Ruby on Rails in State Government

Published on Thursday, March 29, 2007

The more I use Ruby on Rails, the more I become convinced that it is damn near the perfect framework for state government Web-based applications. Ruby on Rails in State GovernmentThat said, I don’t know of a single state, local, or municipal government that is experimenting with Rails in any meaningful fashion. I have a bunch of stored Google queries that have yielded woefully little information about the penetration of Rails into state government over the past year or so. I fear that is because there really has been little or no penetration.

Ruby on Rails in State Government

When I think through the merits of Ruby on Rails and apply the pragmatic brush of my experience with state governments, I’m torn as to whether I believe Rails will ever gain a foothold in this arena. To articulate my ideas, I’ve enumerated, on one hand, my top three compelling arguments why Rails should be overwhelmingly successful in state government. On the other hand, I’ve listed the top 3 reasons why Rails doesn’t really stand a fighting chance. I’ve omitted what some would consider the “classic” selling points of RoR: ActiveRecord, Scaffolding, etc. By all means, I encourage you to look into these if you’re new to Rails. It’s just that they aren’t particular to adoption in state government. In the spirit of remaining optimistic, I’ll list the top 3 reasons Rails has a chance first.

Top 3 Reasons Rails Could Find a Home in State Government

  1. Convention Over Configuration – With this mantra, the Rails community initiated a full-frontal attack against the J2EE crowd (pre-EJB3, have you), where XML configuration files had become the tail wagging the dog. Ruby on Rails, on the other hand, makes all sorts of assumptions about what how things will work and requires developer intervention as the exception rather than the norm. In an environment where developers really do work an 8 hour day (or less), focus on delivering functionality and not on tweaking and re-tweaking the application architecture means significantly greater productivity.
  2. Painless Objects – For many developers, especially those transferring from procedural languages like COBOL or Visual Basic, objects do not come naturally. I’ve seen many state government developers spend years trying to catch onto the concept and still not get it. In Rails, objects just work out of the box, knowing how to deal with the database, providing easy validation hooks and manageable relationships. As a bonus, Ruby tends to be less intimidating to look at for COBOL or classic VB developers than do the C family of languages (C# and Java, in our case).
  3. Embodiment of Best Practices – From unit tests and separation of concerns to database migrations and standard environment definitions, everything is built into Rails. These things can certainly all be done in the Java and .NET worlds, the practices and tools just seem so much more external to the way of doing things and have not been universally integrated into the standard way of doing things in these languages. As an example, how many C# texts talk about unit testing? How many RoR texts don’t talk about unit testing?

Top 3 Reasons Rails Will Fail To Find a Home in State Government

  1. No Salesforce – Surprised that I didn’t mention cost in the reasons contributing to Ruby on Rails success in state government? That’s because it isn’t. The fact that the entire RoR stack is free means less “conventional” ways to make money on the software side of things. You won’t find IBM, BEA, or Microsoft pitching Ruby on Rails solutions to state governments. Furthermore, the large system integration vendors won’t be pitching it either. Without the software vendors and the SI’s, it’s really hard to get in the door at state governments.
  2. Knocked as Not Enterprise-Worthy – Ruby and Rails have been knocked since their inception as great for hobbyist but not enterprise worthy. This is a knock that open source software gets in general and when it’s a scripting language to boot, you might as well be buying your technology from Toys-R-Us. For the real story on this, I suggest that you take a look at Dare Obasanjo’s classic blog post My Website is Bigger Than Your Enterprise. Dare’s points are very good, and although they’re not 100% accurate, you gotta think, “if this works for Google and Yahoo, why can’t it work for me?”
  3. No Formalized Training Program – This may sound even more ludicrous than my first two points. What’s the right way of saying this… “it’s true.” Believe me, it’s a known fact that until there is formal training available for a technology and the big vendors are pitching it, it’s not enterprise worthy. Right?