This is Anti-pattern—thoughts on programming and whatnot by Brandon Weiss.

Transactional Fixtures in Rails

March 18th, 2015

If you use Ruby and write automated tests you’re probably familiar with Database Cleaner. It’s a gem for cleaning your database in between each test. What you may not know is that if you use Rails, using Database Cleaner is entirely unnecessary because of transactional fixtures.

Transactional fixtures are a great, but not particularly well-known feature of Rails. They are turned on by default and only need to be turned off in rare cases, so some might be aware of the feature, but not necessarily the name for it. And the name is also perhaps a bit misleading, as it technically has nothing to do with fixtures.

Transactional fixtures simply wrap each test in a database transaction and start a rollback at the end of it, reverting the database back to the state it was in before the test. If the database was empty before the test, it will roll it back and be empty after the test. If the database had preloaded test data (like fixtures) in it before the test, it will roll it back and have that same data after the test. Even though this feature is unrelated to fixtures themselves, fixtures are the default way to create test data in Rails, hence the name “transactional fixtures”.

If you’re thinking transactional fixtures sounds almost exactly like what Database Cleaner does, you would be correct. Database Cleaner is entirely unnecessary in a default Rails app. I’ve been using Rails pretty much since the day it came out and had absolutely no idea it had this feature.

I only figured it out while debugging an issue with a transaction I was testing. I turned off Database Cleaner to try and narrow down the problem and noticed the test database was still empty. Somehow the database was still being cleaned after every test.

I started wondering if Rails 4.x added this feature recently and I hadn’t noticed. I cloned down the Rails repo, found the relevant code, and started looping backwards through the commit history to find the commit where transactional fixtures were added.

Eventually I found it, back in 2005. That’s the year Rails was released; it’s had database cleaning from the very beginning. I’ve been running Database Cleaner unnecessarily on Rails apps for like four years now.

Database Cleaner’s README even says “One of my motivations for writing this library was to have an easy way to turn on what Rails calls “transactional_fixtures” in my non-rails ActiveRecord projects”. Epic facepalm.

I think what happened is that I didn’t really start testing until a few years after I discovered Ruby and Rails. This would’ve roughly coincided with the Rails 2.3 era, when I experimented with using lighter-weight frameworks like Sinatra, as well as other databases and ORMs, like MongoDB and Sequel. I started using Database Cleaner because it was necessary. When I eventually came back to Rails years later, I just continued using Database Cleaner because I’d always used it, and I never bothered to read the fucking manual.

Nothing is more motivating than feeling like an idiot, so I submitted a pull request to Rails a week ago to give the feature a better, clearer name, and it was just recently merged! When Rails 5.0 ships the new name for “transactional fixtures” will be “transactional tests”.


February 24th, 2015

I don’t always install the Rails gem globally, but when I do, I cry myself to sleep at night. —Me

Ruby gems fall into one of two categories based on how you install them. There are the gems you install globally, outside the context of an application, like Bundler or Pry. And then there are the gems you install locally, inside the context of an application, like Faraday or BCrypt. But then there’s Rails.

Rails is an application dependency so it should be installed locally with Bundler. But the Rails gem is also used to generate the skeleton of the application, which includes the Gemfile that Bundler uses in order to install Rails locally. It’s a bit chicken and the egg.

You’re probably wondering why that even matters. You just install the Rails gem globally.

