rtyler

Inside ActiveRecord Joins, a quick note

There was once a time when I prided myself on my ignorance of SQL Joins, foolishly proclaiming "if I need to use a JOIN, I've already screwed up."

I've slightly changed my opinions since then, mostly because I can no longer afford to avoid JOINs. Sometimes harsh reality is the best cure for young idealism.

Anywho, what was my point again about joins?

Ah yes, joins in ActiveRecord. While ActiveRecord is a very solid ORM gem for Ruby, it is not without it's quirks. Most of which come down to "magic" behavior or defaults you've assumed incorrectly. As much as I would like to pontificate on the odd method_missing magic ActiveRecord developers seem to love, this post is more about the latter.

In general, JOINs involve two tables, JOINing together the tables typically for a nested query of some form or fashion. For an example, let's use this make believe query:

    SELECT </span><span class="n">guests</span><span class="o">.* FROM </span><span class="n">guests</span><span class="o"> JOIN </span><span class="n">plates</span><span class="o"> \
        ON plates.guest_id = guests.id WHERE \
        (guests.favorite = 'sushi' OR plates.content = 'sushi');

There are five basic JOINs in SQL land, and in this context they mean:

Back in ActiveRecord land, let's imagine I want to create a named_scope, which in Rails 3 has been deprecated in favor of just scope, I'd write code something like this:

    class Guest < ActiveRecord::Base
      has_one :plate
      # ...
      named_scope :with_food, lambda { |food| {
                    :conditions => ["guests.favorite = ? OR plates.content = ?", food, food],
                    :joins => :plate
                }}
    end

Underneath the hood, ActiveRecord generates a query almost exactly like the one above with one subtle difference. "JOIN" is instead an "INNER JOIN" which means my query will not return a Guest object for any guests who do not already have a plate object.

The "solution" is to use a LEFT JOIN, which is unfortunately rather gnarly. There may be a better way to perform alternate JOINs in ActiveRecord, but I don't yet of one:

    class Guest < ActiveRecord::Base
      has_one :plate
      # ...
      named_scope :with_food, lambda { |food| {
                    :conditions => ["guests.favorite = ? OR plates.content = ?", food, food],
                    :joins => "LEFT JOIN plates ON plates.guest_id = guests.id"
                }}
    end

Basically if you want to use anything other than a simple INNER JOIN, you've got to enter it in yourself. At a certain point ActiveRecord throws up its hands and says "Look, buddy, I have no idea what you're trying to do here. Enter your own damn SQL."

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