Saturday, March 22, 2008

Discovering Ext JS with Rails

Before I discovered the Ext JS - Javascript Library in November 2007, I was working with Ruby on Rails for almost a year. (I know, pretty late since Rails came already out in 2004, but I was stuck with my PHP Projects.)

From then on, Rails was really helping me to get my models and controllers in order. But what about the view layer? Yes, Rails was helping me here, too. But not as much as on the model and controller level. I like partials, helpers and rjs, but building a nice graphical interface was still a lot of work.

When building graphical interfaces the first thing you need to have is an idea what the user is supposed to do on the interface.

Second, you need to think about the layout and what elements you want to put on the interface (separated in pages or states). In this step, you as an interface developer have so much freedom that you can end up weeks and months moving around elements and pixels on your interface seeking for the best usability and look. Ext JS doesn't really limit your freedom, but it gives you very very helpful guidelines for building nice interfaces, since it has ready-to-use widgets such as grids, panels, buttons, menus and toolbars which can be configured via options to your need. Ext JS is for the client-side of web applications as Ruby on Rails is for the server-side of web applications.

Third, you have to design the interface elements on yourself or by a designer. Ext JS includes nice GUI elements or so-called widgets out-of-the-box. Some may argue the Ext JS theme is very "Windows Vista"-like, but it's gives you at least a beautiful interface right at the beginning which can be customized by you without limits.

Forth, you need to build the interface. Building the interface can be tricky, especially today when everybody is expecting some fancy AJAX, which can be very useful in a lot of cases. Now the fight with Javascript, CSS, ERB, controller actions and cross-browser compatibility is starting. The Rails built-in javascript libraries Prototype and or additional template engines like Haml or Markaby can help you with this step, but it's still not less complicated.
With Ext JS, you have everything in one library which has a very clean API and documentation. You actually have to use actually HTML or Haml very few times, since you can build the whole interface by Ext JS widgets and layouts which are configured by options in the JSON-Format.

Therefore, the best solution and more and less silver bullet for building web-based user interfaces is for me Ext JS.

I'm starting this blog to document some hints and tipps on using Ext JS together with Ruby on Rails. But this blog is not supposed to be an one-way street. Through this blog I hope to meet other Rails developers that use Ext JS and have their own solutions and tipps. I welcome everybody to use the comments feature or send me an email to s dot hiller at caprireleases dot com.