Node.js vs. Ruby on Rails — What to Choose for a Mobile App Backend

Choosing a tech stack for a mobile application backend is key to building a product with great performance. Ruby on Rails and Node.js are two popular mobile backend technologies that help developers build reliable and highly available apps. This article will explain the differences between them with example use cases for each.

node.js vs ruby on rails
Node.js vs. Ruby on Rails

What Is a Mobile App Backend?

The backend is the essential component of a mobile app that is responsible for data processing, data storage, and application security. The backend runs on the server (or in other words, behind the scenes) and does all the required processing when users interact with the user interface of the app. Usually, developers access the backend resources via Application Programming Interfaces (API)s.

What Goes into the Backend of an App?

Traditionally, a backend consisted of servers, middleware, and a database as its major components. Currently, a backend may be hosted on a cloud server with a mobile application using only specific integrations like email notifications, push notifications, load balancers, cloud storage services, etc. There’s also MBaaS (Mobile Backend as a Service), where the backend architecture and logic are outsourced to a third-party agency.

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What Is Ruby on Rails (RoR)?

Ruby on Rails is an open-source and server-side web application development framework based on Ruby and the Model View Controller (MVC) architecture. Ruby is famous as an easy-to-learn and beginner-friendly programming language.

logos on companies that use ruby on rails
Popular tech companies that use Ruby on Rails in their backend. Source: Medium


What Is Node.js?

Node.js is an open-source JavaScript runtime environment in the Chrome V8 engine. It uses an event-driven and non-blocking I/O model and is suitable for developing fast and scalable applications.

Companies that use Node.js for their backend
Popular tech companies that use Node.js in their backend. Source: Mobile Apps Daily


Node.js vs. Ruby on Rails

Is Node.js faster than Ruby?

Node.js

One of the best features of Node.js is its speed. The single-threaded, asynchronous, and non-blocking execution of the Javascript V8 engine dramatically contributes to Node’s fast performance. Node.js can process a large number of simultaneous requests. Because of these inherent characteristics of Node.js, the technology uses a single processor core and memory efficiently.

Many companies are integrating Node.js into their mobile application backend stacks. The tech giant Paypal, for example, has doubled its requests per second compared to its Java application. Paypal also observed a 35% decrease in the average response time.

Ruby on Rails

Ruby on Rails, or more specifically Ruby (the language that Rails is based on), is generally known as a slower technology than Node.js. There are many reasons behind Ruby’s shortcomings in performance.

  • Ruby’s Garbage collector (GC) uses a slow algorithm, stopping the application during garbage collection
  • High memory consumption for objects and other primitive variables

LinkedIn has seen significant performance degradation with Rails on string manipulation and JSON translation. Upon migration to Node.js, the company has cut down servers from 30 to 3 and gained 20x faster performance for some scenarios.

However, this doesn’t mean Ruby on Rails isn’t worthy of being a backend technology. Ruby’s developers actively engage in addressing any performance issues. For example, the much-awaited Ruby 3 included many performance improvements like concurrency and MJIT. Besides, not every digital project needs the blazing fast speeds of Node.js. The key lies in the number of users to be served.

Scalability

Node.js

Scalability is a mobile app’s ability to effectively handle fluctuating user requests per minute. There are a lot of features in Node.js that support scalability. Its latest version has cluster module capability and supports microservices, which means breaking down the app into smaller components. This microservices architecture is then able to scale up and down based on the requirements. Furthermore, Node.js lets you load balance on multiple CPU cores, making the application on single servers scalable. 

According to reports, Walmart has successfully transitioned its legacy system to microservices with Node.js as the backend technology. The company has seen a 98% growth in mobile conversion.

Ruby

RoR supports scalability by optimizing application infrastructure and performance — in other words, you need to increase more resources to get the effect of scalability. Still, several leading tech companies with large user bases like Airbnb, GitHub, and Shopify have RoR in their tech stacks.

Development speed

Node.js

The asynchronous and event-driven concepts of the technology may be challenging for novice developers to learn. However, Node.js uses JavaScript which is the most popular language in the world according to the Stack Overflow Survey 2021.

With Node.js, developers can build the frontend and the backend of a mobile application using the same language (e.g., with React Native on the front and Node.js on the back). The large number of frameworks, third-party libraries (thanks to the huge repository of npm), and learning resources help developers build mobile applications fast.

For example, there’s TypeScript — a programming language developed by Microsoft to facilitate the development of large applications in Node.js, React, or React Native.

Ruby

RoR has been designed explicitly for fast prototyping and application development. It has an Object Relational Mapping (ORM) system that you can use to map business logic and the data layer together to develop and deploy a complete and working prototype quickly. 

Ruby language itself is very concise and easy to write. Furthermore,  you can create a complex application using only a few commands with comprehensive modules, scripts, and a package management system. In addition, there are several third-party libraries or Ruby gems that enable faster development.

Community support

Node.js

Several community forums are available for Node.js mobile app development, such as Github, Stack Overflow, and Reddit. In the 2021 developer survey by Stack Overflow, Node.js scored among the top technologies. Also, many leading tech companies like Facebook and Google have contributed to the Node.js development, making it a reliable and trusted open-source technology.

