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A Git fork of the original auto_admin repository, with just a bunch of changes to scratch my own itch
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Rails AutoAdmin Plugin

What is it?

A plugin for Ruby on Rails that automagically creates an administration interface, based on your models. It is heavily inspired by the Django administration system, and the only theme currently available is based directly on Django's administration system. From the screenshots posted so far, it appears to share goals with Streamlined.


class Customer < ActiveRecord::Base
  belongs_to :store
  has_many :payments, :order => 'payment_date DESC'

  def name; first_name + ' ' + last_name; end

  refresh_time 5
  sort_by :last_name
  search_by :first_name, :last_name
  filter_by :active, :store
  default_filter :active => true
  list_columns :store, :first_name, :last_name

  admin_fieldset do |b|
    b.text_field :first_name
    b.text_field :last_name
    b.auto_field :active :store
  admin_child_table 'Payments', :payments do |b|
    b.static_text :payment_date
    b.static_text :amount

What isn't it?

Scaffolding. This is not a view generator for you to then customise. Either it provides the interface you want, or it doesn't. (With a limited, but hopefully expanding, set of exceptions.)

For everyone. This is for applications that have a public interface and a restricted-access administrative interface. Its goal is not to generate views you would otherwise have to craft manually, so much as generating views you otherwise wouldn't bother to create. Of course, a neat side-effect of using this is that your boss (or your client's IT manager) can make simple database-level changes that would otherwise require a developer to use either the console or direct SQL. If you're trying to create an interface for all your users, this probably isn't for you.

Where is it?

The public Git repository is hosted by Github and can be reached starting from

I cannot stress enough that this is just a fork of the original code written by Matthew Draper; the original code was available from the Subversion repository at but you can get it also from this Git repository checking out the matthew tag.

What does it assume?

All objects it encounters can be usefully represented to a human as a string. It achieves this by adding a to_label method to Object, which will return the first available of label, name, to_s or inspect.

Your access control requirements for the administration section are relatively “all or nothing”. I intend to add simple class- and fieldset- level declarative permission checking soonish (whenever I start to need it). Access control based on querying individual objects should come at some point, but I don't anticipate needing that level of control any time soon. You can currently customise which fields are displayed (the field list is a block of code, after all), but will end up with empty fieldsets if you don't include any.

If you have any access control (which I expect will pretty much always be the case), you must specify it with the admin_model= and admin_model_id= methods in the configuration block of AutoAdmin; the class must respond to authenticate, login, or find_by_username_and_password and that method must take two strings and return nil for failure or a non-false value for success. It must return the authenticated user's id (or, in a less ideal turn, the user object itself: we will extract the id by ourself) – the id will be stored in the session using the key provided by admin_model_id and the currently logged-in user will be looked for; if the returned value responds to one or more of active?, enabled?, disabled? or admin?, they will be treated appropriately. So if other parts of your site do the same, things will Just Work.


Admins' actions are automatically recorded and shown if the optional admin_histories table is available.

See AutoAdminController#history for details.

What do you need?

To use AutoAdmin with Rails 2.* you need an extra plugin, will_paginate, because the pagination mechanism has been removed from the Rails core base.

To use the text_field_with_auto_complete helper you need an extra plugin, auto_complete, because the autocompletion mechanism has been removed from the Rails core base.

For the optional export mechanism you also need:

  • the faster_csv gem for the CSV export module;

  • the pdf-writer gem for the PDF export module.

To use the html_area helper with FCKEditor you need an extra plugin; see its documentation for further instructions.

How do I use it?

Initially (after installing the plugin, obviously), you need to add a few lines to the bottom of your environment.rb or in an initializer file:

AutoAdmin.config do |admin|
  # This information is used by the theme to construct a useful
  # header; the first parameter is the full URL of the main site, the
  # second is the displayed name of the site, and the third (optional)
  # parameter is the title for the administration site.
  admin.set_site_info '', '',
    'Administration area for'

  # "Primary Objects" are those for which lists should be directly
  # accessible from the home page.
  admin.primary_objects = %w(actor film user)

  admin.theme = :django # Optional; this is the default.

