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Action Controller Overview

In this guide you will learn how controllers work and how they fit into the request cycle in your application.

After reading this guide, you will know:

1 What Does a Controller Do?

Action Controller is the C in MVC. After routing has determined which controller to use for a request, your controller is responsible for making sense of the request and producing the appropriate output. Luckily, Action Controller does most of the groundwork for you and uses smart conventions to make this as straightforward as possible.

For most conventional RESTful applications, the controller will receive the request (this is invisible to you as the developer), fetch or save data from a model and use a view to create HTML output. If your controller needs to do things a little differently, that's not a problem, this is just the most common way for a controller to work.

A controller can thus be thought of as a middle man between models and views. It makes the model data available to the view so it can display that data to the user, and it saves or updates data from the user to the model.

For more details on the routing process, see Rails Routing from the Outside In.

2 Controller Naming Convention

The naming convention of controllers in Rails favors pluralization of the last word in the controller's name, although it is not strictly required (e.g. ApplicationController). For example, ClientsController is preferable to ClientController, SiteAdminsController is preferable to SiteAdminController or SitesAdminsController, and so on.

Following this convention will allow you to use the default route generators (e.g. resources, etc) without needing to qualify each :path or :controller, and keeps URL and path helpers' usage consistent throughout your application. See Layouts & Rendering Guide for more details.

The controller naming convention differs from the naming convention of models, which are expected to be named in singular form.

3 Methods and Actions

A controller is a Ruby class which inherits from ApplicationController and has methods just like any other class. When your application receives a request, the routing will determine which controller and action to run, then Rails creates an instance of that controller and runs the method with the same name as the action.

class ClientsController < ApplicationController
  def new
  end
end

As an example, if a user goes to /clients/new in your application to add a new client, Rails will create an instance of ClientsController and run the new method. Note that the empty method from the example above would work just fine because Rails will by default render the new.html.erb view unless the action says otherwise. The new method could make available to the view a @client instance variable by creating a new Client:

def new
  @client = Client.new
end

The Layouts & Rendering Guide explains this in more detail.

ApplicationController inherits from ActionController::Base, which defines a number of helpful methods. This guide will cover some of these, but if you're curious to see what's in there, you can see all of them in the API documentation or in the source itself.

Only public methods are callable as actions. It is a best practice to lower the visibility of methods which are not intended to be actions, like auxiliary methods or filters.

4 Parameters

You will probably want to access data sent in by the user or other parameters in your controller actions. There are two kinds of parameters possible in a web application. The first are parameters that are sent as part of the URL, called query string parameters. The query string is everything after "?" in the URL. The second type of parameter is usually referred to as POST data. This information usually comes from an HTML form which has been filled in by the user. It's called POST data because it can only be sent as part of an HTTP POST request. Rails does not make any distinction between query string parameters and POST parameters, and both are available in the params hash in your controller:

class ClientsController < ApplicationController
  # This action uses query string parameters because it gets run
  # by an HTTP GET request, but this does not make any difference
  # to the way in which the parameters are accessed. The URL for
  # this action would look like this in order to list activated
  # clients: /clients?status=activated
  def index
    if params[:status] == "activated"
      @clients = Client.activated
    else
      @clients = Client.inactivated
    end
  end

  # This action uses POST parameters. They are most likely coming
  # from an HTML form which the user has submitted. The URL for
  # this RESTful request will be "/clients", and the data will be
  # sent as part of the request body.
  def create
    @client = Client.new(params[:client])
    if @client.save
      redirect_to @client
    else
      # This line overrides the default rendering behavior, which
      # would have been to render the "create" view.
      render "new"
    end
  end
end

4.1 Hash and Array Parameters

The params hash is not limited to one-dimensional keys and values. It can contain arrays and (nested) hashes. To send an array of values, append an empty pair of square brackets "[]" to the key name:

GET /clients?ids[]=1&ids[]=2&ids[]=3

The actual URL in this example will be encoded as "/clients?ids%5b%5d=1&ids%5b%5d=2&ids%5b%5d=3" as "[" and "]" are not allowed in URLs. Most of the time you don't have to worry about this because the browser will take care of it for you, and Rails will decode it back when it receives it, but if you ever find yourself having to send those requests to the server manually you have to keep this in mind.

The value of params[:ids] will now be ["1", "2", "3"]. Note that parameter values are always strings; Rails makes no attempt to guess or cast the type.

Values such as [], [nil] or [nil, nil, ...] in params are replaced with nil for security reasons by default. See Security Guide for more information.

To send a hash you include the key name inside the brackets:

<form accept-charset="UTF-8" action="/clients" method="post">
  <input type="text" name="client[name]" value="Acme" />
  <input type="text" name="client[phone]" value="12345" />
  <input type="text" name="client[address][postcode]" value="12345" />
  <input type="text" name="client[address][city]" value="Carrot City" />
</form>

When this form is submitted, the value of params[:client] will be { "name" => "Acme", "phone" => "12345", "address" => { "postcode" => "12345", "city" => "Carrot City" } }. Note the nested hash in params[:client][:address].

Note that the params hash is actually an instance of ActiveSupport::HashWithIndifferentAccess, which acts like a hash but lets you use symbols and strings interchangeably as keys.

