Where is Ruby Headed in 2021?
Where is the Ruby language headed? At RubyConf 2021, the presentations about the language focused on static typing and performance—where performance can be subdivided into execution speed, I/O throughput, and parallel execution on multiple cores. These efforts are geared toward expanding the set of systems for which Ruby is a good fit.
Static type checking can improve the developer experience by preventing type errors and improving editor assistance. Static type checking is most commonly implemented with type declarations in code, and the third-party Sorbet library implements type declarations for Ruby. However, Yukihiro Matsumoto (the creator of Ruby, aka “Matz”) has emphasized in several RubyConf keynotes that Ruby will not add type declarations officially. Instead, the Ruby approach to static type checks is via Ruby Signature (RBS) files: separate files that record type information, analogous to TypeScript
.d.ts files. RBS files can be written by hand or automatically generated by tooling.
RBS was introduced in Ruby 3.0, but up until now, its benefits have been largely theoretical. But those benefits are now starting to manifest with TypeProf-IDE, a VS Code extension created by Ruby core member Yusuke Endoh. This extension runs TypeProf on Ruby code as you edit it, inferring types, generating RBS type signature files, providing inline documentation and autocomplete, and calling out type errors. You can try out TypeProf-IDE today by following along with my TypeProf-IDE tutorial blog post.
Execution speed, I/O throughput, and parallel processing can all be grouped under the heading of performance, and work is happening in Ruby in all these areas.
Ruby execution speed is being worked on from multiple angles. First, performance enhancements are being made within YARV, the main CRuby interpreter. One significant example is Eileen Uchitelle from GitHub presenting “How we sped up CVARs in Ruby 3.1+”. Although CVARs, or class variables, aren’t used very widely in Ruby application code, they are heavily used within Rails itself, so any applications built on Rails will benefit.
Besides the interpreter, there are several ongoing efforts to compile Ruby to native code. MJIT is a just-in-time compiler that was included in Ruby 2.6. At this year’s RubyConf Shopify presented another JIT compiler, YJIT, which is included in the first Ruby 3.1 preview release. Stripe presented the Sorbet Compiler, an AOT (ahead-of-time) compiler that is in development, which leans on the static type information in code that uses Sorbet type declarations.
I/O throughput has been significantly improved via async fibers. Fibers are a lightweight concurrency mechanism that has been in Ruby since 1.9. The
async gem, created by Samuel Williams, uses fibers to allow a Ruby program to switch to other fibers when blocked on supported I/O operations, without requiring any special language syntax. Bruno Sutic posted a helpful overview of the async gem, and presented more detail in his RubyConf session on Async Ruby. Async can be used back to Ruby 2.5 if you use
async-specific I/O gems. But in Ruby 3.0 and above, all blocking operations are compatible with async, whether in the Ruby standard library or other gems. Fibers do not provide parallel execution: even with multiple cores, only one fiber can be actively executing at a time. But one Ruby process on one core can run millions of fibers concurrently, as Samuel Williams has demonstrated via a Ruby server handling one million WebSocket connections.
async fibers do not run in parallel on multiple cores, Ractors were added in Ruby 3.0 as an experimental multicore concurrency mechanism. Each Ractor has an isolated object space and allows only limited sharing of data to other Ractors, which avoids threading issues like race conditions and deadlocks. As a result, Ractors are not bound by the Global Interpreter Lock, allowing true parallel processing on separate cores. Currently, each Ractor has its own native thread, but future work will allow Ractors to share threads to reduce the memory consumption of Ractors and make them easier to work with. At RubyConf Vinicius Stock demonstrated using Ractors to run tests on multiple CPUs.
Matz had set a “Ruby3x3″ goal to speed up Ruby 3 over Ruby 2.0 three times for some significant benchmarks, and Ruby 3.0 met that goal. This push for performance will continue: in this year’s keynote, Matz set a new performance goal, “Ruby3x3 Redux”: a future Ruby 3.x release will be three times faster than Ruby 3.0 in some benchmarks.
How to Think About Ruby
These new features seek to reduce the distance between Ruby and other languages: to gain some of the type safety of statically-typed languages, the I/O throughput of async languages like Node, and the parallelism of channel-based languages like Go. But there are several factors that limit how far Ruby can go in these directions. The first is compatibility: the core team doesn’t want to break existing Ruby programs if at all possible. The second limiting factor is language design: Matz called Ruby a human-oriented language, and although type safety and performance are being prioritized, they won’t be pursued in a way that compromises what the core team sees as Ruby’s human-oriented design.
The point of these language improvements is not that they erase the advantages other languages have. When the most important factor in your system is I/O throughput, multicore processing, or type safety, you wouldn’t want to choose Ruby from the start: you would want to go with a language like Node, Go, or Haskell respectively.
The way to think about these improvements to Ruby is that they incrementally increase the set of problems for which Ruby is a good solution.
For organizations already using Ruby, these improvements mean that they will be able to do more in Ruby before needing to write a native extension in C or Rust, before needing to extract a microservice in another language, or before considering a rewrite.
For organizations considering what technology to use for a new project, these improvements to Ruby mean that they don’t need to so quickly give up Ruby’s productivity benefits for the sake of other needs. There are still many systems for which the controlling factor is the ability to deliver functionality quickly and with minimal development cost, including startups needing to find a product or market fit and internal teams with a limited budget. Systems like these benefit tremendously from Ruby’s high level of abstraction, its rich and mature library ecosystem, and Rails’ support for delivering web services and applications with minimal effort. Each improvement to Ruby removes one more “what if” that could make decision-makers hesitate:
- “What if the development team gets big enough that we need type safety? Oh, then we can use RBS or Sorbet.”
- “What if we need to handle lots of WebSocket traffic? Oh, then we can use async fibers.”
- “What if we need to maximize CPU core usage for a lot of computation?” Okay, that one would still be a stretch for Ruby, but at least Ractors mean you won’t be locked into one core.
These enhancements to Ruby are expanding the set of systems for which the language can offer that velocity benefit. Companies can get a leg up on their competition by recognizing when they have a system for which development velocity is the controlling factor and taking advantage of Ruby’s strengths. RubyConf 2021 demonstrated that Ruby continues to evolve as the core team, individual contributors, and large companies make substantial investments in it.