Ryan Bigg

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Extending Active Record

02 Jan 2011

This guide was originally posted in my guides repository, but I thought I would cross-post it on the blog too to increase exposure. I hope it helps some who are trying to figure this kind of thing out.

If you want to see more guides like this, donate to me!. I’m thinking of doing one on Rails engines after I finish the initialization guide

This guide will demonstrate how we can extend Active Record’s functionality to provide a couple of new methods on our models which will allow us to find records based on a specified month or year, implementing the same functionality as found in the by_star gem, but in a modern Rails 3 way using the features that Active Record and ARel provide.

This guide assumes you’ve read the “Gem Development” guide which introduces how to develop a basic gem with Bundler. We extensively use the skills learned in that guide in this guide to build this gem, including Bundler and RSpec.

When we’re done here, we’ll have a gem that we can add into a Rails application and then be able to call methods on the Active Record models in the application, such as these by_year permutations which will find records based on the year passed in:

Invoice.by_year(2010, :field => :sent_at)

Lastly, we’ll add a method which we can call inside classes to set up a default for this gem:

by_star do
  field :sent_at

The Beginning

To begin with, we’re going to generate a new gem using the bundle gem command:

bundle gem by_star

This command generates the beginning scaffold, but there’s something missing… tests! We’ll add RSpec to the by_star.gemspec file that was generated as a development dependency, changing our development dependencies to now contain both the bundler and rspec gems:

s.add_development_dependency "bundler", ">= 1.0.0"
s.add_development_dependency "rspec", "~> 2.3"

We’ll also need to add a development dependency for sqlite3-ruby as we’ll be using an SQLite3 database for our tests:

s.add_development_dependency "sqlite3-ruby"

Whilst we’re in this file we’ll add a dependency for Active Record 3, given that we’re going to be extending it:

s.add_dependency "activerecord", "~> 3.0"

To make sure all these gems are now installed we can run bundle install.

Setting up the first test

Our first test is going to implement the first version of the by_year method. Let’s create the file that will include this test at spec/lib/by_star_spec.rb now:

require 'spec_helper'

describe "by_star" do
  context "by_year" do
    it "current year" do
      Post.by_year.map(&:text).should include("First post!")

For this test to begin to run, we’ll need to create the spec_helper file it requires on the first line. This file will be responsible for setting up the environment and test data so that our test will run. The first thing this file needs to do is exist at spec/spec_helper.rb and the second thing is to set up the test data. We’re going to need a database where we can execute queries. We’ll begin this file like this:

require 'by_star'

ActiveRecord::Base.establish_connection(:adapter => "sqlite3", 
                                       :database => File.dirname(__FILE__) + "/by_star.sqlite3")

The require here to the by_star (lib/by_star.rb) file should load everything that this gem needs to run, including Active Record. We’ll modify lib/by_star.rb to have a require to load Active Record as its first line now:

require 'active_record'

With Active Record required, spec/spec_helper.rb will be able to use ActiveRecord::Base.establish_connection to create a new database located at spec/by_star.sqlite3. It’s in this database that we’ll set up our test data, but to do that we’re first going to need to set up the schema for the tables. Underneath the establish_connection line in spec/spec_helper.rb we’ll now put this:

load File.dirname(__FILE__) + '/support/schema.rb'

This will load the file at spec/support/schema.rb which should define the schema for our tables. In this file, we’ll put this:

ActiveRecord::Schema.define do
  self.verbose = false

  create_table :posts, :force => true do |t|
    t.string :text

This piece of code will define the schema that we need in our database for us, using the syntax we’re familiar with from Rails migrations. Now we’ll define the data in a file also in the spec/support file, but this time we’ll call it spec/support/data.rb. We’ll keep the data separate because it’s easier to manage these two separate from one another. In this file we’ll put this:

Post.create(:text => "First post!")

