Dynamic addition and removal of collection-bound items in an HTML form with Angular.js and Rails

A common pattern in one of our web applications is the management of a list of items in a web form where the user can add, remove and edit multiple items and finally submit the data:


The basic skeleton for this type of functionality is very simple with Angular.js. We have an Angular controller with an “items” array:

angular.module('example', [])
  .controller('ItemController', ['$scope', function($scope) {
    $scope.items = [];

And we have an HTML form bound to our Angular controller:

<form ... ng-app="example" ng-controller="ItemController"> 
    <tr ng-repeat="item in items track by $index">
      <td><span class="remove-button" ng-click="items.splice($index, 1)"></span></td>
      <td><input type="text" ng-model="item.name"></td>
      <td><input type="text" ng-model="item.value"></td>
      <td colspan="3">
        <span class="add-button" ng-click="items.push({})"></span>
  <!-- ... submit button etc. -->

The input fields for each item are placed in a table row, together with a remove button per row. At the end of the table there is an add button.

How do we connect this with a Rails model, so that existing items are filled into the form, and items are created, updated and deleted on submit?

First you have to transform the existing Ruby objects of your has-many association (in this example @foo.items) into JavaScript objects by converting them to JSON and assigning them to a variable:

<%= javascript_tag do %>
  var items = <%= escape_javascript @foo.items.to_json.html_safe %>;
<% end %>

Bring this data into your Angular controller scope by assigning it to a property of $scope:

.controller('ItemController', ['$scope', function($scope) {
  $scope.items = items;

Name the input fields according to Rails conventions and use the $index variable from the “ng-repeat” directive to provide the correct index value. You also need a hidden input field for the id, if the item already has one:

    <input name="foo[items_attributes][$index][id]" type="hidden" ng-value="item.id" ng-if="item.id">
    <input name="foo[items_attributes][$index][name]" type="text" ng-model="item.name">
    <input name="foo[items_attributes][$index][value]" type="text" ng-model="item.value">

In order for Rails to remove existing elements from a has-many association via submitted form data, a special attribute named “_destroy” must be set for each item to be removed. This only works if

accepts_nested_attributes_for :items, allow_destroy: true

is set in the Rails model class, which contains the has-many association.

We modify the click handler of the remove button to set a flag on the JavaScript object instead of removing it from the JavaScript items array:

<span class="remove-button" ng-click="item.removed = true"></span>

And we render an item only if the flag is not set by adding an “ng-if” directive:

<tr ng-repeat="item in items track by $index" ng-if="!item.removed">

At the end of the form we render hidden input fields for those items, which are flagged as removed and which already have an id:

<div style="display: none" ng-repeat="item in items track by $index"
ng-if="item.removed && item.id">
  <input type="hidden" name="foo[items_attributes][$index][id]" ng-value="item.id">
  <input type="hidden" name="foo[items_attributes][$index][_destroy]" value="1">

On submit Rails will delete those elements of the has-many association with the “_destroy” attribute set to “1”. The other elements will be either updated (if they have an id attribute set) or created (if they have no id attribute set).

When UTF8 != UTF8


Recently I encountered a problem with umlauts in file names. I had to read names from a directory and find and update the appropriate entry in the database. So if I had a file named hund.pdf (Hund is German for dog) I had to find the corresponding record in the database and attach the file. Almost all files went smooth but the ones with umlauts failed all.

Certainly an encoding problem I thought. So I converted the string to UTF-8 before querying. Again the query returned an empty result set. So I read up on the various configuration options for JDBC, Oracle and Active Record (it is a JRuby on Rails based web app). I tried them all starting with nls_language and ending with temporary setting the locale. No luck.

Querying the database with a hard coded string containing umlauts worked. Both strings even printed on the console looked identically.

So last but not least I compared the string from the file name with a hard coded one: they weren’t equal. Looking at the bytes a strange character combination was revealed \204\136. What’s that? UTF8 calls this a combining diaeresis. What’s that? In UTF8 you can encode umlauts with their corresponding characters or use a combination of the character without an umlaut and the combining diaeresis. So ‘ä’ becomes ‘a\204\136’.


The solution is to normalize the string. In (J)Ruby you can achieve this in the following way:

string = string.mb_chars.normalize.to_s

And in Java this would be:

string = Normalizer.normalize(string, Normalizer.Form.NFKC)

Ruby uses NFKC (or kc for short) as a default and suggests this for databases and validations.

Lesson learned: So the next time you encounter encoding problems look twice it might be in the right encoding but with the wrong bytes.

Using Rails with a legacy database schema – Part 2

Part one of this blog post mini-series showed how to override default table names and primary key names in ActiveRecord model classes, and how to define alias attributes for legacy column names.

