New conditionally_cache Method for Fragment Caching

Posted by: on Oct 7, 2009 in Blog | Tags: , | No Comments

I just pushed a couple of updates to Banker. The boring one adds the missing “should_not” variants of the existing Shoulda macros.

The more interesting one is a conditionally_cache method for fragment caching. If you use pagination to split content across pages, this might be very useful for you. Pages 2 and later are rarely loaded, falling very quickly to the tiniest sliver of people that see page 1.

conditionally_cache adds a new first argument to the regular cache method. This argument is evaluated in a boolean context. When true, control is passed to the cache method as usual, performing fragment caching. When false, though, the block is captured and output as if the caching code were not there at all.

So instead of having no caching on your paginated results or wrapping your cache call in an ugly if statement, instead you can do this:

<% conditionally_cache params[:page].blank? || params[:page] == '1', 'page1' do %>
  ... usual HTML markup goes here ...
  ... this will be cached on page 1, but not elsewhere ...
<% end %>

Since pages 2+ are not cached, you need only expire the ‘page1’ fragment, and nothing else.

Rails Bug with render :text => proc in Tests

Posted by: on Oct 7, 2009 in Blog | Tags: , | No Comments

There is a bug in the current stable release of Rails, 2.3.4, when using render :text => proc { ... }. The Proc object is never called by the test framework, which limits what you can test. For example, the following two techniques will both fail:

  • Using assert_select or similar methods to check the content of the response.
  • Setting expectations with a mocking framework on methods that are called within the Proc body.

Lighthouse bug #2423 includes my reworked patch to fix this issue. A couple more people verifying the patch will help get it committed.

Running Sweepers from a Model

Posted by: on Sep 17, 2009 in Blog | Tags: , | No Comments

Oh, the pain. Over the last 24 hours I have fought an exhausting battle with Rails and the testing environment to do a couple of seemingly simple things:

  1. Expire cached pages and fragments from outside the context of a normal HTTP request
  2. Test it.

Testing, in particular, is particularly difficult because Rails does not offer any built-in mechanism to test an application’s caching, and I’ve had problems in the past with the only plug-in that does it (cache_test) it on Rails 2.x. I’ve released a new plug-in, called Banker, that provides assertions and the necessary support to test caching, including Shoulda macros.

The first item has come up for me more than once. Complex applications often have scheduled jobs that make changes to the database. If the application does any caching, there is a good chance that these jobs will affect content that is cached. The problem is that expiring caches from outside the context of a controller + request is a pain. Here is the solution:

Create your sweepers as you normally would. Then, either within test code or your script/runner code:

def setup_cache_sweepers(*sweepers)
  sweepers = sweepers.flatten
  ActiveRecord::Base.observers = sweepers
  returning do |controller|
    controller.request = = URL_HOST
    controller.instance_eval do
      @url =, {})
    sweepers.each do |sweeper|
      sweeper.instance.controller = controller

URL_HOST is a constant, defined in each environment file, with the host:port part of a URL. It is needed in order to generate URLs, and more importantly, fragment cache keys, outside the context of an HTTP request.

The method returns a controller. For unit test code, hang on to it, because it gives you access to named routes:


For code run from script/runner, nothing else is needed. You’ve already instantiated your sweepers and given them the controller instance, so anything you do to a model instance that generates a callback to the sweeper will use that controller, including calling cache expiration methods.

Manage vendor/rails with Git on a Subversion Project

Posted by: on Sep 2, 2009 in Blog | Tags: , | No Comments

Here is something I’ve been experimenting with over the last week or so, and it’s working out very nicely so far:

Use Git to manage vendor/rails when your project is using Subversion.

