Active Record Basics
This guide is an introduction to Active Record.
After reading this guide, you will know:
- What Object Relational Mapping and Active Record are and how they are used in Rails.
- How Active Record fits into the Model-View-Controller paradigm.
- How to use Active Record models to manipulate data stored in a relational database.
- Active Record schema naming conventions.
- The concepts of database migrations, validations and callbacks.
What is Active Record?
Active Record is the M in MVC - the model - which is the layer of the system responsible for representing business data and logic. Active Record facilitates the creation and use of business objects whose data requires persistent storage to a database. It is an implementation of the Active Record pattern which itself is a description of an Object Relational Mapping system.
The Active Record Pattern
Active Record was described by Martin Fowler in his book Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture. In Active Record, objects carry both persistent data and behavior which operates on that data. Active Record takes the opinion that ensuring data access logic is part of the object will educate users of that object on how to write to and read from the database.
Object Relational Mapping
Object-Relational Mapping, commonly referred to as its abbreviation ORM, is a technique that connects the rich objects of an application to tables in a relational database management system. Using ORM, the properties and relationships of the objects in an application can be easily stored and retrieved from a database without writing SQL statements directly and with less overall database access code.
Active Record as an ORM Framework
Active Record gives us several mechanisms, the most important being the ability to:
- Represent models and their data.
- Represent associations between these models.
- Represent inheritance hierarchies through related models.
- Validate models before they get persisted to the database.
- Perform database operations in an object-oriented fashion.
Convention over Configuration in Active Record
When writing applications using other programming languages or frameworks, it may be necessary to write a lot of configuration code. This is particularly true for ORM frameworks in general. However, if you follow the conventions adopted by Rails, you'll need to write very little configuration (in some case no configuration at all) when creating Active Record models. The idea is that if you configure your applications in the very same way most of the time then this should be the default way. Thus, explicit configuration would be needed only in those cases where you can't follow the standard convention.
By default, Active Record uses some naming conventions to find out how the
mapping between models and database tables should be created. Rails will
pluralize your class names to find the respective database table. So, for
Book, you should have a database table called books. The Rails
pluralization mechanisms are very powerful, being capable to pluralize (and
singularize) both regular and irregular words. When using class names composed
of two or more words, the model class name should follow the Ruby conventions,
using the CamelCase form, while the table name must contain the words separated
by underscores. Examples:
- Database Table - Plural with underscores separating words (e.g.,
- Model Class - Singular with the first letter of each word capitalized (e.g.,
|Model / Class||Table / Schema|
Active Record uses naming conventions for the columns in database tables, depending on the purpose of these columns.
Foreign keys - These fields should be named following the pattern
order_id). These are the fields that Active Record will look for when you create associations between your models.
Primary keys - By default, Active Record will use an integer column named
idas the table's primary key. When using Active Record Migrations to create your tables, this column will be automatically created.
There are also some optional column names that will add additional features to Active Record instances:
created_at- Automatically gets set to the current date and time when the record is first created.
updated_at- Automatically gets set to the current date and time whenever the record is updated.
lock_version- Adds optimistic locking to a model.
type- Specifies that the model uses Single Table Inheritance.
(association_name)_type- Stores the type for polymorphic associations.
(table_name)_count- Used to cache the number of belonging objects on associations. For example, a
comments_countcolumn in a
Postclass that has many instances of
Commentwill cache the number of existent comments for each post.
NOTE: While these column names are optional, they are in fact reserved by Active Record. Steer clear of reserved keywords unless you want the extra functionality. For example,
type is a reserved keyword used to designate a table using Single Table Inheritance (STI). If you are not using STI, try an analogous keyword like "context", that may still accurately describe the data you are modeling.
Creating Active Record Models
It is very easy to create Active Record models. All you have to do is to
ActiveRecord::Base class and you're good to go:
class Product < ActiveRecord::Base end
This will create a
Product model, mapped to a
products table at the
database. By doing this you'll also have the ability to map the columns of each
row in that table with the attributes of the instances of your model. Suppose
products table was created using an SQL sentence like:
CREATE TABLE products ( id int(11) NOT NULL auto_increment, name varchar(255), PRIMARY KEY (id) );
Following the table schema above, you would be able to write code like the following:
p = Product.new p.name = "Some Book" puts p.name # "Some Book"
Overriding the Naming Conventions
What if you need to follow a different naming convention or need to use your Rails application with a legacy database? No problem, you can easily override the default conventions.