This part will discuss some options for primary key definitions in the schema file, which are relevant for legacy schemas, as well as primary key value generation on Oracle databases.

Primary key schema definition

The database schema definition of a Rails application is usually provided in a file called schema.rb via a simple domain specific language.

The create_table method implicitly adds a primary key column with name id (of numeric type) by default.

create_table 'users' do |t|
  t.string 'name', limit: 20
  # ...

If the primary key has a different name you can easily specify it via the primary_key option:

create_table 'users', primary_key: 'user_key' do |t|
  t.string 'name', limit: 20
  # ...

But what if a table has a primary key of non-numeric type? The Rails schema DSL does not directly support this. But there’s a workaround: you can set the id option of create_table to false, declare the primary key column like an ordinary non-nullable column, and add the primary key constraint afterwards via execute.

create_table 'users', id: false do |t|
  t.string 'user_key', null: false
  t.string 'name', limit: 20
  # ...
execute 'ALTER TABLE user ADD PRIMARY KEY (user_key)'

Primary key value generation

On Oracle databases new primary key values are usually created via sequences. The Oracle adapter for ActiveRecord assumes sequence names in the form of table name + “_seq”.  You can override this default sequence name in a model class via the sequence_name property:

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  self.sequence_name = 'user_sequence'
  # ...

Sometimes primary key values are auto-generated via triggers. In this case you need the Oracle Enhanced adapter, which is a superset of the original ActiveRecord Oracle adapter, but with additional support for working with legacy databases. Now you can set the sequence_name property to the value :autogenerated:

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  self.sequence_name = :autogenerated
  # ...

This circumvents the default convention and tells the adapter to not include primary key values in generated INSERT statements.

Using Rails with a legacy database schema

Rails is known for its convention over configuration design paradigm. For example, database table and column names are automatically derived and generated from the model classes. This is very convenient, but when you want to build a new application upon an existing (“legacy”) database schema you have to explore the configuration side of this paradigm.

The most basic operation for dealing with a legacy schema in Rails is to explicitly set the table_names and the primary_keys of model classes:

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  self.table_name = 'benutzer'
  self.primary_key = 'benutzer_nr'
  # ...

Additionally you might want to define aliases for your column names, which are mapped by ActiveRecord to attributes:

class Article < ActiveRecord::Base
  # ...
  alias_attribute :author_id, :autor_nr
  alias_attribute :title, :titel
  alias_attribute :date, :datum

This automatically generates getter, setter and query methods for the new alias names. For associations like belongs_to, has_one, has_many you can explicitly specify the foreign_key:

class Article < ActiveRecord::Base
  # ...
  belongs_to :author, class_name: 'User', foreign_key: :autor_nr

Here you have to repeat the original name. You can’t use the previously defined alias attribute name. Another place where you have to live with the legacy names are SQL queries:

q = "%#{query.downcase}%"
Article.where('lower(titel) LIKE ?', q).order('datum')

While the usual attribute based finders such as find_by_* are aware of ActiveRecord aliases, Arel queries aren’t:

articles = Article.arel_table

And lastly, the YML files with test fixture data must be named after the database table name, not after the model name. So for the example above the fixture file name would be benutzer.yml, not user.yml.


If you step outside the well-trodden path of convention be prepared for some inconveniences.

Next part: Primary key schema definition and value generation

Aspects done right: Concerns

The idea of encapsulating cross cutting concerns struck with me from the beginning but the implementation namely the aspects lacked clarity in my opinion. With aspects you cannot see (without sophisticated IDE support) which class has which aspects and which aspects are woven into the class when looking at its source. Here concerns (also called mixins or traits) come to the rescue. I know that aspects were invented to hide away details about which code is included and where but I find it confusing and hard to trace without tool support.

Take a look at an example in Ruby:

module Versionable
  extend ActiveSupport::Concern

  included do
    attr_accessor :version

class Document
  include Versionable

Now Document has a field version and is_a?(Versionable) returns true. For clients it looks like the field version is in Document itself. So for clients of this class it is the same as:

class Document
  attr_accessor :version

Furthermore you can easily use the versionable concern in another class. This sounds like a great implementation of the separating of concerns principle but why isn’t everyone using it (besides being a standard for the upcoming Rails 4)? Well, some people are concerned with concerns (excuse the pun). As with every powerful feature you can shoot yourself in the foot. Let’s take a look at each problem.

  • Diamond problem aka multiple inheritance
  • Ruby has no multiple inheritance. Even when you include more than one module the modules are like superclasses for the message resolve order. Every include creates a new “superclass” above the including class. So the last include takes precedence.

  • Dependencies between concerns
  • You can have dependencies between different concerns like this concern needs another concern. ActiveSupport:Concerns handles these dependencies automatically.

