Ruby on Rails vs Sinatra: Use the Right Web Framework for Your Next Project

Krzysztof Wójcik

Nov 18, 2021 • 13 min read
ruby_on_rails_sinatra_comparison

In beginning a project, choosing a framework for a web app is a decision not to be taken lightly.

It’s not unheard of where development teams have had to recode their app because the framework they initially started with could no longer support their vision for the project.

For those in the Ruby community, Rails and Sinatra are strong options for web application development, each with its own pros and cons.

In this guide, we present the strengths and limitations of Ruby on Rails and Sinatra, and identify circumstances when to choose one over the other.

What is Ruby on Rails?

Ruby on Rails (RoR) is an open-source web framework for web application development built on the Ruby programming language.

Often simply referred to as Rails, it’s a server-side web application framework built with a Model-View-Controller (MVC) philosophy, which enables modularity and extensibility of applications.

Rails combines Ruby with HTML, JavaScript, and CSS for user interfacing, and provides default structures for databases, web services, and web pages.

Initially released in 2005, veteran RoR developers admit that the excitement over the framework has subsided with newer ones generating more buzz — and some are even asking whether Rails is dead.

On the other hand, Rails has established itself as a mature and stable framework with a vibrant community, rich library of resources, and constant stream of updates and version releases.

Ruby on Rails continues to be a widely-used framework among enterprises, startups, and developers. Some of the well-known companies that use Rails in their websites and web apps include GitHub, Bloomberg, Airbnb, Shopify, Etsy, Kickstarter, Soundcloud, and many others.

Pros of Rails

With industry leaders and many startups alike continuing to use Ruby on Rails, presented below are the strengths of this framework and why you should choose it for your next project.

Best industry standards

As an opinionated framework, Ruby on Rails guides developers into the best practices and conventions on applying the framework. Rails embraces the principles of ‘Convention over Configuration (CoC)' and ‘Don’t Repeat Yourself’ (DRY), which specifies the best way of implementation.

No matter how complex an application is, it can easily be extended with new features and business logic. Rails has a rich resource of third party open-source libraries, software, and plugins — which the Ruby community calls ‘gems’ — for a wide range of services and applications.

Speed of development

Rails is known for rapid application development due to the expressive and concise nature of the Ruby language. RoR was created with high velocity prototyping and development in mind.

Rails has an array of built-in functionalities that foster speed of development. The framework already has a mature system of modules, generator scripts, and package management system, among others. These allow scaffolding a complex application in just a few commands.

In addition, Rails ships with a default object relational mapping (ORM) system called ActiveRecord, which helps developers quickly put application and data logic together and deploy a fully functional prototype.

These built-in functionalities and ecosystem of libraries enable quicker development pace and time to market with Rails over Sinatra, which has limited toolset and resources.

Vibrant RoR community

Because Ruby on Rails has built a massive community of developers over the years, the framework is regularly updated, issues are shared and addressed, new versions are constantly shipped, and security is kept up-to-date. Rails continues to keep pace and set best industry standards because of its vibrant community.

The ability to create gems is also a key factor why RoR became an ecosystem attractive to developers. Any functionality that you might need for your web project has likely already been created by third party developers.

Barriers to entry and learning are also now low because of the sheer volume of guides, tutorials, documentation, and videos available online created by the Rails community.

Better for a larger scale application

Project size is a key differentiator between Rails and Sinatra. While the latter fits well for simpler or small web apps, it’s likely to be difficult to stick with Sinatra when scaling up the project.

It’s not uncommon for developers to implement RoR components into their Sinatra applications when expanding them. Further, some also decide to restart development from scratch with Rails instead.

On the other hand, not only is Rails an ideal fit for developing minimum viable products (MVPs), the framework was designed to enable applications to scale without losing stability. Rails is an ideal fit for medium to large projects.

Github is a clear example that Ruby on Rails can be used for projects that can scale with a big user base.

Pros of Rails Description

Best industry standards

The principles of ‘Convention over Configuration (CoC)' and ‘Don’t Repeat Yourself’ (DRY)

Speed of development

Rapid application development due to the expressive and concise nature of the Ruby language

Vibrant RoR community

The framework is regularly updated, issues are shared and addressed, new versions are constantly shipped, and security is kept up-to-date

Better for a larger scale application

Designed to enable applications to scale without losing stability

Cons of Rails

No framework is perfect for all types of projects. Presented below are the limitations of using Ruby on Rails.

Runtime speed and performance

Slow runtime speed is one of the most common criticisms leveled against Rails. While other environments and frameworks, such as Node.js, Phoenix, or Golang, are relatively faster than RoR, it’s unlikely for Rails apps to experience performance bottlenecks unless the size of its user base is comparable to large websites such as Twitter.

Twitter was originally created with Rails and jQuery, allowing the platform’s creators to develop and deliver a working product at a fast pace. However, RoR performance deteriorated when the social network became more widely popular.

While Twitter did not abandon RoR entirely, the company replaced certain internal communication components and server daemons with Scala solutions. Ruby remains to be a part of the social media site’s back-end.

For typical medium to large projects, performance issues with RoR applications relate either to the server or database architecture or the familiarity of an engineering team with Rails rather than the framework itself.

Lack of flexibility

The drawback with Rails being an opinionated framework is its reliance on hard dependencies and default modules. This is ideal in developing applications with standard functionalities, but it becomes a challenge with uncommon features.