Here’s how:

First time freezing? Easy:

  1. cd vendor
  2. git clone git://
  3. svn add -N rails; svn ps svn:ignore .git rails
  4. cd rails; git checkout v2.3.3.1 (or whatever version you want)
  5. svn add *

Switching to a different version of Rails is now as simple as:

  1. cd vendor/rails
  2. git checkout master
  3. git pull origin master
  4. git checkout whatever
  5. svn add `svn st | grep ^\? | cut -f7 -d" "`
  6. svn rm `svn st | grep ^\! | cut -f7 -d" "`
  7. svn commit

If you already have a vendor/rails and you want to try this technique out, you should first clone the Git repository to a temporary directory, git checkout the version that matches what is already in your vendor/rails, then copy (or move) the .git directory into vendor/rails. Add the svn:ignore property as above and you’re all set.

Here’s why I’m doing this: when a new Rails release comes out, some files are changed, some added and others deleted. Because Subversion litters a checked-out project with its .svn directories, you can’t just delete the entire thing and re-freeze without losing local patches (yes, I’ve had to do this) and history (which isn’t terribly important, but can be nice). Even ignoring those two reasons, completely deleting and adding vendor/rails will cause your Subversion repository to grow more than necessary (Rails 2.3.3 checks in at 35 MB).

Git, by putting everything in a top-level .git directory, makes itself easy for Subversion to ignore. Checking out a tag to switch to a different release is simple, and Git deletes files, unlike applying a patch, which truncates deleted files to 0 bytes, requiring a find to actually remove them.

Updating RubyGems to Recent 1.3.x

Posted by: on Jul 29, 2009 in Blog | Tags: , | 13 Comments

The RubyGems update process can be temperamental. If you fall more than a release or two behind, you might find yourself in a dependency cycle that stops an update cold. Recently, I tried to update a 1.2.0 install to the current 1.3.5.

# gem update --system
Updating RubyGems
Updating rubygems-update
Successfully installed rubygems-update-1.3.5
ERROR:  While executing gem ... (NameError)
    undefined local variable or method `remote_gemspecs' for

This is a known issue. Running the command again results in “nothing to update,” also a known issue. The fix is to separately install rubygems-update and run update_rubygems.

# gem install rubygems-update
Successfully installed rubygems-update-1.3.5
1 gem installed
Installing ri documentation for rubygems-update-1.3.5...
Installing RDoc documentation for rubygems-update-1.3.5...
Could not find main page README
Could not find main page README
Could not find main page README
Could not find main page README
# update_rubygems
/usr/lib/ruby/site_ruby/1.8/rubygems.rb:578:in `report_activate_error':
Could not find RubyGem builder (>= 0) (Gem::LoadError)
	from /usr/lib/ruby/site_ruby/1.8/rubygems.rb:134:in `activate'
	from /usr/lib/ruby/site_ruby/1.8/rubygems.rb:158:in `activate'
	from /usr/lib/ruby/site_ruby/1.8/rubygems.rb:157:in `each'
	from /usr/lib/ruby/site_ruby/1.8/rubygems.rb:157:in `activate'
	from /usr/lib/ruby/site_ruby/1.8/rubygems.rb:49:in `gem'
	from /usr/bin/update_rubygems:18

To fix this “report_activate_error”, I installed builder. Tried the update again, same thing for session and hoe-seattlerb. This is where I found myself in a dependency cycle.

rubygems-update 1.3.5 requires (among other things) hoe-seattlerb
hoe-seattlerb requires hoe >= 2.3.0
hoe >= 2.3.0 requires rubygems >= 1.3.1

I might have the specific dependency chain a bit off, but it’s enough to say that something required by rubygems-update itself requires a semi-recent RubyGems.

