A Look at Rails Engines

A few months ago I heard about the ’controversy’ surrounding Rails Engines and meant to check them out, though work/life intervened and I never got around to it until now. So last week I setup a RubyForge project (thanks Rich and Tom!) called BlogEngine to learn the ins and outs of creating a Rails Engine. At first blush, Rails Engines seem to be plugins on steroids, incredibly powerful but somewhat dangerous. For those who haven’t yet visited the Rails Engines website:

Engines are a way of dropping in whole chunks of functionality into your existing application without affecting any of your existing code. Engines are like a slice of an application from top (views/helpers) to bottom (models) which can be dropped into an existing application and appear as if they always existed in the normal /app directory. Developers can selectively override parts of Engines as they need to handle their application (such as changing the user/home view to display a silly name, without affecting the rest of the Engine). Engines can be as lightweight as the simplest plugin, or as full-featured as your your (sic) imagination can conceive.

James Adam has done an excellent job documenting the Rails Engine plugin and the Wiki with how to create your own Rails Engines. That said, while I found the development of my BlogEngine to be relatively painless (as it was developed like any other Rails apps), once it was converted to a Rails Engine it was difficult to integrate into another project and get the interaction with the LoginEngine working smoothly. The Rails Engines plugin does make it dead simple to add a lot of functionality into your application with very little work. But due to the wholesale inclusion of models, views and controllers it does take a bit of work to get the engine tweaked to your liking (at least so that it integrates into your existing Rails app nicely). To create your own Rails Engine you would create a new Rails project, write your tests and app code as normal and then perform the following steps:

  1. Install the Rails Engine plugin:

    ./script/plugin install engines
  2. Generate the directory structure for your new engine and choose a license:

    ./script/generate engine MyNewEngine
  3. Move your engine files from the main app directory into the vendor/plugins/my_new_engine directory:

    mv app/models/my_model.rb vendor/plugins/my_new_engine/app/models/
    mv db/migrate/001_initial.rb vendor/plugins/my_new_engine/db/migrate/
    mv app/controllers/my_controller.rb vendor/plugins/my_new_engine/app/controllers/
    mv app/views/my vendor/plugins/my_new_engine/app/views/
  4. Modify config/environment.rb to start your engine:

    Engines.start :my_new_engine
  5. Include your new engine in ApplicationController/Helper:

    class ApplicationController < ActionController::Base
    include MyNewEngine
    module ApplicationHelper
    include UploadEngine
  6. Modify vendor/plugins/my_new_engine/lib/my_new_engine.rb with any configuration options you require and add any modules you need to vendor/plugins/my_new_engine/lib/my_new_engine/

  7. Read and then update the README in vendor/plugins/my_new_engine so that you and others can figure out how to use your new engine.

Some of the issues I had with Rails Engines were:

  • Model handling. For the BlogEngine, I relied upon the LoginEngine, unfortunately I had to enhance the User model with relationships to blogs, articles, etc – thankfully the LoginEngine was designed such that I could simply include the LoginEngine::AuthenticatedUser module. Thus you must take great care when developing an engine so that the models are setup properly.
  • Migration handling. Migrations with engines can be very dangerous as you must trust the source of the engine (though this is true for all code you incorporate into your application). That said, it would be nice if running

    rake migrate

    also ran the migrations for each of the installed engines. Note that the order in which the migrations is run is very important if the engines have dependencies on on another. Which brings me to the next item …

  • Engine dependencies. The init_engine.rb should allow you to require any pre-requisite engines. Then Engine.start wouldn’t care in which order the engines were started since they would be self-ordering.

  • Referencing image assets. The engines plugin provides support for accessing your CSS stylesheets and Javascript files via

    <%= engine_stylesheet "" %>


    <%= engine_javascript "" %>
  • Referencing CSS and Javascript. In the above case you had to use the engine name as your .css and .js filenames or provide the additional filenames on the same line after the engine name. Since the engine should know where the view file came from it should look in that engine’s public directory for the stylesheet/Javascript files.

  • Testing Engines with fixtures. As long as you don’t allow the users of your engine to change your table names the fixtures you’ve written for your tests will work fine. Unfortunately, once the table names have changed it is up to the user to rename the fixture files.

In theory, Rails Engines appear to be quite nice, but in my limited amount of time using them I prefer to reuse plugins, write my own code from scratch or reuse other classes in lib.