Is this what modern web development is?

During GitHub’s annual product announcement on Wednesday, new features to edit code online were demoed. At one point a code snippet was shown from a toy web-app, written in Javascript using the Express server library.

Here’s the code sample…

Code sample, written in Javascript, of simple one-file Express-based server for a CRUD web-app.

After the announcement, David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH), the creator of Ruby-on-Rails gave his thoughts on Twitter.

This attracted a lot of commentary from others…


Of course tweets aren’t long enough to have a balanced discussion about this, so let’s break down in longer form why this code is so controversial and debate whether it should be how we’re developing modern web apps.

What’s wrong with Express and Javascript

DHH is right to point out that this code is handling a database pool, doing SQL templating and has low-level HTTP server configuration in it. While these are all things necessary for a production service, having them at the same level as the application business logic is usually a bad idea. Separating different levels of the stack into levels of abstraction, and keeping them somewhat separate usually leads to more manageable and testable code.

The Javascript ecosystem is missing some of the abstractions that are common in the Ruby ecosystem that DHH comes from (or the Python ecosystem that I’m more familiar with). In my experience, to achieve the level of capability provided out of the box by Rails or Django requires many Javascript libraries, a significant amount of glue code, and extensive testing, and the end result will be a much more brittle and less coherent developer experience.

Why this doesn’t matter

But I think DHH misses the point – that this code sample is almost all the code for this application. Express is great for these sorts of “single file” applications. Separation of concerns is important to help developers keep the relevant parts of a system in their head, but if the whole system fits in their head at once because it’s ~10s of lines long, then anything more is over-engineering and likely to create more problems than it solves.

Rails and Django provide many features that all work well together: routing, database access, cache access, session management, upload management, storage, logging, email, input validation, security, administration, sitemaps, session messaging, templating, and more.

Express doesn’t do many of these, at its core it pretty much only does the routing – everything else is some form of add-on. When you need all of those aspects that’s a problem, but if you only need two or three, then it’s quite possible that with Express you’ll end up with a simpler system that works just as well. As Jaana Dogan says in her tweet above, you can build only what you need, and will end up with a more understandable and performant system.

As we move to more use of “microservices”, or focused API driven backends, more and more applications will be a good fit for this style.

DHH is coming to the debate with a bias – he builds Basecamp, a large and complex monolithic web application that likely uses all of the above aspects and more. In fact Basecamp is complex enough that DHH created Rails specifically to handle this use case. If Basecamp was built with Express it would likely be a mess, but because Rails provides solid, and importantly, consistent foundation, I’m sure it’s much more manageable.

So is the Express example a bad example? No. For a small and simple web app it’s reasonable, and for focused APIs and microservices that only need a few aspects mentioned above it’s ideal. Those apps of significant complexity will get plenty of value out of a framework like Rails or Django, but simpler apps will likely benefit from the lower level design of Express or the buffet-style Javascript ecosystem where you can pick and choose which technologies you actually need.

Why the hate for Rails?

So why did DHH see so much backlash against the approach that Rails takes? I think it comes down to the monolithic framework style of Rails (and again of Django).

These frameworks decide up-front how things are going to work, and then build a lot of abstractions on top. Rails is (in)famous for its domain-specific language style of writing routing logic, database queries, access control, and more.

def new
  @article =

def create
  @article =

    redirect_to @article
    render 'new'

Here’s an example of what code can look like in a Rails “controller” (an Express “handler”, a Django “view”).

This happens to support returning validation errors back to the client, it uses named routing so that it doesn’t rely on the exact URLs which is good practice in large apps. There’s no SQL, and the ability to use SQL-injection attacks is largely mitigated. It can support default values for fields, and permissions and all sorts of other functionality.

This is great, but there’s a lot of “magic”. You can’t see most of this functionality, and that means you have to just know that it’s happening. Django is slightly less magic, but still does a lot of this for you, compared to Express or similar libraries, it’s roughly the same approach as Rails.

The reason that there was so much backlash is that because of this magic, monolithic frameworks have a reputation for being inflexible and therefore slow to adopt modern technologies (I believe this is what Andrew Kelley was referring to in his tweet above).

This is partially true. In Python there’s a move towards doing I/O in async operations to get higher throughput in applications. This is a complex change and so Django doesn’t yet support this, despite many smaller Express-style libraries supporting it already.

Why still use Rails today?

While Rails (and Django) may look like a slightly dated ecosystem, and while much of the web development discourse is trending towards microservices, there are many reasons why it’s still a great option today.

Slower moving doesn’t necessarily mean old and dated. It can mean stable and mature. The Javascript ecosystem moves quickly, and while it’s good to get access to cutting edge technology, much of this movement often ends up being busy-work rather than truly value creating for the end product.

I also think that it’s possible to move faster as a developer with Rails. This really depends on what problem you’re solving, but for your average Create-Retrieve-Update-Delete (CRUD) web application, it’s normally more productive to think at a higher level than concatenating SQL and managing connection pools, instead thinking about relationships between objects that your user understands, and how the user experience (UX) of your application can be affected by the workflow you’re developing. Rails is much higher level than Express, and as a result it’s often possible to build and ship much quicker. Not everything is a CRUD application, but most web apps are at their core, or at least contain significant amounts of CRUD style code even if it’s not their primary purpose.

Lastly, I mentioned before that Django in particular was inflexible and slow to adopt new technologies, but this is only partially true. One of the things that comes with the maturity of Django (and I’m sure Rails as well) is how extensible it is. Many parts of Django can be extended to support new technologies, and there are hooks into many parts of the Django stack to customise how it works. This extensibility isn’t just though the sorts of plugins and middleware that Express supports, but also through allowing the developer to specify the objects used to mediate access to almost anything, or through regular class inheritance and extension of almost anything in Django – a level of extensibility that is rare in the Javascript ecosystem. This is one of the things that makes it so suitable for large codebases – it’s possible to solve most problems in it in some way, without starting from scratch.

I hope this post sheds some light on the controversial opinions shared on Twitter. No one was wrong, but everyone brought their biases of what they’re used to working on and the way they prefer to write applications.

There is no right answer here. Express (… Sinatra, Flask, and others) are much simpler and that can often be of great benefit to certain kinds of application, but the simple stuff can take a little extra time and in big codebases it’s easy to become unmanageable. Rails (… Django, Phoenix, and others) make most simple things very quick to do and easy to understand, while preserving the power for the developer to extend and override, but are unlikely to be the first to get cutting edge features and may bring more than is needed for simple applications.