ActiveRecord Should Ask For More Than ID

This post is targeted at Rails developers who use ActiveRecord with, obviously, a relational database that allows setting functions as a columns default. PostgreSQL for example.

What We Wanted

I took part in discussions of an issue that led to ActiveRecord migrations accepting and delegating column default values to a native database function. PostgreSQL already had this. For as long as I’ve used it, it’s been possible to set the default value of a column to a function, either one that comes with PostgreSQL, an extension, or a custom procedure. ActiveRecord just didn’t have the facility to do that. Well, you could still execute your way to this desired state.

This was our past (with the mandatory down migration specification since we called execute):

class CreatePosts < ActiveRecord::Migration
  def up
    create_table :posts do |t|
      t.string :title

      t.timestamps
    end
    execute "ALTER TABLE posts ALTER title SET DEFAULT some_function()"
  end

  def down
    drop_table :posts
  end
end

And this is our present and future (which I love so much):

class CreatePosts < ActiveRecord::Migration[5.2]
  def change
    create_table :posts do |t|
      t.string :title, default: -> { "some_function()" }

      t.timestamps
    end
  end
end

Now it’s easier to set a database function as the default value of a column using an automatically reversible migration. Lots to love, and a proper thank you is in order to whoever worked on it.

Solving this problem led to another. If you read the comments on the issue, you’ll see what I’m talking about. A new issue has been created to address it. That is what I address in this post.

The Database As A Dumb Store

An ORM, like every other abstraction, tries to live by the true meaning of the word abstraction. It doesn’t demand of you a blind trust but rather it demands that you think of your database, sorry persistence layer (and this is the first pitfall), as, you guessed it, a persistence layer. The place where you store stuff that survive a crash, shutdown, or anything else that makes the computer lose its memory.

Unfortunately the database isn’t a dumb store. As the server tasked with ensuring storage and integrity of data, it gets to have the last word. And rightly so. It shouldn’t (and doesn’t) delegate this responsibility to any application (or layer) above it. It would be irresponsible and lazy of the database if didn’t perform this task.

What this means is that a couple of validations in your ActiveRecord model isn’t enough to ensure data integrity. Technically, bad data could still end up in your database.

It also means that when you send a valid query to the database it might not even get the chance to run. It could be summarily aborted or heavily modified before it’s applied. There’s not much to worry about when the query is aborted. AFAICT ActiveRecord will behave appropriately. It is when the query is modified that things could take a bad turn because of ActiveRecord’s confidence that it knows what the database will do with such a query. This is not hubris—it’s all good intentions. After all it’s an abstraction, one that requires you to not pay a lot of attention if any at all to the underlying database, vague-ified as the persistence layer.

Pitfalls

ActiveRecord’s confidence is a pitfall. In most cases it does exactly what you want it to. You start fighting (and eventually hating) it when you have columns with default values generated by the database during insert and/or columns whose eventual value is affected by the result of a trigger.

What You Insert/Update Is Not What Is Stored

Remember when we said that the database, as part of its job to ensure data integrity, determines the fate of all queries (and their values) it receives? If a query isn’t aborted but run, then the eventual values stored could be very different than what was originally submitted. Let’s look at two of such cases.

Function Defaults

When the default of a column is a function (such as now(), gen_random_uuid(), etc) the stored value is generated at insert-time (to use the compile-time, runtime lingo). Function defaults are awesome. gen_random_uuid() might be the most popular but stored procedures are easy to write, can be as complex as needed, and are tucked away in the database. But ActiveRecord punishes you for using a strength of the database.

Triggers

Triggers are like a Pub/Sub system. They allow you to listen to events and perform actions before or after they’re applied. The staple of trigger examples is audit tables (tables that keep history of changes to other tables). A rather simple example is normalizing some column values before they’re stored. For example, lowercasing email addresses before they’re stored. Where they usually shine is complex validations which depend on values in different tables. I’ve used them liberally this way and enjoyed the benefit of keeping logic close to the data they work on. If you haven’t used triggers before take a look at them. Again, ActiveRecord punishes you for using this incredible database feature.

What’s A Programmer To Do

The database has a mechanism of telling you what was the eventual values stored. It’s the RETURNING clause that you can tuck to the end of your SQL query to specify which values should be returned from the result of the query. RETURNING *, just like SELECT *, returns the entire row, and these are the truest values, which is what you’d expect when you’ve successfully inserted a new row or updated an existing one. But not with ActiveRecord.

How ActiveRecord Punishes

Take for example the User model below. token has a database function as default, while the email column’s value is trimmed and lowered before it is inserted or updated.

class CreateUsers < ActiveRecord::Migration[5.2]
  def change
    create_table :users do |t|
      t.string :email, null: false
      t.string :token, null: false, default: -> { "gen_random_uuid()" }

      t.timestamps
    end

    reversible do |dir|
      dir.up do
        execute <<-SQL
          CREATE OR REPLACE FUNCTION lower_trim_email()
          RETURNS TRIGGER AS $$
          BEGIN
            NEW.email = lower(trim(NEW.email));
            RETURN NEW;
          END;
          $$ LANGUAGE plpgsql;

          CREATE TRIGGER trg_lower_trim_email
          BEFORE INSERT OR UPDATE OF email ON users
          FOR EACH ROW
          EXECUTE PROCEDURE lower_trim_email();
        SQL
      end

      dir.down do
        execute "DROP TRIGGER trg_lower_trim_email ON users"
        execute "DROP FUNCTION lower_trim_email()"
      end
    end
  end
end
user = User.create(email: "  HeLLo@exaMPLe.oRg   ")
puts user.email # "  HeLLo@exaMPLe.oRg   "
puts user.token # nil

What happened here? During an INSERT, ActiveRecord only asks for the autogenerated id back from the database. Thus, while a trimmed and lowercased email address was stored in the database, the application continues to use the original. Even worse, the user object doesn’t have its token set. The workaround is to immediately reload the model after_{create,save}, and that’s two queries already where one would suffice:

class Post < ApplicationRecord
  after_save :reload

  # If you only have default values and no triggers
  # that affect updates then use after_create instead.
  # after_create :reload
end

During an update, you can forget about what your triggers did to the values. There is no RETURNING clause, even for the specific values that were changed. This can produce a conflict where you work with one value in your application but have another in the database. In the above example it does.

The ActiveRecord Way

If immediately reloading models after save bothers you then don’t use database functions as default values. And don’t use triggers either. Embrace ActiveRecord fully and do as it expects: set the defaults in the model, transform the attribute values (like trimming and lowercasing) before persisting.

I look forward to what the resolution of this new issue will bring. It’s more complex than just writing the code to attach RETURNING * to the generated insert or update query. What I wish for is a directive on a model (in the manner of abstract_class) that marks a model as one relying on database features such as described above.

Got comments or corrections for factual errors? There’s a Hacker News thread for that.