The JRuby Blog

The Ruby Programming Language on the JVM

Why Isn't JRuby Implemented in Ruby?

Published by Charles Oliver Nutter on

As Ruby implementations mature and Ruby code runs faster and faster, the question starts to come up again and again: why not implement more in Ruby? There’s many good reasons to do it: easier for Rubyists to maintain and contribute; no native library dependencies; better visibility for debuggers and profilers; consistency all the way into the core… the list goes on. As you’d expect, we often get this question about JRuby itself, given that JRuby now runs Ruby code very fast and most Rubyists would rather not read or write Java code. So why isn’t JRuby implemented in Ruby?

The answer: it’s complicated.

Ruby is Not the Best Language for Everything

The simplest answer is perhaps the most obvious: Ruby isn’t always the best tool. There’s many cases where Ruby’s dispatch overhead, coercion protocols, arbitrary-precision integers, or mutable types get in the way of expressivity or performance. What makes Ruby “beautiful” sometimes obscures intent from either the programmer or the underlying platform.

Performance is obviously a key issue. Sometimes, you really need raw native maths or byte arrays and Fixnum, Float, and Array introduce too much overhead. Using Java gives us a “known quantity” when it comes to performance.

Now of course I’m not saying Ruby won’t continue to get faster and faster. JRuby on Java 7 has started to approach Java performance for many algorithms, and as JRuby and the JVM improve, the gap will continue to narrow. But optimizing a dynamic language is challenging even on the best VMs, so it’s nice to have that “known quantity” when performance is critical.

JRuby’s a Ruby Implementation and a JVM Language

Then there’s also the matter of interfacing with statically-typed JVM libraries. JRuby makes heavy use of JVM libraries for much of its internals. That has meant we don’t have to implement our own collections, IO subsystem, JVM bytecode generator, YAML 1.1, and much more. Of course some of these could be called via our Java integration layer, but there’s always a bit more overhead down that road than by having Java calling Java.

Almost as important is the fact that nearly all of JRuby’s core classes can be called as normal Java classes from any piece of JVM code. Java integration is a two-way street, and having Ruby-only implementations would make one direction more challenging to support.

Don’t Throw Out the Baby

Moving to Ruby for new code is easy enough, but moving existing code to Ruby would mean throwing out known-working, battle-tested, optimized Java implementations for something completely new. Any good developer knows that a “big rewrite” seldom ends well, so we’d be doing a great disservice to the thousands of JRuby users out there by making a wholesale move to Ruby. There’s no measure of benefit (from rewriting in Ruby) that would outweigh losing years of maturity in our codebase.


Inertia may be the biggest motivator here. The JRuby committers are very familiar with Java and with the current implementation. They also may know Ruby very well, but change is always accompanied by some measure of confusion.

Most of the JRuby core team manages a subset of JRuby; Tom Enebo works on parser, interpreter, and the new IR compiler. Nick Sieger works on libraries like activerecord-jdbc and jruby-rack. Wayne Meissner works on our native library integration layers like FFI. I work on compilation, optimization, and Java integration. Do we force everyone to start writing in Ruby when they may prefer to use Java?

Developer Pool

As much as Ruby has grown in recent years, there are still far more Java developers in the world. They may not love the language, but they represent a tremendous potential pool of contributors to JRuby. Yes, it’s true that a Java developer is probably less likely to contribute to JRuby than a Rubyist… but there’s still a hell of a lot of them out there.

There’s also a very large portion of JRuby users (perhaps even a majority) that are either primarily or originally Java folks. Having a mostly-Java codebase means they can more easily investigate bugs, integrate JRuby into their JVM-based applications, and generally reason about how JRuby actually works. That’s very powerful.

But We Still Want to Do It!

Even though I list a bunch of reasons for having a mostly Java codebase, we do recognize that Ruby is an excellent tool for both writing apps and for implementing Ruby’s core. And we have always intended to make it possible for JRuby to use more Ruby code as part of the core implementation, even if we never do a wholesale rewrite.

To that end, I’ve started restructing the (admittedly small) Ruby-based “kernel” of JRuby into a structure that’s more approachable to Rubyists that want to contribute to JRuby. The restructured Ruby kernel is under src/jruby, and while there’s not much there right now we’re willing to accept new code in either Ruby or Java. If it becomes a performance or integration problem, we may rewrite that code in Java…but having a working implementation in Ruby is far better than having nothing at all.

Whither Rubinius?

You might be asking yourself “why not just use Rubinius’s kernel?” We’ve always hoped (maybe intended) to use as much as possible of Rubinius’s mostly-Ruby kernel in JRuby, if at some point that seemed feasible. With recent performance improvements in JRuby, that day may be approaching. We would need to patch away anything that’s Rubinius-specific, but I have toyed with how to start using Rubinius’s kernel in JRuby several times in the past few years. If we can borrow their code for missing or poorly-implemented parts of JRuby, it would be stupid for us not to do so.

It’s also worth pointing out that Rubinius has very few of the challenges JRuby does when it comes to integrating with an existing platform. Rubinius was designed as a Ruby VM alone, so there’s no equivalent to Java integration. When Rubinius wants to utilize native libraries, they do what we do: write wrapper logic in C/++ (equivalent to JRuby’s Java code) or bind those libraries with FFI (similar to but more basic than our Java integration). And Rubinius exposes no native, statically-typed API to its implementation classes.

How Can You Help?

Right now we’re looking to use Ruby mostly for missing features. Since we’re still in the midst of filling out Ruby 1.9.2 and 1.9.3 features, that’s a good place to start.

We use and contribute to RubySpec, just like Rubinius does, so you can easily find missing or broken features by looking under spec/tags in our codebase.

(RubySpec supports the concept of “tagging”, where known-failing specs can be “tagged” until they pass. This allows implementations to maintain a “watermark” of passing specs over time, and allows contributors to easily see and fill in implementation gaps.)

You’ll want to fetch the revision of RubySpec we currently test against by running rake spec:fetch_stable_specs (or ant fetch-stable-specs; git must be installed in both cases), but after that you can run specs using spec/mspec/bin/mspec in the usual way.

And of course if there are Ruby 1.8 or 1.9 features that are weakly specified by available tests, we strongly encourage you to contribute specs directly to the RubySpec project, so that all implementations can benefit.

We hope that making it easier to implement JRuby using Ruby code will make it more approachable to Rubyists, and we’re looking forward to helping you craft your first pull request! Stop by #jruby on Freenode IRC this week and we’ll help you out!