vite-ruby for JS/CSS asset management in Rails

I recently switched to vite and vite-ruby for managing my JS and CSS assets in Rails. I was switching from a combination of Webpacker and sprockets — I moved all of my Webpacker and most of my sprockets to vite.

  • Note that vite-ruby has smooth ready-made integrations for Padrino, Hanami, and jekyll too, and possibly hook points for integrations with arbitrary ruby, plus could always just use vite without vite-ruby — but I’m using vite-ruby with Rails.

I am finding it generally pretty agreeble, so I thought I’d write up some of the things I like about it for others. And a few other notes.

I am definitely definitely not an expert in Javascript build systems (or JS generally), which both defines me as an audience for build tools, but also means I don’t always know how these things might compare with other options. The main other option I was considering was jsbundling-rails with esbuild and cssbundling-rails with SASS, but I didn’t get very far into the weeds of checking those out.

I moved almost all my JS and (S)CSS into being managed/built by vite.

My context

I work on a monolith “full stack” Rails application, with a small two-developer team.

I do not do any very fancy Javascript — this is not React or Vue or anything like that. It’s honestly pretty much “JQuery-style” (although increasingly I try to do it without jquery itself using just native browser API, it’s still pretty much that style).

Nonetheless, I have accumulated non-trivial Javascript/NPM dependencies, including things like video.js , @shoppify/draggable, fontawesome (v4), openseadragon. I need package management and I need building.

I also need something dirt simple. I don’t really know what I’m doing with JS, my stack may seem really old-fashioned, but here it is. Webpacker had always been a pain, I started using it to have something to manage and build NPM packages, but was still mid-stream in trying to switch all my sprockets JS over to webpacker when it was announced webpacker was no longer recommended/maintained by Rails. My CSS was still in sprockets all along.

Vite

One thing to know about vite is that it’s based on the idea of using different methods in dev vs production to build/serve your JS (and other managed assets). In “dev”, you ordinarily run a “vite server” which serves individual JS files, whereas for production you “build” more combined files.

Vite is basically an integration that puts together tools like esbuild and (in production) rollup, as well as integrating optional components like sass — making them all just work. It intends to be simple and provide a really good developer experience where doing simple best practice things is simple and needs little configuration.

vite-ruby tries to make that “just works” developer experience as good as Rubyists expect when used with ruby too — it intends to integrate with Rails as well as webpacker did, just doing the right thing for Rails.

Things I am enjoying with vite-ruby and Rails

  • You don’t need to run a dev server (like you do with jsbundling-rails and css-bundling rails)
    • If you don’t run the vite dev server, you’ll wind up with auto-built vite on-demand as needed, same as webpacker basically did.
    • This can be slow, but it works and is awesome for things like CI without having to configure or set up anything. If there have been no changes to your source, it is not slow, as it doesn’t need to re-build.
    • If you do want to run the dev server for much faster build times, hot module reload, better error messages, etc, vite-ruby makes it easy, just run ./bin/vite dev in a terminal.
  • If you DO run the dev server — you have only ONE dev-server to run, that will handle both JS and CSS
    • I’m honestly really trying to avoid the foreman approach taken by jsbundling-rails/cssbundling-rails, because of how it makes accessing the interactive debugger at a breakpoint much more complicated. Maybe with only one dev server (that is optional), I can handle running it manually without a procfile.
  • Handling SASS and other CSS with the same tool as JS is pretty great generally — you can even @import CSS from a javascript file, and also @import plain CSS too to aggregate into a single file server-side (without sass). With no non-default configuration, it just works, and will spit out stylesheet <link> tags, and it means your css/sass is going through the same processing whether you import it from .js or .css.
    • I handle fontawesome 4 this way. Include "font-awesome": "^4.7.0" in my package.json, then @import "font-awesome/css/font-awesome.css"; just works, and from either a .js or a .css file. It actually spits out not only the fontawesome CSS file, but also all the font files referenced from it and included in the npm package, in a way that just works. Amazing!!
    • Note how you can reference things from NPM packages with just package name. On google for some tools you find people doing contortions involving specifically referencing node-modules, I’m not sure if you really have to do this with latest versions of other tools but you def don’t with vite, it just works.
  • in general, I really appreciate vite’s clear opinionated guidance and focus on developer experience. Understanding all the options from the docs is not as hard because there are fewer options, but it does everything I need it to. vite-ruby succesfully carries this into ruby/Rails, it’s documentation is really good, without being enormous. In Rails, it just does what you want, automatically.
  • Vite supports source maps for SASS!
    • Not currently on by default, you have to add a simple config.
    • Unfortunately sass sourcemaps are NOT supported in production build mode, only in dev server mode. (I think I found a ticket for this, but can’t find it now)
    • But that’s still better than the official Rails options? I don’t understand how anyone develops SCSS without sourcemaps!
      • But even though sprockets 4.x finally supported JS sourcemaps, it does not work for SCSS! Even though there is an 18-month-old PR to fix it, it goes unreviewed by Rails core and unmerged.
      • Possibly even more suprisingly, SASS sourcemaps doesn’t seem to work for the newer cssbundling-rails=>sass solution either. https://github.com/rails/cssbundling-rails/issues/68
      • Previous to this switch, I was still using sprockets old-style “comments injected into CSS built files with original source file/line number” — that worked. But to give that up, and not get working scss sourcemaps in return? I think that would have been a blocker for me against cssbundling-rails/sass anyway… I feel like there’s something I’m missing, because I don’t understand how anyone is developing sass that way.

