<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=706355809571598&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1"> Implementing multiple table inheritance in Rails

Implementing multiple table inheritance in Rails

Rails’ default —and actually only— way of representing model inheritance at the database level is called single table inheritance (STI for short). With this technique, the entire model hierarchy is stored in a single table, containing a column for every attribute that a model in the hierarchy possesses, plus an additional column to specify the actual type of the model. For example, let’s say we have the following models:

class Product < ActiveRecord::Base
  # Attributes: reference, price, title
  validates :reference, presence: true, uniqueness: true
  validates :title, presence: true
  validates :price, presence: true, numericality: { greater_than_or_equal_to: 0 }
end

class Book < Product
  # Attributes: writer, number_of_pages
  validates :writer, presence: true
  validates :number_of_pages, presence: true, numericality: { only_integer: true, greater_than: 0 }

  scope :for_writer, ->(writer) { where(writer: writer) }
end

class Movie < Product
  # Attributes: studio, director, format
  validates :studio, :director, presence: true
  validates :format, presence: true, inclusion: { in: [ "DVD", "Blu-ray" ] }
end


In the database we have a single table, products:

id type reference price title writer number_of_pages studio director format
1 Book B-0001 9.99 The Color of Magic Terry Pratchett 288 NULL NULL NULL
2 Movie M-0001 8.67 The Thing NULL NULL Universal Pictures John Carpenter DVD
3 Book B-0002 6.00 American Gods Neil Gaiman 624 NULL NULL NULL
4 Movie M-0002 15.95 Commando NULL NULL 20th Century Fox Mark L. Lester Blu-ray

The first thing you see is that for every row, a bunch of columns are empty. This is the major drawback of single table inheritance, and it prevents us to put a NOT NULL constraint on the columns that are not shared between models, even if these attributes are mandatory for the relevant model (and yes, you should definitely put NOT NULL constraints as well as FOREIGN KEY constraints in the database, but this is for another blog post). Furthermore, you can feel that mixing attributes that have nothing to do with each other and only make sense for a subset of rows is somewhat wrong, and the more we'll have models that inherit from Product, the more it will become apparent. Actually, STI is appropriate only when all the models in the hierarchy share the exact same set of attributes (i.e. all the attributes are defined on the parent model) and only differ in their behavior at the application level.

What we'd like to have instead is a table for each model, and a link between a child row and a parent row. This way of representing model inheritance is called (you guessed it) multiple table inheritance.

Existing implementations

There is a gem called multiple_table_inheritance to achieve this but, in addition to the fact that it has not been maintained for the past 3 years, it has in my opinion a major problem: since it does not use class inheritance at all between models, you are forced to override is_a? in the "child" models in order to work around Rails' type checking in case of an association to the parent model (without that, inserting a Book instance in a has_many :products association would result in a ActiveRecord::AssociationTypeMismatch exception being raised). Fooling around with such a fundamental method can lead to unpredictable behavior and is best avoided.

Our proposed implementation of MTI in Rails

So, how can we have an MTI-like structure in the database but without straying too far away from ActiveRecord's well-known realm? The trick is actually quite simple: we continue to use the built-in STI mechanism, but we move the attributes of each child model to a companion ActiveRecord object linked to this model, and we delegate all the attribute accessors to this companion object in order to make it completely transparent for the outside world. The code looks like this:

class Product < ActiveRecord::Base
  # Attributes: reference, price, title
  validates :reference, presence: true, uniqueness: true
  validates :title, presence: true
  validates :price, presence: true, numericality: { greater_than_or_equal_to: 0 }
end

class Book < Product
  has_one :companion, class_name: "BookCompanion", inverse_of: :book, dependent: :destroy, autosave: true

  delegate :writer, :number_of_pages, :writer=, :number_of_pages=, to: :lazily_built_companion

  validates :writer, presence: true
  validates :number_of_pages, presence: true, numericality: { only_integer: true, greater_than: 0 }

  scope :for_writer, ->(writer) { joins(:companion).merge(BookCompanion.for_writer(writer)) }

