Integrating Bower With Rails, Sprockets, and the Asset Pipeline

We tend to prefer convention over configuration, so when we first began using Bower to manage our front-end dependencies, we started with minimal configuration. While this nicely put the files in the expected places, it was a hassle actually using the assets in our Rails app.

Our basic initial approach was to symlink the assets that we wanted to reference from the bower_components directory into vendor/assets where Sprockets would notice them. While this worked in the short term, it was tedious to set up new packages, and was likely to break if the required assets were moved when upgrading dependencies.

Ultimately, this felt like a hack. We decided that there must be a better way. Thankfully there is.

Configuring Bower

To get us out of the clunky situation of managing symlinks, we first wanted Bower to store its files in a Railsy location. The right spot for this seemed to be vendor/assets/bower_components. We chose vendor/assets because these are third-party assets, and bower_components because it makes clear that these assets are managed by Bower and shouldn’t manually be meddled with.

Bower allows us to configure the directory it stores its files via the .bowerrc file. Since we didn’t have one yet, all we needed to do was add this as a sibling to our bower.json file, which was in our app root:

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

Configuring Rails

Now that the assets were in a logical place, we wanted Rails to be able to find them easily without us having to manage an army of symlinks. In our application config, we have access to the list of paths that Sprockets checks for assets that are imported in manifests. We simply needed to add the Bower components path to that list:

config/application.rb
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class Application < Rails::Application
  ...
  config.assets.paths << Rails.root.join('vendor', 'assets', 'bower_components')
  ...
end

Using Bower Assets

Now that we have wired up the critical pieces, we can reference Bower assets in manifests, and Sprockets will pull them in for us.

Example application.js
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//= require my_js_file
//= require bower_component_name/js_file
Example application.css.scss
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@import 'mixins';
@import 'reset';
@import 'bower_component_name/stylesheet'

The assets in vendor/assets/bower_components are not precompiled on their own so they can only be referenced in manifests and cannot be served directly to clients. However, we wanted to serve a couple of components individually and not bundled with other assets in a pre-existing manifest, generally either because of their size (D3) or because they were being served only to a subset of clients (Respond). For these cases, we created shim manifests that only include the single file we want served:

Our shim d3.js manifest
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// Shim to coax vendor/assets/bower_components/d3/d3.js to be precompiled by
// the asset pipeline
//= require d3/d3

Alternatives

There is a bower-rails gem that provides a DSL that allows you to manage Bower components via a Bowerfile, similarly to how Bundler operates. Although it sounds pretty slick, we were hesitant to add another dependency to our stack when the alternative outlined above requires so little work to configure.

Additionally, https://rails-assets.org can be added as a gem source to your Gemfile, which allows you to reference Bower packages via gem 'rails-assets-BOWER_PACKAGE_NAME'. We decided against this approach because it seemed to add an unnecessary layer of indirection when again, the alternative outlined above is so simple.

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