  • If you want to split up your js into several built files (“chunks), I love how easy it is. It just works. Vite/rollup will do it for you automatically for any dynamic runtime imports, which it also supports, just write import with parens, inside a callback or whatever, just works.

Things to be aware of

  • vite and vite-ruby by default will not create .gz variants of built JS and CSS
    • Depending on your deploy environment, this may not matter, maybe you have a CDN or nginx that will automatically create a gzip and cache it.
    • But in eg default heroku Rails deploy, it really really does. Default Heroku deploy uses the Rails app itself to deliver your assets. The Rails app will deliver content-encoding gzip if it’s there. If it’s not… when you switch to vite from webpacker/sprockets, you may now delivering uncommpressed JS and CSS with no other changes to your environment, with non-trivial performance implications but ones you may not notice.
    • Yeah, you could probably configure your CDN you hopefully have in front of your heroku app static assets to gzip for you, but you may not have noticed.
    • Fortunately it’s pretty easy to configure
  • There are some vite NPM packages involved (vite itself as well as some vite-ruby plugins), as well as the vite-ruby gem, and you have to keep them up to date in sync. You don’t want to be using a new version of vite NPM packages with too-old gem, or vice versa. (This is kind of a challenge in general with ruby gems with accompanying npm packages)
    • But vite_ruby actually includes a utility to check this on boot and complain if they’ve gotten out of sync! As well as tools for syncing them! Sweet!
    • But that can be a bit confusing sometimes if you’re running CI after an accidentally-out-of-sync upgrade, and all your tests are now failing with the failed sync check. But no big deal.

Things I like less

  • vite-ruby itself doesn’t seem to have a CHANGELOG or release notes, which I don’t love.
  • Vite is a newer tool written for modern JS, it mostly does not support CommonJS/node require, preferring modern import. In some cases that I can’t totally explain require in dependencies seems to work anyway… but something related to this stuff made it apparently impossible for me to import an old not-very-maintained dependency I had been importing fine in Webpacker. (I don’t know how it would have done with jsbundling-rails/esbuild). So all is not roses.

Am I worried that this is a third-party integration not blessed by Rails?

The vite-ruby maintainer ElMassimo is doing an amazing job. It is currently very well-maintained software, with frequent releases, quick turnaround from bug report to release, and ElMassimo is very repsonsive in github discussions.

But it looks like it is just one person maintaining. We know how open source goes. Am I worried that in the future some release of Rails might break vite-ruby in some way, and there won’t be a maintainer to fix it?

I mean… a bit? But let’s face it… Rails officially blessed solutions haven’t seemed very well-maintained for years now either! The three year gap of abandonware between the first sprockets 4.x beta and final release, followed by more radio silence? The fact that for a couple years before webpacker was officially retired it seemed to be getting no maintainance, including requiring dependency versions with CVE’s that just stayed that way? Not much documentation (ie Rails Guide) support for webpacker ever, or jsbundling-rails still?

One would think it might be a new leaf with css/jsbundling-rails… but I am still baffled by there being no support for sass sourcemaps in cssbundling-rails and sass! Official rails support doesn’t necessarily get you much “just works” DX when it comes to asset handling for years now.

Let’s face it, this has been an area where being in the Rails github org and/or being blessed by Rails docs has been no particular reason to expect maintenance or expect you won’t have problems down the line anyway. it’s open source, nobody owes you anything, maintainers spend time on what they have interest to spend time on (including time to review/merge/maintain other’s PR’s — which is def non-trivial time!) — it just is what it is.

While the vite-ruby code provides a pretty great integrated into Rails DX, its also actually mostly pretty simple code, especially when it comes to the Rails touch points most at risk of Rails breaking — it’s not doing anything too convoluted.

So, you know, you take your chances, I feel good about my chances compared to a css/jsbundling-rails solution. And if someday I have to switch things over again, oh well — Rails just pulled webpacker out from under us quicker than expected too, so you take your chances regardless!


(thanks to colleague Anna Headley for first suggesting we take a look at vite in Rails!)

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One thought on “vite-ruby for JS/CSS asset management in Rails

  1. Great article, thanks for writing it. As someone who is very much in the weeds with jsbundling-rails, I will be giving Vite a try.

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