11 min read

Some of the Problems Bundler Solves

This post does not attempt to convince you to use bundler, or compare it to alternatives. Instead, I will try to articulate some of the problems that bundler tries to solve, since people have often asked. To be clear, users of bundler should not need to understand these issues, but some might be curious.

If you're looking for information on bundler usage, check out the official Bundler site.

Dependency Resolution

This is the problem most associated with bundler. In short, by asking you to list all of your dependencies in a single manifest, bundler can determine, up front, a valid list of all of the gems and versions needed to satisfy that manifest.

Here is a simple example of this problem:

$ gem install thin
Successfully installed rack-1.1.0
Successfully installed eventmachine-0.12.10
Successfully installed daemons-1.0.10
Successfully installed thin-1.2.7
4 gems installed

$ gem install rails
Successfully installed activesupport-2.3.5
Successfully installed activerecord-2.3.5
Successfully installed rack-1.0.1
Successfully installed actionpack-2.3.5
Successfully installed actionmailer-2.3.5
Successfully installed activeresource-2.3.5
Successfully installed rails-2.3.5
7 gems installed

$ gem dependency actionpack -v 2.3.5
Gem actionpack-2.3.5
  activesupport (= 2.3.5, runtime)
  rack (~> 1.0.0, runtime)

$ gem dependency thin
Gem thin-1.2.7
  daemons (>= 1.0.9, runtime)
  eventmachine (>= 0.12.6, runtime)
  rack (>= 1.0.0, runtime)

$ irb
>> require "thin"
=> true
>> require "actionpack"
Gem::LoadError: can't activate rack (~> 1.0.0, runtime) 
for ["actionpack-2.3.5"], already activated rack-1.1.0
for ["thin-1.2.7"]

What happened here?

Thin declares that it can support any version of Rack above 1.0. ActionPack declares that it can support versions 1.0.x of Rack. When we require thin, it looks for the highest version of Rack that thin can support (1.1), and makes it available on the load path. When we require actionpack, it notes that the version of Rack already on the load path (1.1) is incompatible with actionpack (which requires 1.0.x) and throws an exception.

Thankfully, newer versions of Rubygems provide reasonable information about exactly what gem ("thin 1.2.7") put Rack 1.1.0 on the load path. Unfortunately, there is often nothing the end user can do about it.

Rails could theoretically solve this problem by loosening its Rack requirement, but that would mean that ActionPack declared compatibility with any future version of Rack, a declaration ActionPack is unwilling to make.

The user can solve this problem by carefully ordering requires, but the user is never in control of all requires, so the process of figuring out the right order to require all dependencies can get quite tricky.

It is conceptually possible in this case, but it gets extremely hard when more than a few dependencies are in play (as in Rails 3).

Groups of Dependencies

When writing applications for deployments, developers commonly want to group their dependencies. For instance, you might use SQLite in development but Postgres in production.

For most people, the most important part of the grouping problem is making it possible to install the gems in their Gemfile, except the ones in specific groups. This introduces two additional problems.

First, consider the following Gemfile:

gem "rails", "2.3.5"

group :production do
  gem "thin"

Bundler allows you to install the gems in a Gemfile minus the gems in a specific group by running bundle install --without production. In this case, since rails depends on Rack, specifying that you don't want to include thin means no thin, no daemons and no eventmachine but yes rack. In other words, we want to exclude the gems in the group specified, and any dependencies of those gems that are not dependencies of other gems.

Second, consider the following Gemfile:

gem "soap4r", "1.5.8"

group :production do
  gem "dm-salesforce", "0.10.3"

The soap4r gem depends on httpclient >= 2.1.1, while the dm-salesforce gem depends on httpclient = Initially, when you did bundle install --without production, we did not include gems in the production group in the dependency resolution process.

In this case, consider the case where httpclient and httpclient 2.2 exist on Rubyforge.org. In development mode, your app will use the latest version (2.2), but in production, when dm-salesforce is included, the older version will be used.

Note that this happened even though you specified only hard versions at the top level, because not all gems use hard versions as their dependencies.

To solve this problem, Bundler downloads (but does not install) all gems, including gems in groups that you exclude (via --without). This allows you to specify gems with C extensions that can only compile in production (or testing requirements that depend on OSX for compilation) while maintaining a coherent list of gems used across all of these environments.

System Gems

In 0.8 and before, bundler installed all gems in the local application. This provided a neat sandbox, but broke the normal path for running a new Rails app:

$ gem install rails
$ rails myapp
$ cd myapp
$ rails server

Instead, in 0.8, you'd have to do:

$ gem install rails
$ rails myapp
$ cd myapp
$ gem bundle
$ rails server

Note that the gem bundle command became bundle install in Bundler 0.9.

