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Tatyana Celovsky
Tatyana Celovsky

Posted on • Originally published at coding-adventures.com on

Overview of Active Record Associations

This is an overview of Active Record Associations, after reading this post, you will be able to:

  • Understand the types of Active Record associations.
  • Declare associations between Active Record models.
  • Use the methods added to your models by creating associations.

An association is a connection between two Active Record models that is used add features to your code. Rails supports six types of associations:

  • belongs_to
  • has_one
  • has_many
  • has_many :through
  • has_one :through
  • has_and_belongs_to_many

By declaring one of these associations, you instruct Rails to maintain information between the instances of your models. The following is an overview of each Rails association.

belongs_to

A belongs_to association sets up a one-to-one connection with another model, meaning that each instance of the declaring model “belongs to” one instance of the other model. For example, if your application includes authors and blog posts, and each post can be assigned to exactly one author, you’d declare the blog post model this way:

class Post < ApplicationRecord
  belongs_to :author
end

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Note: belongs_to associations must use the singular term (i.e. author). Using the pluralized form (i.e. authors) in the above example would cause an error because Rails automatically infers the class name from the association name. If the association name is wrongly pluralized, then the inferred class will be wrongly pluralized too.

The corresponding migration would look like this:

class CreatePosts < ActiveRecord::Migration
  def change
    create_table :authors do |t|
      t.string :name
      t.timestamps
    end

    create_table :posts do |t|
      t.belongs_to :author
      t.datetime :published_at
      t.timestamps
    end
  end
end

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After declaring the belongs_to association, the declaring class automatically gains 6 methods related to the association:

  • association
  • association=(associate)
  • build_association(attributes = {})
  • create_association(attributes = {})
  • create_association!(attributes = {})
  • reload_association

In the above methods, association is replaced with the symbol passed as the first argument to belongs_to. In our example where posts belong to authors, each instance of the post model will have these methods available:

author

author=

build_author

create_author

create_author!

reload_author

These additional methods make your code cleaner and easier. For example, you could add a new author while writing a post:

new_author = @post.build_author(name: "Your Name")
new_author.save

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Note: If you use the `build option, you’ll have to persist your new author with #save while the create_` option will persist to the database for you._

has_one

A has_one association also sets up a one-to-one connection with another model, but unlike belongs_to association, has_one association indicates that each instance of a model contains only one instance of another model. For example, each customer would have only one account and you would declare the customer model as follows:

class Customer < ApplicationRecord
  has_one :account
end

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The corresponding migration would look like this:

class CreateCustomers < ActiveRecord::Migration
  def change
    create_table :customers do |t|
      t.string :name
      t.timestamps
    end

    create_table :accounts do |t|
      t.belongs_to :customer
      t.sting :account_number
      t.timestamps
    end
  end
end

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After declaring has_one association, the declaring class automatically gains 6 methods related to the association:

  • association
  • association=(associate)
  • build_association(attributes = {})
  • create_association(attributes = {})
  • create_association!(attributes = {})
  • reload_association

As previously mentioned, in the above methods, association is replaced with the symbol passed as the first argument to has_one. In our example of customers and accounts, each instance of the customer model will have these methods available:

account

account=

build_account

create_account

create_account!

reload_account

has_many

A has_many association indicates a one-to-many connection with another model and is found in models corresponding to a belongs_to association. has_many association indicates that each instance of the model has multiple instances of another model. Going back to the example of authors and blog posts, the author model would be declared as follows:

class Author < ApplicationRecord
  has_many :posts
end

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Note: The name of the other model (i.e. posts) is pluralized when declaring a has_many association.

The corresponding migration would look like this:

class CreateAuthors < ActiveRecord::Migration
  def change
    create_table :authors do |t|
      t.string :name
      t.timestamps
    end

    create_table :posts do |t|
      t.belongs_to :author
      t.datetime :published_at
      t.timestamps
    end
  end
end

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After declaring has_many association, the declaring class automatically gains 17 methods related to the association:

  • collection
  • collection<<(object, ...)
  • collection.delete(object, ...)
  • collection.destroy(object, ...)
  • collection=(objects)
  • collection_singular_ids
  • collection_singular_ids=(ids)
  • collection.clear
  • collection.empty?
  • collection.size
  • collection.find(...)
  • collection.where(...)
  • collection.exists?(...)
  • collection.build(attributes = {}, ...)
  • collection.create(attributes = {})
  • collection.create!(attributes = {})
  • collection.reload

In the above methods, collection is replaced with the symbol passed as the first argument to has_many, and collection_singular is replaced with the singularized version of that symbol. In our example of authors and posts, each instance of the author model will have these methods:

posts

posts<<(object, ...)

posts.delete(object, ...)

posts.destroy(object, ...)

posts=(objects)

post_ids

post_ids=(ids)

posts.clear

posts.empty?

posts.size

posts.find(...)

posts.where(...)

posts.exists?(...)

posts.build(attributes = {}, ...)

posts.create(attributes = {})

posts.create!(attributes = {})

posts.reload

has_many :through

A has_many :through association sets up a many-to-many connection with another model, indicating that the declaring model can be matched with multiple instances of another model through a third model. For example, in the case of a workout studio where students sign up for classes with various instructors, association declarations would look like this:

class Instructor < ApplicationRecord
  has_many :workout_classes
  has_many :students, through: :workout_classes
end

class Workout_class < ApplicationRecord
  belongs_to :instructor
  belongs_to :student
end

class Student < ApplicationRecord
  has_many :workout_classes
  has_many :instructors, through: :workout_classes
end

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Note how workout_class class serves as a connector between instructor class and student class in the above example. This is that third model that helps to set up a many-to-many connection between students and instructors.

