2009 top underreported technology stories:7. Ruby on Rails gets respect in the enterprise
When Bust Out Solution, a small Web design and development shop, was hired to Webify Oracle apps for Williams-Sonoma, founder Jeff Lin quickly cranked out a 40-page paper proposing Ruby on Rails (or just Rails, as it's often called) as a development framework. The answer came back almost immediately: "No. We've never heard of it," Lin recalls. That was in 2005.
Fast-forward to the present. Lin and his team built Best Buy's IdeaX social networking application for customers of the home electronics giant. The framework: Rails, on top of a cloud platform from Heroku, a platform service vendor.
Rails, which was new in 2005 when Williams-Sonoma gave it the thumbs-down, has matured and is slowly spreading beyond its traditional base of agile startups into the enterprise. Why has this story remained under the radar? "Java became a big deal quickly because it grew with the early Internet and garnered huge amounts of attention," says Heroku CEO Byron Sebastian. "But the shift to Rails is more of a generational shift with programmers who aren't out of school very long."
For developers like Lin, one of the biggest reasons to use Rails is its agility. "We can write [the apps] quickly and see how users react and change them." Or as he jokes, "fail early, fail fast." The ability to deploy a prototype in a hurry is a big selling point for developers going up against much larger, but slower, competition, as such rapid prototyping lowers costs. Best Buy, for example, looked at Salesforce.com but found that it was cheaper to build the application on Rails than to buy a ready-made platform.
However, while enterprise resistance to Rails has certainly diminished, there are situations in which Rails is simply not a good solution, says Sergei Serdyuk, a managing partner at Redleaf Software. In some cases, he says, the existing infrastructure of an enterprise doesn't lend itself to the use of Rails because it might not be a good fit for, say, existing security policies.
Even so, Redleaf is a Rails-only shop and has built infrastructure for large clients, including IMS, the world's largest barter Web site. In addition to the framework's agility, Serdyuk says the structure of Rails makes it relatively simple for teams to collaborate, since naming conventions and the location of different components are very simple.
If you're skilled in Rails, 2010 should bring more opportunities, but wholesale enterprise adoption is not here yet.