Read-only web apps with Rails/Sinatra

I am working on an administrative web app in Rails. Because of various implementation details that are not really relevant, the database backing this app will have all of the content needed to back another separate website. It seems like there are two obvious options:

  1. Build a web app that somehow reads from the same database in a read-only fashion.
  2. Add a RESTful API to the original app and build the second site in such a way as for it to take its content from the API.

My question is this: are either of these options feasible? If so, which of them seems like the better option? Do Rails, Sinatra, or any of the other Rack-based web frameworks lend themselves particularly well to this sort of project? (I am leaning towards Sinatra because it seems more lightweight than Rails and I think that my Rails experience will carry-over to it nicely.)



Both of those are workable and I have employed both in the past, but I'd go with the API approach.

Quick disclaimer: one thing that's not clear is how different these apps are in function. For example, I can imagine the old one being a CRUD app that works on individual records and the new one being a reporting app that does big complicated aggregation queries. That makes the shared DB (maybe) more attractive because the overlap in how you access the data is so small. I'm assuming below that's not the case.

Anyway, the API approach. First, the bad:

  • One more dependency (the old app). When it breaks, it takes down both apps.
  • One more hop to get data, so higher latency.
  • Working with existing code is less fun than writing new code. Just is.

But on the other hand, the good:

  • Much more resilient to schema changes. Your "old" app's API can have tests, and you can muck with the database to your heart's content (in the context of the old app) and just keep your API to its spec. Your new app won't know the difference, which is good. Abstraction FTW. This the opposite side of the "one more dependency" coin.

  • Same point, but from different angle: in the we-share-the-database approach, your schema + all of SQL is effectively your API, and it has two clients, the old app and the new. Unless your two apps are doing very different things with the same data, there's no way that's the best API. It's too poorly defined.

  • The DB admin/instrumentation is better. Let's say you mess up some query and hose your database. Which app was it? Where are these queries coming from? Basically, the fewer things that can interact with your DB, the better. Related: optimize your read queries in one place, not two.

  • If you used RESTful routes in your existing app for the non-API actions, I'm guessing your API needs will have a huge overlap with your existing controller code. It may be a matter of just converting your data to JSON instead of passing it to a view. Rails makes it very easy to use an action to respond to both API and user-driven requests. So that's a big DRY win if it's applicable.

  • What happens if you find out you do want some writability in your new app? Or at least access to some field your old app doesn't care about (maybe you added it with a script)? In the shared DB approach, it's just gross. With the other, it's just a matter of extending the API a bit.

Basically, the only way I'd go for the shared DB approach is that I hated the old code and wanted to start fresh. That's understandable (and I've done exactly that), but it's not the architecturally soundest option.

A third option to consider is sharing code between the two apps. For example, you could gem up the model code. Now your API is really some Ruby classes that know how to talk to your database. Going even further, you could write a Sinatra app and mount it inside of the existing Rails app and reuse big sections it. Then just work out the routing so that they look like separate apps to the outside world. Whether that's practical obviously depends on your specifics.

In terms of specific technologies, both Sinatra and Rails are fine choices. I tend towards Rails for bigger projects and Sinatra for smaller ones, but that's just me. Do what feels good.

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