A lot is being said on how Ruby is packaged in Debian and Ubuntu. In this post, I’m trying to go through the most common myths and give my position as a Debian Ruby maintainer. Note that those are my views, not necessarily those of the other Debian Ruby maintainers.
Myth: Ruby is completely outdated in Debian and Ubuntu
There’s a culture in the Ruby community of always using the latest bleeding-edge version. There’s also a culture (though this one has recessed a bit, I think) that it’s perfectly fine to change APIs in incompatible ways if it makes the software slightly better.
In Debian (and Ubuntu) stable releases, we try to provide a rock-solid version of Ruby that won’t be allowed to change API during the support lifetime of a release. Bugfixes for important bugs can be applied, but that’s basically all. So it’s not surprising that Ruby in released versions of Debian and Ubuntu is behind the latest upstream version.
In development branches, we are following the latest upstream versions quite closely. Debian 6.0 ‘squeeze’, to be released by the end of the year, includes Ruby 1.8.7-p302, and will include 1.9.2-p0 (the currently of Ruby 1.9.2 in squeeze is currenty a SVN snapshot from beginning of august).
There are people interested in installing a packaged Ruby that just works, and other people interested in installing their own version of Ruby (through RVM and such). People in the Ruby community tend to forget about the first category, and consider that, because they install Ruby from source or with RVM, that should be the solution for everybody.
We need the Ruby community to respect that different people have different ways of using Ruby, and to stop recommending that everyone using Debian and Ubuntu should install Ruby from source.
We also need to leverage the backports services for both Debian and Ubuntu to provide a way to install the latest upstream version on stable releases. The only reason why we are not doing it yet is lack of time.
Myth: Ruby is split into a myriad of packages in Debian
In the past (pre-2005), a decision was made to split some libraries from the standard library into separate packages. This was motivated by:
- the size of some libraries, like REXML
- the fact that some libraries, like OpenSSL, readline, gdbm and tk require other library packages to be installed
- licensing concerns about shipping some code (a .so) linked with OpenSSL, and some other code (another .so) linked with readline, in the same package.
Most of the split was undone a very long time ago, and the readline and openssl splits were undone this year. The current package in Debian squeeze has:
- ruby1.8: binaries (ruby itself, irb, rdoc)
- libruby1.8: the standard library, except ruby-tk
- libtcltk-ruby1.8: ruby-tk (merging it with libruby1.8 would add several megabytes)
- ri1.8: contains both the ri binary and documentation
- ruby1.8-dev: development headers (to build applications or gems linked against the Ruby C API), and statically built version of the library
- ruby1.8-elisp: Ruby emacs mode
- ruby1.8-examples: Examples
- libruby1.8-dbg: debug symbols
It is always possible to merge more packages, but merging any of the other packages would significantly increase the size of what you get by default, and might discourage people to use it in some contexts (disk space is not always cheap. Think embedded systems and smartphones).
Myth: Rubygems is crippled in Debian
There are two differences in the rubygems Debian packages. First, gems are installed in /var/lib/gems, not /usr/local/lib/gems. That is because rubygems are seen as “state” for the Rubygems package, not independant software installed separately. A change for this is currently being discussed, and should be done after the squeeze release. (I don’t think that it’s reasonable to push that change now). A consequence of installing to /var/lib/gems is that gems’ binary are outside of $PATH. After the change, gems’ binary would also be installed in /usr/local/bin.
gem update --sytem is disabled in the Debian package, because that would replace code from the Rubygems Debian package with code downloaded from the Internet, and can break your system in subtle ways. We have changed this (in SVN, not in any package in the archive yet) to allow
gem update --system if a specific environment variable is set, which gives us the opportunity to display a warning message.
Myth: Ruby is slow on Debian
Ruby is built with the pthread threading code, because not using it breaks many native Ruby libraries (Ruby-gnome2, for example). And other Linux distributions are doing the same.
There are some very old benchmark results floating around in some blogs that show that the pthread code has a performance impact of about 20%. There are been patches for that for a long time (applied in Ruby Enterprise Edition), but they were never properly sent back. Actually, all the discussions about this issue were rumors and blog posts, and there wasn’t even a bug report about it!
After the bug was reported properly, it was fixed in a timely manner. The fix is not yet included in the Ruby 1.8.7, but is being applied as a patch to the Debian package since 188.8.131.529-2. (So the Debian package is actually newer and faster than upstream Ruby in that regard).
What makes Ruby so difficult to maintain in Debian?
The main problems we have with Ruby are portability issues. The only officially supported platform for Ruby is IA32 (i386 in Debian), and everything else is best effort. It means that it is not even supported officially on x86_64/amd64! Debian supports a dozen of architectures, and the Ruby package has to work on each of them. Ruby 1.8 is mostly OK nowadays thanks to the help of Debian porters, but we still have serious problems with 1.9.2, since the test suite fails on sparc, hppa, ia64 and Debian GNU/kFreeBSD.
Why doesn’t Ruby use the alternatives system on Debian?
The alternatives system provides a way to switch between different software providing the same functionality. Currently, if you want to use Ruby 1.9.2, you need to use the ruby1.9.1 executable (1.9.1 = ruby compatibility version here). The alternatives system would allow to switch ruby to ruby1.9.1 on a system-wide basis.
However, the situation of applications and libraries working only with Ruby 1.8 should be clarified: those should use /usr/bin/ruby1.8 instead of /usr/bin/ruby. Another problem is that the way to specify packages dependencies still need to be determined. There’s nothing impossible to do about that, it just needs someone to do the work.
Where do we go from here?
The Ruby developers (or expert users) community is generally very hostile towards Debian. Many harsh words and insults are used in discussions mentioning Debian in the ruby-core@ mailing list, and there are frequent recommendations to avoid the Debian packages and install from sources, which is quite demotivating (Actually, what prompted that blog post is someone calling Debian-specific changes unforgivable).
This atmosphere makes it hard to recruit people, and the Debian Ruby teams are completely understaffed, which is clearly the major blocker to improving the situation further. We are 3 co-maintainers for the interpreter packages, and I’m the only Debian Developer that is really active on a regular basis in the pkg-ruby-extras team (that does libraries and applications packaging). We desperately need help, but at the same time I have no time to improve our documentation and make it easier to join the team.
While I haven’t reached a final decision yet, I am also likely to stop doing Ruby work in Debian after squeeze is released, as I am getting increasingly tired and demotivated.