7 min read

Tokaido: My Hopes and Dreams

A few weeks ago, I started a kickstarter project to fund work on a project to make a long-term, sustainable binary build of Ruby. The outpouring of support was great, and I have far exceeded my original funding goal. First, I'd like to thank everyone in the community who contributed large and small donations. This kickstarter couldn't have been as successful as it has been without the hundreds (650 at latest count!) of individual donations by interested Rubyists.

In this post, I want to talk about what my goals are for this project, and why I think it will be a tool that everyone, myself included, will use.

What is Tokaido

The name "Tokaido" (東海道 in Japanese) comes from the Tōkaidō Shinkansen bullet train line in Japan.

Precompiled, Static Ruby

At its core, Tokaido is a binary distribution of Ruby without any external dependencies on your system. This means that Ruby itself, as well as all of the compiled elements of the standard library, will come in a self-contained directory with no additional requirements.

The binary will also have no hardcoded paths, so it will be possible to move the directory anywhere on the file system and have it continue to work as long as its bin directory is on the $PATH. This is an important goal, as Tokaido will ship as a downloadable .app which should work wherever it is dropped on the file system.

Precompiled Binary Gems

Tokaido will come with all of the necessary gems to use Rails and common Rails extensions. Because some of these gems have external dependencies (for example, nokogori depends on libxml2), Tokaido will come with precompiled versions of these gems built for OSX that do not depend on external libraries (they will be statically compiled, not dynamically linked).

As part of this project, I plan to work with people who ship common native extensions to help them build and ship binary versions of their gems for OSX without external dependencies. Luis Lavena has been doing amazing work with rake-compiler to make this process easy on gem developers, and Wayne E. Seguin and Michał Papis have been doing great work with sm, which makes it easy to precompile the needed dependencies for inclusion in the precompiled gems. These tools will be essential in the effort to make dependency-free precompiled gems a standard part of the OSX Ruby ecosystem.

I anticipate that gem authors will, in general, start distributing precompiled binary versions of their gems. If, by the time I ship the first version of Tokaido, some important gems do not yet ship as precompiled binaries, Tokaido will bootstrap the process by including the binaries.

Terminal-Based Workflow

Tokaido does not aim to replace the Terminal as the main way to work with a Rails app. It will ship an isolated environment with no external dependencies designed for use in the Terminal. The application UI will supplement, rather than replace, the normal application workflow. This is a crucial part of the overall goal to make Tokaido an excellent tool for both experienced Rails developers, intermediate Rails developers, and totally new Rails developers.

Because many gems come with executables, and Tokaido couldn't abstract every possible executable even if it wanted to, it is essential that new developers get used to using the Terminal as early as possible in their Rails experience, but in a way that minimizes unnecessary errors.

Extras: Code and App Health

A number of really great tools exist to help Rails applications remain healthy:

  • bundle outdated lets you know when new versions of gems are available
  • rails_best_practices helps find common mistakes in Rails applications
  • reek, flog, flay, roodi and other metrics tools help identify Ruby smells and prioritizes areas where you can reduce your technical debt
  • simplecov does coverage analysis on your test suite to identify areas lacking good coverage
  • bullet identifies N+1 queries and unused eager loading
  • ActiveSupport::Notifications provides introspection information about Rails applications

The Tokaido UI will attempt to centralize this useful information into a health check, and help you drill in if you want to do more with the information. Because they are so useful, it will encourage you to use these tools in new application, and provide immediate rewards if you do.

Extras: yourapp.dev

The pow dev server and PassengerPane make it possible to avoid needing to manually load a Rails server and gives you a friendly alias for your application at yourapp.dev instead of having to type in a port on localhost.

Tokaido will come with integrated support for this, so every app you manage through Tokaido will have a aliased development server out of the box.

Extras: rails:// (or ruby://) Protocol Handler

Tokaido will come with a protocol handler that will allow .gem files hosted on rubygems.org or other locations to be added to an app managed by Tokaido. It may also allow web sites to host installation templates that could execute against a maintained application. This will require coordination with rubygems.org, and the specifics of it may change over time, but the basic idea is to enable communication between web sites and the Tokaido app.

This idea came from a number of community members, and the specifics (especially around security and the protocol specification) definitely need fleshing out, but it seems extremely promising.

Extras: Ruby Toolbox Integration?

Ruby Toolbox has emerged as an amazing directory of Ruby libraries, categorized by type. It also has up-to-date information on Github activity and other useful indicators when evaluating tools. Several people have asked for integration with Ruby Toolbox, and assuming the author is willing, Tokaido will make it easy to use the information in Ruby Toolbox to bootstrap an app and add new functionality as your app grows.

