From Novice to Ninja: How to Master Using Plugins in Rails
The following is a short extract from our book, Rails: Novice To Ninja, available to SitePoint Premium members. Print copies are sold in stores worldwide, or you can order them here. We hope you enjoy this extract and find it useful.
While this book is unable to cover all of the built-in functionality that ships with Rails—and there’s plenty of functionality for you to discover and experiment with once you’re beyond the last chapter— the plugins architecture of Rails warrants our attention.
What is a plugin?
A plugin is a component that you can add to your application to extend its functionality. While you can certainly write your own plugins, we’ll limit our discussion here to using existing plugins. Plugins have been developed for various parts of the Rails framework, adding functionality such as:
- extensions to ActiveRecord functionality
- helper methods
- new template engines (for coding a view using an alternate templating language)
The number of existing Rails plugins is enormous and grows every day. Programmers in the Ruby and Rails communities are excellent about sharing code and creating useful plugins based on extensions they need. A good resource of existing Rails plugins can be found by searching for “Rails” on the Rubygems site or on the Ruby Toolbox site.
Plugins are distributed as gems, which we covered in Chapter 2. Plugins can be pulled into an existing Rails application by adding them to the
Gemfile and running
bundle install. You probably remember our discussion about Bundler from Chapter 4, where its job is to manage application dependencies. Bundler makes including existing plugins into our app a breeze.
Finding a plugin that does what you require is usually just a Google or RubyGems search away. As seen in Figure 10-1, searching for “rails tagging” brings up a few gems that have been created, including one called
The overwhelming majority of gems keep their source on GitHub, including
acts-as-taggable-on from the first link in our search above. Following that link leads to the source on GitHub, as shown in Figure 10-2.
Most GitHub source repositories have a
README.md file that explains what the gem does, how to install and use it, and so on.
acts-as-taggable-on follows this convention, which can be seen in Figure 10-3. It explains the object of the gem, the supported versions of Rails, as well as how to install and configure the gem.
After reading through the
README.md, we now know how to pull the gem into our application and use its functionality. You may feel that walking through the topic of "how to find and learn about gems" is a bit tedious, but you will find yourself spending loads of time doing just that–so I figured it was tedium well spent.
No Time for Name-calling
There are many ways to extend Rails; for example, by using a “plugin”, “engine”, and “railtie”, to name a few. While there are technical differences between these items, they are often (incorrectly) used interchangeably. Defining these terms and their differences is beyond the scope of this book, so I’m going to stick to the word “plugin” for now. As you grow in your Rails-fu, you’ll no doubt want to do some research around Rails extensibility. Boom–I just turned this note into an EXTRA CREDIT!
Okay, enough theory! Let’s go ahead and install our first plugin.
Adding Tagging to Readit
Tagging is the process by which content creators attach simple textual labels to their data, be it a photo, a link, or a restaurant review. These tags vary widely in their nature; they may be related to location or content, for instance. This results in everyone seeming to have a unique system for tagging data. Currently, the hashtag (#) is probably the most popular form of tagging content with metadata, thanks to Twitter!
Tags are definitely more flexible than a category tree, as they allow you to assign as many or as few tags as you like to any item of data. The convention that has evolved is for the user to enter tags for a content item into a text field. Multiple tags should be separated by a space or a comma.
Instead of reinventing the wheel and implementing our own tagging system for Readit, we’ll use one of the available Rails plugins for this job, the aforementioned
acts-as-taggable-on. You may be wondering what kind of name the developer originally chose for his plugin. At some point, David Heinemeier Hansson himself actually developed a plugin named
acts_as_taggable as a proof of concept for some then-new features for Rails. It wasn’t intended for production use, and has since been deprecated, but was picked up again because tagging is such an essential component of today’s websites with user-generated content.
Jonathan Viney, a Rails core contributor and all-round guru, took up where Heinemeier Hansson left off and created his work under the name of
acts_as_taggable_on_steroids. Yet development waned, so another developer name Michael Bleigh formed
acts-as-taggable-on, and has been developing it ever since. With that bit of family history out of the way, let’s have a look at what this plugin can do for us.
A History of
As this is far being from an obvious name for a plugin, allow me to explain the background of the
acts_as_* naming convention.
In Rails’ own plugin repository can be found a number of acts, which are functional extensions to an
ActiveRecord model. These acts equip models with certain functionality that usually can be enabled using a single line of code.
As this functionality enables models to “act as something else,” the convention of calling these functional additions “acts” arose, and the code that enables the functionality
acts_as_something shortly followed.
At the time of writing, many "acts as" gems are available on Rubygems.org:
acts_as_paranoid, to name a few. While some are more complex than others, each of these acts apply a hierarchy to a set of model objects. In the case of
acts_as_list, objects are positioned in a flat list; with
acts_as_tree, the resulting hierarchy is a sophisticated tree system, such as that used in a threaded forum, for example.
But what about
acts-as-taggable-on? As the name suggests, this plugin provides a simple yet effective means by which you can make your models taggable. It ships with its own
ActiveRecord model class called
ActsAsTaggableOn::Tag, as well as functionality for parsing a list of tags divided by spaces into separate model objects of class
Namespacing Safety Measures
You probably noticed that the
Tagclass is namespaced under
ActsAsTaggableOn. Namespacing classes inside a gem is a Ruby community best practice based on years of class names stomping all over each other from different gems and libraries.
Tagis a fairly common name, so putting it in the
ActsAsTaggableOnnamespace ensures we avoid loading another gem that clobbers the class.
Of course, before we can play with this plugin, we’ll need to install it.
