Idiomatic Coding: Ruby Hash (& Python Dict)

Idiomatic Ruby: Hash vs class

It is no secret that I’m a big fan of typed languages. To me, an expressive type system really helps to convey the mental model of the application to the developers maintaining the code base.

As such, I am often dismayed when reading code from untyped interpreted languages. Sure, there are classes in Javascript, Ruby and Python. But very often I find that they’re eschewed in favour of just bundling a list of attributes together in an untyped Object, Hash or Dict respectively.

Luckily, there’s an easy way to determine whether you should create a class or use a Hash: if all the keys and values are of the same type (respectively) and can be looked at without requiring the presence of specifically-named keys, a Hash is the way to go. If, however, you find that you’ll want to access the special property hash[:my_value] and then API users are expected to know that it contains an Integer, be sure to create a class for it instead of using a Hash.

The same principle can be applied to Javascript Objects and Python Dicts. Following, let’s focus a bit on Ruby, though.

Vanilla Ruby: the Struct

Using Struct allows you to quickly create a class with a bit of convenience functionality. Its instances get a [] method for drop-in compatibility with Hashes, but you’re nonetheless able to give it a well-defined structure. It is also possible to pass a block to its constructor and define some behaviour.

Although I’d like to argue that if you had needed more than a container, a regular class would have been in the picture from the start.

Ruby on Rails: ActiveModel::Model

If you’re working on a Rails-based project, there’s an even better approach. ActiveModel::Model is a Concern that you can mix in to your class to not only get a convenient constructor but also support for validations. For it to unfold its full power, though, it’s best to combine it with ActiveModel::Attributes.

Let’s enhance the example from the API documentation and use both ActiveModel::Model and ActiveModel::Attributes:

class Person
  include ActiveModel::Model
  include ActiveModel::Attributes

  attribute :name, :string
  attribute :age, :integer

Now you’ll have a constructor with automatic type cast to both integer and string:

> person ={age: '23', name: 42 })
=> "42"
> person.age
=> 23

This can be especially valuable if you want to use value objects with your model. You could, for example come up with a DateRange value object to express a Range<Date> that represents this persons next vacation - but that’s a topic for another day.

Documenting your code

The biggest difference between using a dedicated model class VS a Hash comes when you add documentation to your methods and use an IDE that understands them.

# @param person [Person] the person to greet
def birthday_greetings(person)
  puts "Happy #{person.age + 1}. birthday, #{}"

looks a lot nicer than

# @param person [Hash] the person to greet; should have keys `:name` (String) and `:age` (Integer)
def birthday_greetings(person)
  puts "Happy #{person[:age]+1}. birthday, #{person[:name]}}"