Finally - helpers with proper encapsulation, delegation, interfaces and inheritance!
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Finally – helpers with proper encapsulation, delegation, interfaces and inheritance!


Helpers suck. They’ve always sucked, and they will suck on if we keep them in modules.

ActiveHelper is an attempt to pack helpers into classes. This brings us a few benefits

  • inheritance helpers can be derived other helpers
  • delegation helpers are no longer mixed into a target- the targets import the helper, where the new
    methods are delegated to the helper instances
  • proper encapsulation helpers don’t rely blindly on instance variables – a helper defines its needs, the target has to provide readers
  • interfaces a helper clearly provides methods and might import additional helpers

Note that ActiveHelper is a generic helper framework. Not coupled to anything like Rails or Merb. Not providing any concrete helpers. Feel free to use clean helpers in any framework (including Rails and friends)!


> gem install active_helper


Let’s use the bloody MVC-View example as we find in Rails or Merb (Sinatra, too?).

We have a view which needs additional methods in order to render bullshit.

Using helpers

The view wants to render tags using the TagHelper.

class View
  include ActiveHelper
  import TagHelper

To pull-in a helper we invoke import in the target class.

Note that you can also use import on an object to limit the helper’s scope to that instance, only.


The exemplary #tag method took me days to implement.

class TagHelper < ActiveHelper::Base
  provides :tag
  def tag(name, attributes="")
    "<#{name} #{attributes}>"

The helper defines a part of its interface (what goes out) as it provides methods.

> view.tag(:form)       # => "<form>"


The real power of OOP is inheritance, so why should we throw away that in favor of modules?

class FormHelper < TagHelper
  provides :form_tag
  def form_tag(destination)
    tag(:form, "action=#{destination}") # inherited from TagHelper.

That’s a bit cleaner than blindly including 30 helper modules in another helper in another helper, isn’t it?

> view.import FormHelper
> view.tag(:form)               # => "<form>"
> view.form('')       # => "<form>"

Obviously the view can invoke stuff from the FormHelper itself and inherited methods that were exposed with provides.

Delegation as Multiple Inheritance

What if the #form_tag method needs to access another helper? In Rails, this would simply be

  def form_tag(destination)
    destination = url_for(destination)
    tag(:form, "action=#{destination}")

The #url_for methods comes from, na, do you know it? Me neither! It’s mixed-in somewhere in the depths of the helper modules.

In ActiveHelper this is slightly different.

class FormHelper < TagHelper
  provides :form_tag
  import UrlHelper
  def form_tag(destination)
    destination = url_for(destination)  # in UrlHelper.
    tag(:form, "action=#{destination}")

Hmm, our FormHelper is already derived from ActiveHelper, how do we import additional methods?

Easy as well, the helper class @import@s it.

So we have to know #url_for is located in the UrlHelper and we even have to import that one.
That’s a good thing for a) code tidiness, b) good architecture and c) debugging.

How would the UrlHelper look like?

Delegation as Interface

A traditional url helper would roughly look like this:

  def url_for(url)
    protocol = @https_request? ? 'https' : 'http'

Next chance, who or what did create @https_request? and where does it live? That’s ugly, boys!

Our helper bets on declaring its interface, again! This time we define what goes in (a “dependency”).

class UrlHelper < ActiveHelper::Base
  provides  :url_for
  needs     :https_request?
  def url_for(url)
    protocol = https_request? ? 'https' : 'http'

It defines what it needs and that’s all for it. Any call to #https_request? (that’s a method) is strictly delegated back to the view instance, which has to care about satisfying dependencies.

Here’s what happens in productive mode.

> view.form('')
# => 11:in `url_for': undefined method `https_request?' for #<View:0xb749d4fc> (NoMethodError)

That’s conclusive, the view is insufficiently geared.

class View
  include ActiveHelper
  def https_request?; false; end

Now, does it work?

> view.form_tag('go.and.use/active_helper')
# => <form action=http://go.and.use/active_helper>


Rails Bindings

Use ActiveHelper in your Rails app! Assuming you’d be writing a helper for text munging, you would

1. Write your helper and put it in app/active_helpers/text_munging_helper.rb.

class TextMungingHelper < ActiveHelper::Base
  provides :munge
  def munge(text)

2. Prepare your controller.

class StupidController < ActionController::Base
  active_helper TextMungingHelper

3. Use the imported methods in your views, just as you know it from other helpers.

  Your Email is <%= munge %>.


  • Helpers are instances, when accessing a raw @ivar it refers to their own instance variables
  • Dependencies between different helpers and between the target (e.g. a View instance) are modelled with OOP strategies: Inheritance and the declarative #needs.


Copyright © 2010, Nick Sutterer

Released under the MIT License.