  • Unforeseeable results
  • One last big problem with concerns is having side effects from combining two concerns. Take for an example two concerns which add a method with the same name. Including both of them renders one concern unusable. This cannot be solved technically but I also think this problem shows an underlying, more important cause. It could be because of poor naming. Or you did not separate these two concerns enough. As always tests can help to isolate and spot the problem. Also concerns should be tested in isolation and in integration.

RubyMotion: Ruby for iOS development

RubyMotion is a new (commercial) way to develop apps for iOS, this time with Ruby. So why do I think this is better than the traditional way using ObjectveC or other alternatives?

Advantages to other alternatives

Other alternatives often use a wrapper or a different runtime. The problem is that you have to wait for the library/wrapper vendor to include new APIs when iOS gets a new update. RubyMotion instead has a static compiler which compiles to the same code as ObjectiveC. So you can use the myriads of ObjectiveC libraries or even the interface builder. You can even mix your RubyMotion code with existing ObjectiveC programs. Also the static compilation gives you the performance advantages of real native code so that you don’t suffer from the penalties of using another layer. So you could write your programs like you would in ObjectiveC with the same performance and using the same libraries, then why choose RubyMotion?

Advantages to the traditional way

First: Ruby. The Ruby language has a very nice foundation: everything is an expression. And everything can be evaluated with logic operators (only nil and false is false).
In ObjectiveC you would write:

  cell = tableView.dequeueReusableCellWithIdentifier(reuseId);
  if (!cell) {
    cell = [[TableViewCell alloc] initWithStyle: cellStyle, reuseIdentifier: reuseId]];

whereas in Ruby you can write

cell = tableView.dequeueReusableCellWithIdentifier(@reuse_id)
  || TableViewCell.alloc.initWithStyle(@cell_style, reuseIdentifier:@reuse_id)

As you can see you can use the Cocoa APIs right away. But what excites me even more is the community which builds around RubyMotion. RubyMotion is only some months old but many libraries and even award winning apps have been written. Some libraries wrap so called boiler plate code and make it more pleasant you to use. Other introduce new metaphors which change the way apps are written entirely.
I see a bright future for RubyMotion. It won’t replace ObjectiveC for everyone but it is a great alternative.

A Small XML Builder in Ruby

From a C++ point of view, i.e. the statically typed world with no “dynamic” features that deserved the name, I guess you would all agree that languages like Groovy or Ruby are truly something completely different. Having strong C++ roots myself, my first Grails project gave me lots of eye openers on some nice “dynamic” possibilities. One of the pretty cool things I encountered there was the MarkupBuilder. With it you can just write XML as if it where normal Groovy Code. Simple and just downright awesome.

The other day in yet another C++ project I was again faced with the task to generate some XML from text file. And, sure enough, my thoughts wandered to the good days in the Grails project where I could just instantiate the MarkupBuilder… But wait! I remembered that a colleague had already done some scripting stuff with Ruby, so the language was already kind of introduced into the project. And despite the fact that it was a new language for him he did some heavy lifting with it in just no time (That sure does not come as a big surprise all you Ruby folks out there).

So if Ruby is such a cool language there must be something like a markup builder in it, right? Yes there is, well, sort of. Unfortunately, it’s not part of the language package and you first have to install a thing called gems to even install the XML builder package. Being in a project with tight guidelines when it comes to external dependencies and counting in the fact that we had no patience to first having to learn what Ruby gems even are, my colleague and I decided to hack our own small XML builder (and of course, just for the fun of it). I mean hey, it’s Ruby, everything is supposed to be easy in Ruby.

Damn right it is! Here is what we came up with in what was maybe an hour or so:

class XmlGen
   def initialize
      @xmlString = ""
      @indentStack = Array.new

   def method_missing(tagId, attr = {})
      argList = attr.map { |key, value|
      }.reverse.join(' ')

      @xmlString << @indentStack.join('') 
      @xmlString << "<" << tagId.to_s << " " << argList
      if block_given?
         @xmlString << ">\n"
         @indentStack.push "\t"
         @xmlString << @indentStack.join('') << "</" << tagId.to_s << ">\n"
         @xmlString << "/>\n"

   def to_s

And here is how you can use it:

xml = XmlGen.new
xml.FirstXmlTag {
   xml.SubTagOne( {'attribute1' => 'value1'} ) {
      someCollection.each { |item|
         xml.CollectionTag( {'itemId' => item.id} )

It’s not perfect, it’s not optimized in any way and it may not even be the Ruby way. But hey, it served our needs perfectly, it was a pretty cool Ruby experience, and it sure is not the last piece of Ruby code in this project.