4.2 JSON parameters

If you're writing a web service application, you might find yourself more comfortable accepting parameters in JSON format. If the "Content-Type" header of your request is set to "application/json", Rails will automatically convert your parameters into the params hash, which you can access as you would normally.

So for example, if you are sending this JSON content:

{ "company": { "name": "acme", "address": "123 Carrot Street" } }

You'll get params[:company] as { "name" => "acme", "address" => "123 Carrot Street" }.

Also, if you've turned on config.wrap_parameters in your initializer or calling wrap_parameters in your controller, you can safely omit the root element in the JSON parameter. The parameters will be cloned and wrapped in the key according to your controller's name by default. So the above parameter can be written as:

{ "name": "acme", "address": "123 Carrot Street" }

And assume that you're sending the data to CompaniesController, it would then be wrapped in :company key like this:

{ name: "acme", address: "123 Carrot Street", company: { name: "acme", address: "123 Carrot Street" } }

You can customize the name of the key or specific parameters you want to wrap by consulting the API documentation

Support for parsing XML parameters has been extracted into a gem named actionpack-xml_parser

4.3 Routing Parameters

The params hash will always contain the :controller and :action keys, but you should use the methods controller_name and action_name instead to access these values. Any other parameters defined by the routing, such as :id will also be available. As an example, consider a listing of clients where the list can show either active or inactive clients. We can add a route which captures the :status parameter in a "pretty" URL:

get '/clients/:status' => 'clients#index', foo: 'bar'

In this case, when a user opens the URL /clients/active, params[:status] will be set to "active". When this route is used, params[:foo] will also be set to "bar" just like it was passed in the query string. In the same way params[:action] will contain "index".

4.4 default_url_options

You can set global default parameters for URL generation by defining a method called default_url_options in your controller. Such a method must return a hash with the desired defaults, whose keys must be symbols:

class ApplicationController < ActionController::Base
  def default_url_options
    { locale: I18n.locale }
  end
end

These options will be used as a starting point when generating URLs, so it's possible they'll be overridden by the options passed in url_for calls.

If you define default_url_options in ApplicationController, as in the example above, it would be used for all URL generation. The method can also be defined in one specific controller, in which case it only affects URLs generated there.

4.5 Strong Parameters

With strong parameters, Action Controller parameters are forbidden to be used in Active Model mass assignments until they have been whitelisted. This means you'll have to make a conscious choice about which attributes to allow for mass updating and thus prevent accidentally exposing that which shouldn't be exposed.

In addition, parameters can be marked as required and flow through a predefined raise/rescue flow to end up as a 400 Bad Request with no effort.

class PeopleController < ActionController::Base
  # This will raise an ActiveModel::ForbiddenAttributes exception
  # because it's using mass assignment without an explicit permit
  # step.
  def create
    Person.create(params[:person])
  end

  # This will pass with flying colors as long as there's a person key
  # in the parameters, otherwise it'll raise a
  # ActionController::ParameterMissing exception, which will get
  # caught by ActionController::Base and turned into that 400 Bad
  # Request reply.
  def update
    person = current_account.people.find(params[:id])
    person.update!(person_params)
    redirect_to person
  end

  private
    # Using a private method to encapsulate the permissible parameters
    # is just a good pattern since you'll be able to reuse the same
    # permit list between create and update. Also, you can specialize
    # this method with per-user checking of permissible attributes.
    def person_params
      params.require(:person).permit(:name, :age)
    end
end

4.5.1 Permitted Scalar Values

Given

params.permit(:id)

the key :id will pass the whitelisting if it appears in params and it has a permitted scalar value associated. Otherwise the key is going to be filtered out, so arrays, hashes, or any other objects cannot be injected.

The permitted scalar types are String, Symbol, NilClass, Numeric, TrueClass, FalseClass, Date, Time, DateTime, StringIO, IO, ActionDispatch::Http::UploadedFile and Rack::Test::UploadedFile.

To declare that the value in params must be an array of permitted scalar values map the key to an empty array:

params.permit(id: [])

To whitelist an entire hash of parameters, the permit! method can be used:

params.require(:log_entry).permit!

This will mark the :log_entry parameters hash and any sub-hash of it permitted. Extreme care should be taken when using permit! as it will allow all current and future model attributes to be mass-assigned.

4.5.2 Nested Parameters

You can also use permit on nested parameters, like:

params.permit(:name, { emails: [] },
              friends: [ :name,
                         { family: [ :name ], hobbies: [] }])

This declaration whitelists the name, emails and friends attributes. It is expected that emails will be an array of permitted scalar values and that friends will be an array of resources with specific attributes : they should have a name attribute (any permitted scalar values allowed), a hobbies attribute as an array of permitted scalar values, and a family attribute which is restricted to having a name (any permitted scalar values allowed, too).