To install the gem, change directory to the application root folder and add the following line to the
gem "acts-as-taggable-on", "~> 4.0"
~> tells Bundler that we want any version in the 4.x series. If 4.2 is the latest, that’s what we’ll get; however, if the versions went 4.2, then 5.0, we’d still end up with 4.2. Make sense?
Now run the following:
$ bundle install Fetching gem metadata from https://rubygems.org/........... Fetching version metadata from https://rubygems.org/... Fetching dependency metadata from https://rubygems.org/.. Resolving dependencies... Using rake 10.5.0 Using i18n 0.7.0 Using json 1.8.3 Using minitest 5.8.4 ... Installing acts-as-taggable-on 4.0.0.pre ... Bundle complete! 14 Gemfile dependencies, 56 gems now installed. Use `bundle show [gemname]` to see where a bundled gem is installed. Post-install message from acts-as-taggable-on: When upgrading
As you can see, Bundler runs through all the dependencies of our app, including installing the
acts-as-taggable-on into the application "bundle". There’s even a post-install message from the
acts-as-taggable-on gem telling us what to do next.
Creating a Migration for the Plugin
Our plan is to allow users of our application to add tags to stories submitted to Readit, so our
Story model needs to be taggable. Both the tags themselves and the relationships between tags and stories need to be stored somewhere, so we’ll use a migration to create new tables. And while this plugin makes use of a new model (the
ActsAsTaggableOn::Tag model provided by the
acts-as-taggable-on plugin), the model wasn’t created by the
rails generate command, so we’re yet to have a migration to go with it. Luckily, the plugin does come with a convenient generator method to create a fitting migration:
$ rails acts_as_taggable_on_engine:install:migrations Running via Spring preloader in process 64781 Copied migration 201...7_acts_as_taggable_on_migration.acts_as_taggable_on_engine.rb from acts_as_taggable_on_engine Copied migration 201...8_add_missing_unique_indices.acts_as_taggable_on_engine.rb from acts_as_taggable_on_engine Copied migration 2_add_taggings_counter_cache_to_tags.acts_as_taggable_on_engine.rb from acts_as_taggable_on_engine Copied migration 201...0_add_missing_taggable_index.acts_as_taggable_on_engine.rb from acts_as_taggable_on_engine Copied migration 201...1_change_collation_for_tag_names.acts_as_taggable_on_engine.rb from acts_as_taggable_on_engine Copied migration 201...2_add_missing_indexes.acts_as_taggable_on_engine.rb from acts_as_taggable_on_engine
The message received after we bundled instructed you to use
rails. Welcome to the bleeding edge. In previous versions of Rails,
rakewas used to run tasks like this, but Rails 5 added
railsas an alias. This was to allow devs to use
railsfor all generators and tasks.
This task copied five migrations into our
db/migrate directory. These files produce the tables used by
acts-as-taggable-on, along with creating some database indexes and other database artifacts. The
acts-as-taggable-on plugin uses two tables:
tagstable stores the
ActsAsTaggableOn::Tagmodel, which is just a regular
ActiveRecordmodel. This table contains one entry for each tag. So, for example, if you tagged two or more
Storymodels with the tag
ruby, only one
ruby) would be stored in the database. This approach makes it easy for our application’s users to find content; if users were interested in finding stories about Ruby, they could browse through all the stories to which the
rubytag was applied.
taggingstable stores the actual mappings between the
ActsAsTaggableOn::Tagmodel and those models that make use of the
Following is the migration code that was generated for us. It is ready to use as is, and is stored in the
class ActsAsTaggableOnMigration < ActiveRecord::Migration def self.up create_table :tags do |t| t.string :name end create_table :taggings do |t| t.references :tag # You should make sure that the column created is # long enough to store the required class names. t.references :taggable, polymorphic: true t.references :tagger, polymorphic: true # Limit is created to prevent MySQL error on index # length for MyISAM table type: http://bit.ly/vgW2Ql t.string :context, limit: 128 t.datetime :created_at end add_index :taggings, :tag_id add_index :taggings, [:taggable_id, :taggable_type, :context] end def self.down drop_table :taggings drop_table :tags end end
This migration starts out simply enough. It creates the
tags table that contains just one column:
name (in addition to the
id column belonging to every table).
While it may appear straightforward on the surface, the
taggings table is a little more complex than a mere list of objects and their tags. As mentioned, it’s possible to make more than one model in your application taggable; however, the mappings between the
ActsAsTaggableOn::Tag model and those models to which tagging functionality has been added use a single table.
acts-as-taggable-on uses each of the columns created in the
taggings table as follows:
tag_idis created by
t.references :tagand stores the
taggable_idis created by
t.references :taggable, polymorphic: trueand stores the
idof the object that is being tagged (for example, the ID of a
taggable_typeis created by
t.references :taggable, polymorphic: trueand stores the class of the object that is being tagged (for example,
tagger_idis created by
t.references :taggerand stores the
idof the user that created the tag (for example, the ID of a
tagger_typeis created by
t.references :taggerand stores the class of the object that is doing the tagging (for example,
You may be asking what "polymorphic" means in our migration. Hold tight, I’ll cover that soon enough.
Before we can give our
Story model a little
acts-as-taggable-on goodness, we need to apply the migration just generated, as shown below.
Great! Now we can make our
Story model taggable. Let’s chat about polymorphic associations.
To read the full “Rails: Novice To Ninja” book by Glenn Goodrich, purchase the book here. We are also having an upcoming AMA with Glenn Goodrich where he’ll be answering all of your questions about Rails. Sign up for that here.