Protecting Your Ruby Source Code for End User Applications

If you want to distribute your Ruby applications while still protecting your intellectual property you could use an obfuscation tools such as ZenObfuscate or try to write your own. But in this article, I’m going to show a different approach that’s been used by several different companies producing commercial products written in Ruby. The method is not specific to Ruby and should work for any interpreted language in which you need to distribute your source code with the application.

The secret is to encrypt your Ruby source, store it in a database and then modify the Ruby interpreter to look for your code in the database and decrypt it on the fly. I should note that there is no way to completely protect a product which is distributed to your customers—with enough diligence any security measures can be broken.

These instructions are for Unix operating systems (include MacOS X). Unfortunately (or fortunately, for me), I don’t own a Windows machine.

If you don’t already have Berkeley DB (BDB) installed on your system you can download it here. You will need to follow the instructions which come with BDB which explain how to build and install it. Originally, I was going to use OpenSSL to encrypt our Ruby source code before inserting it into the database and decrypt it after retrieving it from the database. Thankfully, the latest version of BDB includes AES support which allows you to maintain an encrypted database very easily.

You will also need to obtain a fresh copy of the Ruby source code so that we can build our own private version which knows how to pull classes out of our BDB instance. So let’s start by creating a directory for us to work in:

mkdir -p ~/RubyProject/deploy

You should unpack the Ruby source in the \~/RubyProject directory (this should create directory which looks like \~/RubyProject/ruby-1.8.6-p111). Go into that directory and run the configure script as follows:

./configure --prefix=~/RubyProject/deploy --with-static-linked-ext

This will enable us to build a stand alone Ruby interpreter which has everything it needs statically linked in.

To find out where we need to hook in our handler which loads missing classes from the database, you can grep through the source code looking for const_missing like this:

grep const_missing *.c

This turned up two files object.c and variable.c. Looking at the output, I could see that the const_missing function is actually defined in variable.c. Jumping in, I searched for the code executed when a constant cannot be found. This led me to the rb_const_get_0 function which walks up the class hierarchy looking for the specified constant. If it cannot be found, it returns the result of the const_missing function. So right before that final return, I added the following hook:

    /* At this point we haven't found the class so we must look
       inside of the BerkeleyDB for it, see dbloader.c */
    value = load_from_db(id);
    if (value != Qundef) return value;

Now I just had to implement the load_from_db function which should look inside of the encrypted BDB instance for the file. Looking at how the rb_const_get_0 function works, I knew my new method had to return a Ruby VALUE:

     ID id;
    DBT k;
    DBT d;

    memset(&k, 0, sizeof(DBT));
    memset(&d, 0, sizeof(DBT));

    verify_database_state(); = rb_id2name(id);
    k.size = strlen(;

    d.flags = DB_DBT_MALLOC;

    if (bdb->get(bdb, NULL, &k, &d, 0) == 0) {
      rb_eval_string((const char *);
      return rb_eval_string(rb_id2name(id));
    return Qundef;

You’ll note that if we find the class in the database, we first evaluate it using rb_eval_string. Since this returns nil, we need evaluate the class name so that we can pass back a Ruby VALUE. If the class doesn’t exist in the database, we return Qundef and const_missing gets called as usual.

The verify_database_state function ensures that the password for the BDB instance was passed and the database opened so that the get call can access it. It is implemented like so:

/* a simple way to obfuscate the password in memory */
#define A(c)             (c) - 0x1d
#define ENCRYPT_PWD(str) do { char * p = str; while (*p) *p++ -= 0x1d; } while (0)
#define DECRYPT_PWD(str) do { char * p = str; while (*p) *p++ += 0x1d; } while (0)

static void
  /* don't forget to NULL terminate this array! */
  static char info[] =
    { A('1'), A('2'), A('3'), A('4'), A('5'),
       A('6'), A('7'), A('8'), A('9'), A('0'),
       0 };

  const char * database_file = "data.db";

  if (bdb == NULL) {
    db_env_create(&bdbenv, 0);
    db_create(&bdb, bdbenv, 0);

    bdbenv->set_encrypt(bdbenv, info, DB_ENCRYPT_AES);
    bdbenv->open(bdbenv, ".", DB_INIT_MPOOL | DB_CREATE | DB_PRIVATE, 0600);
    bdb->set_flags(bdb, DB_ENCRYPT);
    bdb->open(bdb, NULL, database_file, NULL, DB_BTREE, 0, 0644);

You’ll notice that the password is hard coded into the binary along with the location of the BDB instance. If you are going use this code, you’ll want to change the default password (which needs to match the password you used when storing your Ruby source in the database) and perhaps the location of the database. To deter those looking to decrypt our Ruby source, I’ve written C macros which performs a transformation on the password. It is fairly simple to circumvent, so you should research other methods of securely storing passwords within applications.

Finally, you’ll need to remember to close the BDB instance before the Ruby interpreter exits. To do this we simply open up main.c and add the following line immediately following the call to ruby_run:


The implementation of close_database is trivial, so you can just look in the patch I’ve provided for it.

The patch to the Ruby source code is included in this zipped attachment along with another utility I wrote to load all of your Ruby source into the encrypted BDB instance (along with its Makefile). Here is a transcript which shows how to use the tools and your new Ruby interpreter:

~RubyProject/tools> ./rb_store data.db *.rb
Enter database password:
Stored Example (131) bytes

~RubyProject/tools> ./rb_load data.db
Enter database password:
Hit CTRL+C to quit.
Enter a class name: Example

class Example
  def initialize
    puts "Hello from the Example class"

  def aMethod
    puts "Called aMethod"

Enter a class name: Foo
No such class
Enter a class name: ^C

~RubyProject/ruby-1.8.6-p111> ./ruby -e "e ="
Hello from the Example class

~RubyProject/ruby-1.8.6-p111> ./ruby -e "f ="
-e:1: uninitialized constant Foo (NameError)

This implementation doesn’t deal with multiple classes of the same name residing in different directories. Also, the way in which the rb_load tool determines the name of the class is rather naive and can screw it up. I’ve wanted to write this for over a year now after hearing Rich Kilmer talk about the way in which InfoEther distributes its Ruby applications. So this is more of a proof-of-concept for myself than anything else. Hopefully you learned from this tutorial and can put it to good use.