You can use the
ActiveRecord::Base.table_name= method to specify the table
name that should be used:
class Product < ActiveRecord::Base self.table_name = "PRODUCT" end
If you do so, you will have to define manually the class name that is hosting
the fixtures (class_name.yml) using the
set_fixture_class method in your test
class FunnyJoke < ActiveSupport::TestCase set_fixture_class funny_jokes: Joke fixtures :funny_jokes ... end
It's also possible to override the column that should be used as the table's
primary key using the
class Product < ActiveRecord::Base self.primary_key = "product_id" end
CRUD: Reading and Writing Data
CRUD is an acronym for the four verbs we use to operate on data: Create, Read, Update and Delete. Active Record automatically creates methods to allow an application to read and manipulate data stored within its tables.
Active Record objects can be created from a hash, a block or have their
attributes manually set after creation. The
new method will return a new
create will return the object and save it to the database.
For example, given a model
User with attributes of
create method call will create and save a new record into the database:
user = User.create(name: "David", occupation: "Code Artist")
new method, an object can be instantiated without being saved:
user = User.new user.name = "David" user.occupation = "Code Artist"
A call to
user.save will commit the record to the database.
Finally, if a block is provided, both
new will yield the new
object to that block for initialization:
user = User.new do |u| u.name = "David" u.occupation = "Code Artist" end
Active Record provides a rich API for accessing data within a database. Below are a few examples of different data access methods provided by Active Record.
# return a collection with all users users = User.all
# return the first user user = User.first
# return the first user named David david = User.find_by(name: 'David')
# find all users named David who are Code Artists and sort by created_at in reverse chronological order users = User.where(name: 'David', occupation: 'Code Artist').order('created_at DESC')
You can learn more about querying an Active Record model in the Active Record Query Interface guide.
Once an Active Record object has been retrieved, its attributes can be modified and it can be saved to the database.
user = User.find_by(name: 'David') user.name = 'Dave' user.save
A shorthand for this is to use a hash mapping attribute names to the desired value, like so:
user = User.find_by(name: 'David') user.update(name: 'Dave')
This is most useful when updating several attributes at once. If, on the other
hand, you'd like to update several records in bulk, you may find the
update_all class method useful:
User.update_all "max_login_attempts = 3, must_change_password = 'true'"
Likewise, once retrieved an Active Record object can be destroyed which removes it from the database.
user = User.find_by(name: 'David') user.destroy
Active Record allows you to validate the state of a model before it gets written into the database. There are several methods that you can use to check your models and validate that an attribute value is not empty, is unique and not already in the database, follows a specific format and many more.
Validation is a very important issue to consider when persisting to database, so
update take it into account when
running: they return
false when validation fails and they didn't actually
perform any operation on database. All of these have a bang counterpart (that
update!), which are stricter in that
they raise the exception
ActiveRecord::RecordInvalid if validation fails.
A quick example to illustrate:
class User < ActiveRecord::Base validates :name, presence: true end User.create # => false User.create! # => ActiveRecord::RecordInvalid: Validation failed: Name can't be blank
You can learn more about validations in the Active Record Validations guide.
Active Record callbacks allow you to attach code to certain events in the life-cycle of your models. This enables you to add behavior to your models by transparently executing code when those events occur, like when you create a new record, update it, destroy it and so on. You can learn more about callbacks in the Active Record Callbacks guide.
Rails provides a domain-specific language for managing a database schema called
migrations. Migrations are stored in files which are executed against any
database that Active Record supports using
rake. Here's a migration that
creates a table:
class CreatePublications < ActiveRecord::Migration def change create_table :publications do |t| t.string :title t.text :description t.references :publication_type t.integer :publisher_id t.string :publisher_type t.boolean :single_issue t.timestamps end add_index :publications, :publication_type_id end end
Rails keeps track of which files have been committed to the database and
provides rollback features. To actually create the table, you'd run
and to roll it back,
Note that the above code is database-agnostic: it will run in MySQL, PostgreSQL, Oracle and others. You can learn more about migrations in the Active Record Migrations guide.