Use Git submodules to add private gems to Rails apps

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Once upon a time, I needed to build a Rails app around a closed-source gem. My first reaction was to copy the gem’s source code directly into the vendor directory of the Rails app, but I figured there is a better way: Git submodules.


For this method to work, both the gem and the Rails application must be tracked in Git.


First, cd into your Rails app directory and then enter the command git submodule and provide the URL to the Git repository and the directory in which you want the submodule.

You ought to install your gem in the vendor directory. The lib directory is intended for tasks and other things that you would think belong elsewhere.

$ cd ~/src/ruby/rails-app
$ git submodule add vendor/private_gem
Cloning into 'vendor/private_gem'...
remote: Counting objects: 26, done.
remote: Compressing objects: 100% (17/17), done.
remote: Total 26 (delta 8), reused 19 (delta 5)
Unpacking objects: 100% (26/26), done.

Next, build the gem in the directory

$ cd vendor/private_gem
$ gem build private_gem.gemspec
  Successfully built RubyGem
  Name: private_gem
  Version: 0.0.1
  File: private_gem-0.0.1.gem

Add the gem to the Gemfile of the Rails app. You must provide both the gem version and the path to the submodule.

gem 'private_gem', '0.0.1', path: './vendor/private_gem'

Finally, use bundler to install the gem.

$ bundle install
Resolving dependencies...
Using rake 10.4.2
Using i18n 0.7.0
Bundle complete! 21 Gemfile dependencies, 74 gems now installed.
Use `bundle show [gemname]` to see where a bundled gem is installed.

Keep submodules current

Git provides a simple command to update all submodules to the latest commit of their respective repositories.

$ git submodule foreach git pull origin master