Finding the right gem for the job is easy if you know what you're looking for, but even experienced developers find the Ruby Toolbox useful when researching tools in an unfamiliar area.

Goals of Tokaido

Eliminate Failure Scenarios

The primary goal of Tokaido is to build a distribution of Ruby that eliminates the main failure scenarios that people encounter when trying to install Ruby. In general, things fail because of conflicts with the existing system environment (or the user's environment). These failures do not happen to everyone, but when they happen, they are extremely difficult to recover from. This has happened to me personally and to people I have tried to get started with Ruby.

This sort of thing does not necessarily happen on every installation, but once you start going down the rabbit hole, it can be very difficult to find your way out. The environment difficulties can be caused by anything from an old MacPorts installation to a mistaken attempt to install something to the system once upon a time to something failing during a previous step in the installation process.

It also may not be enough to install a precompiled Ruby into the system, because the system environment itself may be corrupted with things like erroneous executables on the $PATH or bad dynamic libraries that get linked during native compilation. Also, later installations may do damage to the system-installed Ruby. Tokaido is a standalone environment that is loaded on top of an existing session, and therefore minimizes the possible damage that load order or subsequent installs can do.

Precompile Everything

In order to eliminate a certain class of failure scenarios, Tokaido will ship with a precompiled Ruby, which will eliminate the possibility of compilation errors when installing Ruby. This precompiled Ruby will also come with all of the dependencies it needs, like zlib, yaml and others, instead of allowing the system to try to find them at runtime. This will eliminate the possibility that changes to the system environment will cause a normally working version of Ruby to fail in some scenarios.

As above, Tokaido will also use this technique for commonly used native gems. For example, Tokaido will ship with a precompiled version of Nokogiri that comes with libxml, instead of relying on the system's copy of libxml (incidentally, the system's libxml has occasionally been subtly broken, necessitating installation via homebrew). I expect that this will happen because gem authors will start shipping precompiled versions of their gems for OSX. If there are still a few common gems straggling by the time Tokaido ships, we'll bootstrap the process by shipping with binary gems we compile ourselves.

Use Tokaido Myself

Since Tokaido does not fundamentally alter a developer's relationship with Ruby, I expect to be able to start using it for day-to-day Rails development. Some of the additional extras, like app health and built-in server support, are things I already do manually and will enjoy having as part of a larger tool. I'm also extremely interested in ideas for other extras that can add value for experienced developers without altering how people work with Ruby today.

Integration Testing

One of the coolest, unheralded things about the Rails project is the integration suite for Rails put together by Sam Ruby. It essentially transcribes the Agile Web Development With Rails book into a series of very complete integration tests for Rails. When refactoring Rails for Rails 3, this suite was extremely useful, and helped keep the number of unintentional changes to Rails to a tiny number. It also kept us honest about intentional changes.

This suite is perfect for Tokaido, as it tests every aspect of Rails, which is itself touches a wide swath of Ruby itself. To start, Tokaido will use this suite for integration testing.


There are several other projects, notably rvm, trying to solve problems in a similar space. Especially when it comes to precompilation, there is no reason not to work together on the core infrastructure that powers these efforts. I have already started to work with Michał Papis, who also works on sm and rvm on shared work that can be useful for both projects. He has been teaching me all about the work that folks associated with rvm have done to simplify things like downloading and compiling libz.a, a prerequisite for precompiled Rubies.

I will also work with authors of native gems to start shipping precompiled binary gems for OSX. I have already started working with Aaron Patterson, who works on the sqlite and nokogiri gems, and have started reaching out to several others.

I am very interested in working together with anyone working on a similar area so that the tools we are all working on can be shared between projects. This is a core mission of the Tokaido project, and something that the extra funding I got will allow me to prioritize.

Migration to "System"

Also through Michał Papis, I learned about an awesome new (still experimental) feature in rvm called mount that will mount an external Ruby into the rvm system. I will make sure that the Tokaido ruby can be added to an rvm installation. This will mean that if someone wants to migrate from Tokaido to a more advanced rvm setup, they can take their Ruby environment with them with no trouble.

I would be open to other approaches to migrating a Tokaido environment to the system as well. The goal would be to seamlessly migrate an environment to the system without introducing opportunities for failure during that process.

Looking Forward

I'm really excited to the work I've been doing to prepare for this project, and looking forward to shipping a great environment for OSX Ruby users. I have also really enjoyed reaching out to others working in similar areas and the prospect of collaborating with so many smart people on a shared goal.

Thanks so much!