At the Forge - Rails and Databases

After years of painful Web development, here's a development framework based on understanding how Web developers really use relational databases. Rails standardizes the tweaky parts for you to save time.

Then, we point our browser to the application, at the /admin URL: http://localhost:3000/admin.

Sure enough, we see—nothing at all, aside from a few links that let us add a new entry into our Blogs table. If you click on add, you now will see a form that lets you create a new Weblog entry. These automatically generated pages are in the app/views subdirectory. In particular, look at new.rhtml and list.rhtml in app/views/admin. You can, of course, change these views—and in a production application, you will. But for getting your feet wet with Rails, or just trying out an application idea, this is indeed pretty useful.

Now, when you go to the add page, you might be surprised to discover that there is one field for each of the columns in the Blogs table, except for id. This is the result of some cleverness on the part of the automatically generated scaffolding code; it looked at the table definitions and decided what kind of input area to show. What happens if we add another column to our Blogs table that represents when the blog entry was added? (After all, a Weblog whose contents aren't sorted in date order isn't going to be very useful.)

To save time, we simply go in and modify our table definition, using the ALTER TABLE command:

$ psql -U blog blog
% ALTER TABLE Blogs ADD COLUMN posted_at
        TIMESTAMP NOT NULL DEFAULT NOW();

If you look at the table definition (with the \d command in the psql client program), you'll see that it now has a new column named posted_at. The naming conventions in Rails extend to the names of columns; columns of type DATE should be named xxx_on, and columns of type TIMESTAMP (that is, both date and time) should be named xxx_at.

We now need to regenerate our scaffolding code, blowing away any previous version that might have existed (which is okay in this particular case):

ruby script/generate scaffolding Blog Admin

Next, restart the server and go back to the new blog page. You will see that it has changed, so that it now includes a posted at field. Moreover, you can't enter arbitrary text there; a full-blown date-entry set of selection lists is in place. If you ever have written code to handle the entry of dates in a Web application, this alone should be a pleasant change.

Finally, take some time to explore both the application (using your Web browser) and the updates that take place in the database as you add, modify and delete rows. Without having written even a single line of Ruby code, you should find yourself able to use the Web-based forms to modify the database. If you want to be a bit adventurous, you can even modify list.rhtml, which shows you the current list of blog entries.

Conclusion

Many Web/database frameworks have struggled to offer a persistent storage layer that interfaces cleanly with the programming language itself. Embedded SQL code isn't too terrible on a small scale, but even a medium-size application can result in a great deal of SQL queries in the middle of an otherwise object-oriented application. The Rails solution strikes a balance that I find quite pleasing, forcing very small, logical changes on me in exchange for a great deal of time savings.

Of course, it's not very hard to create an object-relational mapper when all you need to worry about is column types and individual tables. Moreover, you'll quickly discover that as written, our simple blog application has several problems. To begin with, it has an administrative interface, but no method for displaying the blog to the world! Also, it doesn't display blog entries in any sort of chronological order. Next month, we will see how to solve these problems, as well as how Rails enforces data integrity with a few simple lines in our model definitions.

Resources for this article: /article/8526.

Reuven M. Lerner, a longtime Web/database consultant and developer, now is a graduate student in the Learning Sciences program at Northwestern University. His Weblog is at altneuland.lerner.co.il, and you can reach him at reuven@lerner.co.il.

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scaffolding

Anonymous's picture

When I did:

ruby script/generate scaffolding Blog Admin

I got the error, "Couldn't find 'scaffolding' generator"

I think I got it to work by doing:

ruby script/generate scaffold Blog Admin

Bob Gustafson 1) The

bobgus's picture

Bob Gustafson

1) The db/create.sql file does not actually create the database table, but apparently supplies information that is used during the scaffold step. ( I was hoping.. ) I haven't checked whether this file changed to reflect the change ALTER TABLE..

2) The syntax of the scaffold commands have changed to:
ruby script/generate scaffold Blog Admin

3) The ALTER TABLE command syntax seems to have changed to:
psql -U blog blog_development

What about blog_test and blog_production? Duplicate work?

Otherwise, not bad. A quicky blog writer. Looking forward to next month.

Bob Gustafson

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