  # The configurable, optional access control system.
  admin.admin_model = Account
  admin.admin_model_id = :account_id

  # The optional export mechanism.
  admin.save_as = %w(pdf csv)

  # Turn on the use of FCKEditor.
  admin.use_fckeditor_plugin = true

Having done that, you can now (re-)start script/server, and navigate to localhost:3000/admin/. Yes, it installs its own routes, but they are partially configurable; for now, just don't try to use /admin/ for anything else.

To customise which fields appear in the edit and list screens, you go on to…

How does it work? - Part I, Declarative UI definition

The plugin adds a number of singleton methods to ActiveRecord::Base, which permit you to declare how the administration interface should behave.

This set of methods, which are quite central to the utility of the plugin, have grown rather organically, over a period of time (as has my Ruby-fu). I've attempted to clear out the most glaring API inconsitencies, but it's still a bit of a mess. Some of the implementations definitely leave a bit to be desired. Cleaning this up is near the top of my TODO list. That said, it should all work. :)

I really need to go through and write decent documentation for all the published methods, but for now, the following summary should at least act as a guide. Essentially, inside the model, you can use the following methods:


Declares which 'object group' this object belongs to, for use in the interface. Currently, this is used to group together related objects on the index page.


Instructs the list view to meta-refresh with the specified delay.

sort_by(column, reverse=false)

Instructs the list view to sort on the specified column by default.


Add rudimentary text searching across the named columns. Note that this defines a, query, options={}) wrapper around MyModel.find(many, options).


Allow filtering of the list screen by the named columns (filtering currently works for: custom, boolean, date, belongs_to, has_one, and string). Note that the last three will do rather nasty and sub-optimal queries to determine the filter options.


Takes a hash of (column, value) pairs, to default a filter to something other than 'All'.

filter_options_for(column, choices, &block)

Specifies a fixed set of choices to be offered as filter options instead of automatically working it out. Choices should be a (value, label) hash. The optional block will be given each value in turn, and should return an SQL condition fragment.


Takes a hash of (column, label) pairs, to change the default label for a field to explicitly define the human label for a column. This label will be the default used in both list and edit views.

list_columns(*columns, &proc)

Takes either a simple-list of column names, or a Field Definition Block (see next section) or both.

Please, note that a list of column names will produce a bunch of fields using the static_text helper almost for everything but the first column (which will get a special treatment to allow you to access the “edit view”). If a column occurs more than once (summing up the list of column names and the FDB), then that column will appear more than once:

list_columns :name, :code, :address do |f|
  f.hyperlink :address

The previous code fragment will list the address column twice: the first one will be shown as static text, the second one will produce a real link.

At the moment, if you have a long list of columns and want to customize only a few of them, you have to write then down one by one, even those that don't need special care.

admin_fieldset(label='', *columns, &proc)

Defines a fieldset for edit views. For simple use, you can just give it a list of columns. Once you get started, you'll want to pass a Field Definition Block, though.

In the Field Definition Block you can get hold of the model instance using the block's parameter; let's say the model has an attachment, handled by paperclip, called picture and you want to show the image's URL like an hyperlink:

admin_fieldset do |f|
  # ...
  f.hyperlink :picture, :url => f.object.picture.url

At the moment, this does not work with list_columns.

Most of the helpers which accept or require a block will yield the model instance to the block, if it requires a parameter:

admin_fieldset do |f|
  # ...
  f.static_image :picture do |cover|
    {:src => cover.picture.url}

This works also with list_columns.

admin_child_table(label, collection, options={}, &proc)

Defines a fieldset for edit views, to show a table of items from a child collection. It uses a Field Definition Block to declare what columns should be shown. Generally, you'd want to use the static_text helper, I suspect. WARNING: This has no tests, and I'm almost certain it will break horribly if you try to use anything other than static_text.

admin_child_form(collection, options={}, &proc)

Defines a “fieldset” for edit views, to show several fieldsets, each containing one object from a child collection. It uses a Field Definition Block to declare what columns should be shown. I don't think it'd be wise to use this on a large collection, but it's your application. :) WARNING: This also has no tests, and I believe it will break horribly if you try to use it at all.