4.5.3 More Examples

You want to also use the permitted attributes in the new action. This raises the problem that you can't use require on the root key because normally it does not exist when calling new:

# using `fetch` you can supply a default and use
# the Strong Parameters API from there.
params.fetch(:blog, {}).permit(:title, :author)

accepts_nested_attributes_for allows you to update and destroy associated records. This is based on the id and _destroy parameters:

# permit :id and :_destroy
params.require(:author).permit(:name, books_attributes: [:title, :id, :_destroy])

Hashes with integer keys are treated differently and you can declare the attributes as if they were direct children. You get these kinds of parameters when you use accepts_nested_attributes_for in combination with a has_many association:

# To whitelist the following data:
# {"book" => {"title" => "Some Book",
#             "chapters_attributes" => { "1" => {"title" => "First Chapter"},
#                                        "2" => {"title" => "Second Chapter"}}}}

params.require(:book).permit(:title, chapters_attributes: [:title])

4.5.4 Outside the Scope of Strong Parameters

The strong parameter API was designed with the most common use cases in mind. It is not meant as a silver bullet to handle all your whitelisting problems. However you can easily mix the API with your own code to adapt to your situation.

Imagine a scenario where you have parameters representing a product name and a hash of arbitrary data associated with that product, and you want to whitelist the product name attribute but also the whole data hash. The strong parameters API doesn't let you directly whitelist the whole of a nested hash with any keys, but you can use the keys of your nested hash to declare what to whitelist:

def product_params
  params.require(:product).permit(:name, data: params[:product][:data].try(:keys))
end

5 Session

Your application has a session for each user in which you can store small amounts of data that will be persisted between requests. The session is only available in the controller and the view and can use one of a number of different storage mechanisms:

  • ActionDispatch::Session::CookieStore - Stores everything on the client.
  • ActionDispatch::Session::CacheStore - Stores the data in the Rails cache.
  • ActionDispatch::Session::ActiveRecordStore - Stores the data in a database using Active Record. (require activerecord-session_store gem).
  • ActionDispatch::Session::MemCacheStore - Stores the data in a memcached cluster (this is a legacy implementation; consider using CacheStore instead).

All session stores use a cookie to store a unique ID for each session (you must use a cookie, Rails will not allow you to pass the session ID in the URL as this is less secure).

For most stores, this ID is used to look up the session data on the server, e.g. in a database table. There is one exception, and that is the default and recommended session store - the CookieStore - which stores all session data in the cookie itself (the ID is still available to you if you need it). This has the advantage of being very lightweight and it requires zero setup in a new application in order to use the session. The cookie data is cryptographically signed to make it tamper-proof. And it is also encrypted so anyone with access to it can't read its contents. (Rails will not accept it if it has been edited).

The CookieStore can store around 4kB of data - much less than the others - but this is usually enough. Storing large amounts of data in the session is discouraged no matter which session store your application uses. You should especially avoid storing complex objects (anything other than basic Ruby objects, the most common example being model instances) in the session, as the server might not be able to reassemble them between requests, which will result in an error.

If your user sessions don't store critical data or don't need to be around for long periods (for instance if you just use the flash for messaging), you can consider using ActionDispatch::Session::CacheStore. This will store sessions using the cache implementation you have configured for your application. The advantage of this is that you can use your existing cache infrastructure for storing sessions without requiring any additional setup or administration. The downside, of course, is that the sessions will be ephemeral and could disappear at any time.

Read more about session storage in the Security Guide.

If you need a different session storage mechanism, you can change it in the config/initializers/session_store.rb file:

# Use the database for sessions instead of the cookie-based default,
# which shouldn't be used to store highly confidential information
# (create the session table with "rails g active_record:session_migration")
# Rails.application.config.session_store :active_record_store

Rails sets up a session key (the name of the cookie) when signing the session data. These can also be changed in config/initializers/session_store.rb:

# Be sure to restart your server when you modify this file.
Rails.application.config.session_store :cookie_store, key: '_your_app_session'

You can also pass a :domain key and specify the domain name for the cookie:

# Be sure to restart your server when you modify this file.
Rails.application.config.session_store :cookie_store, key: '_your_app_session', domain: ".example.com"

Rails sets up (for the CookieStore) a secret key used for signing the session data. This can be changed in config/secrets.yml

# Be sure to restart your server when you modify this file.

# Your secret key is used for verifying the integrity of signed cookies.
# If you change this key, all old signed cookies will become invalid!

# Make sure the secret is at least 30 characters and all random,
# no regular words or you'll be exposed to dictionary attacks.
# You can use `rake secret` to generate a secure secret key.

# Make sure the secrets in this file are kept private
# if you're sharing your code publicly.

development:
  secret_key_base: a75d...

test:
  secret_key_base: 492f...

# Do not keep production secrets in the repository,
# instead read values from the environment.
production:
  secret_key_base: <%= ENV["SECRET_KEY_BASE"] %>

Changing the secret when using the CookieStore will invalidate all existing sessions.

5.1 Accessing the Session

In your controller you can access the session through the session instance method.

Sessions are lazily loaded. If you don't access sessions in your action's code, they will not be loaded. Hence you will never need to disable sessions, just not accessing them will do the job.