The corresponding migration would look like this:

class CreateWorkoutClasses < ActiveRecord::Migration
  def change
    create_table :instructors do |t|
      t.string :name
      t.timestamps
    end

    create_table :students do |t|
      t.string :name
      t.timestamps
    end

    create_table :workout_classes do |t|
      t.belongs_to :instructor
      t.belongs_to :student
      t.timestamps
    end
  end
end

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has_many :through association is very useful for setting up shortcuts through nested has_many associations. Continuing with the workout studio example, a workout studio has many instructors and an instructor has many workout classes. It’s possible to get a list of all workout classes offered at the given studio:

class Workout_studio < ApplicationRecord
  has_many :instructors
  has_many :workout_classes, through: :instructors
end

class Instructor < ApplicationRecord
  belongs_to :workout_studio
  has_many :workout_classes
end

class Workout_class < ApplicationRecord
  belongs_to :instructor
end

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With through: :instructors in the above example, Rails will now understand:

@workout_studio.workout_classes

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has_one :through

A has_one :through association is used to set up a one-to-one connection with another model, such that the declaring model can be matched with only one instance of another model by proceeding through a third model. In the case of a customer and account example, each customer has only one account, and each account is associated with only one account history. The customer model would look like this:

class Customer < ApplicationRecord
  has_one :account
  has_one :account_history, through: :account
end

class Account < ApplicationRecord
  belongs_to :customer
  has_one :account_history
end

class AccountHistory < ApplicationRecord
  belongs_to :account
end

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The corresponding migration would look like this:

class CreateAccountHistories < ActiveRecord::Migration
  def change
    create_table :customers do |t|
      t.string :name
      t.timestamps
    end

    create_table :accounts do |t|
      t.belongs_to :customer
      t.string :account_number
      t.timestamps
    end

    create_table :account_histories do |t|
      t.belongs_to :account
      t.integer :credit_rating
      t.timestamps
    end
  end
end

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has_and_belongs_to_many

A has_and_belongs_to_many association creates a direct many-to-many connection with another model. In this case, no third or intervening model is needed. If your application includes assemblies and parts, with each assembly having many parts and each part appearing in many assemblies. The association declarations would look like this:

class Assembly < ApplicationRecord
  has_and_belongs_to_many :parts
end

class Part < ApplicationRecord
  has_and_belongs_to_many :assemblies
end

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The corresponding migration would look like this:

class CreateAssembliesAndParts < ActiveRecord::Migration
  def change
    create_table :assemblies do |t|
      t.string :name
      t.timestamps
    end

    create_table :parts do |t|
      t.string :part_number
      t.timestamps
    end

    create_table :assemblies_parts, id: false do |t|
      t.belongs_to :assembly
      t.belongs_to :part
    end
  end
end

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Note the assemblies_parts join table in the above example that allows the has_and_belongs_to_many relationship to work.

After declaring a has_and_belongs_to_many association, the declaring class automatically gains 17 methods related to the association:

  • collection
  • collection<<(object, ...)
  • collection.delete(object, ...)
  • collection.destroy(object, ...)
  • collection=(objects)
  • collection_singular_ids
  • collection_singular_ids=(ids)
  • collection.clear
  • collection.empty?
  • collection.size
  • collection.find(...)
  • collection.where(...)
  • collection.exists?(...)
  • collection.build(attributes = {})
  • collection.create(attributes = {})
  • collection.create!(attributes = {})
  • collection.reload

In the above methods, collection is replaced with the symbol passed as the first argument to has_and_belongs_to_many, and collection_singular is replaced with the singularized version of that symbol. In our example of assemblies and parts, each instance of the part model will have these methods:

assemblies

assemblies<<(object, ...)

assemblies.delete(object, ...)

assemblies.destroy(object, ...)

assemblies=(objects)

assembly_ids

assembly_ids=(ids)

assemblies.clear

assemblies.empty?

assemblies.size

assemblies.find(...)

assemblies.where(...)

assemblies.exists?(...)

assemblies.build(attributes = {}, ...)

assemblies.create(attributes = {})

assemblies.create!(attributes = {})

assemblies.reload

When deciding whether to use has_many :through or has_and_belongs_to_many, consider whether you need to have the independent relationship model. If you don’t need to do anything with the relationship model (for example, have validations, callbacks or other attributes), it may be simpler to set up a has_and_belongs_to_many relationship and the corresponding join table. Otherwise, use has_many :through.

Active Record associations are versatile and powerful tools. As mentioned above, declaring associations adds many useful methods to your models that will help keep your code succinct. A much more detailed guide to associations can be found in the in the Rails Associations Guide and Rails API docs.

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