Ruby - - By Victor Savkin

DDD for Rails Developers. Part 3: Aggregates.

DDD for Rails Developers

My Previous Articles About DDD for Rails Developers

In Part 1, I talked about using the layered architecture for tackling domain complexity. I showed a few typical violations of the layered architecture and gave some advice on how to fix them.

In Part 2, I started talking about the building blocks of Domain Driven Design. I wrote about an important distinction between Entities and Value Objects. I also gave some advice on how to implement Value Objects in Rails.


This time I’d like to go into another building block of Domain Driven Design. I’d like to talk about Aggregates.

We’ve all experienced this situation before:

You start with nicely designed groups of objects. All the objects have clear responsibilities, and all interactions among them are explicit. Then, you have to consider additional requirements, such as transactions, integration with external systems, event generation. Satisfying all of them and not making all the objects interconnected is a nontrivial task. What usually happens is database hooks, conditional validations, and remote calls are added on an ad hoc basis. The result is more connections among objects. Hence, the boundaries of object groups become fuzzy and enforcing invariants becomes harder. Remember all the cases when you were thinking, “Maybe I need to reload this object?” It indicates that your objects are interconnected, and you cannot reason about your code with confidence. Instead, you just guess.

Defining Aggregates is a good remedy for the described situation.

  • “An Aggregate is a cluster of associated objects that are treated as a unit for the purpose of data changes.” (see Resources)
  • An Aggregate consists of a few Entities and Value Objects, one of which is chosen to be the root of the Aggregate.
  • All external references are restricted to the root. Objects outside the Aggregate can hold references to the root only.
  • Accessing other members of the Aggregate happens through the root. Therefore, nobody (outside the Aggregate) should hold references to those objects.
  • As all external objects can hold reference only to the root, enforcing invariants becomes easier.
  • Aggregates help to reduce the number of bidirectional associations among objects in the system because you are allowed to store references only to the root. That significantly simplifies the design and reduces the number of blindsided changes in the object graph.


It may sound too abstract, so I’d like to show you an example. I’m going to model an online bookstore. The main responsibility of the model will be selling and shipping books. Hopefully the example will bring some clarity to the definition of Aggregates and will demonstrate how they can be implemented in Rails.


This is a sketch illustrating all the classes that will form the model.


As you can see, I have:

  • Entities: Order, Item, User, Book, Payment
  • Value Objects: Address
  • Services: ShipmentService, PaymentService
  • View: OrderPresenter

Defining Aggregate Boundaries

Now, after I am done with sketching, I can establish Aggregate boundaries and choose roots.

There are a few rules of thumb to use:

  • Entities forming the parent-child relationship, most likely, should form an Aggregate. In this case, the parent class becomes the root.
  • Entities that are semantically close to each other are good candidates for forming an Aggregate as well. For instance, Book and Payment have no obvious connections with each other. Having them inside an Aggregate is awkward. On the other hand, Order and Item are closely related. Thus, we should consider putting them inside an Aggregate.
  • If two Entities have to be modified inside a transaction, they should be parts of the same Aggregate.

These rules should just help you get started. After your first sketch you should look at all the invariants that need to be maintained and finalize your Aggregate boundaries based on them.

As you may have already guessed, Order and Item form an Aggregate. What other Entities should we include? Including Book does not make much sense because I can easily imagine clients using Book without Order (e.g. you may need to display the list of all available books in the store).
Including User into the same Aggregate with Order is not the best idea either. Just imagine if User becomes the root, you will have to access all the orders of a user through the user itself. Furthermore, updating two orders of the same user simultaneously will be tricky. Clearly neither Book nor User should be a part of the Aggregate.

The situation with the Payment class is different. Conceptually, Payment is an important part of Order. Also, you cannot simultaneously pay for an Order and modify it. It’s decided, Payment becomes a part of the Aggregate.

An updated sketch with the defined boundary:

Sketch 2


Let’s get started with the code. First, let’s define the Book and User classes:

There is nothing really interesting here. There are two Entities (Book and User) and one Value Object (Address). It gets interesting when we implement the Order and Item classes:

That is how the creation of an order may look like:

Reading the same order from the database may look like this:

There are a few important things I’d like to point out:

  • All items and payments are created through an instance of Order.
  • I don’t update attributes of an Order directly.
  • I don’t use DataMapper methods directly. I wrote a few methods to decouple our model from DataMapper as much as possible.
  • There are no bidirectional associations. Every order knows about its items, but the items don’t have any references to their orders. Why? Because they don’t need to. Order is the root; therefore, any client can get an item only through its order. This means that an item’s order will always be known. * Bidirectional associations are a bad practice established in the Rails community. If you can avoid it, please, do it. *
  • A user does not know about its orders. Apart from the fact that it’s an unnecessary bidirectional association, it also makes testing much harder.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at this line of code:

It looks so simple. Some people might even say that it’s nicer than this one:

However, if you try to stub it in your test you may write something similar to this:

Now, compare it with the stubbing of Order.active_orders(user):

The second test is much easier to read and understand. In addition, in large applications such models as User tend to grow. In a few years, you may get the User class having many orders, promotions, friends, wish lists etc.

Accessing Our Model in View

Please, don’t be mistaken. The fact that Order is the root of the Aggregate does not mean I cannot access its payment or items. Of course, I can. The only rule is not to store references to those objects. For instance, I’d probably need a presenter. As presenters store references to the objects they present, creating ItemPresenter or PaymentPresenter is a violation of the Aggregate boundary. Instead, we can create OrderPresenter and pass an instance of Order to it. OrderPresenter can access the order’s items or payment through the order itself.


Remember that Aggregates are not only about access restriction. They also define the boundaries of invariants and transactions. There is a common opinion that those invariants must be enforced by the root. It’s also common to make the root responsible for managing all transactions. Although sometimes it may make perfect sense, there are lots of situations when it does not. Just to give you an example, let’s take a look at the PaymentService class:

PaymentService has several responsibilities. First, it masks the credit card. Next, it updates the database to mark the order as paid. After that, it makes a remote call to some external service that processes credit card transactions. Also, it wraps everything into a transaction. PaymentService ensures an important invariant that updating the status of the order and making the remote call must be done together. An alternative would be to make Order responsible for calling external services. The result would be a violation of Single Responsibility Principle and a few nasty dependencies of Order on external payment systems.

Wrapping Up

Sometimes invariants need to be applied not to discrete objects, but to clusters of objects. Defining Aggregates and restricting access to Aggregate members is an arrangement that makes enforcing all the invariants possible.


* Aggregate | Domain-Driven Design Community