Session values are stored using key/value pairs like a hash:

class ApplicationController < ActionController::Base

  private

  # Finds the User with the ID stored in the session with the key
  # :current_user_id This is a common way to handle user login in
  # a Rails application; logging in sets the session value and
  # logging out removes it.
  def current_user
    @_current_user ||= session[:current_user_id] &&
      User.find_by(id: session[:current_user_id])
  end
end

To store something in the session, just assign it to the key like a hash:

class LoginsController < ApplicationController
  # "Create" a login, aka "log the user in"
  def create
    if user = User.authenticate(params[:username], params[:password])
      # Save the user ID in the session so it can be used in
      # subsequent requests
      session[:current_user_id] = user.id
      redirect_to root_url
    end
  end
end

To remove something from the session, assign that key to be nil:

class LoginsController < ApplicationController
  # "Delete" a login, aka "log the user out"
  def destroy
    # Remove the user id from the session
    @_current_user = session[:current_user_id] = nil
    redirect_to root_url
  end
end

To reset the entire session, use reset_session.

5.2 The Flash

The flash is a special part of the session which is cleared with each request. This means that values stored there will only be available in the next request, which is useful for passing error messages etc.

It is accessed in much the same way as the session, as a hash (it's a FlashHash instance).

Let's use the act of logging out as an example. The controller can send a message which will be displayed to the user on the next request:

class LoginsController < ApplicationController
  def destroy
    session[:current_user_id] = nil
    flash[:notice] = "You have successfully logged out."
    redirect_to root_url
  end
end

Note that it is also possible to assign a flash message as part of the redirection. You can assign :notice, :alert or the general purpose :flash:

redirect_to root_url, notice: "You have successfully logged out."
redirect_to root_url, alert: "You're stuck here!"
redirect_to root_url, flash: { referral_code: 1234 }

The destroy action redirects to the application's root_url, where the message will be displayed. Note that it's entirely up to the next action to decide what, if anything, it will do with what the previous action put in the flash. It's conventional to display any error alerts or notices from the flash in the application's layout:

<html>
  <!-- <head/> -->
  <body>
    <% flash.each do |name, msg| -%>
      <%= content_tag :div, msg, class: name %>
    <% end -%>

    <!-- more content -->
  </body>
</html>

This way, if an action sets a notice or an alert message, the layout will display it automatically.

You can pass anything that the session can store; you're not limited to notices and alerts:

<% if flash[:just_signed_up] %>
  <p class="welcome">Welcome to our site!</p>
<% end %>

If you want a flash value to be carried over to another request, use the keep method:

class MainController < ApplicationController
  # Let's say this action corresponds to root_url, but you want
  # all requests here to be redirected to UsersController#index.
  # If an action sets the flash and redirects here, the values
  # would normally be lost when another redirect happens, but you
  # can use 'keep' to make it persist for another request.
  def index
    # Will persist all flash values.
    flash.keep

    # You can also use a key to keep only some kind of value.
    # flash.keep(:notice)
    redirect_to users_url
  end
end

5.2.1 flash.now

By default, adding values to the flash will make them available to the next request, but sometimes you may want to access those values in the same request. For example, if the create action fails to save a resource and you render the new template directly, that's not going to result in a new request, but you may still want to display a message using the flash. To do this, you can use flash.now in the same way you use the normal flash:

class ClientsController < ApplicationController
  def create
    @client = Client.new(params[:client])
    if @client.save
      # ...
    else
      flash.now[:error] = "Could not save client"
      render action: "new"
    end
  end
end

6 Cookies

Your application can store small amounts of data on the client - called cookies - that will be persisted across requests and even sessions. Rails provides easy access to cookies via the cookies method, which - much like the session - works like a hash:

class CommentsController < ApplicationController
  def new
    # Auto-fill the commenter's name if it has been stored in a cookie
    @comment = Comment.new(author: cookies[:commenter_name])
  end

  def create
    @comment = Comment.new(params[:comment])
    if @comment.save
      flash[:notice] = "Thanks for your comment!"
      if params[:remember_name]
        # Remember the commenter's name.
        cookies[:commenter_name] = @comment.author
      else
        # Delete cookie for the commenter's name cookie, if any.
        cookies.delete(:commenter_name)
      end
      redirect_to @comment.article
    else
      render action: "new"
    end
  end
end

Note that while for session values you set the key to nil, to delete a cookie value you should use cookies.delete(:key).

Rails also provides a signed cookie jar and an encrypted cookie jar for storing sensitive data. The signed cookie jar appends a cryptographic signature on the cookie values to protect their integrity. The encrypted cookie jar encrypts the values in addition to signing them, so that they cannot be read by the end user. Refer to the API documentation for more details.

These special cookie jars use a serializer to serialize the assigned values into strings and deserializes them into Ruby objects on read.

You can specify what serializer to use:

Rails.application.config.action_dispatch.cookies_serializer = :json

The default serializer for new applications is :json. For compatibility with old applications with existing cookies, :marshal is used when serializer option is not specified.

You may also set this option to :hybrid, in which case Rails would transparently deserialize existing (Marshal-serialized) cookies on read and re-write them in the JSON format. This is useful for migrating existing applications to the :json serializer.

