Controllers

Introduction

The controller’s job is really to act as the ultimate middleman. It knows which questions it wants to ask the Model, but lets the model do all the heavy lifting for actually solving those questions. It knows which view it wants to render and send back to the browser, but lets the view itself take care of putting all that HTML together. That’s why it’s a “controller”… smart enough to know what to do and then delegate all the hard work. All it does is collect the proper batch of instance variables for sending over to the view.

When does the controller get used? After an HTTP request comes into your application and the router decides which controller and action to map it to, Rails packages up all the parameters that were associated with that request and runs the specified method in the specified controller. Once that method is done, Rails will take any instance variables you’ve given it in that controller method and ship them over to the appropriate view file so they can be inserted into your HTML template (“View”) and ultimately sent back to the browser.

It’s pretty straightforward. Typical controllers are pretty lightweight and don’t have a whole lot of code but are able to do a lot of work with that code. What if you want to show all your blog posts in your site’s index page? Run the #index action of your Posts controller and it will grab all your posts and send them over to the index.html.erb view file, which figures out how you actually want them displayed (in a giant bulleted list? With slick looking panels?).

The controller’s #index action would actually look as simple as:

  PostsController < ApplicationController
    ...
    def index
      @posts = Post.all
    end
    ...
  end

In this simple action, we have the controller asking the model for something (“Hey, give me all the posts!”), packaging them up in an instance variable @posts so the view can use them, then will automatically render the view at app/views/posts/index.html.erb (we’ll talk about that in a minute).

Learning Outcomes

Look through these now and then use them to test yourself after doing the assignment:

  • Why is it important what you name your models, controllers, and views?
  • Where is the view file located that’s rendered by default for a given controller?
  • What’s the difference between a #render and a #redirect_to?
  • What happens to the controller’s instance variables in each case?
  • What is a shortcut for redirecting to a specific Post (tip: this works in all kinds of places like #link_to and #*_path)
  • Does a method finish executing or get interrupted when it hits a #render or #redirect_to?
  • What happens if you have multiple renders or redirects?
  • What are Strong Parameters?
  • When can you just use the params hash directly and when do you need to specifically “whitelist” its contents?
  • What are “scalar” values?
  • What does #require do? #permit?
  • What’s the #flash?
  • What’s the difference between #flash and #flash.now?

Naming Matters

One way that Rails makes your life a bit easier is that it assumes things are named a certain way and then executes them behind the scenes based on those names. For instance, your controller and its action have to be named whatever you called them in your routes.rb file when you mapped a specific type of HTTP request to them.

The other end of the process is what the controller does when it’s done. Once rails gets to the end of that controller action, it grabs all the instance variables from the controller and sends them over the view file which is named the same thing as the controller action and which lives in a folder named after the controller, e.g. app/views/posts/index.html.erb. This isn’t arbitrary, this is intentional to make your life a lot easier when looking for files later. If you save your files in a different folder or hierarchy, you’ll have to explicitly specify which ones you want rendered.

Rendering and Redirecting

Although Rails will implicitly render a view file that is named the same thing as your controller action, there are plenty of situations when you might want to override it. A main case for this is when you actually want to completely redirect the user to a new page instead of rendering the result of your controller action.

Redirects typically occur after controller actions where you’ve submitted information like to create a new Post. There’s no reason to have a create.html.erb view file that gets displayed once a post has been created… we usually just want to see the post we created and so we’ll redirect over to the Show page for that post. The distinction here is that your application treats a redirect as a completely new HTTP request… so it would enter through the router again, look for the Show page corresponding to that post, and render it normally. That also means that any instance variables you set in your original #create controller action are wiped out along the way.

If that’s the common way to deal with successfully creating an object, how about when it fails for some reason (like the user entered a too-short post title)? In that case, you can just render the view for another controller action, often the same action that created the form you just submitted (so the #new action).

The trick here is that the view page gets passed the instance variables from your current controller action. So let’s say that you tried to #create a Post and stored it to @post but it failed to save. You then rendered the #new action’s view and that view will receive the @post you were just working with in the #create action. This is great because you don’t have to wipe the form completely clean (which is really annoying as a user) – you can just identify the fields that failed and have the user resubmit. It may sound a bit abstract now but you’ll see the difference quickly when building.

