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Filters enable controllers to run shared pre and post processing code for its actions. These filters can be used to do authentication, caching, or auditing before the intended action is performed. Or to do localization or output compression after the action has been performed.

Filters have access to the request, response, and all the instance variables set by other filters in the chain or by the action (in the case of after filters). Additionally, it’s possible for a pre-processing before_filter to halt the processing before the intended action is processed by returning false or performing a redirect or render. This is especially useful for filters like authentication where you’re not interested in allowing the action to be performed if the proper credentials are not in order.

Filter inheritance

Controller inheritance hierarchies share filters downwards, but subclasses can also add new filters without affecting the superclass. For example:

  class BankController < ActionController::Base
    before_filter :audit

    private
      def audit
        # record the action and parameters in an audit log
      end
  end

  class VaultController < BankController
    before_filter :verify_credentials

    private
      def verify_credentials
        # make sure the user is allowed into the vault
      end
  end

Now any actions performed on the BankController will have the audit method called before. On the VaultController, first the audit method is called, then the verify_credentials method. If the audit method returns false, then verify_credentials and the intended action are never called.

Filter types

A filter can take one of three forms: method reference (symbol), external class, or inline method (proc). The first is the most common and works by referencing a protected or private method somewhere in the inheritance hierarchy of the controller by use of a symbol. In the bank example above, both BankController and VaultController use this form.

Using an external class makes for more easily reused generic filters, such as output compression. External filter classes are implemented by having a static filter method on any class and then passing this class to the filter method. Example:

  class OutputCompressionFilter
    def self.filter(controller)
      controller.response.body = compress(controller.response.body)
    end
  end

  class NewspaperController < ActionController::Base
    after_filter OutputCompressionFilter
  end

The filter method is passed the controller instance and is hence granted access to all aspects of the controller and can manipulate them as it sees fit.

The inline method (using a proc) can be used to quickly do something small that doesn’t require a lot of explanation. Or just as a quick test. It works like this:

  class WeblogController < ActionController::Base
    before_filter { |controller| false if controller.params["stop_action"] }
  end

As you can see, the block expects to be passed the controller after it has assigned the request to the internal variables. This means that the block has access to both the request and response objects complete with convenience methods for params, session, template, and assigns. Note: The inline method doesn’t strictly have to be a block; any object that responds to call and returns 1 or -1 on arity will do (such as a Proc or an Method object).

Filter chain ordering

Using before_filter and after_filter appends the specified filters to the existing chain. That’s usually just fine, but some times you care more about the order in which the filters are executed. When that’s the case, you can use prepend_before_filter and prepend_after_filter. Filters added by these methods will be put at the beginning of their respective chain and executed before the rest. For example:

  class ShoppingController
    before_filter :verify_open_shop

  class CheckoutController
    prepend_before_filter :ensure_items_in_cart, :ensure_items_in_stock

The filter chain for the CheckoutController is now :ensure_items_in_cart, :ensure_items_in_stock, :verify_open_shop. So if either of the ensure filters return false, we’ll never get around to see if the shop is open or not.

You may pass multiple filter arguments of each type as well as a filter block. If a block is given, it is treated as the last argument.

Around filters

In addition to the individual before and after filters, it’s also possible to specify that a single object should handle both the before and after call. That’s especially useful when you need to keep state active between the before and after, such as the example of a benchmark filter below:

  class WeblogController < ActionController::Base
    around_filter BenchmarkingFilter.new

    # Before this action is performed, BenchmarkingFilter#before(controller) is executed
    def index
    end
    # After this action has been performed, BenchmarkingFilter#after(controller) is executed
  end

  class BenchmarkingFilter
    def initialize
      @runtime
    end

    def before
      start_timer
    end

    def after
      stop_timer
      report_result
    end
  end

Filter chain skipping

Some times its convenient to specify a filter chain in a superclass that’ll hold true for the majority of the subclasses, but not necessarily all of them. The subclasses that behave in exception can then specify which filters they would like to be relieved of. Examples

  class ApplicationController < ActionController::Base
    before_filter :authenticate
  end

  class WeblogController < ApplicationController
    # will run the :authenticate filter
  end

  class SignupController < ApplicationController
    # will not run the :authenticate filter
    skip_before_filter :authenticate
  end

Filter conditions

Filters can be limited to run for only specific actions. This can be expressed either by listing the actions to exclude or the actions to include when executing the filter. Available conditions are :only or :except, both of which accept an arbitrary number of method references. For example:

  class Journal < ActionController::Base
    # only require authentication if the current action is edit or delete
    before_filter :authorize, :only => [ :edit, :delete ]

    private
      def authorize
        # redirect to login unless authenticated
      end
  end

When setting conditions on inline method (proc) filters the condition must come first and be placed in parentheses.

  class UserPreferences < ActionController::Base
    before_filter(:except => :new) { # some proc ... }
    # ...
  end
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