Camping: CGIs on steroids

Posted: Sun, 16 December 2007 | permalink | No comments

There's no way around it: I'm a bit of a Rails fanboy. While it's got it's glitches, it's certainly made the part of my life that involves writing web applications a hell of a lot easier, and introduced me to the wonder that is the Ruby programming language.

However, there are plenty of times when Rails just isn't a good fit. It's not particularly simple to deploy, it's quite heavy, and it does have a definite learning curve. So, when I need to write something simple, I've just used Ruby's built-in CGI support. But I will do so no longer. For I have found Camping.

The name doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and until you come to grips with Why The Lucky Stiff's weird sense of humour, the docs will probably make you think that acid trip you took several years ago has just kicked in again. However, the purpose of Camping is pretty easy to understand: it allows you to make simple (CGI level) web "applications" using Rails-like (or more properly, MVC) concepts, which are fairly easy to write and deploy.

If you're familiar with Rails (or probably most of the other Rails-clones that have sprung up in other languages) then Camping will probably smell at least faintly familiar. You have routes, which map URLs to controller actions, which retrieve models and feed them to a view which sends results back as HTML. From that perspective, Camping is easy to learn -- it's core concepts can piggyback on existing knowledge, and you can get started very quickly.

Using your Rails-fu, however, will only get you so far. For one thing, the API is similar-but-different enough that while your first couple of simple experiments will probably Just Work, getting more complex things done will either fall under the "different" or "difficult" headings.

That isn't meant to be a slight on Camping, though -- if you want to do horribly complex things, then you're heading into territory best served by Rails anyway. But there is a bit of a middle ground where the utter simplicity of Camping is stretched a little, but it's still more appropriate to write a Camping app than a Rails app, and it's important to remember that you're not using full-blown framework when you thump up against something that's beyond-trivial in Rails, but is not quite so simple in Camping.

Camping is a microframework -- it says so right there on the front page. Why's intention is that Camping will always be provided in less than 4kB of code. So you're never going to get, for instance, the broad range of HTML helpers that Rails' ActionView provides to make writing HTML templates so easy, or the Prototype JavaScript framework shipped with the main code. If you don't want to blow a steam pipe, then, when starting out with Camping, you need to think "this is a lot easier than hand-writing CGIs" instead of "this is a lot harder than writing a Rails app".

There are a few things that are undeniably a pest in Camping, though. The docs are a little incomplete and hard to follow (even when you account for Why's "unique" style of writing), and some of the coding tricks that are employed in making the framework can make debugging a bit tricky. They're not showstoppers, but it's worth knowing about them in advance so you don't go nuts when you're first using the framework.

If you're not the sort of person who needs small, self-contained web scripts, then I'd say you'll probably never get much benefit out of Camping. On the other hand, if you're still writing your CGIs against the "bare(ish) metal", then I would strongly encourage you to take a look at Camping, to make your life just that little bit more delightful.

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