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Programming in Ruby: A critical look at the pros and cons

While Ruby showcases an impressive spread of beneficial features, there are still specific shortcomings that may explain why its adoption numbers have been conspicuously erratic.

Since its release in 1995, programmers have used Ruby for both web development and higher-level server management projects. Whether a novice or veteran, Ruby and the Rails framework offer programmers high-level features for things like rapid prototyping and full-stack development. It boasts a large, open source development community committed to supporting software development efforts across a variety of industries and verticals.

In this article, we provide a quick overview of Ruby, examine the significance of Ruby on Rails and list the features that have attracted an enthusiastic community. We also identify the unfortunate limitations of programming in Ruby that seem to restrain the language's adoption status across the development community at large.

Quick overview of Ruby

While Ruby is certainly its own unique language, it does incorporate a fair amount of influence from Perl in its simplicity, Smalltalk in its approach to objects and Lisp in terms of its general-purpose usability. Programmers can use Ruby's server-side capabilities to improve applications built with other languages or embed Ruby in their own software for use as a scripting language.

Ruby functions as glue code that helps developers create customized scripts for basic things like shell commands, application wrappers, command-line interfaces and common gate interfaces. The language primarily operates using an object-oriented programming approach that revolves around using methods for functionality and simple naming conventions for variables. For instance, anything that can be said to have a value (i.e., numbers, strings, arrays, classes and modules) is considered an object in Ruby.

A key aspect of Rails is its adherence to both the convention over configuration and don't repeat yourself (DRY) principles.

The importance of Ruby on Rails

The Ruby on Rails framework (also known simply as Rails) is a key part of what makes programming in Ruby attractive. Through abstraction, this framework helps cut down on repetitive programming tasks, such as testing, error detection and debugging. Because it uses a Model-View-Controller (MVC) format, it's also possible to perform parallel data development and user interface design. On top of that, Rails employs a unique controller mechanism that coordinates MVC interactions and handles external-facing request routing.

A key aspect of Rails is its adherence to both the convention over configuration and don't repeat yourself (DRY) principles. Applying the practice of conventions over configuration helps ensure smooth navigation through the segments of a Rails-based application by automatically ensuring that related elements, such as classes and their associated database table, are identified in the directory using a shared name. Meanwhile, DRY practices cut down on the need for programmers to repetitively write code for individual processes by dictating that a certain type of process can only be written in a single, standardized way.

The pros of programming in Ruby

Some of Ruby's features are specifically designed to accelerate development and simplify the learning process. For instance, the concision and elegance of the language contribute to improved readability and comprehension, particularly for those newer to programming. Developers can also transition easily to and from projects based in other languages using Ruby's automated documentation capabilities.

These are some of the most significant and beneficial features of Ruby worth noting:

  • Ruby uses a VM to execute code, which stays true to its identity as an interpreted language.
  • Developers can use RubyGems to import add-ons, libraries and code packages that accelerate things like debugging and authentication.
  • By declaring exception handlers in Ruby, programmers can automatically stop normal execution of a program and transfer flow-of-control to the exception handling code.
  • Effective garbage collection in Ruby improves memory usage by providing a mark-and-sweep process for all objects.
  • The GC.compact method (introduced in Ruby 2.7) is designed to counter Ruby's tendency to create error-inducing memory fragmentation.

What does the Ruby career path look like?

Skilled Ruby developers can land in a variety of jobs, including server development, back-end development, web development or even full-stack engineering. In fact, it's not uncommon that engineering job postings will specifically highlight Rails-based architecture management.

Along with attaining a strong grasp of the mechanics behind Rails, those looking to improve their skills and pursue a career in Ruby will also benefit from an understanding of other major front-end and back-end languages like Python, PHP, JavaScript and HTML.

Ruby's notable limitations

Ruby adoption trends have been somewhat erratic since the high levels of popularity it held on the TIOBE index rating in the early-to-mid 2000s. Part of this could have to do with specific aspects of the language's accessibility to certain resources. For example, while language's actual syntax is relatively simple to understand, those brand-new to the language may have trouble locating open source community documentation about particular RubyGems methods. However, there are a few performance limitations that equally impact adoption trends.

For starters, Ruby-based applications are susceptible to slow boot speeds, especially if an application's processes require a large number of method calls. Mitigating the high memory cost and performance impact of method calls in Ruby often requires multiple code revisions and add-ons, such as the Bootsnap library and Spring Boot library extensions. The slower runtime speeds and reputedly minimal web hosting support in Rails also makes the list of common complaints.

Ruby is comparatively more resource-intensive than languages like Java and PHP, which tend to provide more efficient approaches to parsing libraries and web application processing. Despite this, however, developers can use the JRuby implementation to integrate with a Java virtual machine using JRuby and attempt to reach runtime speeds that rival the likes of Java and PHP.

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