Active Record

Active Record objects don’t specify their attributes directly, but rather infer them from the table definition with which they’re linked. Adding, removing, and changing attributes and their type is done directly in the database. Any change is instantly reflected in the Active Record objects. The mapping that binds a given Active Record class to a certain database table will happen automatically in most common cases, but can be overwritten for the uncommon ones.

See the mapping rules in table_name and the full example in files/activerecord/README_rdoc.html for more insight.


Active Records accept constructor parameters either in a hash or as a block. The hash method is especially useful when you’re receiving the data from somewhere else, like an HTTP request. It works like this:

user = User.new(:name => "David", :occupation => "Code Artist")
user.name # => "David"

You can also use block initialization:

user = User.new do |u|
  u.name = "David"
  u.occupation = "Code Artist"

And of course you can just create a bare object and specify the attributes after the fact:

user = User.new
user.name = "David"
user.occupation = "Code Artist"


Conditions can either be specified as a string, array, or hash representing the WHERE-part of an SQL statement. The array form is to be used when the condition input is tainted and requires sanitization. The string form can be used for statements that don’t involve tainted data. The hash form works much like the array form, except only equality and range is possible. Examples:

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  def self.authenticate_unsafely(user_name, password)
    where("user_name = '#{user_name}' AND password = '#{password}'").first

  def self.authenticate_safely(user_name, password)
    where("user_name = ? AND password = ?", user_name, password).first

  def self.authenticate_safely_simply(user_name, password)
    where(:user_name => user_name, :password => password).first

The authenticate_unsafely method inserts the parameters directly into the query and is thus susceptible to SQL-injection attacks if the user_name and password parameters come directly from an HTTP request. The authenticate_safely and authenticate_safely_simply both will sanitize the user_name and password before inserting them in the query, which will ensure that an attacker can’t escape the query and fake the login (or worse).

When using multiple parameters in the conditions, it can easily become hard to read exactly what the fourth or fifth question mark is supposed to represent. In those cases, you can resort to named bind variables instead. That’s done by replacing the question marks with symbols and supplying a hash with values for the matching symbol keys:

  "id = :id AND name = :name AND division = :division AND created_at > :accounting_date",
  { :id => 3, :name => "37signals", :division => "First", :accounting_date => '2005-01-01' }

Similarly, a simple hash without a statement will generate conditions based on equality with the SQL AND operator. For instance:

Student.where(:first_name => "Harvey", :status => 1)

A range may be used in the hash to use the SQL BETWEEN operator:

Student.where(:grade => 9..12)

An array may be used in the hash to use the SQL IN operator:

Student.where(:grade => [9,11,12])

When joining tables, nested hashes or keys written in the form ‘table_name.column_name’ can be used to qualify the table name of a particular condition. For instance:

Student.joins(:schools).where(:schools => { :category => 'public' })
Student.joins(:schools).where('schools.category' => 'public' )

Overwriting default accessors

All column values are automatically available through basic accessors on the Active Record object, but sometimes you want to specialize this behavior. This can be done by overwriting the default accessors (using the same name as the attribute) and calling read_attribute(attr_name) and write_attribute(attr_name, value) to actually change things.

class Song < ActiveRecord::Base
  # Uses an integer of seconds to hold the length of the song

  def length=(minutes)
    write_attribute(:length, minutes.to_i * 60)

  def length
    read_attribute(:length) / 60

You can alternatively use self[:attribute]=(value) and self[:attribute] instead of write_attribute(:attribute, value) and read_attribute(:attribute).

Attribute query methods

In addition to the basic accessors, query methods are also automatically available on the Active Record object. Query methods allow you to test whether an attribute value is present.

