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Composite Primary Keys

This guide is an introduction to composite primary keys for database tables.

After reading this guide you will be able to:

1 What are Composite Primary Keys?

Sometimes a single column's value isn't enough to uniquely identify every row of a table, and a combination of two or more columns is required. This can be the case when using a legacy database schema without a single id column as a primary key, or when altering schemas for sharding or multitenancy.

Composite primary keys increase complexity and can be slower than a single primary key column. Ensure your use-case requires a composite primary key before using one.

2 Composite Primary Key Migrations

You can create a table with a composite primary key by passing the :primary_key option to create_table with an array value:

class CreateProducts < ActiveRecord::Migration[7.2]
  def change
    create_table :products, primary_key: [:store_id, :sku] do |t|
      t.integer :store_id
      t.string :sku
      t.text :description

3 Querying Models

3.1 Using #find

If your table uses a composite primary key, you'll need to pass an array when using #find to locate a record:

# Find the product with store_id 3 and sku "XYZ12345"
irb> product = Product.find([3, "XYZ12345"])
=> #<Product store_id: 3, sku: "XYZ12345", description: "Yellow socks">

The SQL equivalent of the above is:

SELECT * FROM products WHERE store_id = 3 AND sku = "XYZ12345"

To find multiple records with composite IDs, pass an array of arrays to #find:

# Find the products with primary keys [1, "ABC98765"] and [7, "ZZZ11111"]
irb> products = Product.find([[1, "ABC98765"], [7, "ZZZ11111"]])
=> [
  #<Product store_id: 1, sku: "ABC98765", description: "Red Hat">,
  #<Product store_id: 7, sku: "ZZZ11111", description: "Green Pants">

The SQL equivalent of the above is:

SELECT * FROM products WHERE (store_id = 1 AND sku = 'ABC98765' OR store_id = 7 AND sku = 'ZZZ11111')

Models with composite primary keys will also use the full composite primary key when ordering:

irb> product = Product.first
=> #<Product store_id: 1, sku: "ABC98765", description: "Red Hat">

The SQL equivalent of the above is:

SELECT * FROM products ORDER BY products.store_id ASC, products.sku ASC LIMIT 1

3.2 Using #where

Hash conditions for #where may be specified in a tuple-like syntax. This can be useful for querying composite primary key relations:

Product.where(Product.primary_key => [[1, "ABC98765"], [7, "ZZZ11111"]])

3.2.1 Conditions with :id

When specifying conditions on methods like find_by and where, the use of id will match against an :id attribute on the model. This is different from find, where the ID passed in should be a primary key value.

Take caution when using find_by(id:) on models where :id is not the primary key, such as composite primary key models. See the Active Record Querying guide to learn more.

4 Associations between Models with Composite Primary Keys

Rails is often able to infer the primary key - foreign key information between associated models with composite primary keys without needing extra information. Take the following example:

class Order < ApplicationRecord
  self.primary_key = [:shop_id, :id]
  has_many :books

class Book < ApplicationRecord
  belongs_to :order

Here, Rails assumes that the :id column should be used as the primary key for the association between an order and its books, just as with a regular has_many / belongs_to association. It will infer that the foreign key column on the books table is :order_id. Accessing a book's order:

order = Order.create!(id: [1, 2], status: "pending")
book = order.books.create!(title: "A Cool Book")


will generate the following SQL to access the order:

SELECT * FROM orders WHERE id = 2

This only works if the model's composite primary key contains the :id column, and the column is unique for all records. In order to use the full composite primary key in associations, set the query_constraints option on the association. This option specifies a composite foreign key on the association, meaning that all columns in the foreign key will be used to query the associated record(s). For example:

class Author < ApplicationRecord
  self.primary_key = [:first_name, :last_name]
  has_many :books, query_constraints: [:first_name, :last_name]

class Book < ApplicationRecord
  belongs_to :author, query_constraints: [:author_first_name, :author_last_name]

Accessing a book's author:

author = Author.create!(first_name: "Jane", last_name: "Doe")
book = author.books.create!(title: "A Cool Book")


will use :first_name and :last_name in the SQL query:

SELECT * FROM authors WHERE first_name = 'Jane' AND last_name = 'Doe'

5 Forms for Composite Primary Key Models

Forms may also be built for composite primary key models. See the Form Helpers guide for more information on the form builder syntax.

Given a @book model object with a composite key [:author_id, :id]:

@book = Book.find([2, 25])
# => #<Book id: 25, title: "Some book", author_id: 2>

The following form:

<%= form_with model: @book do |form| %>
  <%= form.text_field :title %>
  <%= form.submit %>
<% end %>


<form action="/books/2_25" method="post" accept-charset="UTF-8" >
  <input name="authenticity_token" type="hidden" value="..." />
  <input type="text" name="book[title]" id="book_title" value="My book" />
  <input type="submit" name="commit" value="Update Book" data-disable-with="Update Book">

Note the generated URL contains the author_id and id delimited by an underscore. Once submitted, the controller can extract primary key values from the parameters and update the record. See the next section for more details.

6 Composite Key Parameters

Composite key parameters contain multiple values in one parameter. For this reason, we need to be able to extract each value and pass them to Active Record. We can leverage the extract_value method for this use-case.

Given the following controller:

class BooksController < ApplicationController
  def show
    # Extract the composite ID value from URL parameters.
    id = params.extract_value(:id)
    # Find the book using the composite ID.
    @book = Book.find(id)
    # use the default rendering behaviour to render the show view.

And the following route:

get '/books/:id', to: 'books#show'

When a user opens the URL /books/4_2, the controller will extract the composite key value ["4", "2"] and pass it to Book.find to render the right record in the view. The extract_value method may be used to extract arrays out of any delimited parameters.

7 Composite Primary Key Fixtures

Fixtures for composite primary key tables are fairly similar to normal tables. When using an id column, the column may be omitted as usual:

class Book < ApplicationRecord
  self.primary_key = [:author_id, :id]
  belongs_to :author
# books.yml
  author_id: <%= ActiveRecord::FixtureSet.identify(:lewis_carroll) %>
  title: "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

However, in order to support composite primary key relationships, you must use the composite_identify method:

class BookOrder < ApplicationRecord
  self.primary_key = [:shop_id, :id]
  belongs_to :order, query_constraints: [:shop_id, :order_id]
  belongs_to :book, query_constraints: [:author_id, :book_id]
# book_orders.yml
  author: lewis_carroll
  book_id: <%= ActiveRecord::FixtureSet.composite_identify(
              :alices_adventure_in_wonderland, Book.primary_key)[:id] %>
  shop: book_store
  order_id: <%= ActiveRecord::FixtureSet.composite_identify(
              :books, Order.primary_key)[:id] %>


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