In addition, this meant that Bundler needed to download and install commonly used gems over and over again if you were working on multiple apps. Finally, every time you changed the Gemfile, you needed to run gem bundle again, adding a "build step" that broke the flow of early Rails application.

In Bundler 0.9, we listened to this feedback, making it possible for bundler to use gems installed in the system. This meant that the ideal Rails installation steps could work, and you could share common gems between applications.

However, there were a few complications.

Since we now use gems installed in the system, Bundler resolves the dependencies in your Gemfile against your system sources at runtime, making a list of all of the gems to push onto the load path. Calling Bundler.setup kicks off this process. If you specified some gems not to install, we needed to make sure bundler did not try to find those gems in the system.

In order to solve this problem, we create a .bundle directory inside your application that remembers any settings that need to persist across bundler invocations.

Unfortunately, this meant that we couldn't simply have people run sudo bundle install because root would own your application's .bundle directory.

On OSX, root owns all paths that are, by default, in $PATH. It also owns the default GEM_HOME. This has two consequences. First, we could not trivially install executables from bundled gems into a system path. Second, we could not trivially install gems into a place that gem list would see.

In 0.9, we solved this problem by placing gems installed by bundler into BUNDLE_PATH, which defaults to ~/.bundle/#{RUBY_ENGINE}/#{RUBY_VERSION}. rvm, which does not install executables or gems into a path owned by root, helpfully sets BUNDLE_PATH to the same location as GEM_HOME. This means that when using rvm, gems installed via bundle install appear in gem list.

This also means that when not using rvm, you need to use bundle exec to place the executables installed by bundler onto the path and set up the environment.

In 0.10, we plan to bump up the permissions (by shelling out to sudo) when installing gems so we can install to the default GEM_HOME and install executables to a location on the $PATH. This will make executables created by bundle install available without bundle exec and will make gems installed by bundle install available to gem list on OSX without rvm.

Another complication: because gems no longer live in your application, we needed a way to snapshot the list of all versions of all gems used at a particular time, to ensure consistent versions across machines and across deployments.

We solved this problem by introducing a new command, bundle lock, which created a file called Gemfile.lock with a serialized representation of all versions of all gems in use.

However, in order to make Gemfile.lock useful, it would need to work in development, testing, and production, even if you ran bundle install --without production in development and then ran bundle lock. Since we had already decided that we needed to download (but not install) gems even if they were excluded by --without, we could easily include all gems (including those from excluded groups) in the Gemfile.lock.

Initially, we didn't serialize groups exactly right in the Gemfile.lock causing inconsistencies between how groups behaved in unlocked and locked mode. Fixing this required a small change in the lock file format, which caused a small amount of frustration by users of early versions of Bundler 0.9.


Very early (0.5 era) we decided that we would support prerelease "gems" that lived in git repositories.

At first, we figured we could just clone the git repositories and add the lib directory to the load path when the user ran Bundler.setup.

We abstracted away the idea of "gem source", making it possible for gems to be found in system rubygems, remote rubygems, or git repositories. To specify that a gem was located in a git "source", you could say:

gem "rspec-core", "2.0.0.beta.6", :git => "git://github.com/rspec/rspec-core.git"

This says: "You'll find version 2.0.0.beta.6 in git://github.com/rspec/rspec-core.git".

However, there were a number of issues involving git repositories.

First, if a prerelease gem had dependencies, we'd want to include those dependencies in the dependency graph. However, simply trying to run rake build was a nonstarter, as a huge number of prerelease gems have dependencies in their rake file that are only available to a tool like bundler once the gem is built (a chicken and egg problem). On the flip side, if another gem depended on a gem provided by a git repository, we were asking users to supply the version, an error-prone process since the version could change in the git repository and bundler wouldn't be the wiser.

To solve this, we asked gem authors to put a .gemspec in the root of their repository, which would allow us to see the dependencies. A lot of people were familiar with this process, since github had used it for a while for automatically generating gems from git repositories.

At first, we assumed (like github did) that we could execute the .gemspec standalone, out of the context of its original repository. This allowed us to avoid cloning the full repository simply to resolve dependencies. However, a number of gems required files that were in the repository (most commonly, they required a version file from the gem itself to avoid duplication), so we modified bundler to do a full checkout of the repository so we could execute the gemspec in its original context.

Next, we found that a number of git repositories (notably, Rails) actually contained a number of gems. To support this, we allowed any number of .gemspec files in a repository, and would evaluate each in the context of its root. This meant that a git repository was more analogous to a gem source (like Rubygems.org) than a single .gem file.

Soon enough, people started complaining that they tried to use prerelease gems like nokogiri from git and bundler wasn't compiling C extensions. This proved tricky, because the process that Rubygems uses to compile C extensions is more than a few lines, and we wanted to reuse the logic if possible.