Let’s see it in code:

  # app/controllers/posts_controller.rb
  class PostsController < ApplicationController
    ...
    # Make (but don't save) an empty Post so the form we render
    # knows which fields to use and where to submit the form
    # This action will render app/views/posts/new.html.erb once
    # it's done
    def new
      @post = Post.new
    end

    # We know this will get run once we receive the submitted
    # form from our NEW action above (remember your REST actions??)
    # We'll just use pseudo-code for now to illustrate the point
    def create
      # code here to set up a new @post based on form info
      if @post.save
        # code to set up congratulations message
        redirect_to post_path(@post.id) # go to show page for @post
      else
        # code to set up error message
        render :new
      end
    end
  end

So the thing to pay attention to is that, if we successfully are able to save our new post in the database, we redirect to that post’s show page. Note that a shortcut you’ll see plenty of times is, instead of writing redirect_to post_path(@post.id), just write redirect_to @post because Rails knows people did that so often that they gave you the option of writing it shorthand. We’ll use this in the example as we develop it further.

The error condition in the #create action above is going to render the same form that we rendered in the #new action, though this time @post will be the Post object that we tried and failed to save, so it will also have some errors attached to it which can be used to highlight in red which form fields were the culprits.

Multiple Render/Redirects

It’s important to note that render and redirect_to do NOT immediately stop your controller action like a return statement would. So you have to be really careful that your logic doesn’t result in you running more than one of those statements. If you do, you’ll get hit with an error. They’re usually pretty straightforward to debug.

If you write something like:

  def show
    @user = User.find(params[:id])
    if @user.is_male?
      render "show-boy"
    end
    render "show-girl"
  end

In any case where the user is male, you’ll get hit with a multiple render error because you’ve told Rails to render both “show-boy” and “show-girl”.

Params and Strong Parameters

In the example above, we saw ... code here to set up a new @post based on form info .... Okay, how do we grab that info? We keep saying that the router packages up all the parameters that were sent with the original HTTP request, but how do we access them?

With the params hash! It acts just like a normal Ruby hash and contains the parameters of the request, stored as :key => value pairs. So how do we get the ID of the post we’re asking for? params[:id]. You can access any parameters this way which have “scalar values”, e.g. strings, numbers, booleans, nil… anything that’s “flat”.

Some forms will submit every field as a top level scalar entry in the params hash, e.g. params[:post_title] might be “test post” and params[:post_body] might be “body of post” etc and these you can access with no issues. You have control over this, as you’ll learn in the lessons on forms.

Strong Parameters

Often times, though, you want to send parameters from the browser that are all packaged nicely into a hash or nested into an array. It can make your life a lot easier because you can just pass that hash straight into Post.new(your_hash_of_attributes_here) because that’s what Post.new expects anyway! We won’t really get too deep into this stuff until the lessons on Models and Forms, but you should be aware that the structure of the data you’re being sent from a form depends entirely on how you choose to set up that form (it’s really based on how you choose to name your fields using the HTML name='' attribute).

In our example, we will assume that our params[:post] is giving us a hash of Post attributes like { :title => "test post", :body => "this post rocks", :author_id => "1"}, which is exactly what Post.new is expecting. Whether you get the parameters packaged up in a hash or all on the top level as individual attributes (like params[:id]), again, is up to you and how you create your form. But know it’s usually easier for you to handle receiving a nicely packaged hash of Post attributes in your controller.

The important distinction between the “scalar” parameter values like strings and more complex parameters like hashes and arrays is that Rails 4 implemented some protections in the controller, called “Strong Parameters”. This is so the user can’t send you harmful data (like automatically setting themselves as an admin user when they create an account). To do this, Rails makes you explicitly verify that you are willing to accept certain items of a hash or array.

Note: This used to be done in Rails 3 by setting attr_accessible in the model to whitelist attributes, so you will probably see that in a lot of Stack Overflow posts and earlier applications.