Ruby on Rails

RoR also has a vibrant community of innovative developers. Several community forums are available for Rails mobile app development, such as Github, Slack, and Gitter. Rails developers are actively engaged in the improvement of the existing functionalities and new feature development. They frequently update the source code, fix bugs, and address security vulnerabilities. With Rails, it’s relatively easy to find the exact piece of code (or gem) you want to incorporate into your application.

Testing support

Node.js

Node.js provides full test automation and debugging facilities with its comprehensive set of third-party libraries. Several automated testing frameworks like Mocha, Jasmine, and Jest, Chai, and mobile testing frameworks like webdriverIO are available. 

Ruby on Rails

The Ruby community is heavily involved in testing and test automation. Testing is inherent in Ruby on Rails, making it easier for developers to test the code as they develop the backend. Since Ruby is based on the MVC architecture, it can automatically produce skeleton test code while developing the coon. There are many testing frameworks for RoR, e.g., Rspec, Minitest, or Cucumber.

Which One Is Better, Ruby on Rails or Node.js?

Both of these technologies have their pros and cons in each area we discussed. In community and testing support, both Node.js and RoR are relatively equal. In contrast, in terms of speed and scalability, Node.js outperforms RoR.

Node.js is much more popular among all respondents polled for the 2021 edition of the Stack Overflow Survey. While it’s not a direct comparison (Ruby is a programming language, with Ruby on Rails only a framework based on it), RoR doesn’t come up in other categories. Source: Stack Overflow

Aside from that, there are disadvantages of Node.js that you should keep in mind when choosing the right backend technology for your application.

Node.js disadvantages

  • Speed reduction in CPU-intensive tasks — Node.js is single-threaded. When a large request is in the event loop, it will use all the CPU available to process it first and then process other queued requests. Thus, it can struggle with applications that generate CPU-intensive tasks. 
  • Poor quality modules — Anyone can develop a module for Node.js, which can sometimes become an issue because of low-quality modules with inadequate documentation. So even though there are many modules to choose from, choosing the best library or module can be difficult.

Ruby on Rails disadvantages

  • Insufficient documentation for Ruby gems — Ruby has a lot of third-party libraries which lack proper documentation. Especially for libraries that are not much popular and made up of mixing third-party code. While this is not a real show stopper, this can be frustrating for developers. 
  • Performance — As discussed earlier, the slow performance of RoR is noticeable with applications with higher traffic. High consumption and issues with the garbage collector are known as the culprits of this slower run time. Also, developing the backend in Ruby on Rails for apps serving a large number of users requires a considerable level of skill from developers.
  • Scalability — Ruby on Rails sparked discussions when Twitter transitioned from Rails to Scala because of scalability issues. But Shopify and GitHub still use RoR in their applications — the key to scalability with RoR is code optimization and the proper use of Ruby gems.

What Is the Best Backend for a Mobile Application, Then?

Mobile application backend highly depends on the purpose of the mobile application itself and the short- and long-term business goals. That said, Node.js and RoR are among the leading backend technologies for Android and iOS application development.

The key to picking the best one lies in the skills of the developers who write the backend in a specific language or technology. Inexperienced developers can make poor quality mobile app backends even in top solutions.

Mobile applications with Node.js backend

With Node.js, you can create highly scalable apps that allow processing multiple concurrent requests from the users. At nomtek, we build high-performing mobile applications that run on the following stack:

  • PostgreSQL — a document database
  • Nest.js — a Node.js framework
  • Node.js 

Here are the application types where you can use Node.js as the backend:

  • Social media applications — Social media apps need to process a large number of user interactions. Thus, efficiency and scalability are the topmost factors you need to consider when building such an app. Currently, Node.js is used by well-known social media apps like Twitter and LinkedIn.  
  • Publishing applicationsCartovera is a great example that uses Node.js implemented in distributed servers. 
  • Single-page applications — These applications run only on one single page on the browser. Gmail is an example that shows the most recent messages on a single page.
  • Real-time chat applications — Remote assistance is a real-time chat application based on Node.js, React Native, MongoDB, and many other technologies.
  • E-learning platformsQuizlet has handled over 18 million monthly and 30 million active learners.

Mobile applications with Ruby on Rails on the backend

Ruby on Rails is great for fast prototyping — with a large number of Ruby gems available, developers can implement many features right off the bat.

Here are the use cases where you can rely on RoR as the backend for your mobile application:

  • Ecommerce applications — There are multiple Ruby gems that cover most of the functionalities from authentication to security. And Shopify uses Ruby on Rails.
  • Applications that need fast development to meet tight deadlines.
  • Software as a service (SaaS) projects that use APIs heavily
  • Projects that rely on extensive databases — For example, Github and all its repositories

Node.js vs. Ruby on Rails as a Backend Technology 

Node.js and RoR both have their pros and cons. Node.js might be a better choice for processing multiple requests and long-term scalability needs, but without CPU-intensive tasks. On the other hand, Ruby on Rails has extensive support from its community. Plus, it’s easier to write, build, and deploy applications with it. Many renowned companies have either RoR or Node.js (or even both) technologies in their tech stacks.

As always, the answer which technology is a better choice for your project lies in your application’s context and business goals.

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