Mathias Meyer
Mathias Meyer


When I built the billing process for Travis CI’s commercial offering, I decided to try out some new things to avoid callbacks in ActiveRecord models, including validations.

In 2010 I wrote about why callbacks and validations scattered about the persistence layer bother me. I recommend reading it to get the full background on this.

What I went for this time was a mix of a service layer that handles all the business logic and a layer of form objects that handle communications between the controller and the services, including handling validations.

The goal was to have simple Ruby objects to take care of these things. No special frameworks required. Inspiration in part stemmed from Django’s form objects, though my implementation lacks the part that talks directly to the model, for instance to save data to the database. Quite intentionally so, as that part is up to the services layer.

The last thing I wanted to avoid is having to use attr_accessible in the persistence layer. In my view, that part is not something persistence should be concerned with. It’s a contract between the controller and the services it calls into to make sure parameters are properly narrowed down to the set required for any operation.

Form Objects

For form objects, I looked at Scrivener, which was a great start. It’s a very simple framework for form objects, the code could barely be simpler, but it lacks some validations, as it implements its own set.

On top of that, it doesn’t tie in with Rails’ form handling that well, which requires some parts of ActiveModel to work properly. Scrivener is great when you integrate it with e.g. Sinatra and your own simple set of forms.

It’s so simple that I decided to take its simple parts and merge it with ActiveModel’s validations support. Thanks to Rails 3, that part has been extracted out of the ActiveRecord code and can be used for anything.

The beauty of form objects is that they allow you to specify different views on the same data. Every database record wrapped by ActiveRecord can have multiple representations depending on which data is required by a specific form.


Here’s the base code for the forms, which doesn’t have a name, it’s just a snippet of code that’s part of our Rails project:

It defines a few things that are required by Rails’ form_for, but other than that it’s straight-forward. It can populate form attributes based on the model handed in, which makes it suitable for re-use, for instance when editing an existing object or when validations failed on update.

Here’s a sample form object:

It declares a few attributes and some validations. Thanks to ActiveModel you could use anything provided by its validations package in a form object.

By declaring the attributes a form object brings a simple means of implementing mass assignment protection without requiring any sort of sanitization and without poisoning the model with attr_accessible and jumping through hoops in tests to create valid objects to work with.

If an attribute assigned to the form doesn’t exist, the assignment will fail.

In the controller…

The interaction with the controller is rather simple, no added complexity:

I’m liking this approach a lot, and it’s been in use for a few months. There’ll be some refinements, but the simplicity of it all is what I find to be the best part of it.

It’s all just plain Ruby objects with some additional behaviours. Add a simple service layer to this, and cluttered code in the ActiveRecord model is nicely split up into lots of smaller chunks that deal with very specific concerns.