$ gem install rails
Fetching: thread_safe-0.3.4.gem (100%)
Successfully installed thread_safe-0.3.4
Fetching: minitest-5.4.2.gem (100%)
Successfully installed minitest-5.4.2
Fetching: tzinfo-1.2.2.gem (100%)
Successfully installed tzinfo-1.2.2
Fetching: i18n-0.7.0.beta1.gem (100%)
Successfully installed i18n-0.7.0.beta1
Fetching: activesupport-4.1.6.gem (100%)
Successfully installed activesupport-4.1.6
Fetching: erubis-2.7.0.gem (100%)
Successfully installed erubis-2.7.0
Fetching: builder-3.2.2.gem (100%)
Successfully installed builder-3.2.2
Fetching: actionview-4.1.6.gem (100%)
Successfully installed actionview-4.1.6
Fetching: rack-1.5.2.gem (100%)
Successfully installed rack-1.5.2
Fetching: rack-test-0.6.2.gem (100%)
Successfully installed rack-test-0.6.2
Fetching: actionpack-4.1.6.gem (100%)
Successfully installed actionpack-4.1.6
Fetching: activemodel-4.1.6.gem (100%)
Successfully installed activemodel-4.1.6
Fetching: arel- (100%)
Successfully installed arel-
Fetching: activerecord-4.1.6.gem (100%)
Successfully installed activerecord-4.1.6
Fetching: mime-types-2.4.3.gem (100%)
Successfully installed mime-types-2.4.3
Fetching: mail-2.6.1.gem (100%)
Successfully installed mail-2.6.1
Fetching: actionmailer-4.1.6.gem (100%)
Successfully installed actionmailer-4.1.6
Fetching: thor-0.19.1.gem (100%)
Successfully installed thor-0.19.1
Fetching: railties-4.1.6.gem (100%)
Successfully installed railties-4.1.6
Fetching: sprockets-3.0.0.beta.2.gem (100%)
Successfully installed sprockets-3.0.0.beta.2
Fetching: sprockets-rails-2.2.0.gem (100%)
Successfully installed sprockets-rails-2.2.0
Fetching: rails-4.1.6.gem (100%)
Successfully installed rails-4.1.6
22 gems installed

Because Rails has a ton of dependencies and installing it globally makes an absolute mess of your gem list. It completely obscures any relevant information you might be trying to find in there. And good luck uninstalling it; you’re going to have to manually uninstall each dependency.

I realize this is definitely a nit, but it bothers me to no end. You don’t need Rails globally except to generate new app skeletons.

I thought I’d be clever and install Rails with --ignore-dependencies, but it turns out the Rails binary isn’t even in the Rails gem, it’s in the Railties gem. I tried installing the Railties gem without dependencies, but it turns out the logic for generating a Rails skeleton is spread throughout a bunch of dependencies.

So I whipped up a simple gem called Railyard. It sandboxes Rails, installing it locally inside the gem, on demand. You can use it to switch to any Rails version you like and generate a Rails skeleton for it, without having to install Rails globally.

$ gem install railyard
Fetching: thor-0.19.1.gem (100%)
Successfully installed thor-0.19.1
Fetching: railyard-0.1.0.gem (100%)
Successfully installed railyard-0.1.0
2 gems installed
$ railyard new next_big_thing

Ah, that’s so much better.

Hold Please

February 10th, 2015

The canonical example for an ActiveRecord callback is sending a welcome email after a User is created.

class User < ActiveRecord::Base

  after_create :send_welcome_email


  def send_welcome_email


I remember how awesome that felt the first time. It seemed like such great design. I was fat-modeling, skinny-controllering with the best of them. But the joy didn’t last long.

One time, I manually created a bunch of users from the console in production. The intention was to set up their accounts and then personally send them an email inviting them to try out the product. But before I could do that I started getting confused emails asking why they’d been signed up for some product they’d never heard of. It hadn’t occurred to me that the welcome emails would be sent if I created users from the console.

Another time, I was trying to speed up an agonizingly slow test suite. Out of curiosity I commented out the welcome email callback on User. The test suite ran 10 seconds or so faster. It hadn’t occurred to me that every time a user was created in a test it would send a mailer to the test delivery queue, and that all that time would add up to a significant amount.

I don’t mean to specifically pick on sending emails in a callback, that’s just a really common example. It could be changing an attribute before saving or even creating an associated record. The point is that when you use an ActiveRecord callback you’re saying you always want it to run every time. But that’s not what I really wanted.

I didn’t want a welcome email to be sent if I created a user from the console. I didn’t want a welcome email to be sent every time a user was created in a test. I really only wanted a welcome email to be sent when a user signed up. Which means the right place to send the email was in the controller, where it was in the first place before I tried to get clever.

Almost every ActiveRecord callback I’ve ever written I eventually removed later on after I realized it was actually contextual—it had only seemed like it should always run. Now I just don’t use them at all any more.

Inspired by Gary Bernhardt’s gem Do Not Want I wrote a gem that codified my intent not to use them. It’s called Hold Please and it will raise an exception if you or anyone else tries to use an ActiveRecord callback. As you’d expect it will allow third-party gems to use them so they don’t break.

If you want to ensure you don’t inadvertently relapse and prevent anyone else on your project from doing the same, check out Hold Please.

Enjoy your saner future.