Untangling RVM and Bundler, for the novice

I was introduced to the combination of RVM and Bundler while working with my friend James on a project earlier in the year. It’s a nice combination of Ruby tools which offers developers a way to keep tabs on the Ruby gems they are using in a project and to avoid conflicts, or the accidental use of other versions of those gems, when they are actively developing or deploying their work. Typically these projects might be Ruby on Rails-based web applications but although ‘Rails’ is often accidentally substituted for ‘Ruby’ there is no reason why Bundler + RVM should be any less useful outside of Rails.

I found the post he pointed out, by Mike Lindsaar, very helpful to keep me enthused and get me trying things out but I also found the concept was still hard to grasp. Although both Bundler and RVM are adequately documented, somehow their example-driven documentation doesn’t quite make things clear at first/second reading. So here’s a quick synopsis which I’ve written to help my own understanding.


RVM (Ruby Version Manager) is a tool that creates named Ruby builds and named sets of gems. It lets you swap between these builds and sets at will.

Use RVM to build a named Ruby, then use RVM commands to modify the environment in your current shell so it will use that build instead of the system default. Likewise, once you have created a named gemset with RVM, you can then use RVM commands to bring the gems in that gemset into use in your shell. They will be made available to whichever Ruby is currently accessible using the information in your environment.

An .rvmrc file lets RVM automatically switch the Ruby build and gemset without human intervention.


Bundler is a gem that installs and uninstalls other gems following a list you maintain.

The list centralises the information about which gems are needed to allow a given project’s Ruby code to run. It tidies up some loose ends and hard-to-manage conflicts by allowing you to specify exactly which gem version is needed to run the code, so that if there’s a feature that is missing from earlier gem versions or removed from later ones you can keep using the version you need even when it is obsolete.

The Gemfile, the list that Bundler works with, is plaintext and therefore version-controllable. It sits naturally at the root of the project.

Putting them together

RVM is great on its own, because as you swap between projects in daily work on your own machine you can swap between different Ruby versions and different sets of gems instantly. You are protected from updates to a gem on the system breaking things in your projects and you can retrospectively introduce an RVM gemset to sort things out if that does happen. That should make it really useful for anyone developing gems or dealing with legacy code issues.

The Bundler gem is required by Rails 3 itself [‘baked in’ as I am sure its developers would say, with tongues in their cheeks], and I guess that’s because it was the Rails use-case itself that caused Bundler to be written. So either tool is useful alone. The point of Mike’s post is that by coupling the two together you get a really nice combination. Here’s what you can do.

  1. RVM to create a named Ruby build, if desired

  2. RVM to create a named gemset (probably named for the project)

  3. .rvmrc file in project root to ensure that when code is executed in the project’s directory tree it’s run with the right Ruby and gemset

  4. Gemfile in project root to specify gems required for the codebase (remember this is version-controllable)

  5. Bundler to read the list of gems and install them; the gems are installed within the environment that’s active, so they’ll be installed within the RVM gemset for the project and not elsewhere

Of course to benefit from all this on your own machine with multiple projects is one thing; RVM will not seem nearly as necessary if the project code is deployed to a dedicated server with no other web applications running on it. But not all deployments look like that.

I think I have this all right; comments welcome of course.

Published on 11/07/2010 at 13:28 by Technophile, tags , , , ,

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