No database to rule them all. Branch databases for Rails and git

You’re using git to manage your Ruby on Rails projects? Then you’ve probably come to appreciate topic branches as a kind of transaction facility for programmers. If you need to implement a non-trivial or just try something, the way to go is onto a new “topic” branch. There you can mangle the code all you like, without fearing to cause any lasting harm. In case everything works out fine, you merge the branch into the master branch and discard it. If you come to a dead end — well, you just discard the misbegotten branch.

But what about the database? If moving along your branch involves changes to the database, structural changes in particular, you can’t easily switch to another branch without these changes. In other words, your development database is really only suitable for a single branch.

Up to now, that is. Install the branch_db gem and what you get is a private database for your branch that you can mutilate without interfering with work on the other branches.

For details and installation instructions see the README. Here’s just an appetizer. Say you’re on branch “feature” and want a private copy of the “master” database. Here’s how you do it:

$ rake db:branches:copy ORIG_BRANCH=master

Getting it

  • github
  • $ sudo gem install mschuerig-branch_db

Let your Rails app know about it

In the appropriate place in config/environment.rb add

config.gem "mschuerig-branch_db", :lib => 'branch_db'

Ruby as a language for Rails views

Didn’t you always want to write your Rails views as plain Ruby objects? — “What?”, I hear you say. No, I haven’t lost my mind and the idea is quite sensible (or so I hope), once you add the restriction that it is JSON-formatted data that you want to return.

Say you need to set up some hashes or arrays for rendering to JSON. This is best done in Ruby and it is clearly a view concern. So let’s do it in the views. Like this:

  # app/controllers/movies_controller.rb
  def index
    respond_to do |format|
      format.json do
        @movies = Movie.all
        @count = Movie.count
        render :template => 'movies/index.json.rb'

  # app/views/movies/index.json.rb
    :identifier => Movie.primary_key,
    :totalCount => @count,
    # render @movies does not work as it insists on returning a string
    :items => { |m| render(m) }

  # app/views/movies/_movie.json.rb
    :id => movie.to_param,
    :title => movie.title,
    :releaseDate => movie.release_date

Getting it

  • github
  • $ sudo gem install mschuerig-ruby_template_handler

Let your Rails app know about it

In the appropriate place in config/environment.rb add

config.gem "mschuerig-ruby_template_handler", :lib => 'ruby_template_handler'

Simplistic Enumerations for ActiveRecord

Invariably, in almost every application there happen to be lists of data items that are immutable, just for reference. It could be colors, the four seasons, continents, the states of your country, kinds or types of this and that. These items are almost like constants. As accessible as they are through the ordinary ActiveRecord API, it seems an utter waste to hit the database again and again, for data that won’t change however often you request it.

Of course, the Rails community recognized early on that some data are more constant than others and over the years several plugins have been published that add cached and easily accessible enumerations to ActiveRecord. Some of these additions are quite complicated or befuddle ActiveRecord by not backing the enumeration values with real database objects. My experience has been that these attempted optimizations result in bizarre behavior when I did interesting things with ActiveRecord such as multiply nested named scopes plus custom SQL.

So, I thought a basic, no, simplistic, version of enumerations is called for. Here’s how it looks:

class Color < ActiveRecord::Base
  enumerates do |e|
    e.value :name => 'red'
    e.value :name => 'green'
    e.value :name => 'blue'


e.value :name => 'red'

ensures that a Color object with name ‘red’ exists, if it does not, one is created.


Although there is a #reload method defined on enumeration models, i.e. Color.reload, it is very unwise to use it. The point is that this method only affects a single server process and you most likely have many of them.

So, if you need to change enumeration values, the only way to do it is to treat it like an update to your application code.

Getting it

  • github
  • $ sudo gem install mschuerig-easy_enums

Let your Rails app know about it

In the appropriate place in config/environment.rb add

config.gem "mschuerig-easy_enums", :lib => 'easy_enums'

Lifting indexes with ActiveRecord

On a Rails project I’m currently working on I need to fill the database with test data to have something to play with. Apart from large imports, that’s the time when indexes may slow down operation severely instead of speeding things up. Consider: The indexes are not used, but have to be updated again and again for each new record that is inserted into the database. It is much cheaper, to lift — well, really drop — the indexes during mass operation and recreate them afterwards.

Here’s an example:

namespace :db do
  desc "Populate the database with sample data"
  task :populate => :environment do

    retained_indexes = [
      { :table => :movies, :columns => :title }
      { :table => 'people', :columns => ['lastname', :firstname] }

    ActiveRecord::Base.transaction do
        # Only consider indexes on these tables;
        # all tables by default.
        # Don't lift these indexes
        :except => retained_indexes,
        # Don't lift unique indexes; default: false.
        :except_unique => true
      ) do
        ActiveRecord::Base.silence do

          # import or generate large amounts of data here


Please bear in mind that dropping and creating of indexes is a rather intrusive operation on the structure of your database. You should only perform it while no other users (or processes) are accessing it.

Also, consider that some indexes may be important for the proper function of your database. If you have unique indexes, i.e. indexes that enforce that particular columns or combinations of columns are unique, and if you are handling violations of this constraint in your application code, then you might need to retain these indexes even during data generation.

Getting it

  • github
  • $ sudo gem install mschuerig-index_lifter

Let your Rails app know about it

In the appropriate place in config/environment.rb add

config.gem "mschuerig-index_lifter", :lib => 'index_lifter'