Field Definition Block?!?

A number of the above methods provide for a block to declare what fields are to be shown. This is achieved by yielding a builder to the block. Depending on context, the mood of a theme author, and the phase of the moon, a given block will see several builders in its lifetime. Not all builders will have an active object; all will respond to the object method, though. A basic field definition block will just call a field helper on the builder for each field that it wishes to display. The auto_field helper (which automatically determines an appropriate field type based on column and association metadata) is available if you only want to specify the field type for some of the fields. All field helpers take (field_name, options={}, *other_stuff). Most just take the two parameters, and I'm considering deprecating the extra parameters on those that currently support them. Note that unlike a standard builder, you don't have to do anything with the return value; the theme's actual FormBuilder is wrapped by a DeclarativeFormBuilder, which takes care of that for you.

In theory, there's no compelling reason you can't add complex logic to a field definition block, such as examining the current user, or even the builder's active object (though I strongly encourage you to handle nil permissively, at this stage). It would be unwise to vary the fields returned based on the object for a list view, for fairly obvious reasons.

Available Form Helpers

  • Simple helpers that just delegate to the ActionView's FormBuilder: hidden_field, date_select, datetime_select, text_field, text_area, check_box, secure_password, file_field.

  • select and radio_group operate in basically the same way; they both provide a method of selecting one out of several choices (ignoring select :multiple, that is). Note that select's list of choices, normally the second parameter to the select helper, has been relegated to a :choices entry in the options, for API consistency.

  • static_text just outputs an HTML-escaped string representation of the field's value. It is useful both for read-only fields in forms, and as the primary helper in lists.

  • calculated_text requires a block to which it will yield the model instance; the block's product will be treated like a string and HTML-escaped.

  • static_html is like static_text, but the final product will not be HTML-escaped.

  • calculated_html is like calculated_text, but the final product will not be HTML-escaped.

  • auto_field, as discussed above, will automatically select a suitable field helper, based on the column and association metadata. Where there are multiple suitable candidates, it tries to go for the more generally-applicable choice (for example, it favours a select over a radio_group for a belongs_to association).

  • static_image sports a number of options used to build a hash suitable for the tag helper responsible for the creation of final <img> tag:

    • :controller (default “auto_admin”) and :action (default “edit”) allows to select a controller which should return the image based upon this object's id;

    • :src override the previous two options and can be used with any URL, static or dynamic;

    • with :size one can write the width and height used to show the image (format: “XxY”);

    • :alt, which defaults to this object's to_label.

    Everything else is passed as is to the tag helper (so one could use :style or :class to alter the looks of <img>). This helper accepts a block, with a single parameter (this object), which can be used to return a hash to be merged into the options that are about to be passed to the tag helper.

  • text_field_with_auto_complete provides a simple text field with autocompletion delegating all the work to the homonymous ActionView's helper; there's a complication, however: there must be a separate controller which provides the completion data:

    b.text_field_with_auto_complete :name,
      :completion => { :url => { :controller => 'items',
                                 :action => 'auto_complete_for_item_name' }}

    For information on this controller, see Rails documentation. Note that if you designed your application in a REST-like way, you should tweak your resources' definitios or add a specific route for the new auto_complete_for_model_field.

  • hyperlink automatically generates a link to the “edit view” of its first argument (which must be one of the primary objects); alternatively you can use the :url option to generate a custom link:

    f.hyperlink :picture, :url => f.object.picture.url

    Anyway, the link caption will be the URL itself, unless you use the option :link_text as follow:

    f.hyperlink :picture, :url => f.object.picture.url,
      :link_text => 'The picture'
  • html_area use FCKEditor if the support has been explicitly turned on, otherwise it delegates to text_area; when using FCKEditor, you can pass a hash of options down to the editor:

    f.html_area :content, :toolbarSet => 'MyStyle', :height => '300px'

    See the FCKEditor plugin documentation.

  • None of the following actually work, but they're defined, waiting for me to come back and write them. Presumably the image fields will delegate to file_column: image_field, static_file.

