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Generating Associations With Rails

yechielk profile image Yechiel Kalmenson Updated on ・5 min read

The other day I stumbled upon a cool feature in Rails, entirely by accident. Being that I didn’t see it discussed much I figured I’d share it here.

For the sake of those less familiar with the concepts, I will start off with explaining what “associations are in Rails. You may find this part boring; if you are already familiar with it, feel free to skip down to the section entitled “Get to the Point”.

belongs_to and has_many

To start with, we need to understand what associations are in Rails and how they work.

Say I build an app that tracks what snacks my cats like. My app needs to keep track of 2 concepts here, cats and snacks.

Or cats that are snacks…

Or cats that are snacks…

So my app has a Cat Model and a Snack Model, but keeping track of just cats and snacks is not very useful to me, I want to know WHICH snacks WHICH cat likes. So in addition to keeping track of my cats and snacks, my app also has to keep track of the connections between specific cats and specific snacks.

In Rails we call these connections “Associations”, and these associations come in 2 flavors:

On the one hand, each snack has to be associated with a cat, I have to be able to ask the snack “which cat do you belong to? and the snack has to be able to answer “I belong to cat X”. In rails, this is called a “belongs_to association, where every Snack belongs_to a Cat.

CATS: ALL YOUR SNACKS ARE BELONG TO US

Then we have the other side of the association, where each Cat owns all its snacks, so that if you ask a Cat “which snacks are yours? it will be able to answer “Snack X,Y, and Z are mine”. This kind of association is called a “has_many association, where each Cat has_many Snacks.
I CAN HAZ_MANY CHEEZBURGER PLZ?

So to summarize, we have a 2-way association here where every Cat has_many Snacks and every snack belongs_to a Cat.

Foreign Keys

How does my app keep track of these associations? Simple. Every Cat in my app has a unique ID, all I have to do now is set up my Snack models in such a way that they have a property called cat_id, so when I ask the Snack “which Cat do you belong to? all it has to do is look up its cat_id and say “I belong to Cat number 42”. Similarly, if I ask a Cat “which snacks do you like? all the Cat has to do is look through the Snack list and find all of the Snacks that have its ID in their cat_id column.

Show me the code

Until now I’ve been speaking pretty high level. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty code for a bit.

Here’s what our Cat model will look like:

class Cat < ApplicationRecord
  has_many :snacks
end

And here’s what our Snack model will look like:

class Snack < ApplicationRecord
  belongs_to :cat
end

Now in order for these Snacks and Cats to persist, we need to add them to a database with a cats table and a snacks table.

The way we do that in Rails is by setting up the following 2 ActiveRecord migrations:

class CreateCats < ActiveRecord::Migration
  def change

    create_table :cats do |t|
      t.string :name
    end

  end
end
class CreateSnacks < ActiveRecord::Migration
  def change

    create_table :snacks do |t|
      t.string :name
      t.integer :cat_id
    end

  end
end

You’ll notice that both the cats table and the snacks table have a column for the name that accepts a string, and then the snacks table has another column cat_id that accepts an integer for the ID of the Cat the Snack belongs_to.

Of course, thanks to Rails Generators I didn’t have to type all of that out by hand, I was able to use Rails’ Model Generator to generate the Models and the Migrations using the commands rails generate model Cat name:string and rails generate model Snack name:string cat_id:integer. That generated the basic models and migrations, all I had to fill out was the has_many and belongs_to associations in the models.

Get to the Point

All of the above is pretty basic Rails, here’s the feature I discovered:

The other day I was pursuing a lesson on Flatiron School, the lesson was discussing a basic blog app where users can comment on posts. In this app, every comment belongs_to a User and a Post. The lab had snippets showing the code for the Models and Migrations, usually, I would just skim over them and get to the actual lesson, this time something caught my eye:

class CreateComments < ActiveRecord::Migration

   def change

      create_table :comments do |t|

         t.string :content

         t.belongs_to :user

         t.belongs_to :post

         t.timestamps null: false

      end

    end

end

Wait a minute; I knew that string was a valid datatype for an attribute, and I knew timestamps was a valid datatype (it creates a date/time stamp when a new comment is created and another one every time it’s updated), but what’s a belongs_to datatype? Could it be that instead of having to put in a user_id I could just make a table column t.belongs_to?

I tried it out, I changed my Snacks database to the following:

class CreateSnacks < ActiveRecord::Migration[5.0]
  def change

    create_table :snacks do |t|
      t.string :name
      t.belongs_to :cat
    end

  end
end

I ran the migration and lo and behold! My Snacks knew which Cat they belonged to! Apparently putting a belongs_to column into your migration with a model name as an argument adds a column <model_name>_id.

But will it Generate?

The next step was to see if I can use that with Rails’ Generators. So I ran rails generate model Snack name:string cat:belongs_to and sure enough when I checked the resulting migration this is what I found:

class CreateSnacks < ActiveRecord::Migration[5.0]
  def change
    create_table :snacks do |t|
      t.string :name
      t.belongs_to :cat, foreign_key: true
      t.timestamps
    end
  end
end

The belongs_to column was right there.

But that’s not all. When I took a look at the actual Model that was generated I found a surprise there too:

class Snack < ApplicationRecord
  belongs_to :cat
end

The belongs_to association was right there without me putting it in manually! When I generated a belongs_to attribute in my Snack migration Rails figured out that my Snack would belong to a Cat and put in that association there for me.

Reverse order?

Naturally, I was now curious to see if it would work in the reverse, could Rails generate a has_many association?

I ran rails generate model Cat name:string snacks:has_many. No luck.

the migration did have a has_many column:

class CreateCats < ActiveRecord::Migration[5.0]
  def change
    create_table :cats do |t|
      t.string :name
      t.has_many :snacks
      t.timestamps
    end
  end
end

but as far as I can tell that column is meaningless.

The model looked like:

class Cat < ApplicationRecord
end

No automatic has_many association there either.

I was pretty pumped at having discovered all this. I started searching around sure I would find it being discussed, I didn’t find much about it out there, and definitely nothing on the fact that the association can be generated using standard Rails generators. I figured that would be strange, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who would be interested, so I hope this post can help someone else out there.

Happy Coding!


This article has been cross posted from my blog Coding Hassid
You can read more about my coding journey there, or by following me on Twitter @yechielk

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yechielk profile

Yechiel Kalmenson

@yechielk

He/Him/His I'm a Software Engineer and a teacher. There's no feeling quite like the one you get when you watch someone's eyes light up learning something they didn't know.

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