It is also possible to pass a custom serializer that responds to load and dump:

Rails.application.config.action_dispatch.cookies_serializer = MyCustomSerializer

When using the :json or :hybrid serializer, you should beware that not all Ruby objects can be serialized as JSON. For example, Date and Time objects will be serialized as strings, and Hashes will have their keys stringified.

class CookiesController < ApplicationController
  def set_cookie
    cookies.encrypted[:expiration_date] = Date.tomorrow # => Thu, 20 Mar 2014
    redirect_to action: 'read_cookie'
  end

  def read_cookie
    cookies.encrypted[:expiration_date] # => "2014-03-20"
  end
end

It's advisable that you only store simple data (strings and numbers) in cookies. If you have to store complex objects, you would need to handle the conversion manually when reading the values on subsequent requests.

If you use the cookie session store, this would apply to the session and flash hash as well.

7 Rendering XML and JSON data

ActionController makes it extremely easy to render XML or JSON data. If you've generated a controller using scaffolding, it would look something like this:

class UsersController < ApplicationController
  def index
    @users = User.all
    respond_to do |format|
      format.html # index.html.erb
      format.xml  { render xml: @users}
      format.json { render json: @users}
    end
  end
end

You may notice in the above code that we're using render xml: @users, not render xml: @users.to_xml. If the object is not a String, then Rails will automatically invoke to_xml for us.

8 Filters

Filters are methods that are run before, after or "around" a controller action.

Filters are inherited, so if you set a filter on ApplicationController, it will be run on every controller in your application.

"Before" filters may halt the request cycle. A common "before" filter is one which requires that a user is logged in for an action to be run. You can define the filter method this way:

class ApplicationController < ActionController::Base
  before_action :require_login

  private

  def require_login
    unless logged_in?
      flash[:error] = "You must be logged in to access this section"
      redirect_to new_login_url # halts request cycle
    end
  end
end

The method simply stores an error message in the flash and redirects to the login form if the user is not logged in. If a "before" filter renders or redirects, the action will not run. If there are additional filters scheduled to run after that filter, they are also cancelled.

In this example the filter is added to ApplicationController and thus all controllers in the application inherit it. This will make everything in the application require the user to be logged in in order to use it. For obvious reasons (the user wouldn't be able to log in in the first place!), not all controllers or actions should require this. You can prevent this filter from running before particular actions with skip_before_action:

class LoginsController < ApplicationController
  skip_before_action :require_login, only: [:new, :create]
end

Now, the LoginsController's new and create actions will work as before without requiring the user to be logged in. The :only option is used to only skip this filter for these actions, and there is also an :except option which works the other way. These options can be used when adding filters too, so you can add a filter which only runs for selected actions in the first place.

8.1 After Filters and Around Filters

In addition to "before" filters, you can also run filters after an action has been executed, or both before and after.

"After" filters are similar to "before" filters, but because the action has already been run they have access to the response data that's about to be sent to the client. Obviously, "after" filters cannot stop the action from running.

"Around" filters are responsible for running their associated actions by yielding, similar to how Rack middlewares work.

For example, in a website where changes have an approval workflow an administrator could be able to preview them easily, just apply them within a transaction:

class ChangesController < ApplicationController
  around_action :wrap_in_transaction, only: :show

  private

  def wrap_in_transaction
    ActiveRecord::Base.transaction do
      begin
        yield
      ensure
        raise ActiveRecord::Rollback
      end
    end
  end
end

Note that an "around" filter also wraps rendering. In particular, if in the example above, the view itself reads from the database (e.g. via a scope), it will do so within the transaction and thus present the data to preview.

You can choose not to yield and build the response yourself, in which case the action will not be run.

8.2 Other Ways to Use Filters

While the most common way to use filters is by creating private methods and using *_action to add them, there are two other ways to do the same thing.

The first is to use a block directly with the *action methods. The block receives the controller as an argument, and the `requirelogin` filter from above could be rewritten to use a block:

class ApplicationController < ActionController::Base
  before_action do |controller|
    unless controller.send(:logged_in?)
      flash[:error] = "You must be logged in to access this section"
      redirect_to new_login_url
    end
  end
end

Note that the filter in this case uses send because the logged_in? method is private and the filter is not run in the scope of the controller. This is not the recommended way to implement this particular filter, but in more simple cases it might be useful.

The second way is to use a class (actually, any object that responds to the right methods will do) to handle the filtering. This is useful in cases that are more complex and cannot be implemented in a readable and reusable way using the two other methods. As an example, you could rewrite the login filter again to use a class:

class ApplicationController < ActionController::Base
  before_action LoginFilter
end

class LoginFilter
  def self.before(controller)
    unless controller.send(:logged_in?)
      controller.flash[:error] = "You must be logged in to access this section"
      controller.redirect_to controller.new_login_url
    end
  end
end

Again, this is not an ideal example for this filter, because it's not run in the scope of the controller but gets the controller passed as an argument. The filter class must implement a method with the same name as the filter, so for the before_action filter the class must implement a before method, and so on. The around method must yield to execute the action.

9 Request Forgery Protection

Cross-site request forgery is a type of attack in which a site tricks a user into making requests on another site, possibly adding, modifying or deleting data on that site without the user's knowledge or permission.

The first step to avoid this is to make sure all "destructive" actions (create, update and destroy) can only be accessed with non-GET requests. If you're following RESTful conventions you're already doing this. However, a malicious site can still send a non-GET request to your site quite easily, and that's where the request forgery protection comes in. As the name says, it protects from forged requests.

