Book Review: Build Your Own Ruby on Rails Applications

Build Your Own Ruby on Rails Applications
Author: Patrik Lenz
Publisher: SitePoint
Pages: 447
Intended Audience: Beginners/Pre-intermediate
Rating: 5/5

I would like to begin with a few words about SitePoint. According to their definition, ‘SitePoint specializes in publishing fun, practical, and easy-to-understand content for web professionals.’. So far I had the pleasure to read three of their books: (obviously) Build Your Own Ruby on Rails Web Applications, The CSS Anthology: 101 Essential Tips, Tricks & Hacks and The Principles of Beautiful Web Design. If I had to judge the publisher based on these three books, I could not agree more: I have found all their claims (fun, practical and easy-to-understand) to be unquestionably true.

After a brief overview of the book I would like to concentrate on the question that popped up in most of you I guess: Why should I prefer this book over Agile Web Development with Rails or other Rails books available? We’ll look into that in a minute, but first things first: let’s see what has Build Your Own Ruby on Rails Web Applications to offer!

The book starts off with installing Ruby, RubyGems, Rails and even MySQL on different operating systems, presented in painstaking detail – which is very good in my opinion, since advanced users will skip this section anyway, and it offers great step-by-step walkthrough for novices.

The second chapter is the compulsory ‘introduction to Ruby’. I have to admit I did not read it – but judging from the contents and a quick skim-through, it offers at least the same knowledge as the other similar Rails-books, which is more than enough to get you started. If you would like to go deeper into both Ruby and Rails, I suggest to check out David A. Black’s excellent Ruby for Rails.

Chapter 4, ‘Rails Revealed’ is the only more-or-less theoretical chapter, discussing the architecture, components and conventions used in Ruby on Rails.

The real action starts from Chapter 5 in the form of building a digg-clone from scratch. You will learn how to build a Rails application, beginning with generating the necessary files and ending up with a nicely working, (relatively) feature rich digg-like site, dealing with user management (even showing an user view with submitted stories), allowing you to submit and vote on stories (just as you would expect from an application like this), sprinkled with a lot of tasty tidbits like tagging (also introducing polymorphic associations in a very easy-to-understand way) or (of course) AJAX.

The book finishes with some advanced topics: Debugging, Testing and Benchmarking, followed by Deploying and Production use, providing instructions to deploy your application on Apache with Mongrel.

If the review would end right now, you could (rightfully) ask: ‘So what? These are exactly the things I would expect from a Rails book’ – and you would be perfectly right. So let’s see why is this book different from all the other ones available on the market!

First of all, it is written in a very understandable and easy-to-digest way: it explains everything as simply as possible, making even the more complicated topics clear right away. I don’t remember reading anything twice, no matter how advanced the topic was. I think this alone makes Build Your Own Ruby on Rails Web Applications one of the best hands-on RoR books today (definitively the best one I have seen so far, but since I did not read all the competitors, I can not unambiguously claim this is the best one).

What I also like about this book is that it does not require nearly any preliminaries at all – the bare minimum that is needed is explained on the side during the application creation, or can be learned from the book.

A big difference compared to Agile Web Development with Rails – which is the de facto Rails book today – is that testing of the created components is described in great detail. The usual workflow is thus problem statement, solution and creating unit tests to verify the code – explaining the why’s and how’s as well. I am not aware of any RoR book currently available that would explain and demonstrate testing your code to this extent.

One could argue that Build Your Own Ruby on Rails Web Applications is not deep enough, which is more-or-less true (compared to e.g. Agile Web Development with Rails) – but I think this is perfectly fine, since going too deep is not the purpose of the book at all! If you need in-depth coverage of Rails internals, would like to go into advanced topics like caching, scaling or deployment in a great detail then this is not the book to get. However, if you would like to try Ruby on Rails right away, without the need to google for blogs helping you to install the preliminaries or get this and that right, be sure to check it out!