Is the Ruby on Rails Advantage Wishful Thinking?

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2008-10-06

Can Ruby, Rails Make Developers Shine in a Downturn?

When the going gets tough ... well, you know the saying ... the tough get going. However, in the case of software development, in times of financial crisis-like we're in-when belt-tightening begins, some developers and development shops might be better suited to roll with the turbulent times than others.

These folks include Ruby and Ruby on Rails developers, and other programmers who focus on dynamic languages or provide specialty programming skills that many people claim enable them to do more with fewer resources.

Whether that's totally true or not, I don't know. Ruby and Ruby on Rails developers typically boast of large productivity gains from moving to those environments-whether they get performance gains is another story.

"I think Rails developers are much better positioned to weather the storm as they generally stand for delivering more with less faster," said David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of the Ruby on Rails Web application framework. "It's the traditional mainstream environments that are going to see much more pressure to deliver."

Lance Walley, CEO of Engine Yard, a Ruby and Ruby on Rails hosting and deployment service provider, said, "A slowing economy will likely lead to constrained IT budgets. There's a good chance this will have a positive impact on the uptake of open-source options, such as Linux, Ruby and Rails."

Click here to read about Engine Yard's drive to use Ruby and Ruby on Rails to build large, scalable applications.

Indeed, Walley said, in Engine Yard's experience, "developing Web applications with Ruby and Rails results in a five-to-six-times project time reduction and a project completion probability increase from the industry average of 10 percent to well over 50 percent. We see this over and over from Engine Yard customers. With many hundreds of customers, this is not a fluke of one customer or a few customers but real, proven savings."

Echoing Hansson, Walley added, "When times are lean, IT managers are forced to do more with less. Ruby and Rails present a way to do just that. Developers are [rarer] and more expensive in terms of hourly rates, but projects can be cut down from 30 man-months to six man-months. That's a huge cost savings, plus it's always good to be done sooner than later."

Meanwhile, Doug Levin, the CEO and founder of a new stealth startup company and founder of several other startups, including Black Duck Software six years ago, said:

Rails is very hot and Erlang is super-hot at this time. This is because there is more expertise in the market, people are understanding their strengths and weaknesses, more support is available and these technologies have recently improved. Specialty coding shops always do well. They will net out positively during these times: Some companies will avoid them because of the risk and uncertainty; some will double down with new projects because they see opportunity.

Even non-Ruby or open-source-related observers said they believe there could be a connection between the language/framework platform and productivity and savings.

For instance, Jonathan Lindo, CEO and co-founder of Replay Solutions, said he also believes specialty coding shops could fare well in a down economy. "Companies that have IT requirements but don't have the stomach to hire a team or build an off-shore operation may increasingly turn to specialty shops to deliver smaller, well-scoped projects," Lindo said. "I believe there is good opportunity here for trusted shops to do well."

Hansson added:

I think now is exactly the time to follow what we've been preaching with Getting Real for all these years. Build less software with fewer resources! Build half a product, not a half-assed one. Don't do preemptive hiring. Charge money for your software. Try to 'underdo' your competition.

Moreover, Engine Yard's Walley predicted, "If there is a downturn in IT spending, it may very well be a boost to Ruby and Rails and companies like Engine Yard, as well as the many Engine Yard customers who are specialized Ruby and Rails development shops."

Is the Ruby on Rails Advantage Wishful Thinking?

One such shop that hopes to ride out the financial crisis is Intridea, a software development house focusing on Ruby, Rails and agile development.

Barg Upender, co-founder and president of Intridea, said, "A down economy is actually good for us for several reasons: There is less competition, especially from new companies; companies with limited resources and hiring freezes extend their capability by hiring us; and when the economy picks up, we ride with it at a faster growth rate."

However, industry analysts watching the space are a bit more reserved about the prospects for specialty coding shops versus more traditional IT development. "Honestly, it's a stretch," said Mark Driver, an analyst with Gartner. "It seems like a common sense issue, but the gap between supply and demand may make it a moot point overall."

And John Rymer, an analyst with Forrester, said, "I think you are asking the wrong question. I respectfully suggest that the type of application someone is working on is a more important factor than language usage. In a downturn, companies tend to go back to basics."