The way this is done is to add a non-guessable token which is only known to your server to each request. This way, if a request comes in without the proper token, it will be denied access.

If you generate a form like this:

<%= form_for @user do |f| %>
  <%= f.text_field :username %>
  <%= f.text_field :password %>
<% end %>

You will see how the token gets added as a hidden field:

<form accept-charset="UTF-8" action="/users/1" method="post">
<input type="hidden"
       value="67250ab105eb5ad10851c00a5621854a23af5489"
       name="authenticity_token"/>
<!-- fields -->
</form>

Rails adds this token to every form that's generated using the form helpers, so most of the time you don't have to worry about it. If you're writing a form manually or need to add the token for another reason, it's available through the method form_authenticity_token:

The form_authenticity_token generates a valid authentication token. That's useful in places where Rails does not add it automatically, like in custom Ajax calls.

The Security Guide has more about this and a lot of other security-related issues that you should be aware of when developing a web application.

10 The Request and Response Objects

In every controller there are two accessor methods pointing to the request and the response objects associated with the request cycle that is currently in execution. The request method contains an instance of AbstractRequest and the response method returns a response object representing what is going to be sent back to the client.

10.1 The request Object

The request object contains a lot of useful information about the request coming in from the client. To get a full list of the available methods, refer to the API documentation. Among the properties that you can access on this object are:

Property of request Purpose
host The hostname used for this request.
domain(n=2) The hostname's first n segments, starting from the right (the TLD).
format The content type requested by the client.
method The HTTP method used for the request.
get?, post?, patch?, put?, delete?, head? Returns true if the HTTP method is GET/POST/PATCH/PUT/DELETE/HEAD.
headers Returns a hash containing the headers associated with the request.
port The port number (integer) used for the request.
protocol Returns a string containing the protocol used plus "://", for example "http://".
query_string The query string part of the URL, i.e., everything after "?".
remote_ip The IP address of the client.
url The entire URL used for the request.
10.1.1 path_parameters, query_parameters, and request_parameters

Rails collects all of the parameters sent along with the request in the params hash, whether they are sent as part of the query string or the post body. The request object has three accessors that give you access to these parameters depending on where they came from. The query_parameters hash contains parameters that were sent as part of the query string while the request_parameters hash contains parameters sent as part of the post body. The path_parameters hash contains parameters that were recognized by the routing as being part of the path leading to this particular controller and action.

10.2 The response Object

The response object is not usually used directly, but is built up during the execution of the action and rendering of the data that is being sent back to the user, but sometimes - like in an after filter - it can be useful to access the response directly. Some of these accessor methods also have setters, allowing you to change their values.

Property of response Purpose
body This is the string of data being sent back to the client. This is most often HTML.
status The HTTP status code for the response, like 200 for a successful request or 404 for file not found.
location The URL the client is being redirected to, if any.
content_type The content type of the response.
charset The character set being used for the response. Default is "utf-8".
headers Headers used for the response.
10.2.1 Setting Custom Headers

If you want to set custom headers for a response then response.headers is the place to do it. The headers attribute is a hash which maps header names to their values, and Rails will set some of them automatically. If you want to add or change a header, just assign it to response.headers this way:

response.headers["Content-Type"] = "application/pdf"

Note: in the above case it would make more sense to use the content_type setter directly.

11 HTTP Authentications

Rails comes with two built-in HTTP authentication mechanisms:

  • Basic Authentication
  • Digest Authentication

11.1 HTTP Basic Authentication

HTTP basic authentication is an authentication scheme that is supported by the majority of browsers and other HTTP clients. As an example, consider an administration section which will only be available by entering a username and a password into the browser's HTTP basic dialog window. Using the built-in authentication is quite easy and only requires you to use one method, http_basic_authenticate_with.

class AdminsController < ApplicationController
  http_basic_authenticate_with name: "humbaba", password: "5baa61e4"
end

With this in place, you can create namespaced controllers that inherit from AdminsController. The filter will thus be run for all actions in those controllers, protecting them with HTTP basic authentication.

11.2 HTTP Digest Authentication

HTTP digest authentication is superior to the basic authentication as it does not require the client to send an unencrypted password over the network (though HTTP basic authentication is safe over HTTPS). Using digest authentication with Rails is quite easy and only requires using one method, authenticate_or_request_with_http_digest.

class AdminsController < ApplicationController
  USERS = { "lifo" => "world" }

  before_action :authenticate

  private

    def authenticate
      authenticate_or_request_with_http_digest do |username|
        USERS[username]
      end
    end
end

As seen in the example above, the authenticate_or_request_with_http_digest block takes only one argument - the username. And the block returns the password. Returning false or nil from the authenticate_or_request_with_http_digest will cause authentication failure.

12 Streaming and File Downloads

Sometimes you may want to send a file to the user instead of rendering an HTML page. All controllers in Rails have the send_data and the send_file methods, which will both stream data to the client. send_file is a convenience method that lets you provide the name of a file on the disk and it will stream the contents of that file for you.