When it becomes harder to adjust Rails to unique product requirements, at some point, organizations and their development teams will have to make a difficult choice between overhauling their Rails application or restarting the project with another framework.

High cost of wrong decisions in development

Flaws in architecture design during the initial stages of a project may cost more in Rails than in any other framework. Because Rails is ideal for rapid prototyping, an engineering team inexperienced in Rails may commit obscure mistakes, which may erode application performance when the application is scaled.

Structural deficiencies in Rails are difficult to fix because of hard dependencies built into the framework.

What is Sinatra?

Similar to Ruby on Rails, Sinatra is also an open-source web framework for web application development written on Ruby.

However, while Rails is a full stack web development framework, which provides everything from front to back, Sinatra is considered a domain-specific language (DSL) intended to be lightweight and flexible.

It’s deemed as a microframework designed to enable developers to meet minimum requirements in building web apps with minimal effort. Unlike Rails and most other web frameworks, Sinatra does not follow the Model-View-Controller (MVC) software design pattern.

Pros of Sinatra

Sinatra continues to be an ideal option for certain types of projects. Presented below are the strengths of this framework.

Lightweight

Sinatra was designed to be lightweight, only having the most useful components needed to build applications out of the box. For instance, Sinatra doesn’t boast the volume of actions that Rails has making it ideal for small projects. Choose Sinatra for projects with no more than 10 actions.

Being lightweight and having fewer dependencies, Sinatra is known to have a small loading time. Sinatra performs at a high rate of speed for small applications.

Ease of use

Sinatra is powerful enough to develop a functioning web application with just a single file. Sinatra is recognized to be a good way for novice developers to get started in web application development in Ruby and can help prepare in learning for larger frameworks, including Rails.

Further, connecting to APIs with Sinatra is straightforward and only requires minimal coding.

Pros of Sinatra Description

Lightweight

Only having the most useful components needed to build applications out of the box

Ease of use

Powerful enough to develop a functioning web application with just a single file

Cons of Sinatra

While ideal for some types of web apps, using Sinatra has limitations that you should consider.

Hard to scale

Designed to be minimalistic, developers have recognized that scaling with this Sinatra is difficult. When needing to scale, Sinatra engineers should have a great deal of knowledge and experience in libraries and modules useful for their use case.

As a Sinatra app grows larger, developers should expect speed and performance to degrade.

A limited toolset framework

The downside of Sinatra being lightweight is that it offers less features out of the box. On the other hand, Rails already has a quality code base and library of resources developed by its community over the years.

More time needed for writing the code

Sinatra doesn't structure code for developers, who need to do this on their own. This is in contrast with Rails where code is created automatically.

For instance, because actions are limited in Sinatra, developers themselves may have to write actions that already exist in other frameworks such as Rails.

When to choose one over the other?

Choosing one framework over the other is not a straightforward decision. The table below is a quick guide to help you select the right framework for your next web app.

Rails vs Sinatra: Comparison based on key factors

Factors Ruby on Rails Sinatra
Project size Ideal for medium to large projects Ideal for small web projects
Speed and performance Performs better in medium to large web apps Performs better in small web apps
Rapid prototyping or MVPs Ideal in most cases Ideal for lightweight web apps
Scaling Ideal when the app is expected to scale Difficult to scale; Ideal if the app is expected to remain lightweight
Security Built-in basic level of security Basic security needs to be configured
Beginner-friendly Generally beginner-friendly and ideal for learning about databases Generally beginner-friendly and ideal for learning about HTTP and routing

Rails over Sinatra

Choose Ruby on Rails over Sinatra in any of the following circumstances:

  • Rails tends to be more ideal for medium to large projects.
  • Rails deliver better speed and performance for medium to large web apps.
  • When developers need to rapidly deliver a prototyping or MVP, Rails is likely to be more ideal in most cases.
  • When developers expect that their app will scale later on, it’s better to begin the project with Rails.
  • Rails offers built-in security making it ideal for those who require a pre-configured basic level of protection.
  • Both Rails and Sinatra are relatively beginner-friendly. Rails is considered to be better for learning about how to use a database.

Sinatra over Rails

Choose Sinatra over Ruby on Rails in any of the following circumstances:

  • Sinatra tends to be more ideal for small projects.
  • Sinatra delivers better speed and performance for smaller web apps.
  • When developers need to rapidly deliver a prototype or MVP for a lightweight web app, Sinatra is likely to be more ideal.
  • Sinatra apps are difficult to scale. When an app is expected to remain lightweight, Sinatra could be an ideal option.
  • Because Sinatra doesn’t offer built-in security, it could be more preferable for those who wish to configure their own security functionalities.
  • With Sinatra also considered to be relatively beginner-friendly, it’s considered to be better for learning about the fundamentals of HTTP and routing.

The right framework for your next project

There’s no clear cut metric on establishing which web framework is better — or even the best among all Ruby frameworks. You may even consider Node.js, which is more suitable for dynamic applications with multiple server requests and frequent shuffling of data between the client and the server.

Sinatra and Rails have their own strengths and limitations depending on the nature of the project. For smaller and lightweight web apps, Sinatra is likely to deliver better performance. For rapid prototyping, medium to large apps, or projects expected to scale, Ruby on Rails is the more suitable web framework.

Rails has already achieved a level of maturity and stability that developers can rely on its quality code base, the vibrant RoR community, the volume of its module database, and maintainability of its applications.

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Krzysztof Wójcik

Krzysztof works as a Ruby on Rails Team Leader at Netguru.
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