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Asset Pipeline

This guide will cover the ideology of the asset pipeline introduced in Rails 3.1.
By referring to this guide you will be able to:

  • Understand what the asset pipeline is and what it does
  • Properly organize your application assets
  • Understand the benefits of the asset pipeline
  • Adding a preprocessor to the pipeline
  • Package assets with a gem


What Is The Asset Pipeline?

With Rails 3.1 comes a new feature known as the asset pipeline. The asset pipeline provides features that have usually been implemented by external gems, such as Jammit and Sprockets. These gems would serve concatenated or compressed versions of the assets of an application, such as stylesheets or javascript files so that the number of requests made to the server are lessened, making the page load faster.

By having this now as a core feature of Rails, all developers can benefit from the power of having their assets pre-processed, compressed and minified by one central gem, Sprockets.

How to Use the Asset Pipeline

In previous versions of Rails, all assets lived under the public directory in directories such as images, javascripts and stylesheets. With Rails 3.1, the preferred location for these assets is now the app/assets directory. Files in this directory will be served by the Sprockets middleware included in the sprockets gem.

This is not to say that assets can (or should) no longer be placed in public. They still can be, they will just be served by the application or the web server which is running the application and served just like normal files. You would only use app/assets if you wish your files to undergo some pre-processing before they are served.

When a scaffold or controller is generated for the application, Rails will also generate a JavaScript (or CoffeeScript if the coffee-script gem is in the Gemfile) and CSS (or SCSS if sass-rails is in the Gemfile) file for that controller. For example, if a ProjectsController is generated, there will be a new file at app/assets/javascripts/ and another at app/assets/stylesheets/projects.css.scss. It’s in these files that JavaScript and CSS unique to this part of the application belong.

Asset Organization

Assets can be placed inside an application in one of three locations: app/assets, lib/assets or vendor/assets.

app/assets is for assets that are owned by the application, such as custom images, javascript files or stylesheets.

lib/assets is for your own libraries’ code that doesn’t really fit into the scope of the application or those libraries which are shared across applications.

vendor/assets is for assets that are owned by outside entities, such as code for JavaScript plugins.

Any subdirectory that exists within these three locations will be added to the search path for Sprockets (visible by calling Rails.application.config.assets.paths in a console). When an asset is requested, these paths will be looked through to see if they contain an asset matching the name specified. Once an asset has been found, it’s processed by Sprockets and then served up.

External Assets

Assets can also come from external sources such as engines. A good example of this is the jquery_rails gem which comes with Rails 3.1 as standard. This gem contains an engine class which inherits from Rails::Engine. By doing this, Rails is informed that the directory for this gem may contain assets and the app/assets, lib/assets and vendor/assets directories of this engine are added to the search path of Sprockets.

Serving Assets

To serve assets, we can use the same tags that we are generally familiar with:

<%= image_tag “rails.png” %>

Providing that assets are enabled within our application (Rails.application.config.assets.enabled is set to true), this file will be served by Sprockets unless a file at public/assets/rails.png exists, in which case that file will be served. If there is no file at public/assets, Sprockets will look through the available paths until it finds a file that matches the name and then will serve it, first looking in the application’s assets directories and then falling back to the various engines of the application.

To include a JavaScript file we can still use the familiar javascript_include_tag.

<%= javascript_include_tag “application” %>

Similarly, to include a CSS file we can also still use stylesheet_link_tag.

<%= stylesheet_link_tag “application” %>

These files could just be straight JavaScript or CSS files, or they could be manifest files.

Manifest Files and Directives

Sprockets allows some assets to be manifest files. These manifest files require what’s known as directives, which instruct Sprockets which files to require in order to build a single CSS or JavaScript file. With these directives, Sprockets will load the files specified, process them if necessary, concatenate them into one single file and then compress them (if Rails.application.config.assets.compress is set to true). By serving one file rather than many, a page’s load time can be greatly reduced.

For example, in the default Rails application there’s a app/assets/javascripts/application.js file which contains the following lines:

//= require jquery
//= require jquery_ujs
//= require_tree .

In JS files, directives begin with //=. In this case, the file is using the require directive twice and the require_tree directive once. The require directive tells Sprockets that we would like to require a file called jquery.js that is available somewhere in the search path for Sprockets. By default, this is located inside the vendor/assets/javascripts directory contained within the jquery-rails gem. An identical event takes place for the jquery_ujs require specified here also.

The require_tree . directive tells Sprockets to include all JavaScript files in this directory into the output. A path relative to the file can be specified if only certain files are required to be loaded.

There’s also a default app/assets/stylesheets/application.css file which contains these lines:

/* …

  • require_self
  • require_tree .

The directives that work in the JavaScript files will also work in stylesheets, obviously requiring stylesheets rather than JavaScript files. The require_tree directive here works the same way as the JavaScript one, requiring all stylesheets from the current directory.

In this example require_self is used. This will put the CSS contained within the file (if any) at the top of any other CSS in this file unless require_self is specified after another require directive.


Based on the extensions of the assets, Sprockets will do preprocessing on the files. With the default gemset that comes with Rails, when a controller or a scaffold is generated, a CoffeeScript file and a SCSS file will be generated in place of a regular JavaScript and CSS file. The example used before was a controller called “projects”, which generated an app/assets/javascripts/ and a app/assets/stylesheets/projects.css.scss file.

When these files are requested, they will be processed by the processors provided by the coffee-script and sass-rails gems and then sent back to the browser as JavaScript and CSS respectively.

In addition to this single layer of pre-processing, we can also put on additional extensions to the end of the file in order for them to be processed using other languages first. For example, we could call our stylesheet app/assets/stylesheets/projects.css.scss.erb it would first be processed as ERB, then SCSS and finally served as CSS. We could also do this with our JavaScript file, calling it app/assets/javascripts/

Keep in mind that the order of these pre-processors is important. For example, if we called our JavaScript file app/assets/javascripts/ then it would be processed with the CoffeeScript interpreter first, which wouldn’t understand ERB and therefore we would run into problems.

Compressing Assets

WIP: Compressed Assets in Rails are served … how?

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