For example, an Active Record User with the name attribute has a name? method that you can call to determine whether the user has a name:

user = User.new(:name => "David")
user.name? # => true

anonymous = User.new(:name => "")
anonymous.name? # => false

Accessing attributes before they have been typecasted

Sometimes you want to be able to read the raw attribute data without having the column-determined typecast run its course first. That can be done by using the <attribute>_before_type_cast accessors that all attributes have. For example, if your Account model has a balance attribute, you can call account.balance_before_type_cast or account.id_before_type_cast.

This is especially useful in validation situations where the user might supply a string for an integer field and you want to display the original string back in an error message. Accessing the attribute normally would typecast the string to 0, which isn’t what you want.

Dynamic attribute-based finders

Dynamic attribute-based finders are a cleaner way of getting (and/or creating) objects by simple queries without turning to SQL. They work by appending the name of an attribute to find_by_, find_last_by_, or find_all_by_ and thus produces finders like Person.find_by_user_name, Person.find_all_by_last_name, and Payment.find_by_transaction_id. Instead of writing Person.where(:user_name => user_name).first, you just do Person.find_by_user_name(user_name). And instead of writing Person.where(:last_name => last_name).all, you just do Person.find_all_by_last_name(last_name).

It’s possible to add an exclamation point (!) on the end of the dynamic finders to get them to raise an ActiveRecord::RecordNotFound error if they do not return any records, like Person.find_by_last_name!.

It’s also possible to use multiple attributes in the same find by separating them with “and”.

Person.where(:user_name => user_name, :password => password).first
Person.find_by_user_name_and_password(user_name, password) # with dynamic finder

It’s even possible to call these dynamic finder methods on relations and named scopes.


The same dynamic finder style can be used to create the object if it doesn’t already exist. This dynamic finder is called with find_or_create_by_ and will return the object if it already exists and otherwise creates it, then returns it. Protected attributes won’t be set unless they are given in a block.

# No 'Summer' tag exists
Tag.find_or_create_by_name("Summer") # equal to Tag.create(:name => "Summer")

# Now the 'Summer' tag does exist
Tag.find_or_create_by_name("Summer") # equal to Tag.find_by_name("Summer")

# Now 'Bob' exist and is an 'admin'
User.find_or_create_by_name('Bob', :age => 40) { |u| u.admin = true }

Adding an exclamation point (!) on to the end of find_or_create_by_ will raise an ActiveRecord::RecordInvalid error if the new record is invalid.

Use the find_or_initialize_by_ finder if you want to return a new record without saving it first. Protected attributes won’t be set unless they are given in a block.

# No 'Winter' tag exists
winter = Tag.find_or_initialize_by_name("Winter")
winter.persisted? # false

To find by a subset of the attributes to be used for instantiating a new object, pass a hash instead of a list of parameters.

Tag.find_or_create_by_name(:name => "rails", :creator => current_user)

That will either find an existing tag named “rails”, or create a new one while setting the user that created it.

Just like find_by_*, you can also use scoped_by_* to retrieve data. The good thing about using this feature is that the very first time result is returned using method_missing technique but after that the method is declared on the class. Henceforth method_missing will not be hit.


Saving arrays, hashes, and other non-mappable objects in text columns

Active Record can serialize any object in text columns using YAML. To do so, you must specify this with a call to the class method serialize. This makes it possible to store arrays, hashes, and other non-mappable objects without doing any additional work.

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  serialize :preferences

user = User.create(:preferences => { "background" => "black", "display" => large })
User.find(user.id).preferences # => { "background" => "black", "display" => large }

You can also specify a class option as the second parameter that’ll raise an exception if a serialized object is retrieved as a descendant of a class not in the hierarchy.

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  serialize :preferences, Hash

user = User.create(:preferences => %w( one two three ))
User.find(user.id).preferences    # raises SerializationTypeMismatch

When you specify a class option, the default value for that attribute will be a new instance of that class.