To define the model, we’ll create one more final file at spec/support/models.rb and define the Post model in this:

class Post < ActiveRecord::Base


To load this file and spec/support/data.rb we’ll put these lines in spec/spec_helper.rb, right under the other load:

load File.dirname(__FILE__) + '/support/models.rb'
load File.dirname(__FILE__) + '/support/data.rb'

With the schema, models and data now all set up we should be able run our spec and have it fail because it’s missing the by_year method now:

$ bundle exec rspec spec


  1) by_star by_year current year
     Failure/Error: Post.by_year.map(&:text).should include("First post!")
     undefined method `by_year' for #<Class:0x00000101febfd0>
     # ./spec/lib/by_star_spec.rb:6:in `block (3 levels) in <top (required)>'

Ah, now it can’t find the by_year method, so now we get to the extending part.

Implementing by_year

To add these methods to Active Record, we’ll use the extend method which will add methods from the module to the class, there by extending it. Get it? Good. At the bottom of lib/by_star.rb we’ll add this line:

ActiveRecord::Base.extend ByStar

Now we just need to define the by_year method inside the ByStar module now. This method should return all objects that are in the given year. For now, we’ll just get it to do objects in the current year. Let’s define the by_year method in the module now:

module ByStar
  def by_year
    start_time = Time.now.beginning_of_year
    end_time = Time.now.end_of_year

Here we get the times at both ends of the year, the very first microsecond and the very last microsecond. Then we call self.arel_table which returns an ARel::Table object which we can then use to build our queries. We call the [] method and pass in :created_at as the key and then call the in method on that, passing in the beginning and the end of the year. This will construct a BETWEEN SQL query for us for the created_at column in our posts table:

SELECT "posts".* FROM "posts" WHERE ("posts"."created_at" BETWEEN '2011-01-01 00:00:00.000000' AND '2011-12-31 23:59:59.999999')

That time should be precise enough for anyone! The by_year method will return an ActiveRecord::Relation object which can then be used for further scoping if the people using our gems want to do something else to it, such as limiting it to return only 5 records by calling it like this:


Such is the power of Active Record 3.

With this method defined, let’s see if we can have one passing spec now:

$ bundle exec rspec spec/

Finished in 0.00169 seconds
1 example, 0 failures

Cool! Next, we’ll get it to work with a numbered year and a time object, and then we’ll get to passing options to this method.

A numbered year

We need a new test that will let by_year now take a year. Let’s add one to the the context "by_year" in spec/lib/by_star_spec.rb:

it "a specified year" do
  Post.by_year(Time.now.year - 1).map(&:text).should include("So last year!")

To test this, we’re going to need a post from last year. We’ll add one to spec/support/data.rb now:

Post.create(:text => "So last year!", :created_at => Time.now - 1.year)

To get by_year to support this we will change the method to now take one argument which, defaults to the current year, and use it to construct a Time object to use in the method itself.

def by_year(year=Time.now.year)
  start_time = Date.strptime("#{year}-01-01", "%Y-%m-%d").to_time
  end_time = start_time.end_of_year

The Date.strptime call here will convert the year into a Date object, and then we call to_time on it to get a Time object, just like the one we got from Time.now. Let’s see if this makes our spec run now:

$ bundle exec rspec spec/

Finished in 0.00358 seconds
2 examples, 0 failures

We’re just flying through these. The final modification we’ll make to how this method is called is get it to take options which will customise what field it does the searching on.

Methods and options, sitting in a tree

We’re going to get the by_year method to take a set of options which will modify its behaviour. This set of options will only contain one key, but as it will be a Hash object, it leaves it open to taking multiple options at a later stage. Options that are not :field (or 'field' if people feel so inclined) will do nothing. Let’s write a new spec for this now in spec/lib/by_star_spec.rb:

it "a specified year, with options" do
  published_posts = Post.by_year(Time.now.year, :field => "published_at")
  published_posts.map(&:text).should include("First published post!")
  published_posts.map(&:text).should_not include("First post!")

