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Rails Concerns: To Concern Or Not To Concern

nikolalsvk profile image Nikola Đuza Originally published at blog.appsignal.com ・7 min read

If you've ever used Ruby on Rails, you've probably come across the concept of concerns. Whenever you jumpstart a new Rails project, you get a directory app/controllers/concerns and app/models/concerns. But what are concerns? And why do people from the Rails community sometimes talk badly about them?

Quick Overview

A Rails Concern is any module that extends ActiveSupport::Concern module. You
might ask — how are concerns so different from modules? The main difference is that Rails concerns allow you to do a bit of magic, like so:

# app/models/concerns/trashable.rb

module Trashable
  extend ActiveSupport::Concern

  included do
    scope :existing, -> { where(trashed: false) }
    scope :trashed, -> { where(trashed: true) }
  end

  def trash
    update_attribute :trashed, true
  end
end
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You see that word included. It is a bit of Rails carbohydrates sprinkled upon a Ruby module. What ActiveSupport::Concern does for you is it allows you to put code that you want evaluated inside the included block. For example, you want to extract the trashing logic out of your model. The included allows you to do what we did and later include your model's concern like so:

class Song < ApplicationRecord
  include Trashable

  has_many :authors

  # ...
end
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Pretty handy and naive at this point, right? The Model lost a bit of weight and
trashing can now be reused throughout other models, not just our Song model.
Well, things can get complicated. Let's dive in to find out.

A Classic Example of a Mixin

Before we embark further into the depths of concerns, let's add another explanation of them. When you see include SomeModule or extend AnotherModule, these are called mixins.

A mixin is a set of code that can be added to other classes. And, as we all know from the Ruby documentation, a module is
a collection of methods and constants. So what we are doing here is including modules with methods and constants into different classes so that they can use them.

That is exactly what we did with the Trashable concern. We extracted common logic around trashing a model object into a module. This module can later be included in
other places. So, mixin is a design pattern used not only in Ruby and Rails. But, wherever it's used, people either like it and think it is good, or they hate it
and think it can easily spin out of control.

To better understand this, we'll go through a couple of pros and cons of using them. Hopefully, by doing this, we can gain an understanding of when or whether to use concerns.

I Have It All

When you decide to extract something to a concern, like Trashable concern, you now have access to all of the functionality of wherever Trashable is included. This
brings great power, but as Richard Schneeman said in his blog post on the topic — "with great power comes great ability to make complicated code". He meant complicating code that you might rely on, something that is
supposed to be there in your concerns.

If we take a look at the Trashable once more:

module Trashable
  extend ActiveSupport::Concern

  included do
    scope :existing, -> { where(trashed: false) }
    scope :trashed, -> { where(trashed: true) }
  end

  def trash
    update_attribute :trashed, true
  end
end
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The logic of the concern relies on the fact that the trashed field exists wherever the concern is included. Right? No biggie, this is what we want after
all. But, what I see happen is that people get tempted to pull in other stuff from the model into the concern. To paint a picture of how this can happen, let's imagine that the Song model has another method featured_authors:

class Song < ApplicationRecord
  include Trashable

  has_many :authors

  def featured_authors
    authors.where(featured: true)
  end

  # ...
end

class Album < ApplicationRecord
  include Trashable

  has_many :authors

  def featured_authors
    authors.where(featured: true)
  end

  # ...
end
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To better illustrate, I added an Album model that also includes Trashable.
Let's then say we want to notify featured authors of the song and the album when they get trashed. People will get tempted to put this logic inside the concern like so:

module Trashable
  extend ActiveSupport::Concern

  included do
    scope :existing, -> { where(trashed: false) }
    scope :trashed, -> { where(trashed: true) }
  end

  def trash
    update_attribute :trashed, true

    notify(featured_authors)
  end

  def notify(authors)
    # ...
  end
end
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Right here, things are starting to get complicated a bit. Since we have trashing logic outside our Song model, we might be tempted to put notifying in the Trashable concern. In there, something "wrong" happens. The featured_authors is taken from the Song model. OK, let's say this passes pull request review and CI checks.

Then, a couple of months down the road, a new requirement is set where the developer needs to change the way we present featured_authors for songs. For example, a new requirement wants to show only featured authors from Europe. Naturally, the developer will find where featured authors are defined and edit them.

class Song < ApplicationRecord
  include Trashable

  has_many :authors

  def featured_authors
    authors.where(featured: true).where(region: 'Europe')
  end

  # ...
end

class Album < ApplicationRecord
  include Trashable

  has_many :authors

  # ...
end
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This works nicely wherever we show authors, but after we deploy to production,
the folks from other parts of the world won't get notified anymore about
their songs. Mistakes like these are easy to make when using concerns. The
example above is a simple and artificial one, but the ones that are "in
the wild" can be super tricky.