How does it work? - Part II, Themes

The theme bundled with the plugin is named 'django'; all credit for its excellent appearance goes to the Django project. I hope we can get a couple of standard themes, but they won't be coming from me… experience shows that I shouldn't try to make things look good. I believe I've successfully drawn lines in all the right places for what is in the plugin's core, and what's in a theme. I've already developed most of a second theme (which will not be released) for my employer, so the infrastructure is mostly proven. A more coherent HOWTO on creating themes (which can just be installed as seperate Rails plugins, then selected in environment.rb) will be forthcoming Real Soon Now, though this section has ended up covering most of the basics.

The 30 second summary – a theme comprises:

  • FormBuilder (subclass of AutoAdminSimpleTheme::FormBuilder), to create an Edit screen (a real form)

  • TableBuilder (subclass of AutoAdmin::TableBuilder(FormBuilder)), to create a List screen (a creative interpretation of “form”, which seems to map surprisingly well, for now).

  • FormProcessor (subclass of AutoAdminSimpleTheme::FormProcessor), which implements the same set of helper methods as the FormBuilders, but instead of returning HTML, its job is to perform any transformations on the params hash to correspond with unusual form field representations – the base FormProcessor transforms keys referencing associations to reference the underlying columns (actor -> actor_id), for example. This class will often be empty, especially once I provide a facility with which to inject custom field helpers (for composed_of and maybe some belongs_to, mostly) into the base builder and processor.

  • A complete set of views, including a layout, which delegate the hard work to the FormBuilders.

  • A 'public' directory, containing any required image, javascript, and stylesheet assets.

  • A wrapper module, AutoAdmin#{name}Theme, which is responsible for:

    • Containing the FormBuilders and FormProcessor

    • Returning the full filesystem path to the 'views' and 'public' directories

    • Returing any theme-specific helpers, for injection into the controller

    • Injecting any theme-specific includes for ActiveRecord::Base (I've proven this to be possible, though can't think of a sane reason a theme would want to do so)

Extending your theme module with AutoAdmin::ThemeHelpers will help to keep the module fairly DRY; it provides a helper method, which can be given a list of modules and/or a block, and directs the 'view_directory' and 'asset_root' methods to a directory(*subdirs) singleton method, which you must define – presumably using __FILE__.

NB: For good reasons that I can't remember right now, a couple of helper methods have APIs that don't match the standard Rails FormBuilder, despite matching names. The one that comes to mind is select – the choices have been moved into the options hash, to keep all method signatures of the form (field_name, options, *other_stuff).

What's planned, but missing?

The ability for the application to inject custom field types into the base FormBuilder and FormProcessor. The theme-specific versions of these classes are available so that, for example, a theme can decide how a date_field should be presented, and can correspondingly recover the values from multiple inputs… they don't map as well to an application's requirement for a 'currency' field. Of course, there's nothing stopping an application re-opening the classes and adding an appropriate helper method to each… there's just a bit of undesirable complexity involved if you want auto_field to detect and use it (which suggests to me that auto_field needs a bit of a rethink).

A way for the application to reliably extend the AutoAdminController, and add appropriate views somewhere, for those occasions when you have a couple of screens that need to be hand-crafted, such as a statistics display, or a particular edit screen that needs a specialised workflow. Note that if you feel this constraint too much, you're probably pushing the plugin into a role it doesn't fit.

Simple methods allowing an application to add navigation options, and perhaps the ability to insert Components into the “dashboard” on the index page?

A top-level “menu”, containing links to the primary object lists by default, that a theme can permanently display.

Longer-term architectural considerations?

After starting off defining the administration interfaces directly in the models (as Django does), I was strongly considering moving them all into an application-specific controller, that would subclass AutoAdminController. I haven't gotten around to doing that, and am now quite intruiged by the approach taken by Streamlined – adding a new type of class. Any such move is primarily aimed at solving a problem I'm not yet sufferring, though, so for now it's just a topic to ponder.


If you want to help:

  • fork the project on GitHub;

  • work in a topic branch;

  • write your additions/bug fixes;

  • commit;

  • send me a pull request for the topic branch.

If you have any issue, please post them on the project’s issue list on GitHub.