RubyGems is a package management system unto itself. If your system does not already have package management, this is a huge improvement. On the other hand, if your Linux system has package management, RubyGems can add some complexity. This is largely a side effect of RubyGems being completely separate from the host packaging system. According to the RubyGems Web site, the problem is related to the version-per-directory layout. This apparently conflicts with the Filesystem Hierarchy Standard (see Resources). Hopefully, some sort of middleground will be found, because the joy of having a good package management system is having a single place to make sure everything is up to date and works properly together. The risk is really related to gems that install non-Ruby code. For example, I believe it is possible to install a gem and then have the host package system replace a shared library that is managed by the host system with an incompatible version, which would render the gem useless.
In the long run, I hope that someone comes up with a good solution to the problem. So far, I have not been affected seriously by this potential issue. I use apt to manage Ruby and the rest of the system, and I use RubyGems to manage the gems I need. The one problem I had was more related to user error. I failed to install a library that RMagick required. The compilation of the RMagick extension failed, but I did not see the error because it scrolled by too fast, and the gem reported that it was installed. Eventually, I figured out what was going on, and no computers were harmed in the process. It could be argued that this problem may have been prevented if I were doing everything in apt, because it would have installed the missing library as soon as I installed RMagick. On the other hand, because a lot of the Rails and other Ruby gems seem to be updating frequently, it has been nice to be able to keep up with the latest version of the Ruby software instead of having to wait for new Debs to be released.
Package management for Ruby got off to a rocky start. Now that we have RubyGems, it is hard to imagine working without it. RubyGems crams a lot of features into a very tiny package. It has made it a lot easier to find, distribute and manage a wide variety of Ruby software. Now that you have made it through this brief introduction, you can start using gems in your own development.
Resources for this article: /article/9019.
Dirk Elmendorf is one of the founders of Rackspace Managed Hosting (www.rackspace.com). He is currently addicted to Ruby on Rails, and by the time you read this he will be happily married to Annie Tiemann!
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