To stream data to the client, use send_data:

require "prawn"
class ClientsController < ApplicationController
  # Generates a PDF document with information on the client and
  # returns it. The user will get the PDF as a file download.
  def download_pdf
    client = Client.find(params[:id])
    send_data generate_pdf(client),
              filename: "#{client.name}.pdf",
              type: "application/pdf"
  end

  private

    def generate_pdf(client)
      Prawn::Document.new do
        text client.name, align: :center
        text "Address: #{client.address}"
        text "Email: #{client.email}"
      end.render
    end
end

The download_pdf action in the example above will call a private method which actually generates the PDF document and returns it as a string. This string will then be streamed to the client as a file download and a filename will be suggested to the user. Sometimes when streaming files to the user, you may not want them to download the file. Take images, for example, which can be embedded into HTML pages. To tell the browser a file is not meant to be downloaded, you can set the :disposition option to "inline". The opposite and default value for this option is "attachment".

12.1 Sending Files

If you want to send a file that already exists on disk, use the send_file method.

class ClientsController < ApplicationController
  # Stream a file that has already been generated and stored on disk.
  def download_pdf
    client = Client.find(params[:id])
    send_file("#{Rails.root}/files/clients/#{client.id}.pdf",
              filename: "#{client.name}.pdf",
              type: "application/pdf")
  end
end

This will read and stream the file 4kB at the time, avoiding loading the entire file into memory at once. You can turn off streaming with the :stream option or adjust the block size with the :buffer_size option.

If :type is not specified, it will be guessed from the file extension specified in :filename. If the content type is not registered for the extension, application/octet-stream will be used.

Be careful when using data coming from the client (params, cookies, etc.) to locate the file on disk, as this is a security risk that might allow someone to gain access to files they are not meant to.

It is not recommended that you stream static files through Rails if you can instead keep them in a public folder on your web server. It is much more efficient to let the user download the file directly using Apache or another web server, keeping the request from unnecessarily going through the whole Rails stack.

12.2 RESTful Downloads

While send_data works just fine, if you are creating a RESTful application having separate actions for file downloads is usually not necessary. In REST terminology, the PDF file from the example above can be considered just another representation of the client resource. Rails provides an easy and quite sleek way of doing "RESTful downloads". Here's how you can rewrite the example so that the PDF download is a part of the show action, without any streaming:

class ClientsController < ApplicationController
  # The user can request to receive this resource as HTML or PDF.
  def show
    @client = Client.find(params[:id])

    respond_to do |format|
      format.html
      format.pdf { render pdf: generate_pdf(@client) }
    end
  end
end

In order for this example to work, you have to add the PDF MIME type to Rails. This can be done by adding the following line to the file config/initializers/mime_types.rb:

Mime::Type.register "application/pdf", :pdf

Configuration files are not reloaded on each request, so you have to restart the server in order for their changes to take effect.

Now the user can request to get a PDF version of a client just by adding ".pdf" to the URL:

GET /clients/1.pdf

12.3 Live Streaming of Arbitrary Data

Rails allows you to stream more than just files. In fact, you can stream anything you would like in a response object. The ActionController::Live module allows you to create a persistent connection with a browser. Using this module, you will be able to send arbitrary data to the browser at specific points in time.

12.3.1 Incorporating Live Streaming

Including ActionController::Live inside of your controller class will provide all actions inside of the controller the ability to stream data. You can mix in the module like so:

class MyController < ActionController::Base
  include ActionController::Live

  def stream
    response.headers['Content-Type'] = 'text/event-stream'
    100.times {
      response.stream.write "hello world\n"
      sleep 1
    }
  ensure
    response.stream.close
  end
end

The above code will keep a persistent connection with the browser and send 100 messages of "hello world\n", each one second apart.

There are a couple of things to notice in the above example. We need to make sure to close the response stream. Forgetting to close the stream will leave the socket open forever. We also have to set the content type to text/event-stream before we write to the response stream. This is because headers cannot be written after the response has been committed (when response.committed returns a truthy value), which occurs when you write or commit the response stream.

12.3.2 Example Usage

Let's suppose that you were making a Karaoke machine and a user wants to get the lyrics for a particular song. Each Song has a particular number of lines and each line takes time num_beats to finish singing.

If we wanted to return the lyrics in Karaoke fashion (only sending the line when the singer has finished the previous line), then we could use ActionController::Live as follows:

class LyricsController < ActionController::Base
  include ActionController::Live

  def show
    response.headers['Content-Type'] = 'text/event-stream'
    song = Song.find(params[:id])

    song.each do |line|
      response.stream.write line.lyrics
      sleep line.num_beats
    end
  ensure
    response.stream.close
  end
end

The above code sends the next line only after the singer has completed the previous line.

12.3.3 Streaming Considerations

Streaming arbitrary data is an extremely powerful tool. As shown in the previous examples, you can choose when and what to send across a response stream. However, you should also note the following things:

  • Each response stream creates a new thread and copies over the thread local variables from the original thread. Having too many thread local variables can negatively impact performance. Similarly, a large number of threads can also hinder performance.
  • Failing to close the response stream will leave the corresponding socket open forever. Make sure to call close whenever you are using a response stream.
  • WEBrick servers buffer all responses, and so including ActionController::Live will not work. You must use a web server which does not automatically buffer responses.