To “whitelist”, or explicitly allow, parameters, you use the methods require and permit. Basically, you require the name of your array or hash to be in Params (otherwise it’ll throw an error), and then you permit the individual attributes inside that hash to be used. For example:

  def whitelisted_post_params
    params.require(:post).permit(:title,:body,:author_id)
  end

This will whitelist and return the hash of only those params that you specified (e.g. {:title => "your title", :body => "your body", :author_id => "1"} ). If you didn’t do this, when you tried to access params[:post] nothing would show up! Also, if there were any additional fields submitted inside the hash, these will be stripped away and made inaccessible (to protect you).

It can be inconvenient, but it’s Rails protecting you from bad users. You’ll usually package these strong parameter helpers up in their own private method at the bottom of your controllers, then call that method where you need to get those specific params.

So our #create action above can now be filled out a bit more:

  # app/controllers/posts_controller.rb
  class PostsController < ApplicationController
    ...

    # We know this will get run once we've received the submitted
    # form from our new action above (remember your REST actions??)
    def create
      @post = Post.new(whitelisted_post_params) # see method below
      if @post.save
        # code to set up congratulations message
        redirect_to post_path(@post.id) # go to show page for @post
      else
        # code to set up error message
        render :new
      end
    end

    private  # Best to make helper methods like this one private

    # gives us back just the hash containing the params we need to
    # to create or update a post
    def whitelisted_post_params
      params.require(:post).permit(:title,:body,:author_id)
    end
  end

Flash

The last piece of code we need to write there is how to set our special messages for the user. Rails gives you a neat tool for sending success and error messages (like the little green message that briefly appears at the top of an application to congratulate you for signing up) called the “flash”. It acts just like a hash – you can set its keys to a specific message and then that will be available for you to access if you want to display it in your views.

You can use any keys you want for the flash, but it’s conventional to just stick to three, :success, :error, and :notify. So the success message above might look like flash[:success] = "Great! Your post has been created!".

The reason you can use any key is because you will have to write a snippet of code in your view anyway to display the flash, but sticking to the conventional ones is good practice. The other sneaky trick with the flash is that it automatically erases itself once you’ve used it, so you don’t have to worry about it displaying every time you visit a new page… one time use. Like Snapchat.

One last distinction, though, goes back to the difference between a redirect and a render. Remember, a redirect submits a completely new HTTP request, effectively leaving our application in the dust and starting over from the top. We lose all our data… except for the flash. The flash is specifically designed to travel with that HTTP request so you have access to it when you get redirected to the next page.

Render doesn’t go that far – it just uses a view file that’s part of your application’s normal flow and you have access to all your instance variables in that file. Because the flash is special, you actually have to use flash.now instead of flash when you are just rendering a view instead of submitting a whole new request. That would look like flash.now[:error] = "Rats! Fix your mistakes, please.".

The distinction between flash and flash.now just lets Rails know when it will need to make the flash available to you… if you used flash when you should have used flash.now, you’ll just start seeing your messages showing up a “page too late” and it should be obvious what went wrong.

Now the full controller code can be written out for our #create action:

  # app/controllers/posts_controller.rb
  class PostsController < ApplicationController
    ...

    # We know this will get run once we've received the submitted
    # form from our new action above (remember your REST actions??)
    def create
      @post = Post.new(whitelisted_post_params)
      if @post.save
        flash[:success] = "Great! Your post has been created!"
        redirect_to @post # go to show page for @post
      else
        flash.now[:error] = "Rats! Fix your mistakes, please."
        render :new
      end
    end

    private

    def whitelisted_post_params
      params.require(:post).permit(:title,:body,:author_id)
    end
  end

So that action did a fair bit of stuff – grab the form data, make a new post, try to save the post, set up a success message and redirect you to the post if it works, and handle the case where it doesn’t work by berating you for your foolishness and re-rendering the form. A lot of work for only 10 lines of Ruby. Now that’s smart controlling.

Assignment

That’s really just a taste of the Rails controller, but you should have a pretty good idea of what’s going on and what tricks you can use.

  1. Read the Rails Guides chapter on Controllers, sections 1 - 4.5.3 and 5.2. We’ll cover sessions (section 5.1) more in the future so don’t worry about them now.

Additional Resources

This section contains helpful links to other content. It isn’t required, so consider it supplemental for if you need to dive deeper into something.

Ruby on Rails

Controllers

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