What is risky here is that the concern (mixin) knows a lot about the model it gets
included in. It is what is called a circular dependency. Song and Album
depend on Trashable for trashing, Trashable depends on both of them for
featured_authors definition. The same can be said for the fact that a trashed field
needs to exist in both models in order to have the Trashable concern working.

This is why a no-concern club might be against, and the pro-concern
club is for. I'd say, the first version of Trashable is the one I'd go
with in my codebase. Let's see how we can make the second version with
notifying better.

Where Do Y'all Come From

Looking back at our Trashable with notifying, we have to do something about it.
Another thing that happens when using concerns is that we tend to over-DRY things.
Let's try to do that, for demonstration purposes, to our existing models by creating
another concern (bear with me on this one):

module Authorable
  has_many :authors

  def featured_authors
    authors.where(featured: true)
  end
end
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Then, our Song and Album will look like this:

class Song < ApplicationRecord
  include Trashable
  include Authorable

  # ...
end

class Album < ApplicationRecord
  include Trashable
  include Authorable

  # ...
end
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We dried everything up, but now the requirement for featured authors from
Europe is not fulfilled. To make things worse, now the Trashable concern and
the models depend on the Authorable. What the hell? Exactly my question when
I was dealing with concerns some time ago. It's hard to track down where
methods are coming from.

My solution to all of this would be to keep featured_authors as close to the
models as possible. The notify method should not be a part of Trashable
concern at all. Each model should take care of that on its own, especially if
they tend to notify different subgroups. Let's see how to do it less painfully:


# Concerns
module Trashable
  extend ActiveSupport::Concern

  included do
    scope :existing, -> { where(trashed: false) }
    scope :trashed, -> { where(trashed: true) }
  end

  def trash
    update_attribute :trashed, true
  end
end

module Authorable
  has_many :authors

  # Other useful methods that relate to authors across models.
  # If there are none, ditch the concern.
end

# Models
class Song < ApplicationRecord
  include Trashable
  include Authorable

  def featured_authors
    authors.where(featured: true).where(region: 'Europe')
  end

  # ...
end

class Album < ApplicationRecord
  include Trashable
  include Authorable

  def featured_authors
    authors.where(featured: true)
  end

  # ...
end
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Concerns like these are manageable and not too complex. I skipped the notify
functionality I described earlier since that can be a topic for another day.

The Final Boss

For Basecamp, the Rails creators, concerns referencing other concerns seem
perfectly fine as DHH illustrated in a tweet
a while ago:

Final concern boss

By looking at the code screenshot, you are either opening your mouth in
awe or in appall. I feel there is no in-between here. If I got a chance to edit
this code, I would envision it as the "Final Concern Boss Fight". But jokes
aside, the interesting thing here is that there are comments that say which concern
depends on which. Take a look at:

  # ...

  include Subscribable # Depends on Readable
  include Eventable    # Depends on Recordables

  # ...
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Putting comments like these can be helpful, but it's still set up for doing
something sketchy, especially if you are new to the codebase. Being new and not
being aware of all the "gotchas" a code has can certainly send you down the
concern downward spiral.

Something like this is what DHH shared in a
comment inside the discussion.
A response tweet inside asks how are folks who work with this codebase supposed
to interact with concerns like these. DHH responds that they don't have much
written docs, they rarely hire so their team is well acquainted with these.

But having an experienced team that knows the codebase well as an argument for
using them is weird and not strong. I guess it is more of a feeling whether to
use them or not. Are you more comfortable with multiple inheritances that modules
provide, or do you prefer composition? Your call.

Conclusion

As we've seen, concerns are nothing more than modules that provide some useful syntax
sugar to extract and DRY up your code. If you have more useful tools under your
belt, maybe you shouldn't reach out for concerns right away. Behavior like
handling file attachments and the trashing logic we showed in the examples
might be good candidates to extract into modules (concerns).

Hopefully, you get to see the possible good and bad things when dealing with
concerns and modules in general. Bear in mind that no code is perfect. And in
the end, how can you learn what is good and what is bad for you if you don't
try and possibly fail or succeed?

No solution is perfect, and I hope you got to understand the Rails concerns way
of doing things in the blog post. As always, use your judgment and be aware of the
pros and cons.

Until the next one, cheers!

P.S. If you'd like to read Ruby Magic posts as soon as they get off the press, subscribe to our Ruby Magic newsletter and never miss a single post!

Nikola is an engineer and a writer who lives and works in Novi Sad, spreading knowledge to folks through blogging and talking. He likes to build awesome things with mostly JavaScript and Ruby.

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