Getting with the Program

Developers are a mighty stubborn bunch. Unlike the rest of the enterprise IT market, where a convergence of forces have favored a nobody gets fired for buying IBM, Oracle, SAP, or Microsoft, developers have no such herding instincts. Developers do not always get with the [enterprise] program.

For evidence, recall what happened the last time that the development market faced such consolidation. In the wake of web 1.0, the formerly fragmented development market – which used to revolve around dozens of languages and frameworks – congealed down to Java vs .NET camps. That was so 2002, however, as in the interim, developers have gravitated towards choosing their own alternatives.

The result was an explosion of what former Burton Group analyst Richard Monson Haefel termed the Rebel Frameworks (that was back in 2004), and more recently in the resurgence of scripting languages. In essence, developers didn’t take the future as inevitable, and for good reason: the so-called future of development circa 2002 was built on the assumption that everyone would gravitate to enterprise-class frameworks. Java and .NET were engineered on the assumption that the future of enterprise and Internet computing would be based on complex, multitier distributed transactional systems. It was accompanied by a growing risk-averseness: buy only from vendors that you expect will remain viable. Not surprisingly, enterprise computing procurements narrowed to IOSM (IBM, Oracle, SAP, Microsoft).

But the developer community lives to a different dynamic. In an age of open source, expertise for development frameworks and languages get dispersed; vendor viability becomes less of a concern. More importantly, developers only want to get the job done, and anyway, the tasks that they perform typically fall under the enterprise radar. Whereas a CFO may be concerned over the approach an ERP system may employ to managing financial system or supply chain processes, they are not going to care about development languages or frameworks.

The result is that developers remain independent minded, and that independence accounts for the popularity of alternatives to enterprise development platforms, with Ruby on Rails being the latest to enter the spotlight.

In one sense, Ruby’s path to prominence parallels Java in that the language was originally invented for another purpose. But there the similarity ends as, in Ruby’s case, no corporate entity really owned it. Ruby is a simple scripting language that became a viable alternative for web developers once David Heinemeier Hansson invented the Rails framework. The good news, Rails makes it easy to use Ruby to write relatively simple web database applications. Examples of Rails’ simplicity include:
• Eliminating the need to write configuration files for mapping requests to actions
• Avoiding multi-threading issues because Rails will not pool controller (logic) instances
• Dispensing with object-relational mapping files; instead, Rails automates much of this and tends to use very simplified naming conventions.

The bad news is that there are performance limitations and difficulties in handling more complex distributed transaction applications. But the good news is that when it comes to web apps, the vast majority are quite rudimentary, thank you.

The result has propelled a wave of alternative stacks, such as LAMP (Linux-Apache web server-MySQL-and either PHP, Python, or Perl) or, more recently, Ruby on Rails. At the other end of the spectrum, the Spring framework takes the same principle – simplification – to ease the pain of writing complex Java EE applications – but that’s not the segment addressed by PHP, MySQL, or Ruby on Rails. It reinforces the fact that, unlike the rest of the enterprise software market, developers don’t necessarily take orders from up top. Nobody told them to implement these alternative frameworks and languages.

The latest reminder of the strength of grassroots markets in the developer sector is Engine Yard’s securing of $19 million in C funding. The backing comes from some of the same players that also funded SpringSource (which was recently acquired by VMware). Some of the backing also comes from Amazon, whose Jeff Bezos owns outright 37Signals, the Chicago-based provider of project management software that employs Heinemeier Hansson. For the record, there is plenty of RoR presence in Amazon Web Services.

Engine Yard is an Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) provider that has optimized the RoR stack for runtime. Although hardly the only cloud provider out there that supports RoR development, Engine Yard’s business is currently on a 2x growth streak. Funding stages the company either for IPO or buy out.

At this point the script sounds similar to SpringSource which, of course, just got acquired by VMware, and is launching a development and runtime cloud that will eventually become VMware’s Java counterpart to Microsoft Azure. It’s tempting to wonder whether a similar path will become reality for Engine Yard. The answer is that the question itself is too narrow. It is inevitable that a development and runtime cloud paired with enterprise plumbing (e.g., OS, hypervisor) will materialize for Ruby on Rails. With its $19 million funding, Engine Yard has the chance to gain critical mass mindshare in the RoR community – but don’t rule out rivals like Joyent yet.