Node.js and Ruby on Rails are two excellent choices for companies developing web-based applications. In most cases, either one of these two technologies will do the job. Ruby on Rails has recently been cited as the better option for smaller projects and teams, when speed of development and time to market are the most crucial aspects. Node.js can often do better when a large team wants to work on a project simultaneously by dividing it into modules, and to improve performance in specific cases. And sometimes, it’s the other way around. This article contains a breakdown of the main advantages and disadvantages of Ruby on Rails and Node.js, to help CEOs and startup founders decide which technology will better serve their business.

Web framework vs runtime environment

Ruby on Rails is a web development backend framework based on the language Ruby. It was created in 2004, and since then has become one of the most stable solutions trusted by web developers worldwide. Ruby on Rails code does its magic on the server side, which means that everything the user sees on their device is rendered by the server (and not the user’s browser). One of Rails’ main advantages has become a bit of a catchphrase: batteries included. It means that there are plenty of libraries (called gems) and ready-made solutions for almost any possible situation.

Node.js is a different type of backend technology: a JavaScript runtime environment that supports a number of frameworks (some popular ones include Express, Hapi, Koa and Sails). The first three are small frameworks (compared to Ruby on Rails, for example) that don’t provide everything out of the box. Plentiful external plugins mean that developers don’t always need to build an app’s missing piece from scratch. When using Node.js, developers usually take a diffused approach, which means a client-server model with separate applications for the API and the user interface. The advantage is that the client-side interface can be a web or a mobile app, and the data can be rendered on any device. More often than not, when Node.js is used to create the API, JavaScript is used for the interface - which means that Node.js is a runtime environment that lets developers write entire apps in JavaScript.

Speed of development

Ruby on Rails is perfect for rapid development carried out by a small team. Because there are so many gems (libraries) that offer ready-made solutions, developers can put together a lot of functionality in very little time - and at a very low cost. On the other hand, developers who know JavaScript can write both the backend and the frontend of an application with Node.js and JavaScript. JavaScript on the frontend is usually needed for complex interfaces, but simpler ones can be created easily with server-side views generated by Rails, with sprinkles of JavaScript on top. These days, simple interfaces without JavaScript on the frontend are less common.

Performance

An app built with Node.js will usually be be faster than a Rails app when carrying out simpler operations like rendering data from the database. This is good enough for many types of apps, from blogs to marketplaces and SaaS platforms. But if the project involves complex mathematical calculations and algorithms, Node.js offers no advantage in performance speed over Ruby on Rails. Both of these tools were created for building web solutions, not Big Data apps.

Clean code and testing

This is a subjective criterion, as each developer who has worked with both Rails and Node.js will have their own opinion. Some will say that JavaScript is nicer, but Ruby was created with the purpose of allowing programmers to work with beautiful code. It’s also easy to test and integrate with testing libraries. Testing was always extremely important for the Ruby community and it has been implemented well. With Node, testing culture varies between projects. Finally, libraries for Ruby on Rails are more mature, because the language has had time to learn from its own mistakes. Node.js is younger and a little rough around the edges, by comparison.

Loading time for single page apps

Node.js has the advantage if you use a Single Page App on the frontend or build a JavaScript-heavy app. Such an approach will allow you to render a front-end JavaScript app on the server-side with Node.js, which improves SEO and shortens loading times thanks to pre-rendering. That can have an obvious positive impact on user experience.

Scalability

In terms of performance, Node is a bit faster for typical web apps, and it will scale better and use less memory. When it comes to team scalability, Node.js also might work better. Because Rails apps are usually built as monolithic applications, a smaller team can create a full app much faster. But in a large corporation or a large team, building an app in this model is inefficient, as developers will get in each other’s way. It makes more sense to use a service oriented architecture with a smaller team responsible for each service. This approach works better with Node.js than with Rails. Rails is thus usually better for startups and small teams, or at the early stage of a project, while Node.js will work nicely for bigger teams.

Maintenance

Ruby on Rails has the advantage here as the more mature technology. There are fewer changes and updates to the language, framework and its many libraries. This means that, once you find a library that suits your needs, you don’t need to worry too much about it being compatible with your project months down the line. Because the community is so robust and productive, Rails resources are generally kept up-to-date. Documentation for Ruby/Rails is generally going to be more useful, as well.

Bugs

JavaScript is a loosely typed language with a lot of hidden surprises. Even experienced developers can sometimes have trouble with type casting during standard operations, for example. In Ruby, any errors made in an equivalent code fragment would be caught automatically, but in JavaScript they can go on unnoticed with an undesirable effect. That is, they can become a bug.

Community and resources

The JavaScript community is bigger, as it’s currently the most popular language in the world, and the community around Node.js is robust. Both the language and the runtime environment are exhibiting a clear growth tendency, so this state of affairs is unlikely to change. Ruby and Rails’ community is smaller, but it has been around longer. It has had the time to mature and create many useful resources, while vetting and removing the content that was useless or harmful. In the Ruby/Rails community, there are usually only 1-3 libraries that solve one problem - but they are solutions that work. In the case of JavaScript, there can be dozens of available solutions, but finding one that will work for you and is well maintained can be more difficult. It’s easier to make a good, less risky choice with Rails.

Popularity

While many programmers prefer working with Ruby, JavaScript is a more popular technology. It’s slowly becoming a universal platform for running web applications. An app built with JavaScript can be run in a browser or on a server, and the community is creating languages that compile to JavaScript (like Microsoft’s Typescript) and avoid many of JavaScript’ usual pitfalls. Other benefits from these compiled languages include improved performance. JavaScript’s future is bright, and if you use it for your app, you might be surprised by the new possibilities that crop up over the next few years.

Ruby on Rails vs Node.js - conclusions

Ruby on Rails is often better for startups that need to quickly verify an idea and put a working app out there. It allows for a faster time to market for a typical web app or a SaaS app, which can be a huge advantage for small companies. Corporations can also take advantage of Ruby’s good qualities. A certain project in the fintech industry benefited a great deal from iRonin’s Ruby on Rails outsourcing and the approach to coding promoted by Ruby. The code was really mature and the team took full advantage of how easy Rails is to test. In another project, this time in the real estate industry for Propertyware Maintenance, iRonin’s team was able to quickly introduce enterprise-level functionalities with Rails and make sure that the platform would be stable even with a large number of users.
Node.js, on the other hand, is the better choice when you have or want to hire a large development team - particularly since JavaScript’s popularity makes finding talented JS developers much easier. If you know you’ll need to scale your app and want to do it sensibly, or if you want your team of developers to work on both the frontend and the backend of your app, Node.js will give you an advantage. Many large, well-known companies have put their trust in Node.js and aren’t complaining. Examples include PayPal, Ebay and Netflix. The most important thing is to choose the best solution for your particular project. Neither Ruby on Rails nor Node.js is universally superior.

If you need help choosing the perfect technological stack for your application, take advantage of iRonin’s years of experience on the market. We choose our tools based on the task at hand and the client’s business goals, not personal preference.