Bundler Pain Points

In so many ways, Bundler is a godsend. Yet, like all gems (forgive the wordplay), it is not without a few rough edges.

While at the (absolutely fantastic) Wroclaw.rb last weekend, I finally took a moment to round up some of these issues into a lightning talk. Unfortunately, not having paced myself correctly I got cut off just before the final couple of slides. So I resolved to reformulate the content into a blog post. A further impetus was a recent gist by Sven Fuchs (der Travis CI- und Ruby I18n-Meister).

The aim of this article is to highlight a handful of — what I consider to be — the rough edges, and to proffer potential solutions/workarounds.

Perhaps surprisingly, one thing I am not going to talk about is the issue of performance (in other words, that infamous Fetching source index… wait). With the recent launch of Bundler 1.1 you should notice a big speedup. If you have not upgraded, please do. Bundler uses semantic versioning and this release should be fully API-compatible with Bundler 1.0.x.

Here is my run down of the top 3 Bundler pain points:

  1. Lack of optional groups
  2. Lack of overridable version dependencies
  3. Not being able to declare a dependency more than once

1. Lack of optional groups

Use case

You are developing an application (as opposed to a library) and you want it to be usable and deployable 'out of the box.' You do not want your users to have to manually edit (or uncomment lines in) their Gemfile. You will find that this problem arises nearly always with database drivers.


The current best workaround is something along these lines:

bundle install --without=postgres,sqlite3

In other words, rather than specifying groups to include, you have to provide a list of what you want to exclude.

gem 'pg',       groups: 'postgres'
gem 'sqlite3',  groups: 'sqlite3'
gem 'mysql',    groups: 'mysql'

A better fix

There is a proposal from @FooBarWidget and @mislav, which I find to be very pragmatic. In summary, this is what it would look like:

Installing optional groups,

bundle install --with=postgres

and in the Gemfile,

group :postgres, optional: true do
  gem 'pg'

I would encourage you to +1 the proposal!

2. Lack of overridable version dependencies

Use case

When a new version of Rails appears, it is frustrating to upgrade, only to discover that you cannot proceed until the plugins and libraries you depend upon are updated. In some cases, this is down to definite API incompatibilities, but in other cases, it might have been that the developer of the particular library was just too cautious in specifying the versions the library supports.


The current, recommended workflow is to fork the particular library or plugin and specify it as a git dependency in your Gemfile.

A better fix

There is an issue open for this.

Thus, overriding dependencies when a particular gem gemspec is out of date:

gem 'sass-rails' do
  override 'railties', '4.0.0'

Alas, this is not something the Bundler team are currently considering adding in, and as such, there is no code. The Bundler team assert that the fork and git dependency workflow works well, but for my development team, it's turned into a maintenance nightmare.

My main argument is that a gemspec is not core application code, but instead metadata. As such, there should be mechanism for easily overriding this metadata – and that this mechanism should not be considered to be in the same light as monkey-patching.

I would also encourage you to comment on (or perhaps even +1) this issue!

3. Not being able to declare a dependency more than once

Use case

Bundler will not currently let you declare a dependency more than once. This means you cannot have different versions or sources for a dependency, even if you scope your dependencies using groups.

Not being able to declare a dependency more than once makes the following things painful:

  • testing against multiple versions of a resource (for example, in CI) (problem A)
  • development of componentised systems: (perhaps working against a git repository of a dependency, or an Engine in git) (problem B)

In fact, problem B provided my initial motivation for investigating the whole question. At Payango, we are currently building a new platform for prepaid VISA cards; our previous platform was built as a monolithic Rails application, but the new platform is built on the foundations of a Service-oriented Architecture. For each given product on our platform, we have multiple applications running. To share code, we are employing Rails engines and internal libraries extensively.

Of course, in a perfect world — and because we aim to keep concerns separate — our layers would be perfectly tested and respect their contracts. In this perfect world, we would never need to break down, debug or change views in our upstream library or Engine. Unfortunately — despite the best efforts and good design — we do sometimes need to work on a library and the host application simultaneously.

Workaround …

The concept is easy: the solution for both problems is to employ multiple Gemfiles.

… for problem A

Create more than one Gemfile, where you want to use different versions or a specify a tighter version than that defined in the .gemspec.

I have seen this solution used by Ripple, for example:

# Taken from:
# https://github.com/seancribbs/ripple/blob/master/Gemfile.rails31

gem 'activemodel', '~> 3.1.0'

instance_eval File.read(File.expand_path('../Gemfile', FILE))

where the .gemspec may contain,

gem.add_dependency "activemodel", [">= 3.0.0", "< 3.3.0"]

such an approach is useful for automated testing, particularly Continuous Integration. Travis CI allows you to specify multiple Gemfiles in your .travis.yml,

  - Gemfile.rails30
  - Gemfile.rails31
  - Gemfile.rails32

… for problem B

The solution lies in the environment variable BUNDLE_GEMFILE. First create a copy of your Gemfile as Gemfile.local and specify your path dependencies in your Gemfile.local, keeping your git or gem dependencies in your original Gemfile.

When it comes to working with the host application or library, just make sure BUNDLE_GEMFILE is set:

BUNDLE_GEMFILE=Gemfile.local bundle install
BUNDLE_GEMFILE=Gemfile.local rake spec
BUNDLE_GEMFILE=Gemfile.local rails server

of course you can wrap this into a shell function,


(See the gist for example functions you can add to your .bash_profile. You might also consider adding your current BUNDLE_GEMFILE to PS1)

Keeping more than one Gemfile is, of course, a big pain. So, use Rake to keep the copy in sync:

task :local_gemfile do
  gemfile = File.read('Gemfile')
  gemfile.gsub!(/git: ["']git@github.com:payango\/([\w-]+).git["']/, 'path: \'../\1\'')
  File.open('Gemfile.local', 'w') { |file| file.write(gemfile) }

See the gist for the full tasks.

Two points to bear in mind when using this technique with Rails:

  • This will not handle code reloading: just because you do not have to bundle update each time you want to pull in the latest version of your library/Engine, it does not mean you will see all changes straight away. I have not yet worked out a solution for reloading Engines code on change.
  • If you are building on top of an older point release of Rails 3.x, you may need to update your config/boot.rb file. Because, older generated boot files overwrote the BUNDLE_GEMFILE environment variable, make sure your file looks like this.

A better fix

A better fix is on its way. Just as I was finishing this article, the following pull request from @josevalim was merged. I have yet to dig through the code, and it will take some time until the feature is released, but what is there already looks promising.

As a conclusion

Let us get this clear (and to end on a positive note):

The Ruby world before Bundler was a much more painful place. Manually installing Gems — with the ensuing Gem activation conflicts — was not fun. The Rails 2 way of dependency management, config.gem was buggy, at best.

Bundler has collectively spared us thousands of hours, and I hope to see it improved further.

What are your pain points?


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