13 Log Filtering

Rails keeps a log file for each environment in the log folder. These are extremely useful when debugging what's actually going on in your application, but in a live application you may not want every bit of information to be stored in the log file.

13.1 Parameters Filtering

You can filter out sensitive request parameters from your log files by appending them to config.filter_parameters in the application configuration. These parameters will be marked [FILTERED] in the log.

config.filter_parameters << :password

13.2 Redirects Filtering

Sometimes it's desirable to filter out from log files some sensitive locations your application is redirecting to. You can do that by using the config.filter_redirect configuration option:

config.filter_redirect << 's3.amazonaws.com'

You can set it to a String, a Regexp, or an array of both.

config.filter_redirect.concat ['s3.amazonaws.com', /private_path/]

Matching URLs will be marked as '[FILTERED]'.

14 Rescue

Most likely your application is going to contain bugs or otherwise throw an exception that needs to be handled. For example, if the user follows a link to a resource that no longer exists in the database, Active Record will throw the ActiveRecord::RecordNotFound exception.

Rails' default exception handling displays a "500 Server Error" message for all exceptions. If the request was made locally, a nice traceback and some added information gets displayed so you can figure out what went wrong and deal with it. If the request was remote Rails will just display a simple "500 Server Error" message to the user, or a "404 Not Found" if there was a routing error or a record could not be found. Sometimes you might want to customize how these errors are caught and how they're displayed to the user. There are several levels of exception handling available in a Rails application:

14.1 The Default 500 and 404 Templates

By default a production application will render either a 404 or a 500 error message. These messages are contained in static HTML files in the public folder, in 404.html and 500.html respectively. You can customize these files to add some extra information and layout, but remember that they are static; i.e. you can't use RHTML or layouts in them, just plain HTML.

14.2 rescue_from

If you want to do something a bit more elaborate when catching errors, you can use rescue_from, which handles exceptions of a certain type (or multiple types) in an entire controller and its subclasses.

When an exception occurs which is caught by a rescue_from directive, the exception object is passed to the handler. The handler can be a method or a Proc object passed to the :with option. You can also use a block directly instead of an explicit Proc object.

Here's how you can use rescue_from to intercept all ActiveRecord::RecordNotFound errors and do something with them.

class ApplicationController < ActionController::Base
  rescue_from ActiveRecord::RecordNotFound, with: :record_not_found

  private

    def record_not_found
      render plain: "404 Not Found", status: 404
    end
end

Of course, this example is anything but elaborate and doesn't improve on the default exception handling at all, but once you can catch all those exceptions you're free to do whatever you want with them. For example, you could create custom exception classes that will be thrown when a user doesn't have access to a certain section of your application:

class ApplicationController < ActionController::Base
  rescue_from User::NotAuthorized, with: :user_not_authorized

  private

    def user_not_authorized
      flash[:error] = "You don't have access to this section."
      redirect_to :back
    end
end

class ClientsController < ApplicationController
  # Check that the user has the right authorization to access clients.
  before_action :check_authorization

  # Note how the actions don't have to worry about all the auth stuff.
  def edit
    @client = Client.find(params[:id])
  end

  private

    # If the user is not authorized, just throw the exception.
    def check_authorization
      raise User::NotAuthorized unless current_user.admin?
    end
end

You shouldn't do rescue_from Exception or rescue_from StandardError unless you have a particular reason as it will cause serious side-effects (e.g. you won't be able to see exception details and tracebacks during development). If you would like to dynamically generate error pages, see Custom errors page.

Certain exceptions are only rescuable from the ApplicationController class, as they are raised before the controller gets initialized and the action gets executed. See Pratik Naik's article on the subject for more information.

14.3 Custom errors page

You can customize the layout of your error handling using controllers and views. First define your app own routes to display the errors page.

  • config/application.rb
  config.exceptions_app = self.routes

  • config/routes.rb
  match '/404', via: :all, to: 'errors#not_found'
  match '/422', via: :all, to: 'errors#unprocessable_entity'
  match '/500', via: :all, to: 'errors#server_error'

Create the controller and views.

  • app/controllers/errors_controller.rb
  class ErrorsController < ActionController::Base
    layout 'error'

    def not_found
      render status: :not_found
    end

    def unprocessable_entity
      render status: :unprocessable_entity
    end

    def server_error
      render status: :server_error
    end
  end

  • app/views
  errors/
    not_found.html.erb
    unprocessable_entity.html.erb
    server_error.html.erb
  layouts/
    error.html.erb

Do not forget to set the correct status code on the controller as shown before.

You should avoid using the database or any complex operations because the user is already on the error page. Generating another error while on an error page could cause issues like presenting an empty page for the users.

15 Force HTTPS protocol

Sometime you might want to force a particular controller to only be accessible via an HTTPS protocol for security reasons. You can use the force_ssl method in your controller to enforce that:

class DinnerController
  force_ssl
end

Just like the filter, you could also pass :only and :except to enforce the secure connection only to specific actions:

class DinnerController
  force_ssl only: :cheeseburger
  # or
  force_ssl except: :cheeseburger
end

Please note that if you find yourself adding force_ssl to many controllers, you may want to force the whole application to use HTTPS instead. In that case, you can set the config.force_ssl in your environment file.

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