Enemy of the StateOct 5 2013
I learned very quickly while working on a large open source project is that it is important to make my code hard to break. The primary line of defense for this is a comprehensive test suite, but I think it’s also very important to create functions that are easy to use and difficult to damage.
I find I even code this way on personal projects that will never be released. Even if you never work on a team with other developers, there is a good chance you will forget a lot of implementation details of the code that you aren’t actively working on. You need to protect your code from yourself!
I think a lot about state these days. How much data should an object have, and how should it expose that to other objects? I find many bugs are related to the state and scope of data not being what you’d expect.
An Example: ActiveRecord
ActiveRecord makes it easy to retrieve all rows from database and represent them as objects:
Product.all.each do |p| puts p.name end
We didn’t have to specify that we wanted the
name column from the database before we
outputted it; by default ActiveRecord includes all the columns in the table.
Over time, many frequently used tables in databases such as
Product tend to get
more columns added to them to support new features. You might find that your table
that started off with 4 columns is eventually over 50!
There is overhead involved in returning all those extra columns from the database. At the very least, the database has to send more data across the wire to your application. On top of that, Rails has to deserialize all the columns into their appropriate types in the object.
When returning a single
Product you will probably not notice
much of a difference. However, when returning hundreds of rows at once, the overhead
can add up quite a bit.
Selecting only what you need
ActiveRecord provides a method called
select that can be used choose the columns
returned from the database. We could write something like this:
Product.select([:id, :name]).each do |p| puts p.name end
This will certainly execute faster than the
Products.all query above. However, if
you do this, you are exposing yourself to many bugs due to inconsistent state.
The danger here is ActiveRecord returns a mixed state instance of
returned object looks like a
Product. It has all of the instance methods
you defined on
Product, however, it is missing some of the data that is normally
To illustrate this, imagine you have a function that returns a product’s name, but adds an asterisk if it’s on sale:
def fancy_product_title(product) if product.on_sale? return product.name + "*" else return product.name end end
In this case, our method checks the
on_sale column in the database to determine
whether to append the asterisk. However, if you retrieved the
select([:id, :name]) you would not have this column present, and even if the
product was on sale your users wouldn’t know about it.
Now this might seem like a pretty easy bug to squash. Any competant programmer
could adjust this code to return
on_sale in the
select clause if if they saw it
wasn’t ever being displayed.
That is demanding a much broader knowledge of the application and the flow of data than is necessary. It takes more development time, and doesn’t scale well when your codebase grows. Also, who wants to constantly think “hey, do I have all the data I need in this object to do my work?”
Keep it Consistent
You can eliminate any entire class of bugs by never using
select. You should
insist that your object instances always include all their data members.
What about the performance issues? I suggest instead that you design your data
structures in a different way. Rather than returning inconsistent
Product models, why not
create a method that returns
Product instances have enough data to transform into
BasicProduct instances if they
need to. If you like inheritance you could make a
Product extend a
you’re not a fan of inheritance you could create a
This is just one example of how easy it is to leave things in an inconsistent state, especially when considering performance. I suggest that you make an effort to keep your data in sync as much as possible, even if it involves a little data modelling. You’ll have fewer bugs, and your code will be better to use in the long run.