Here the options are going to be { :field => "published_at" } and this will modify the by_year method to look up based on this field instead. We ensure that we don’t see the “First post!” post because this doesn’t have a published_at field set, and shouldn’t show up in our test if the options are being interpreted as they should be. The published_at field doesn’t exist in our database’s schema yet, so we’ll add it to the spec/support/schema.rb file, changing our posts table definition to this:

ActiveRecord::Schema.define do
  self.verbose = false

  create_table :posts, :force => true do |t|
    t.string :text
    t.datetime :published_at

When we re-run our tests, the posts table will be re-created with this new field. To get a record with the published_at attribute set to something, we’ll set one up in spec/support/data.rb:

Post.create(:text => "First published post!", :published_at => Time.now)

Now to get this variety of the by_year method to work, we’ll convert the method to this:

def by_year(year=Time.now.year, options={ :field => "created_at" })
  start_time = Date.strptime("#{year}-01-01", "%Y-%m-%d").to_time
  end_time = start_time.end_of_year
  field = options[:field]

There we have the options defaulting to a hash with the :field key set to “created_at”. If we pass through another field, like we do in the test, then it will alter the field used to do the lookup. So, does this test pass? Let’s find out:

$ bundle exec rspec spec/

Finished in 0.0049 seconds
3 examples, 0 failures

There we go, passing too! One final thing: the class configuration.

Configuring the gem in the class

If we’ve got a model that doesn’t have a created_at field, but does have another field, then we don’t want to always be passing in the :field option everywhere. Instead, we want to configure this option on a per-class basis like this:

class Event < ActiveRecord::Base
  by_star do
    field :date

To test this implementation, we’ll define a new model called Event in spec/support/models.rb using exactly the same code as above. Then we’ll need to add the table for this to spec/support/schema.rb:

create_table :events, :force => true do |t|
  t.string :name
  t.date :date

And then finally, to test that this actually works, we need to add data to spec/support/data.rb:

Event.create(:name => "The Party", :date => Time.now)

Oh, and yes we’ll need to add a test for this too in spec/lib/by_star_spec.rb:

it "pre-configured field" do
  Event.by_year.map(&:name).should include("The Party")

Let’s run our specs now:

$ bundle exec rspec spec
... undefined method `by_star' for Event(Table doesn't exist):Class

There’s currently no by_star method defined on the Event class… because we’re still yet to define it. This method takes a block which we’ll use to configure the gem for this model and we’ll now place it inside the ByStar module inside lib/by_star.rb:

def by_star(&block)
  @config ||= ByStar::Config.new
  @config.instance_eval(&block) if block_given?

class Config
  def field(value=nil)
    @field = value if value

When the by_star method is called, it will get a new ByStar::Config object and evaluate the block it’s given within the context of that object, so that any method called inside the block is now called on the ByStar::Config object itself. In the Config class, we define a field method which will set @field to a value if one’s given and return it, or if no value is given then simply return the set value. Using this, we can reference the field as by_star.field in our by_year method. But we must take care to recognise that the passed option to the method should have precedence over the class’s default. Therefore, our by_year method should now look like this:

 def by_year(year=Time.now.year, options = {})
   beginning_of_year = Date.strptime("#{year}-01-01", "%Y-%m-%d").beginning_of_year
   end_of_year = beginning_of_year.end_of_year
   field = options[:field] || by_star.field || "created_at"

We’ve taken out the default in the options argument for the method, because if it defaulted to created_at then we wouldn’t know if that was what was passed in or if that was the default. So instead, on the second-to-last line for this method, we check if the :field key in options is set and if it isn’t then fall back to by_star.field and if that’s not set then finally created_at becomes our default once more. One more run of our specs and everything should now be peachy:

 $ bundle exec rspec spec/

 Finished in 0.01141 seconds
 4 examples, 0 failures


In this guide you have learned how to extend Active Record to have a by_year method which finds records based on the current year, or one that was passed in. The lookup field is configurable by passing in a :field option to the method. Finally, we set up a way to configure the options for our method using a class method called by_star.

I hope you’ve learned something by reading this, and thanks for doing so! You can find the end-result of this gem in the extending-active-record directory on this project.

If you like my work, donate to me!