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PHP victory over Ruby: was Gosling right?

Project failure 2.0

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Remember when Java father James Gosling got flamed for uttering the ultimate Web 2.0 heresy: scripting languages aren't good enough for enterprises?

The world's second favourite Canadian was taken down a notch or two for the thought crime of "not getting it". A year and a half later, and a user case study has popped up that supplies a nuanced twist to the debate.

Derek Sivers, a musician and online entrepreneur, found fame this week by telling the community he's cancelling a seemingly simple project to re-write his CD Baby site in Ruby on Rails after two years, and is sticking with the existing PHP language.

In the old world, we'd call that a project failure. Now all the rules are changed, though, it's probably been rebranded as something a little less negative to help downplay the wasted time, effort and money, and lost business.

What went wrong?

Despite hiring Jeremy Kemper, who is considered one of the industry's most capable Rails developers, and making good initial progress, Sivers found Rails too prescriptive.

"Jeremy could not have been more amazing, twisting the deep inner guts of Rails to make do things it was never intended to do," he said.

"But at every step, it seemed our needs clashed with Rails' preferences (like trying to turn a train into a boat. It's do-able with a lot of glue. But it's damn hard. And certainly makes you ask why you're really doing this.)"

Sivers has published seven reasons why he switched back to PHP. You can read them here.

Sivers runs a small shop, but his pain will strike a note with companies of all sizes and should serve as an object lesson in careful project evaluation.

Was it the technology - the immaturity or the complexity of the language, or the restrictions and inflexibility of the Rails framework? Maybe it was the classic customer error - picking the wrong technology for the wrong project, even though Ruby on Rails are - theoretically - at home building rich internet applications and interfaces. Or was the supplier at fault: did Kemper lack the technology and management skills for the project at hand?

Sivers's story is familiar to any enterprise IT project that's running late and over budget, and a lesson for developers being deafened by the noise on scripting.

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