Switching to rbenv (for servers)

November 23, 2011

RVM is really great for developers. It allows you to easily chop and change between versions of Ruby/Gems with ease.

The way RVM works is essentially by fiddling with your shell. For example, try env|grep rvm to see how long it’s tendrils are. In my experience, all of RVM’s strengths for developers are also it’s weaknesses when applied to servers.

Almost every piece of software I run has monitoring on it. Even if it’s private use, it will, at the very least, use monit. Suddenly things go from real simple to real annoying.

Monit runs processes in a ‘spartan’ environment. In other words, if the command used for start or stop doesn’t work if you invoke it under env -i, then monit will not be able to run your application.

You can solve this problem really easily by creating a wrapper script which sets up the necessarily variables and bootstraps RVM. But it feels like a hack to get a hack working (and make no mistake, RVM’s ease of use is achieved through hacks).

Rbenv makes this a lot simpler. All you need to do is modify your script’s shebangs to use ruby-local-exec which will fiddle your $PATH such that the correct version of Ruby is used. This even detects .rbenv-version files without you having to cd into the project directory (RVM achieves this by fiddling with the cd builtin).

Another issue I have with RVM is that deployment becomes trickier. For example, most scripts will use require "rvm/capistrano" for so-called seamless integration. However, this can break if:

The latter case has bitten me quite hard where I had upgraded my development environment’s RVM but one of my servers was now un-deployable. But I couldn’t downgrade my development environment’s version because I had just installed RVM on another server (it gets the latest version by default) which was not compatible with the downgraded version. Ugh.

In the rbenv-world, this issue is completely sidestepped. All you have to do is set up the $PATH. You can do this trivially in a .bash_profile or in a Capistrano deploy.rb:

# rbenv
set :default_environment, {
  "PATH" => "/home/#{user}/.rbenv/shims:/home/#{user}/.rbenv/bin:$PATH",

Making the switch to rbenv is really simple. First, you’ll need to uninstall RVM. You can do this with rvmsudo rvm implode. You really do need the rvmsudo, else it will be partially uninstalled and you may find some weird behavior. After that, just follow the dead-simple installation instructions for rbenv (which links to ruby-build - highly recommended).

I plan on writing a follow up post which shows an example setup of a Rails stack using rbenv, passenger and nginx - all contained in a single user account. This is a pattern which I find works well for me. It allows developers to do whatever they want (system Ruby, RVM, rbenv or something else) while allowing flexibility on the server side for cases where you may need to change the version of Ruby for security or performance reasons.