A Simplified Query Interface for Relationships in Active Record 4

# Rails 4 now lets you simplify "belongs_to" association queries:

# Before
Post.where(author_id: @author)
Image.where(imageable_id: @cat, imageable_type: 'Cat')

# After
Post.where(author: @author)
Image.where(imageable: @cat)

About six months ago I added a new feature to Active Record that allows you to write simpler queries across associated models. Compared to many of the other new features in Rails 4, this isn't a significant change, however I think it's pretty handy so I wanted to talk about it and show some examples. Other than a few small bug fixes, this was my first real contribution to Rails, and the experience was enlightening (saving that for another post).

It's All About the Interface

Prior to this change, any queries that used a foreign key column were required to specify the actual column name as the hash key in the query. The biggest problem I had with this approach is that it wasn't consistent with other Active Record APIs. When I'm working with models, I tend to be thinking in terms of relationships and objects as opposed to database columns.

Take the following example from Rails 3.x where you can build new objects using the belongs_to relationship, but you cannot query with this relationship. When you are querying, you need to shift into an object + database hybrid mindset:

class Post < ActiveRecord::Base
  belongs_to :author

# Creating related objects using the model association:
Post.new(author: Author.first)

# Does NOT work in Rails 3.x
Post.where(author: Author.first) # => NOPE!

# Must specify foreign key to make query work in Rails 3.x
Post.where(author_id: Author.first) # => Yup!

In the above example, I am specifying the foreign key on one side, and the object on the other. I think it can be hard to remember when you can use the associations and when you can't. Obviously a more practical approach would be to use Author.first.posts, but this gives flexibility in cases where you might not have both sides of the relationship fully setup.

The above example may seem trivial so here's an example using a non-conventional relationship:

class Post < ActiveRecord::Base
  belongs_to :writer, class_name: 'Author', foreign_key: 'author_id'

# Ah crap... I forgot what my foreign key was called!
Post.where(writer_id: Author.first) # => NOPE!

# Must still specify foreign key column here
Post.where(author_id: Author.first) # => Yup!

This issue becomes even more apparent when working with polymorphic relationships:

class Cat < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_many :images, as: :imageable, dependent: :destroy

class Image < ActiveRecord::Base
  belongs_to :imageable, polymorphic: true

Image.where(imageable_id: Cat.first, imageable_type: 'Cat')

Striving for Consistency

After seeing a few different issues get opened, I realized I wasn't the only one who felt this inconsistency was unintuitive. It was causing enough confusion that people were reporting it as a bug, convinced that it "used to work". This clearly wasn't a bug, and at some point an unintuitive interface needs to be addressed.

I hadn't spend a ton of time in the Active Record internals so I decided to dive in and see if I could change the API so it worked with the relationship name. I knew that each Active Record model tracks its relationships with other models using "reflections". Each reflection stores various properies such as the relationship name and macro (ie belongsto, hasmany, etc).

1.9.3-p327 :007 > Author.reflections
 => {:posts=>#<ActiveRecord::Reflection::AssociationReflection:0x007f8cf391dc28 @macro=:has_many, @name=:posts, @options={:extend=>[]}, @active_record=Author(id: integer, name: string, created_at: datetime, updated_at: datetime), @plural_name="posts", @collection=true>}
1.9.3-p327 :008 > Post.reflections
 => {:author=>#<ActiveRecord::Reflection::AssociationReflection:0x007f8cf4c1afb0 @macro=:belongs_to, @name=:author, @options={}, @active_record=Post(id: integer, body: text, author_id: integer, created_at: datetime, updated_at: datetime), @plural_name="authors", @collection=false>}

As I dove further into the Active Record internals, I found the ActiveRecord::PredicateBuilder which is used for building the "WHERE" clause of every Active Record query. It was not the most straightforward class I've worked with, but the integration tests were good so I could do some exploratory testing and know when I had broken something. After a few days of discussing with the Rails core team about what behavior should be implemented, I had some working code.


In the end, the changes I made to the predicate builder allow you to query across a belong_to relationship without specifying the foreign key. Does it enable you to do something you couldn't do before? Not really, however, bringing more consistency to the API was my main goal.

Now that Rails 4 beta has been released I encourage people to download it today and try out some simple examples:

Post.where(author: @author)
Image.where(imageable: @cat) # => Polymorphic!

I also recommend checking out the Active Record tests for some more complex examples of how it can be used with polymorphic relationships and single-table inheritance.

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