Rails and PostgreSQL hstore simple use case

As you saw in the latest post about Rails and full-text search, PostgreSQL has some nice and powerful features for managing data which can make your life easier. Another of this awesome features is the hstore column type, which gives you the ability to store hashes in columns. This means that you can store unstructured data in a column of our database using a key/value storage system, as it was a NoSQL database, and also query this data by their keys.

A real yet simple use case.

Another feature I wanted to add to the new pet project I'm working on, was giving to users the ability to save custom searches assigning them a name, so if there's a frequently search they perform every once in a while, they can save it and afterwards select it from a drop-down menu, instead of having to fill every field on the search form. This can be implemented in many ways, but as I'm using Rails 4 and PostgreSQL I wanted to give a try to the hstore extension.

Preparing everything.

The first step is to activate it. The simplest way to do so is by creating a new migration:

class CreateHstore < ActiveRecord::Migration
  def up
    enable_extension "hstore"
  end

  def down
    disable_extension "hstore"
  end
end

After runing the migration, let's create a new model with it's corresponding migration, and let's assign the hstore type to the desired column:

class CreateNamedSearches < ActiveRecord::Migration
  def change
    create_table :named_searches do |t|
      t.integer :user_id
      t.string :name
      t.hstore :query_params # Notice the hstore type here
    end

    add_index :named_searches, :user_id
  end
end
class NamedSearch < ActiveRecord::Base
  # Relations
  belongs_to :user

  # Validations
  validates :name, :query_params, presence: true
end

As you can see, this NamedSearch model is very simple. It only has a name attribute to help the user identifying it, and a query_params one, where the hash with all the parameters from the search form will be stored.

The search form.

I've created a Form Object to encapsulate the search of people and the creation of named searches:

class PeopleFilter
  include ActiveModel::Model
  include ActiveModel::AttributeMethods
  include ActiveModel::Validations
  include ActiveModel::Conversion

  # Attributes you are going to use to search and save
  # the NamedSearch model.
  attr_accessor :name,
                :gender,
                :education_level,
                :skills,
                :interests,
                :save_search,
                :search_name,

  def initialize(attributes)
    attributes.each do |name, value|
      send("#{name}=", value)
    end
  end

  def persisted?
    false
  end

  # Method to perform the search for the Person model.
  def filter(ability)
    people = Person.accessible_by(ability)
    people = people.where("first_name || ' ' || last_name ILIKE ?", "%#{name}%") unless name.blank?
    people = people.where(gender: gender) unless gender.blank?
    people = people.where(education_level: education_level) unless education_level.blank?
    people = people.tagged_with(skills, on: :skills) unless skills.blank?
    people = people.tagged_with(interests, on: :interests) unless interests.blank?

    people
  end

  # Method to confirm if the filter can be saved into a NamedSearch
  def confirm_save?
    save_search.to_bool && ! search_name.blank?
  end

  # Method to create a new NamedSearch and persist it.
  def save(user)
    user.named_searches.create({name: search_name, query_params: to_hash})
  end

  private 

  # Mehtod to create a hash with the desired attributes you want to 
  # store in de NamedSearch's query_params field.
  def to_hash
    {
      name:                 name,
      gender:               gender,
      education_level:      education_level,
      skills:               skills,
      interests:            interests
    }
  end
end

To present this search form to the user I've created the following partial view to include it in our main index:

#filter_form_wrapper
  %header
    %h3 Filter people
  .form-wrapper
    = simple_form_for @filter, url: people_path, method: :get do |f|
      = f.input :name
      = f.input :gender
      = f.input :education_level
      = f.input :skills, as: :string
      = f.input :interests, as: :string

      %hr/
      =f.input :save_search, as: :boolean
      =f.input :search_name

      .form-actions
        = f.submit 'Apply filter'
        or
        %a.cancel{href: '#'}  Cancel

There are two inputs, save_search and search_name, that are going to be used to check if the user wants to save this search, and to assign the search a name.

Tying it all together.

Now that you have your model, form object and partial view, let's take a look to the controller, where all of these three parts come into play together:

class PeopleController < ApplicationController
  before_action :set_filter
  before_action :set_named_searches

  def index
    # If the user marked the 'Save this search' and added a name...
    if @filter.confirm_save?
      # Let`s save this into a NamedSearch
      @filter.save(current_user)
      flash[:notice] = "Search was successfully saved."
    end

    @people = @filter.filter(current_ability).sorted
  end

  ...
  ...

  private

  def set_filter
    # If a NamedSearch id is sent
    @filter = if params.include?(:named_search_id)
      # find that NamedSearch
      named_search = current_user.named_searches.find params[:named_search_id]
      # and initialize the filter with the it's query_params hash values
      PeopleFilter.new named_search.query_params
    else
      # Otherwise initialize a new one
      PeopleFilter.new filter_params
    end
  end

  def set_named_searches
    @named_searches = current_user.named_searches
  end

  def filter_params
    return unless params.include? :people_filter

    params.require(:people_filter).permit(
      :name,
      :gender,
      :education_level,
      :skills,
      :interests,
      :competencies,
      :save_search,
      :search_name,
      :named_search_id,
    )
  end
end

So basically what it does is:

  1. In the set_filter method it checks if there's a namedsearchid. This means that instead of searching, the user has selected an already existing NamedSearch, so it has to find it in order to apply the stored query_params to the PeopleFilter when it initializes it. If there is no namedsearchid parameter, then it just initialize an empty one.
  2. If the user wants to save the filter, it justs has to check the save_search check-box and fill the search_name, so it can save it before filtering in the index action.
  3. It calls the filter method from the form object to retrieve the records.

After saving a NamedSearch this is how it looks like it the Rails console:

NamedSearch.first
NamedSearch Load (1.1ms)  SELECT  "named_searches".* FROM "named_searches"   ORDER BY "named_searches"."id" DESC LIMIT 1
=> #<NamedSearch id: 1, user_id: 1, name: "Freelance rubyists", query_params: {"name"=>"", "gender"=>"", "skills"=>"ruby, rails", "interests"=>"remote work",  "education_level"=>"2"}">

As you can see, the query_params attribute is storing the parameters hash the user sent to the controller, so just getting that field and initializing the PeopleFilter object with it will work as if the user had requested the same search again. As I mentioned before, you can also query by that field too:

NamedSearch.where("query_params -> 'interests' = 'remote work'").count
(1.0ms)  SELECT COUNT(*) FROM "named_searches"  WHERE (query_params -> 'interests' = 'remote work')
=> 1

Conclusion

For those cases when you are working with PostegreSQL and you may feel like you need some NoSQL capabilities to store unstructured data, give hstore a try. I'm sure you'll like how easy is implementing it and how well it works.

Happy coding!

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