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  serialize :preferences, OpenStruct

user = User.new
user.preferences.theme_color = "red"

Single table inheritance

Active Record allows inheritance by storing the name of the class in a column that by default is named “type” (can be changed by overwriting Base.inheritance_column). This means that an inheritance looking like this:

class Company < ActiveRecord::Base; end
class Firm < Company; end
class Client < Company; end
class PriorityClient < Client; end

When you do Firm.create(:name => "37signals"), this record will be saved in the companies table with type = “Firm”. You can then fetch this row again using Company.where(:name => '37signals').first and it will return a Firm object.

If you don’t have a type column defined in your table, single-table inheritance won’t be triggered. In that case, it’ll work just like normal subclasses with no special magic for differentiating between them or reloading the right type with find.

Note, all the attributes for all the cases are kept in the same table. Read more: http://www.martinfowler.com/eaaCatalog/singleTableInheritance.html

Connection to multiple databases in different models

Connections are usually created through ActiveRecord::Base.establish_connection and retrieved by ActiveRecord::Base.connection. All classes inheriting from ActiveRecord::Base will use this connection. But you can also set a class-specific connection. For example, if Course is an ActiveRecord::Base, but resides in a different database, you can just say Course.establish_connection and Course and all of its subclasses will use this connection instead.

This feature is implemented by keeping a connection pool in ActiveRecord::Base that is a Hash indexed by the class. If a connection is requested, the retrieve_connection method will go up the class-hierarchy until a connection is found in the connection pool.


Note: The attributes listed are class-level attributes (accessible from both the class and instance level). So it’s possible to assign a logger to the class through Base.logger= which will then be used by all instances in the current object space.

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September 10, 2008
4 thanks

Be careful with overriding dynamic attribute based finders

don’t try something like this:

class Foo < ActiveRecord::Base
  def self.find_by_bar(*args)
    foo = super(*args)
    raise SomeCustomException unless foo

In newer versions of rails, method_missing defines find_by_bar when you first use it. By calling super, you’re triggering method_missing and overwriting your custom definition! It will work the first time then break! Manually write the call to find!

July 22, 2008
1 thank


I don’t know why, but method update_attribute! is missing. May be it would be useful for somebody:

class ActiveRecord::Base
  def update_attribute!(name, value)
    send(name.to_s + '=', value)
June 2, 2009 - (v2.2.1 - v2.3.2)
1 thank

Do not create an [ ] method

I created a helper method to access some meta data using

def [](name)
  # do stuff

This breaks ActiveRecord behaviors. all belongs_to relations were broken


class Image
  belongs_to :album

i = Image.find :first
i.album_id # 1
i.album # nil

Album.find 1 # works

If you experience this behavior, you probably created a method that breaks the default systematics (like I did with the [ ] method)

October 18, 2008
0 thanks

Single Table Inheritance and Fixtures

All entries for fixtures for classes derived from the base class must go into the fixture file of the base class. Also, their type must be set. Example fixture:

  name: My Company

  name: A Firm
  type: Firm

  name: SuperVIPClient
  type: PriorityClient
  priority: 1
May 15, 2012
0 thanks

STI - Making callbacks trigger in inherited classes

Assuming we have

class ParentClass < ActiveRecord::Base
   attr_accessible :type

class ChildClass < ParentClass
   after_save :perform_something


ParentClass.create({:type => "ChildClass"})

will not trigger ChildClass callbacks. What is more, it will return instance of ParentClass instead of ChildClass.

To resolve this issue, you need to define following module

module ActiveRecord
  module CallbacksAwareSti
    extend ActiveSupport::Concern
    module ClassMethods
      def new(*args, &block)
        return super(*args, &block) unless args.first.respond_to?(:with_indifferent_access)
        type = args.first.with_indifferent_access[:type]
        if type.blank? or (type = type.constantize) == self
          super(*args, &block)
          super(*args, &block).becomes(type)

and include it in parent class

class ParentClass < ActiveRecord::Base
   include ActiveRecord::CallbacksAwareSti
   attr_accessible :type

Inspired by http://stackoverflow.com/questions/4518935/activerecord-problems-using-callbacks-and-sti