Yehuda Katz is a member of the Ember.js, Ruby on Rails and jQuery Core Teams; his 9-to-5 home is at the startup he founded, Tilde Inc.. There he works on Skylight, the smart profiler for Rails, and does Ember.js consulting. He is best known for his open source work, which also includes Thor and Handlebars. He travels the world doing open source evangelism and web standards work.

Archive for November, 2010

Ruby 2.0 Refinements in Practice

First Shugo announced them at RubyKaigi. Then Matz showed some improved syntax at RubyConf. But what are refinements all about, and what would they be used for?

The first thing you need to understand is that the purpose of refinements in Ruby 2.0 is to make monkey-patching safer. Specifically, the goal is to make it possible to extend core classes, but to limit the effect of those extensions to a particular area of code. Since the purpose of this feature is make monkey-patching safer, let’s take a look at a dangerous case of monkey-patching and see how this new feature would improve the situation.

A few months ago, I encountered a problem where some accidental monkey-patches in Right::AWS conflicted with Rails’ own monkey-patches. In particular, here is their code:

unless defined? ActiveSupport::CoreExtensions
  class String #:nodoc:
    def camelize()
      self.dup.split(/_/).map{ |word| word.capitalize }.join('')
    end
  end
end

Essentially, Right::AWS is trying to make a few extensions available to itself, but only if they were not defined by Rails. In that case, they assume that the Rails version of the extension will suffice. They did this quite some time ago, so these extensions represent a pretty old version of Rails. They assume (without any real basis), that every future version of ActiveSupport will return an expected vaue from camelize.

Unfortunately, Rails 3 changed the internal organization of ActiveSupport, and removed the constant name ActiveSupport::CoreExtensions. As a result, these monkey-patches got activated. Let’s take a look at what the Rails 3 version of the camelize helper looks like:

class String
  def camelize(first_letter = :upper)
    case first_letter
      when :upper then ActiveSupport::Inflector.camelize(self, true)
      when :lower then ActiveSupport::Inflector.camelize(self, false)
    end
  end
end
 
module ActiveSupport
  module Inflector
    extend self
 
    def camelize(lower_case_and_underscored_word, first_letter_in_uppercase = true)
      if first_letter_in_uppercase
        lower_case_and_underscored_word.to_s.gsub(/\/(.?)/) { "::#{$1.upcase}" }.gsub(/(?:^|_)(.)/) { $1.upcase }
      else
        lower_case_and_underscored_word.to_s[0].chr.downcase + camelize(lower_case_and_underscored_word)[1..-1]
      end
    end
  end
end

There are a few differences here, but the most important one is that in Rails, “foo/bar” becomes “Foo::Bar”. The Right::AWS version converts that same input into “Foo/bar”.

Now here’s the wrinkle. The Rails router uses camelize to convert controller paths like “admin/posts” to “Admin::Posts”. Because Right::AWS overrides camelize with this (slightly) incompatible implementation, the Rails router ends up trying to find an “Admin/posts” constant, which Ruby correctly complains isn’t a valid constant name. While situations like this are rare, it’s mostly because of an extremely diligent library community, and a general eschewing of applying these kinds of monkey-patches in library code. In general, Right::AWS should have done something like Right::Utils.camelize in their code to avoid this problem.

Refinements allow us to make these kinds of aesthetically pleasing extensions for our own code with the guarantee that they will not affect any other Ruby code.

First, instead of directly reopening the String class, we would create a refinement in the ActiveSupport module:

module ActiveSupport
  refine String do
    def camelize(first_letter = :upper)
      case first_letter
        when :upper then ActiveSupport::Inflector.camelize(self, true)
        when :lower then ActiveSupport::Inflector.camelize(self, false)
      end
    end
  end
end

What we have done here is define a String refinement that we can activate elsewhere with the using method. Let’s use the refinement in the router:

module ActionDispatch
  module Routing
    class RouteSet
      using ActiveSupport
 
      def controller_reference(controller_param)
        unless controller = @controllers[controller_param]
          controller_name = "#{controller_param.camelize}Controller"
          controller = @controllers[controller_param] =
            ActiveSupport::Dependencies.ref(controller_name)
        end
        controller.get
      end      
    end
  end
end

It’s important to note that the refinement only applies to methods physically inside the same block. It will not apply to other methods in ActionDispatch::Routing::RouteSet defined in a different block. This means that we can use different refinements for different groups of methods in the same class, by defining the methods in different class blocks, each with their own refinements. So if I reopened the RouteSet class somewhere else:

module ActionDispatch
  module Routing
    class RouteSet
      using RouterExtensions
 
      # I can define a special version of camelize that will be used
      # only in methods defined in this physical block
      def route_name(name)
        name.camelize
      end
    end
  end
end

Getting back to the real-life example, even though Right::AWS created a global version of camelize, the ActiveSupport version (applied via using ActiveSupport) will be used. This means that we are guaranteed that our code (and only our code) uses the special version of camelize.

It’s also important to note that only explicit calls to camelize in the physical block will use the special version. For example, let’s imagine that some library defines a global method called constantize, and uses a camelize refinement:

module Protection
  refine String do
    def camelize()
      self.dup.split(/_/).map{ |word| word.capitalize }.join('')
    end
  end
end
 
class String #:nodoc:
  using Protection
 
  def constantize
    Object.module_eval("::#{camelize}", __FILE__, __LINE__)
  end
end

Calling String#constantize anywhere will internally call the String#camelize from the Protection refinement to do some of its work. Now let’s say we create a String refinement with an unusual camelize method:

module Wycats
  refine String do
    def camelize
      result = dup.split(/_/).map(&:capitalize).join
      "_#{result}_"
    end
  end
end
 
module Factory
  using Wycats
 
  def self.create(class_name, string)
    klass = class_name.constantize
    klass.new(string.camelize)
  end
end
 
class Person
  def initialize(string)
    @string = string
  end
end
 
Factory.create("Person", "wycats")

Here, the Wycats refinement should not leak into the call to constantize. If it did, it would mean that any call into any method could leak a refinement into that method, which is the opposite of the purpose of the feature. Once you realize that refinements apply lexically, they create a very orderly, easy to understand way to apply targeted monkey patches to an area of code.

In my opinion, the most important feature of refinements is that you can see the refinements that apply to a chunk of code (delineated by a physical class body). This allows you to be sure that the changes you are making only apply where you want them to apply, and makes refinements a real solution to the general problem of wanting aesthetically pleasing extensions with the guarantee that you can’t break other code. In addition, refinements protect diligent library authors even when other library authors (or app developers) make global changes, which makes it possible to use the feature without system-wide adoption. I, for one, am looking forward to it.

Postscript

There is one exception to the lexical rule, which is that refinements are inherited from the calling scope when using instance_eval. This actually gives rise to some really nice possibilities, which I will explore in my next post.

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