The solution is to update in stages. First update to 1.3.0, then update the rest of the way:

# gem install rubygems-update -v 1.3.0
Successfully installed rubygems-update-1.3.0
1 gem installed
# update_rubygems
Installing RubyGems 1.3.1
# gem update --system
Updating RubyGems
Updating rubygems-update
Successfully installed rubygems-update-1.3.5
:0:Warning: Gem::SourceIndex#search support for String patterns is deprecated
Updating RubyGems to 1.3.5
Installing RubyGems 1.3.5
RubyGems 1.3.5 installed

Capistrano Deployments from GitHub

Posted by: on Jul 27, 2009 in Blog | Tags: , | No Comments

Late last week I spent a chunk of time helping a client troubleshoot a deployment problem with Capistrano. For several weeks, I’ve been working on the site, deploying without any trouble, but when he tried to do it himself, it failed:

$ cap deploy
  * executing `deploy'
  * executing `deploy:update'
 ** transaction: start
  * executing `deploy:update_code'
    updating the cached checkout on all servers
  * executing (...long git command snipped...)
    servers: [""]
    [] executing command
 ** [ :: err] Permission denied (publickey).
 ** [ :: err] fatal: The remote end hung up unexpectedly
    command finished
*** [deploy:update_code] rolling back

The problem was that I’d created a new user on his server to separate the production site from the staging site, and the staging user did not have a SSH key pair to access GitHub. It worked for me because I did have my SSH key on GitHub and a SSH agent in place that allowed authentication to be done through me instead of the server.

Capistrano’s error message in this case is not very helpful. If you think you’re having a similar problem, try cap shell and run a command, such as uptime. If that works, it’s not a permissions problem to your server, it’s probably from your server to GitHub. Either install a SSH agent or create a new key pair specifically for deployments.

Testing HTTP Digest Authentication in Rails

Posted by: on Apr 1, 2009 in Blog | Tags: , | 5 Comments

Rails 2.3 introduced HTTP Digest authentication to go along with HTTP Basic as simple ways to authenticate access to your application. HTTP Digest is more secure than Basic for several reasons. First, no passwords are transmitted in cleartext (Basic only Base64 encodes them — there is no encryption). Second, the content of the HTTP_AUTHORIZATION header is tied to a request method and URI. Third, there is a limited window of time an attacker could re-use the header in a replay attack even against the same request method and URI (five minutes in 2.3.2).

These are compelling reasons to switch to Digest from Basic, but there is one problem. How do you test it? For good test coverage, clearly you want to verify that actions that should be protected are, and that only valid username/password combinations permit access.

Basic is easy (in test_helper.rb):

def authenticate_with_http_basic(user = 'one', password = 'one')
  @request.env['HTTP_AUTHORIZATION'] = "Basic #{Base64.encode64("#{user}:#{password}")}"

Try this for Digest (outside of everything else in ActiveSupport::TestCase):

require 'digest/md5'
class ActionController::TestCase
  def authenticate_with_http_digest(user = 'admin', password = 'admin', realm = 'Application')
    unless ActionController::Base < ActionController::ProcessWithTest
      ActionController::Base.class_eval { include ActionController::ProcessWithTest }
    @controller.instance_eval %Q(
      alias real_process_with_test process_with_test
      def process_with_test(request, response)
        credentials = {
          :uri => request.env['REQUEST_URI'],
          :realm => "#{realm}",
          :username => "#{user}",
          :nonce => ActionController::HttpAuthentication::Digest.nonce,
          :opaque => ActionController::HttpAuthentication::Digest.opaque,
        request.env['HTTP_AUTHORIZATION'] = ActionController::HttpAuthentication::Digest.encode_credentials(
          request.request_method, credentials, "#{password}", false
        real_process_with_test(request, response)

Now, precede a call to get, post, put or delete with a call to authenticate_with_http_digest. The code above monkeypatches process_with_test to set up the proper HTTP_AUTHORIZATION header, but only for the current @controller, then runs the request normally.

Natural Language Date & Time Parsing for ActiveRecord (Rails 2.1+)

Posted by: on Mar 23, 2009 in Blog | Tags: , | No Comments

If you read my previous post on natural language date & time parsing for ActiveRecord and tried it on Rails 2.1 or later, you may have noticed it works fine for dates, but not dates with times.

