Published by Dan on Jul 17, 2014

Beware ActiveRecord callbacks

Filed under Tips

This design issue was addressed in Rails 5.0. Read more about the change here

The Code

The following class combines multiple attributes into one boolean attribute. Most of the time it's an optimization, but sometimes it's mandatory because the boolean calculation can't be expressed in SQL.

Can you spot the bug?

class Movie < ActiveRecord::Base

  validates_presence_of :title

  scope :streaming, lambda { where(is_streaming: true) }

  before_save :autoset_is_streaming

  def on_netflix_instant?
    netflix_instant_url != nil

  def on_hulu?
    hulu_url != nil

  def on_youtube?
    youtube_url != nil


    def autoset_is_streaming
      self.is_streaming = on_netflix_instant? || on_hulu? || on_youtube?


The Problem

Your movie class is working great as you read in a bunch of streaming movies, but eventually the movies won't save, so you jump into the console:

> Movie.create!(title: 'Grand Budapest Hotel')
   (0.2ms)  BEGIN
   (0.2ms)  ROLLBACK
ActiveRecord::RecordNotSaved: ActiveRecord::RecordNotSaved
> movie = 'Grand Budapest Hotel')
> movie.valid?
 => true
   (0.2ms)  BEGIN
   (0.2ms)  ROLLBACK
 => false
   (0.2ms)  BEGIN
   (0.2ms)  ROLLBACK
ActiveRecord::RecordNotSaved: ActiveRecord::RecordNotSaved
> movie.errors.full_messages
 => []

The movie is valid, but it doesn't save? What's is going on?

The Feature

The bug is caused by an ActiveRecord feature called "Canceling Callbacks":

If a before_* callback returns false, all the later callbacks and the associated action are cancelled.

The example code is setting the is_streaming attribute to false, and thanks to ruby's non-explicit returns, the function returns false, canceling the save. No validation errors are stored because the validation passed.

The Fix

Once you uncover the issue, the fix is simple:

def autoset_is_streaming
  self.is_streaming = on_netflix_instant? || on_hulu? || on_youtube?

nil would work too, but I prefer true indicating the value was successfully set. After running into this problem occasionally in my first couple years of Ruby on Rails programming, I engrained this thought process into my ActiveRecord programming:

  • Writing a before_* callback?
  • Could it return false?
  • Don't! return true!

I see how canceling an ActiveRecord action is useful, but I always cancel it with validation errors or exceptions. Anyway, I hope you learned something and maybe avoided some future head-scratching.


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