Wilcox Development Solutions Blog

My Base Rails Setup, 2013 Edition

February 10, 2014

In 2010 ago I wrote My Base Rails Setup.

I looked at it again and it looks pretty dated. The Rails community changes a lot in just 3 years.

Here are the tools I run into with frequency on Rails projects, and some notes where that has changed from the 2010 tools of choice.

Over the last 3 years I’ve done full time, then part time, consulting, mostly in Rails. The advantage here is that I see a lot of Rails apps written by other people. Occasionally I also get to start a Rails app from scratch.

So, my choices tend to be relatively conservative: tools that are either so common that I pick them because “everyone” uses them, or tools that introducing some potentially odd tool to the Rails app is negated by the clear win it has over the “competition” (be that existing gems or roll-your-own.

I’m very thankful that I’ve gotten to see a lot of Rails apps, of all sizes, in my nearly 5 years doing Ruby on Rails.

Reviewing Old Picks

Looking back at my tools from 2010:

  • will_paginate: I mostly see and use Katamari these days
  • formtastic: I’m still a big Formtastic fan, but I mostly am brought into already existing projects, and the court of public opinion has chosen simple_form.
  • DataMapper: in the dozens and dozens of Rails projects I’ve been on I’ve seen DataMapper once.
  • sentient_user There’s still no substitute, and I’m surprised this doesn’t get more love than it does.
  • show_for Not used enough in my opinion.
  • annotate_models: The community “solution” to “what columns does this table have in it?” appears to be, “open up schema.rb in another window”. So that’s what I do.
  • inherited_resources: Responders in Rails 3 cut down some of the cruft that I would use inherited resources for. I always assume Responders will be a good 80% solution and keep my eyes out for when to refactor the action into old style respond\_to blocks.
  • Data Migrations: There’s still no substitute - db/seeds.rb sucks for serious data migration tasks. There is a gem that provides similar abilities to the Rails plugin I linked to a few years ago: active_data_migrations. Sadly another place where worse (seeds.rb) seems to be better.
  • shoulda: RSpec won the war.
  • Timecop Still the best.
  • Macinist Factory Girl won. Thankfully FactoryGirl has gotten better syntax over the years (or I’ve gotten accustomed to it).
  • Mailtrap still maybe the best. An interesting up and comer is Mailcatcher, but I’m not 100% sold.
  • rr: Rspec’s mocking framework seems to have won the war here too.
  • jQuery’s timeago plugin Still the best.
  • BlueprintCSS: Now-a-days the winner is Twitter Bootstrap. I like the bootstrap-sass gem with the twitter-bootstrap-markup-rails gem abstracting away common constructs (alerts, tabs, etc).
  • utility_belt: All Hail Pry

So, we have better tools for a lot of those. The new picks are certainly on my “base rails tools” list.

New Base Gems/tools

Here are the new gems/tools I’ve either seen in common use, or always apply when I come into projects:

  • foreman every Rails app pulls in at least 1, if not 3 or 4, additional services. Redis, memcached, or solr are the usual suspects here, but it varies. Foreman lets me launch all those services with a simple command, stopping them all when I need to.
  • pry is the top debugger for Ruby. Especially when coupled with the pry-stack_explorer to explore the callstack and plymouth to open up pry when a test fails.
  • A Rails VM setup with Puppet. Every project I’m on I use this to create a VM and set up packages required for the system to operate.
  • cancan. While it needs some love, cancan is (sadly) still the authorization solution solution most used on Rails projects I see. I wrote a blog entry on organizing complex abilities. Cancan goes firmly in the “solutions in common use in apps I see”, not in the “tools I like using”.
  • rack-pjax. Useful if you’re using PJAX. If you need to optimize for speed you could write a method that sets or unsets the layout depending on if the request is PJAX or not… but rack-pjax is “drop in and you’re done”. I’m pretty sold on using PJAX for returning partial page content
  • rabl define your JSON/BSON/XML structure in a view file. jbuilder is the default in Rails 4, doing the same kind of thing, but I haven’t used it.

Right time, right place tools

Sometimes tools aren’t everyday tools. Sometimes the perfect tool, used in just the right place, is a godsend. Here is a list of tools like that, tools I’ll apply when the opportunity presents itself, although it only occasionally does:

  • pessimize writes gem versions to your Gemfile, so you can be very liberal with gem versions in development but then very conservative when time comes for production.
  • versioncake If I’m intentionally writing an API I want to version that API. Version Cake loads up the proper RABL or Jbuilder file for the specified version. (Yes, yes, see also Designing Hypermedia APIs).
  • SASS variables and the asset pipeline an approach when we need SASS global variables, working around limitations of the asset pipeline.
  • my ‘s’ helper. If I know I’m going to be on a project for a long while, and I join HTML sets together twice, I’ll bring this snippet in.


I’m excited to see what the next 3 years bring in Rails tools changes, and to see how this list stacks up then!