As part of the time zones feature introduced in Rails 2.1, changes were made to how ActiveRecord parses date/time columns during attribute assignment. The overridden method I showed in my previous post is never called, and Chronic doesn’t get a chance to parse the string.

For Rails 2.1 and later, instead you need to provide a new version of ActiveSupport::TimeZone#parse:

class ActiveSupport::TimeZone
  def parse_with_chronic(string)
    time = parse_without_chronic(string)
    if time.nil?
      time = Chronic.parse(string, :now =>
      time = self.local(time.year, time.month,, time.hour, time.min, time.sec)
  alias_method_chain :parse, :chronic

Rails 2.2 Integration Tests Always Use the Cookie Store

Posted by: on Mar 20, 2009 in Blog | Tags: , | No Comments

If you’re upgrading an existing Rails app to 2.2 or later, and you aren’t already using the cookie session store, you will likely find that your integration tests are failing. The symptom will be a “500 Internal Server Error” mixed in with “E”s for each failing test. The stack trace at the end will start with:

NoMethodError: You have a nil object when you didn't expect it!
You might have expected an instance of ActiveRecord::Base.
The error occurred while evaluating nil.[]=
.../vendor/rails/actionpack/lib/action_controller/integration.rb:294:in `process'

If you dig into integration.rb, you’ll find it’s trying to access the @header hash.

The cause of this problem is that integration tests are now hard-coded to use the cookie session store. If you aren’t using it, there’s a good chance you haven’t defined a secret for it in your environment.rb. To solve, add this to your environment.rb:

  config.action_controller.session = { :session_key => '_session_key',
    :secret => 'long unguessable string' }

Get your own “long unguessable string” by running rake secret.

PostgreSQL and Ruby on Rails

Posted by: on Feb 11, 2009 in Blog | Tags: , | One Comment

The current state state of PostgreSQL on Rails (early 2009) is a bit of a muddy mess. There are three different gems you can use to connect ActiveRecord to PostgreSQL and no guidance I can find about which of the two native adapters to use. I’m going to try and clear this up.

postgres-pr is a pure Ruby adapter. It doesn’t require native libraries and should work in most situations. However, because it isn’t native, it’s the low performer and likely won’t offer access to all of PostgreSQL’s features.

postgres is the old adapter. It appears to be maintained now by Jeff Davis, who forked it from Dave Lee. If you are compiling against PostgreSQL 8.3, you must use Jeff’s version (currently, which includes build fixes for 8.3.

pg is the new adapter, also maintained by Jeff Davis. He says this one has a better design than postgres and offers more features. It does not work prior to Rails 2.1, however. Rails 2.1 and later will attempt to load this driver first and fall back to postgres. If you use any plug-ins that monkeypatch the database driver, you might have problems with pg (my own sql_logging, for one, is broken — I’ll fix this shortly).


  • If you can build native extensions, are on Rails 2.1 or later, use pg.
  • If you can build native extensions, but are on Rails 2.0 or earlier, use postgres.
  • If you cannot build native extensions, use postgres-pr.

Building native extensions on OS X can be tricky, though. Here’s what I use on an Intel Mac, using the Ruby and Rubygems that ship with OS X and PostgreSQL 8.3 from MacPorts. (Unlike Robby’s guide, I do not advocate moving the system’s Ruby out of the way. You’re likely to break other stuff if you do so.)

sudo env ARCHFLAGS='-arch i386' gem install pg --remote -- --with-pgsql-include=/opt/local/include/postgresql83 --with-pgsql-lib=/opt/local/lib/postgresql83

If you use a different version of PostgreSQL than 8.3, make the appropriate substitution. If you’re still on PowerPC, change the ARCHFLAGS to -arch ppc. If you want to use postgres instead of pg:

sudo env ARCHFLAGS='-arch i386' gem install postgres --remote -- --with-pgsql-include=/opt/local/include/postgresql83 --with-pgsql-lib=/opt/local/lib/postgresql83