  private
  def lazily_built_companion
    companion || build_companion
  end
end

class BookCompanion < ActiveRecord::Base
  # Attributes: writer, number_of_pages

  belongs_to :book, inverse_of: :companion

  validates :book, presence: true

  scope :for_writer, ->(writer) { where(writer: writer) }
end

class Movie < Product
  has_one :companion, class_name: "MovieCompanion", inverse_of: :movie, dependent: :destroy, autosave: true

  delegate :studio, :director, :format, :studio=, :director=, :format=, to: :lazily_built_companion

  validates :studio, :director, presence: true
  validates :format, presence: true, inclusion: { in: [ "DVD", "Blu-ray" ] }

  private
  def lazily_built_companion
    companion || build_companion
  end
end

class MovieCompanion < ActiveRecord::Base
  # Attributes: studio, director, format

  belongs_to :movie, inverse_of: :companion

  validates :movie, presence: true
end


In the database we now have three tables, products, book_companions and movie_companions, respectively:

id type reference price title
1 Book B-0001 9.99 The Color of Magic
2 Movie M-0001 8.67 The Thing
3 Book B-0002 6.00 American Gods
4 Movie M-0002 15.95 Commando
id book_id writer number_of_pages
1 1 Terry Pratchett 288
2 3 Neil Gaiman 624
id movie_id studio director format
1 2 Universal Pictures John Carpenter DVD
2 4 20th Century Fox Mark L. Lester Blu-ray

No more mixed attributes, no more empty columns. Yeah!

And in the console, you can check that it works really smoothly:

irb(main):001:0> Book.create!(reference: "B-0001", price: 9.99, title: "The Color of Magic", number_of_pages: 288)
ActiveRecord::RecordInvalid: Validation failed: Writer can't be blank
irb(main):002:0> Book.create!(reference: "B-0001", price: 9.99, title: "The Color of Magic", writer: "Terry Pratchett", number_of_pages: 288)
=> #<Book id: 1, type: "Book", reference: "B-0001", price: #<BigDecimal:7fb35cbe3680,'0.999E1',18(36)>, title: "The Color of Magic", created_at: "2015-12-30 12:47:41", updated_at: "2015-12-30 12:47:41">
irb(main):003:0> Movie.create!(reference: "M-0001", price: 8.67, title: "The Thing", studio: "Universal Pictures", director: "John Carpenter", format: "DVD")
=> #<Movie id: 2, type: "Movie", reference: "M-0001", price: #<BigDecimal:7fb35e262258,'0.867E1',18(36)>, title: "The Thing", created_at: "2015-12-30 12:47:52", updated_at: "2015-12-30 12:47:52">
irb(main):004:0> Product.find(1).class.name
=> "Book"
irb(main):005:0> Product.find(1).number_of_pages
=> 288
irb(main):006:0> Product.find(2).class.name
=> "Movie"
irb(main):007:0> Product.find(2).director
=> "John Carpenter"
irb(main):008:0> Book.for_writer("Terry Pratchett").count
=> 1


As you can see, from the external code point of view, it is as if these companion objects didn't exist at all.

Some notes on the above implementation

  • As Rails validations use the attribute readers (rather than the instance variables), we can keep them in the main class. In addition to simplify the implementation (we don't have to deal with validation errors coming from the companion object), this totally makes sense because the companion object is a mere technicality and not a real business object. After all, what we want to ensure is that a Book has a writer, wherever this writer attribute is actually stored.
  • The delegation is not done directly to the companion association, but to the lazily_built_companion method instead. This is to ensure that we always have a companion instance, even when working with a new object.
  • It is important not to forget the autosave: true option in the has_one :companion association definition, or else the companion object will only be saved at creation but not on subsequent updates.
  • As you can see in the Book class, you can use the merge method of ActiveRecord::Relation to elegantly define scopes that use the attributes defined on the companion class.
  • To be complete, we should also override the changed_attributes method (and possibly some others) from the ActiveSupport::Dirty module in the child classes, something along the lines of:

    def changed_attributes
      super.merge(lazily_built_companion.changed_attributes)
    end
    
  • I'm pretty sure that with a bit of meta-programming, all this can quite easily be extracted in a module to remove all the boilerplate from the classes and DRYify the code. This exercise will be left to the reader ;-)