In most cases, we were able to solve this problem by having bundler run gem build gem_name.gemspec on the gemspec, and using Rubygems' native C extension process to compile the gem.

In a related problem, we started receiving reports that bundler couldn't find rake while trying to compile C extensions. It turns out that Rubygems supports a rake compile mode if you use s.extensions = %w(Rakefile) or something containing mkrf. This essentially means that Rubygems itself has an implicit dependency on Rake. Since we sort the installed gems to make sure that dependencies get installed before the gems that depend on them, we needed to make sure that Rake was installed before any gem.

For git gems, we needed to make sure that Gemfile.lock remembered the exact revision used when bundler took the snapshot. This required some more abstraction, so sources could provide and load in agnostic information that they could use to reinstall everything identically to when bundler took the snapshot.

If a git gem didn't supply a .gemspec, we needed to create a fake .gemspec that we could use throughout the process, based on the name and version the user specified for the repository. This would allow it to participate in the dependency resolution process, even if the repository itself didn't provide a .gemspec.

If a repository did provide a .gemspec, and the user supplied a version or version range, we needed to confirm that the version provided matched the version specified in the .gemspec.

We checked out the git repositories into BUNDLE_PATH (again, defaulting to ~/.bundle/#{RUBY_ENGINE}/#{RUBY_VERSION} or $GEM_HOME with rvm) using the --bare option. This allows us to share git repositories like the rails repository, and then make local checkouts of specific revisions, branches or tags as specified by individual Gemfiles.

One final problem, if your Gemfile looks like this:

source "http://rubygems.org"

gem "nokogiri"
gem "rails", :git => "git://github.com/rails/rails.git", :tag => "v2.3.4"

You do not expect bundler to pull in the version from Rubygems.org, even though it's newer. Because bundler treats the git repository as a gem source, it initially pulled in the latest version of the gem, regardless of the source. To solve this problem, we added the concept of "pinned dependencies" to the dependency resolver, allowing us to ask it to skip traversing paths that got the rails dependencies from other sources.


Now that we had git repositories working, it was a hop, skip and jump to support any path. We could use all of the same heuristics as we used for git repositories (including using gem build to install C extensions and having multiple version) on any path in the file system.

With so many sources in the mix, we started seeing cases where people had different gems with the exact same name and version in different sources. Most commonly, people would have created a gem from a local checkout of something (like Rack), and then, when the final version of the gem was released to Rubygems.org, we were still using the version installed locally.

We tried to solve this problem by forcing a lookup in Rubygems.org for a gem, but this contrasted with people who didn't want to have to hit a remote repository when they had all the gems locally.

When we first started talking to early adopters, they were incredulous that this could happen. "If you do something stupid like that, f*** you". One by one, those very same people fell victim to the "bug". Unfortunately, it manifests itself as can't find active_support/core_ext/something_new, which is extremely confusing and can appear to be a generic "bundler bug". This is especially problematic if the dependencies change in two copies of the gem with identical names and versions.

To solve this problem, we decided that if you had snapshotted the repository via bundle lock and had all of the required gems on your local machine, we would not try to hit a remote. However, if you run bundle install otherwise, we always check to see if there is a newer version in the remote.

In fact, this class of error (two different copies of the gems with the same name and version) has resulting in a fairly intricate prioritization system, which can be different in different scenarios. Unfortunately, the principle of least surprise requires that we tweak these priorities for different scenarios.

While it seems that we could just say "if you rake install a gem you're on your own", it's very common, and people expect things to mostly work even in this scenario. Small tweaks to these priorities have also resulted in small changes in behavior between versions of 0.9 (but only in cases where the exact same name and versioned gems, in different sources, provides different code).

In fact, because of the overall complexity of the problem, and because of different ways that these features can interact, very small tweaks to different parts of the system can result in unexpected changes. We've gotten pretty good at seeing the likely outcome of these tweaks, but they can be baffling to users of bundler. A major goal of the lead-in to 1.0 has been to increase determinism, even in cases where we have to arbitrarily pick a "right" answer.


This is just a small smattering of some of the problems we've encountered while working on bundler. Because the problem is non-trivial (and parts are np-complete), adding an apparently simple feature can upset the equilibrium of the entire system. More frustratingly, adding features can sometimes change "undefined" behavior that accidentally breaks a working system as a result of an upgrade.

As we head into 0.10 and 1.0, we hope to add some additional features to smooth out the typical workflows, while stabilizing some of the seeming indeterminism in Bundler today. One example is imposing a standard require order for gems in the Gemfile, which is currently "undefined".

Thanks for listening, and getting to the end of this very long post.