However, Dean Cruse, vice president of marketing and sales at FiveRuns, a maker of monitoring and development products for Rails and other open-source libraries, argued:

With the uncertainty in the financial markets, we expect some CIOs to delay or cancel some internal IT projects. Rails shops should be better suited to weather the storm for a few reasons. First, Rails and the stack on which it runs are open-source projects-the platform is free.

Also, many of the applications developed in Rails are delivered as SAAS [software as a service]-so IT shops need not write big checks for infrastructure or applications, they can get much of the infrastructure for free (open source) or via inexpensive hosting alternatives (e.g., cloud computing models such as a Amazon EC2).

Finally, Rails shops are typically more agile than their traditional Java counterparts, enabling them to more quickly develop applications, again reducing risk (and cost) for the organization.

Intridea's Upender said his company typical sees three kinds of customers: enterprises, nonprofits and startups. And although the company has felt little if any change in IT spending from its enterprise and nonprofit customers, there has been a slowdown in attention from startups, he said.

Yet, Upender said despite needing to watch costs of his own at Intridea he would never skimp on something like security. "Security is always important to us and it is part of the base framework that we use," he said. "If you skimp, it will come back to burn you later. We also rely on open source and the community to massively test all aspects of security."

One technology supplier advised using tools that serve more than one purpose as a way to save in tight financial times. Dominique Levin, executive vice president of marketing and strategy at LogLogic, said, "Lower IT budgets will encourage companies to max out their existing IT investments. We've seen our customers start using their log management solutions to monitor business operations as well as address security and compliance issues.

"As a result, our inbound sales leads have soared at 244 percent this year over last, despite the economy. Any technologies that can expand beyond a point solution will be attractive in this economy if they help companies kill several birds with one stone."

Whats Hot in a Chilly Economy

For his part, David Dennis, senior director of product marketing at GroundWork Open Source, said it will be more critical than ever for IT departments to show that costs related to "keeping the lights on," such as IT monitoring, systems management and infrastructure, are kept as lean as possible, thereby freeing up funds for IT-related activities more directly tied to revenue or bottom-line growth.

Black Duck's Levin said nearly every CEO he has spoken with over the last few weeks has come to these conclusions:

One, this economic and financial distress will continue on for the next two years or longer; two, credit will dry up; three, venture capital will become scarce for Series C and D, and ... the VC are going to let some firms go out of business; four, VC is available for Series A and B investments with very efficient capital utilization models; and five, hanging onto people will become a little easier but recruiting new personnel will become very difficult.

Levin also said he believes that IT budgets in non-Wall Street and related firms and non-credit-sensitive businesses will stay the same or decrease no more than 5 to 10 percent. However, in Wall Street and related firms or credit-sensitive businesses, "there will be significant cutback in the neighborhood of 25 to 35 percent, and possibly more over time," Levin said.

That analysis came from more than one source. Ronald Schmelzer, an analyst with ZapThink, agreed with Levin, noting that IT spending in both financial services and manufacturing will be down, but investment in government, energy and telecommunications IT "is hot right now."

And, looking at the question of what is a particularly hot technology right now, Bob Lozano, chief strategist and founder of agile and scalable application software provider Appistry, said he believes cloud computing will be a great equalizer.

"Everyone is to one degree or another playing on the same field, with the same handicaps ... so the enterprise that can figure out how to outmaneuver their foes will still win, just as they always do-and technology remains a great tool for winning those battles," Lozano said.

He added that he believes flexibility is the single largest benefit of the move to cloud computing. That includes "the flexibility to scale up or down and flexibility to diversify, even the flexibility to grow in small increments," he said. "This is true for both public and private clouds. Flexibility is the perfect antidote to uncertainty, and I think will ... drive the adoption of cloud computing during these times."

However, Lozano warned that "everyone wants to avoid any sense of lock-in, of unnecessary dependency on any one cloud provider." He suggested that Appistry is the perfect antidote to lock-in. "By choosing to cloud-enable applications with Appistry, an enterprise can ensure a consistent level of flexibility, scale and reliability across all cloud deployment options, both public and private," he said.

Still, despite the varied opinions of those who are or aren't involved in specialty, dynamic language or fancy Web framework development, the financial crisis is enough to scare the devil out of a lot of folks. Nobody has a crystal ball-certainly not myself. I simply wanted to present some of the thoughts of people I tend to run into on my beat because they give me something to think about. I was hoping others out there might join in.

What are your thoughts about the plight of developers in a down economy?

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