Andy Waite

Software Development Consultant, Ruby and Rails Developer, Toronto

Treating ActiveRecord as a private interface with FigLeaf

01 May 2015

In Objects on Rails, Avdi Grimm talks about treating ActiveRecord as a private implementation detail.

I’ve been aiming to do this in my own code for some time now. And I’ve worked for clients on many struggling, legacy Rails projects where following this simple guideline would have saved a lot of pain.

I was curious to see if I could programatically enforce this convention on a real project, using the fig-leaf gem introduced by the book.

I applied the example code from the FigLeaf README to my models and ran my test suite.

Straight away, FigLeaf identified several places where I was calling another model’s finder, e.g.:

Widget.find_by(uuid: uuid, owner: current_user)

This isn’t a terrible case, but if the owner belongs_to association in Widget was changed, I’d have to change all the places that call it.

Instead, I can introduce an interface which hides the underlying ActiveRecord implementation:

Widget.lookup(uuid, owned_by: current_user)

This new method is defined simply as:

# app/models/widget.rb
def self.lookup(uuid, owned_by:)
  find_by(uuid: uuid, owner: owned_by)

I was happy with the improvements this brought:

But there were two things that were causing my test suite to fail.

Calling ActiveRecord from within a test

Many of my tests directly call ActiveRecord finders, such as Widget.last to obtain the most recently created record. I had a dilemma:

Should I introduce a new finder, Widget.most_recently_created, which is only used in the test? In generally I’m uncomfortable having implementation code which is only ever executed by tests.

Or should I temporarily disable FigLeaf in the context of these tests, for example:

# spec/controllers/widgets_controller_spec.rb
it "..." do
  FigLeaf.disable do
    result = Widget.last

(FigLeaf doesn’t currently have such a method).

Third Party Gems

The other issue is that some gems directly call various ActiveRecord methods. In my case, this was factory_girl and shoulda-matchers.

I was able to work around this with a little bit of monkeypatching. Using send will circumvent FigLeaf’s checks. But this isn’t a sustainable approach.

A better approach would be if FigLeaf could be given a whitelist of classes which are allow to call ActiveRecord methods, which could probably be implemented by analysing the call stack with Kernel#caller


FigLeaf isn’t quite mature enough to be used on a production Rails project. However, there’s a great opportunity to build something based on it.

Alternatively, perhaps these kind of checks could be made using a static analysis tool such as rails_best_practices, reek or RuboCop.