Fireside Chat with Nitrous.IO

Peter, AJ and Arun are the co-founders of Nitrous.IO, a platform that enables developers to do their best work by easily creating and managing development environments in the cloud. The collaborative text editing features of Nitrous.IO are powered by Firepad, Firebase’s open-source collaborative code and text editor.

What inspired you to build Nitrous.IO?

Configuring a development environment is a painful experience. Most people own multiple devices and installing and maintaining multiple development environments is a waste of time. Businesses often allocate a few days for every new hire for workstation setup and configuration and keeping an entire engineering team’s development environments in sync is a daunting task.

The Nitrous.IO Co-founders Peter, AJ and Arun had to work on multiple projects simultaneously in their past lives where each project had its own programming languages, databases, tools and libraries it depended on. Problems often arose when different versions or configurations of software were required to develop an application. Managing multiple development environments on a single machine is often impractical due to the fact that many software packages only allow a single version and configuration to be installed at a time, and syncing development environments across multiple computers is also a tedious and protracted process. We wasted countless hours of time and energy troubleshooting development environment issues, easily worth thousands of dollars of our time. We realized that if we could move environments to a central location (the cloud), we could create them, replicate them and share them much more easily than before.

There’s also the benefit of workspace accessibility. Peter always wanted to develop on his iPad (the crazy guy). We think the iPad is still in its infancy when it comes to fulfilling its potential as a powerful development machine, but we felt that with a cloud-based development platform, the iPad could become a powerful weapon in the developer’s arsenal. This prophecy has already come true - we have developers using Nitrous.IO on their iPads and other tablets, including engineers from well-known companies like Heroku.

In addition to feeling this need ourselves, we found that engineers at a number of companies, like Facebook and Quora are already developing on remote development servers, which are set up by teams solely dedicated to managing them. For most companies, however, it doesn’t make sense to dedicate a team to managing development environments. We think the future is in services like Nitrous.IO that make development environments much easier to manage across teams.

How does Nitrous.IO use Firepad?

Firepad enables Nitrous.IO users to collaboratively edit code in the browser in real time. This means that Pair Programming is as easy giving someone an URL that they can visit in any modern browser. It also means that cross functional teams can collaborate easily and iterate on their product faster. A developer can build something, and then discuss it with their Lead Designer in the Nitrous.IO IDE collaboratively. With the Nitrous.IO preview feature, they can have the application available on a public URL for the Design Lead to share with private beta users as soon as the developer has completed his work without waiting for a build and deploy cycle. A screenshot of our collaboration feature can be seen below.

We use Firepad to handle the Operational Transformation (basically handling the merges that occur on the document as multiple people edit the same text). Firepad also helps us to manage and display the cursor position of all users, undoing text, highlighting text and showing a username above the cursor, and when other users connect or disconnect to the document. Firepad saved us weeks of work, and helped us get the prototype of Nitrous.IO collaboration out in just a matter of days! A lot of people might spend months of their time developing something like this, but we were able to do it very quickly using Firepad.

What are some of the coolest uses of Nitrous.IO you’ve seen so far?

We are always excited and surprised by the many ways our customers use Nitrous.IO. Of course, we love it when the latest new framework or cool side project by our favorite celebrity developers are built on Nitrous but what really get us jazzed is when we get to introduce the world of web development to newcomers. We’re very pleased to be a key part of the teaching people who are new to web development. We have been a key part the Journeyman Project, Rails Bridge who teach women how to code in Rails, and Rails Girls Programs.

Are there any exciting features on your roadmap you can share?

We’re working on a few really powerful tools around sharing environments that we think are going to help developers become considerably more efficient with their workflow. We’ll be continuing to work on our collaboration features and deployment integration as well, so stay tuned to @nitrousio on Twitter to hear when we launch new features!

Do you have any advice for other developers building collaborative applications?

Before implementing certain features by yourself, you should definitely study the underlying data structure of Firepad. It will help you considerably when you want to do certain customizations like implementing cursor colors, highlighting text, user presence etc…

You should also consider using Firebase if you are extending your implementation of Firepad. We used Firebase to power the chat and file notifications within the feed window pane on our editor and it saved us a ton of time!