Rails Value Objects

Value Objects in Rails

While writing yesterdays post about the usage of Hash vs class, I couldn’t help but think of another powerful tool that helps us to build a well-defined model of our problem domain in the programming language of our choice: the value object.

To understand the value of value objects (scnr), let’s take an example: 42. “What is 42?”, you might be tempted to ask - and rightfully so. In Ruby it might be an instance of Integer, other languages may have cause to use a more restrictive definition like u8 or i16. But still - that doesn’t help us to understand what 42 might mean.

It could be the result of having calculated 21*2, but it might also be a distance (in whatever unit), a price (in whatever currency), a weight and so on.

This is where value objects come in: they help us to resolve these ambiguities.

Hands-on activity

Full source code for the examples below can be found on Github.

To give a concrete example, we’re going to implement a model for a basic fitness tracking app. There will be activities like walking, cycling, swimming and so on - we don’t care about that right now - and users can track how far they have gone during any given activity.

class Activity < ApplicationRecord
  belongs_to :user
  attribute :distance, :integer

First approach:

Given the model of the initial iteration above, the problem becomes clear: we can’t be sure what unit the distance attribute is measured in. It could be meters, kilometers, yards or multiples of the Planck length 🤪.

As a first version, you could rename the attribute to distance_meters. Now if you’re asked to show the total number of miles traveled, you’d have to do something like current_user.activities.sum(:distance_meters) / 1609.344. Sure, it works… but having to append _meters all of the time and having to know and apply the conversion factor manually is a bit ugly.

Going the Distance

Instead, we’re going to implement a value object to represent distances.

class Distance
  attr_reader :meters

  class << self
    def from_meters(meters)
      new.tap { |d| d.instance_eval { @meters = meters } }

  # see the link above for the full code on Github

  def miles
    meters * 6.213712e-4

  def parsecs
    meters * 3.240779e-17

Given that this is Ruby, you could even monkey-patch Numeric :

class Numeric
  def meters

This will allow you to write:

flown = 400000000000000000.meters
puts "You flew the Kessel Run in #{flown.parsecs} parsecs. Impressive, but not a record!"

which will yield:

You flew the Kessel Run in 12.963116000000001 parsecs. Impressive, but not a record!

Constructors from other units are left as an exercise to the reader - for now, though, we’ll skip implementing them to more easily see type casting at work.

Integrating into the Attributes API

To properly benefit from this construct, we’re going to have to register it with the ActiveRecord Attributes API.

class DistanceInMetersType < ActiveRecord::Type::Value
  def cast(value)
    return value if value.is_a?(Distance)

    raise ArgumentError, "Can't cast from #{value.class}" unless value.respond_to?(:to_f)


  def serialize(value)
    raise ArgumentError unless value.is_a?(Distance)


# Note that ActiveModel types have to be registered separately and have a slightly different signature here
ActiveRecord::Type.register(:distance_in_meters, DistanceInMetersType)

and now you can use it to output the total traveled distance in miles very comfortably:

class Activity < ApplicationRecord
  # *snip*
  attribute :distance, :distance_in_meters

# And use it:
> puts "You traveled #{current_user.activities.sum(:distance).miles} miles in total! 🥳"

Now the beauty here is that even though Activity.sum(:distance) only creates a stand-alone value without a surrounding instance of Activity, the model still defines it as distance_in_meters - and ActiveRecord is smart enough to instantiate an object of the Distance class for us upon which we can invoke .miles.

Non-Ruby excourse: typed languages

In typed languages, there is a precursor to full-blown value objects: type aliases. Using a type alias can help you clarify the meaning of your function arguments.

For example, given the example below

package main

import "fmt"

func circumnavigations(distance_walked float32) (float32) {
        return distance_walked / 24859.734

func main() {
    walked := circumnavigations(1234)
    fmt.Println("I walked the earth", walked, "times")

you can facilitate understanding a lot by replacing the magic number with a properly-named constant and introducing a type alias.

package main

import "fmt"

type miles = float32

func circumnavigations(distance_walked miles) (float32) {
    return distance_walked / EARTH_CIRCUMFERENCE_IN_MILES

func main() {
    walked := circumnavigations(1234)
    fmt.Println("I walked the earth", walked, "times")

A word on proportionality

Of course, these constructs would be somewhat overblown if you just want to log your own fitness activities in an app that might reach a couple of hundreds lines of code in total at best. 😅

On the other hand, if you’re planning on writing a scalable codebase which is going to manage many different activities for thousands of users across the world, you’re crossing from programming territory into software engineering - and will be glad for having built a proper model very soon.