Ruby on Rails Makes Programmers Happy

So my Chief Technology Officer walks into one of our Friday meetings and tells me he’s started a special interest group for users of Ruby on Rails.

Who, on what? And for that matter, why?

Let’s start with the why. All day long, he works with corporate systems like SharePoint and Microsoft Office, so for fun he looks for a change and he plays with different types of technologies.

Mike Hatfield is his name, and he’s just a normal kind of guy with kids and a car and a mortgage, but he also has a passion for technology that goes far beyond his regular work hours. And that should give you some hint as to why he’s our Chief Technology Officer.

So instead of discussing “important” Nicom things, we end up spending an hour talking about Ruby on Rails. Ruby, it turns out is a programming language, and Rails is a framework for building web applications. So Ruby on Rails is a way of building web applications.

The language was developed in the early 1990s by a Japanese developer called Yukihiro Matsumoto – “Matz” to his friends – who wanted a language that “made him happier”. It turns out Matsumoto didn’t like cryptic computer code, so he came up with a more natural language than conventional ones. For example, you don’t say IF NOT as do most programming languages, you say UNLESS.

According to Mike, this type of computer language makes for faster software development, and makes it easy to understand and modify Ruby programs written by other developers.

Matsumoto invented Ruby, but a Dane named David Heinemeier Hansson invented Rails. DHH, as Rubyists call him, was working for a Chicago web application company called 37signals on a project management product called Basecamp, and he devised the web-based framework that became Rails.

Besides making them happy, many computer programmers like Ruby on Rails because it costs them nothing. The language itself is free, and so is the operating system it normally runs on – Linux – as well as database systems storing their data. We call this “open source”, where whole communities of developers freely share ideas and programs.

There are downsides to developing software this way, a major one being that the source programs, the natural language I mentioned earlier, is distributed with all applications, which poses a problem if you want to protect your intellectual property. Another one is that these applications have to be hosted on specialized Rails-friendly servers. Another disadvantage is that you don’t always get good support, although there are organizations who do provide “premium support” for a price.

But with some 90 million developers worldwide, Ruby on Rails has a huge following which means it is here to stay. And the price is right.

Mike tells me that the large majority of companies using Rails are startups, who obviously see the low cost of ownership worth the risk of some support issues. But don’t think there isn’t any wealth involved. Heroku, a platform for hosting Rails applications, was recently purchased by Salesforce.com for $212 million. Twitter was written using Ruby, and I suspect there’s money to be made there.

So then on Wednesday morning, Mike walks in and tells me he had a good turnout for his first User Group meeting, a group he now calls “Halifax on Rails”. Creative guy, that Mike Hatfield.

I think he should call the day of his meetings “Ruby Tuesday”. Just my little contribution.

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