Inheritance in ActiveRecord, without STI

Posted by: on Aug 10, 2007 in Blog | Tags: , | No Comments

One of the few times Rails let me down while developing ZingLists was how it deals with class inheritance in ActiveRecord. Actually, unless you want Single-Table Inheritance semantics, you may as well pretend it doesn’t exist, because I couldn’t find a clean way to do it.

Here was my particular problem:

Out of the box, Rails likes to construct URLs that usually end with a numeric ID when you’re dealing with resources. There is a method, to_param, that the URL helpers call when they want to turn an object into an ID suitable for a URL.

Conventional wisdom says that Google likes URLs that are meaningful. A string of numbers at the end doesn’t mean anything, which is why you often see URLs ending with a snippet from the page title. Blogs often do this (just look at the top of this page, if you’re not reading from the index).

So, to get nice URLs, modify to_param. But what if you only want to do it some of the time? Inheritance usually solves this problem: customize in the derived class. But ActiveRecord forces STI on you if you do this, and maybe you don’t want that.

In ZingLists, I have a single table, lists, that contains all of the lists in the system, whether they are private lists for a member or lists that a member has published to the community. It pretty much has to be this way, since publishing a list does not fix it in time. The member may (and probably will) continue to use it for themselves, and if they add to it, I’d like those changes to be available in the public view immediately, with no extra work.

I want public list URLs to be nice for Google, but don’t have any desire to junk up private list URLs, too. How to solve this problem?

Duck Typing. The URL helpers don’t care what kind of class you hand them, as long as it responds to to_param:

class PublicList
  def initialize(list)
    @list = list
  end
 
  def to_param
    "#{@list.id}-#{@list.name[0..29].tr_s(" ", "-").gsub(/[^-a-z0-9]+/i, "")}"
  end
end

Now, when I want to create a pretty URL for Google’s benefit, I just have to instantiate a wrapper around the real object:

public_list_path(PublicList.new(list))

(Wishful thinking: What would be really neat is a facility where you can get STI-like semantics, but provide your own definition of how to differentiate between the types of object, rather than have it hard-coded to a column called “type” that contains a string representation of the class to instantiate.)