod_proxy to load balance between members of a mongrel or thin cluster it’s important not to pass requests through for static content.  A basic virtual site can be configured like this:

<VirtualHost *:80>

    DocumentRoot /opt/myapp/public

    <Proxy balancer://thinservers>

    ProxyPreserveHost On
    ProxyPass /images !
    ProxyPass /stylesheets !
    ProxyPass /javascripts !
    ProxyPass / balancer://thinservers/
    ProxyPassReverse / balancer://thinservers/

    <Proxy *>
     Order deny,allow
     Allow from all

    ErrorLog /var/log/apache2/error.log
    LogLevel warn
    CustomLog /var/log/apache2/access.log combined


Thin with Apache

Having run into compatibility issues between Passenger and RJB and between Mongrel and Rails 2.3.8 I’ve been looking at Thin.

Slicehost has a couple of good articles on setting up a Thin cluster with Apache on Ubuntu.

In summary:

gem install thin
thin install
/usr/sbin/update-rc.d -f thin defaults
thin –h # help
thin -C /etc/thin/${appenv}.yml -c ${apphome} -s 3 -e production config
su – ${appenv}bat ; thin -C /etc/thin/${appenv}.yml start

Installing Nokogiri on Ubuntu

Worked for me with Nokogiri 1.4.4 on Ubuntu 10.04 LTS:

# ruby developer packages
sudo apt-get install ruby1.8-dev ruby1.8 ri1.8 rdoc1.8 irb1.8
sudo apt-get install libreadline-ruby1.8 libruby1.8 libopenssl-ruby 

# nokogiri requirements
sudo apt-get install libxslt-dev libxml2-dev
sudo gem install nokogiri

Getting started with Ruby on Windows

To get started my preference is to use RubyInstaller for Windows.  Both 1.8.x and 1.9.x variants are available. I group together my Ruby variants under \Programs\rubies.

Having installed multiple variants you can register and manage them using Pik.  I recommend not changing the installation path from the default C:\pik.  It is in fact possible to install Ruby using Pik (by default Pik installs rubies in %HOMEPATH%\.pik\rubies), but I prefer not to do so.

pik add d:\programs\rubies\ruby-1.8.7-p334\bin
pik add d:\programs\rubies\ruby-1.9.2-p180\bin

To access code repositories you will need to download and install msysGit for Windows.  I also strongly recommend TortoiseGit instead of Git GUI.

To build native extension gems like Nokogiri you will need DevKit.  I tried

pik package devkit install

but this did not work for me (got HTTP 404) so I had to manually download and extract the DevKit.  DevKit also includes MSYS/MinGW.

For an IDE I use Aptana Studio 3.  Studio looks for an existing Git installation or installs its own private copy of portable Git.  Studio then leverages the msysGit bash shell.

RubyInstaller includes gem, which can then be used to install bundler to complete the setup of the environment.

RJB on Ubuntu LTS 10.04

Ruby-Java Bridge (RJB) allows use of Java libraries from within a c-ruby environment, see this slideshow.   RJB provides an alternative when a full port to JRuby is impractical.

First install Java and build-essential

apt-get update
apt-get install openjdk-6-jdk
apt-get install build-essential

Now install rjb gem

export JAVA_HOME=/usr/lib/jvm/java-6-openjdk
gem install rjb

The bad news is that RJB currently crashes when used with Passenger so the best alternative is to revert to Mongrel.

Building Your Own Website

There are several levels of sophistication:

  • Using wizards
  • Leveraging open source packages
  • Mastering HTML, CSS and Javascript in the browser
  • Writing server programs to use a database

Really simple websites can be built using

These are all good for static, slowly changing content.  If you want to publish content regularly consider blogging with

If you want to go beyond blogging consider an open source package like Joomla or Drupal. Sign-up for hosting with a company like Dreamhost or GoDaddy and they will give you simple installation scripts to get started with these packages for a few dollars a month. If you want to customize these or do something more your own you will need to master HTML/CSS/Javascript (DHTML aka. DOM scripting).  Get an HTML editor and study the tutorials at W3 Schools After you’ve learned DHTML you can go on to build database driven sites using Microsoft’s technologies, PHP or Ruby On Rails

Rails Datepickers

There are multiple ways to add date-pickers to a Rails application. Searching for a date picker online I came across one Prototype based gem called calendar_date_select that was featured by Ruby Inside, and another one called Calendar-DatePicker-for-Rails.  On closer inspection, however, calendar_date_select was last updated in 2008 and is looking for a new maintainer: the demo still uses Rails 2.2.2: it does not work with some later versions.

Apart from using a date-picker specifically packaged for Rails it is not that difficult to use a free-standing Javascript solution: I found a nice looking solution called unobtrusive-date-picker but it appears to have limited support. There are also Javascript widget libraries like AUI and jQuery UI.  Finally I came across a Railscast that mentions calendar_date_select but goes on to recommends jQuery UI.  jQuery can be integrated with Rails 2.x using jRails or Rails 3 with jquery-rails and/or jquery-ujs or you can simply forgo the integration and just use jQuery directly. In my case I linked to the libraries hosted by Google like this:

 <%= javascript_include_tag "", "" %>
 <%= stylesheet_link_tag "" %>

The remaining details of using a jQuery UI datepicker with Rails are covered in the Railscast.

Using Ruby with Postgres on Ubuntu 10.04 LTS

Installation of PostgreSQL on Ubuntu is straightforward, see

To create a simple database with its own user use the command line:

psql <<EOF
  create user ${appenv} createdb password '*****';
createdb --username=postgres --owner ${appenv} ${appenv}

To access the database from Rails use pg

gem install pg

Entries in database.yml should look like

  adapter: postgresql
  username: myappstst
  password: mypwd
  database: myapptst

Domain Registration

The most popular domain registrars are ranked by The most popular registrar by far is, which rents dot-com domains for less than $12/yr. and includes free DNS management, email and a simple website wizard that can build a basic landing page. Other large online registrars include Enom and Network Solutions. Tucows is a wholesaler and does not sell registrations online. Lifehacker readers recently recommended namecheap.

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