How to manage front-end packages in Rails with Bower

Bower is an open source software created by Twitter, which simplifies dependencies management and updating of front-end packages (like gridism or normalize). In general it is the same thing for HTML/CSS/JS what Bundler is for Ruby. Not so long time ago version 1.0 has been released and the current stable version is 1.2. Let's take a look at how to use it and integrate with a Rails app.

Workflow

The easiest way to install Bower on your local machine is to use the NPM manager distributed with Node.js. Just run in terminal npm install -g bower.

Basic workflow is really simple. In the application directory create bower.json file. Next, add name key with your application code name and dependencies key with hash as a value which is used to list packages to install. Example file could look like this:

{
  "name": "example",
  "dependencies": {
    "normalize-css": "*"
  }
}

Run bower install.

By default Bower downloads all packages to bower_components in the main directory. If you want to add another one - edit bower.json and once again run bower install or use shorthand and just run bower install --save package_name, which will update the bower.json as well.

The second most used command is bower update, which updates all packages to versions specified in the bower.json (or to the newest available if you use * as a version indicator).

Last but not least, a command worth mentioning is bower search. Like its name suggest it is used to find packages in the Bower registry. You can also search the whole registry from the web index.

Integration with Rails

Before you start using Bower in a Rails application you have to set up two things.

Firstly, you have to change the default path where packages are installed to vendor/assets. To do this add in the application directory a .bowerrc file with:

{
  "directory": "vendor/assets/bower_components"
}

Secondly, you have to add this path to Rails configuration so packages will be properly compiled. Modify your application.rb to contain the following line:

config.assets.paths << Rails.root.join('vendor', 'assets', 'bower_components')

Finally, you are able to require packages in sprockets manifests. For example for normalize it will look like this:

/*
 *= require normalize-css/normalize
 */

The same thing can be achieved with bower-rails gem, which additionally allows to install packages in different paths and uses very similar DSL to Bundler to generate bower.json.

Summary

There is one problematic thing with libraries which are not Bower ready. You can still use it, but Bower just clone the whole package repository and store it with your code. It can be fixed by adding bower_components to .gitignore and installing packages during the deployment.

Another annoying fact is that JavaScript packages are mixed with CSS packages in one directory. This can be solved using the bower-rails gem described above.

Bower simplifies day to day usage of external front-end packages in your application. Managing them is a lot easier than performing it by hand. It is also a cleaner solution than using Ruby gems only to wrap front-end files which are often outdated.


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