The Ruby Module Builder Pattern

There’s an interesting pattern I’ve discovered recently in Ruby that is very powerful, yet apparently not widely known or appreciated.1 I call this pattern the Module Builder Pattern. I’ve used it heavily in designing Mobility, a pluggable translation framework I released a couple months ago, and it served me so well I thought I should share what I’ve learned.

Drawing Hands

At its core, the Module Builder is an extremely simple, elegant, and versatile way of dynamically defining named, customizable modules to mix into classes. This is done by subclassing the Module class, initializing these subclasses at runtime, and including the resulting modules into other classes.

If the idea of subclassing Module makes your head spin, read on. Despite its seemingly esoteric nature, the Module Builder does some very useful things. It is used extensively in projects such as dry-rb to great effect, but buried out of view among advanced coding styles that conceal its essential simplicity. It is also used sporadically in Rails2, but only to a very limited extent. I think it’s fair to say that most Rubyists have never seen the pattern, let alone ever used it in their daily work.

To explain Module Builder, I will work through a series of progressively more complex examples, ending with some code extracted from my work on Mobility into a gem called MethodFound. The examples begin with some simple core concepts I think most readers will understand, then advance to a slightly more in-depth discussion exposing the pattern’s tangible benefits in real-life applications.

Modules in Ruby

Let’s first recall that a module in Ruby is basically a collection of methods and constants which you can include in any class, reducing duplication and encapsulating functionality in reusable, composable3 units. Callbacks like included and extended allow you to execute some custom code every time your module is included (or extended, etc) in a class or module.

So suppose we have a module MyModule with a method foo:

module MyModule
  def foo
    "foo"
  end
end

Now we can add this method to any class by including MyModule:

class MyClass
  include MyModule
end

a = MyClass.new
a.foo
#=> "foo"

That’s pretty straightforward, but also very limited: foo is pre-defined with a hard-coded return value.

Let’s take a slightly more “real-world” case. Say we’ve got a class, Point, with two attributes x and y, which for simplicity’s sake we’ll define using a Struct:

Point = Struct.new(:x, :y)

Now let’s create a module which can add two points together at their respective x and y values. Call it Addable:

module Addable
  def +(point)
    Point.new(point.x + x, point.y + y)
  end
end

Point.include Addable
p1 = Point.new(1, 2)
p2 = Point.new(2, 3)

p1 + p2
#=> #<Point:.. @x=3, @y=5>

The module is slightly more reusable now. But it still has rigid constraints: it will only work with a class called Point which has attributes x and y.

We can improve this a bit by removing the constant Point in the module, and replacing it with self.class:

module Addable
  def +(other)
    self.class.new(x + other.x, y + other.y)
  end
end

Now our Addable module can be used with any class that has accessors x and y,4 which makes it much more flexible. Also, thanks to Ruby’s very dynamic treatment of types, the module can be used to “add” a potentially wide variety of pairwise data types, as long as their elements have a + method.

In addition, note that modules in Ruby have the property that their methods can be composed through inclusion or inheritance by using the super keyword in the including or parent class. So if we wanted to log calls to our adder method, we could do this by defining + inside of the Point class, like this:

class Point < Struct.new(:x, :y)
  include Addable

  def +(other)
    puts "Enter Adder..."
    super.tap { puts "Exit Adder..." }
  end
end

And we can see that our logging indeed works as expected, calling the method on the class first, and then through super the method defined on the module:

p1 = Point.new(1, 2)
p2 = Point.new(2, 3)

p1 + p2
Enter Adder...
Exit Adder...
#=> #<Point:.. @x=3, @y=5>

There are many other things to say about modules; we’ve really only touched the tip of the iceberg here. However, the main topic of this post is module builders, not modules, so let’s take a look at that.

Automated space exploration and industrialization using self-replicating systems

Building a Module that Builds Modules

Modules that Build

Modules are powerful because (when used effectively) they encapsulate certain shared patterns of functionality. In the example above, this functionality is the addition of variable pairs (points, or any other class with pairs of variables x and y). Identifying shared patterns like this and expressing them in the form of a module or set of modules makes it possible to tackle very complex problems with simple, modular solutions.

That said, the module above is still quite specific, constrained to classes with variables x and y. What if we wanted to loosen this constraint and have the module work for any set of variables? How would we do that?

Well, a module can’t be configured once defined, so we’ll need some other way to loosen this constraint. One way is to define a method on the module that itself adds the desired functionality to the class. Let’s call this method define_adder5:

module AdderDefiner
  def define_adder(*keys)
    define_method :+ do |other|
      self.class.new(*(keys.map { |key| send(key) + other.send(key) }))
    end
  end
end

Instead of defining a + method like we did in the Addable module, we instead define a method which defines the method. We’ll call this “method-defining method” the bootstrap method here, since it “bootstraps” the module’s instance methods dynamically into the class.

This bootstrap method takes an arbitrary number of arguments, mapped to an array keys using the splat operator. These “keys” are the names of the variables to add (or, more precisely, the names of the methods which return the variable values). It then defines a method, called +, which adds the values of these variables at each key and creates an instance from the results using self.class.new.

Let’s see if it works. We’ll create a new class, LineItem, with different reader names, and extend the module in this case rather than include it (since define_adder needs to be a class method):

class LineItem < Struct.new(:amount, :tax)
  extend AdderDefiner
  define_adder(:amount, :tax)
end

Now we can add line item pairs, just like we did point pairs earlier:

l1 = LineItem.new(9.99, 1.50)
l2 = LineItem.new(15.99, 2.40)

l1 + l2
#=> #<LineItem:... @amount=25.98, @tax=3.9>

So it works! And we now have no dependency on variable names (or even on number of variables), so our module is more flexible.

But there’s a problem. When we copy over our earlier logging code from the Point class to log calls to +, like this:

class LineItem < Struct.new(:amount, :tax)
  extend AdderDefiner
  define_adder(:amount, :tax)

  def +(other)
    puts "Enter Adder..."
    super.tap { puts "Exit Adder..." }
  end
end

… and then add two line items again, instead of getting the expected logs, things blow up with an exception:

NoMethodError: super: no superclass method `+' for #<struct LineItem amount=9.99, tax=1.5>

What’s going on here?

Take a good look at how define_adder bootstraps the + method: it uses define_method to add the method directly to the class, in this case LineItem. A class can only have one definition of any given method, so when, later in the class, we again define +, we clobber the earlier definition. There is no “superclass” here since we have not included or inherited anything when defining the method.

Solving this problem will require some “module building” magic. Let’s look at the solution first, and then see how it solves this issue:

module AdderIncluder
  def define_adder(*keys)
    adder = Module.new do
      define_method :+ do |other|
        self.class.new(*(keys.map { |key| send(key) + other.send(key) }))
      end
    end
    include adder
  end
end

Now we replace AdderDefiner in the logged LineItem code above with AdderIncluder and we find that it works:

l1 = LineItem.new(9.99, 1.50)
l2 = LineItem.new(15.99, 2.40)

l1 + l2
Enter Adder...
Exit Adder...
#=> #<LineItem:... @amount=25.98, @tax=3.9>

The trick that makes this work is the use of an anonymous module in define_adder to define the + method, which is different from the previous technique of defining the method directly on the calling class.

Recall that in Ruby, any module (small “m”) is simply an instance of a class, and this class is Module (big “M”). Like other classes, Module has a new method, in this case one which can take a block argument and evaluate the block in the context of the newly-created module.

So to generate a “module on the fly”, you can simply call Module.new, pass a block with some method definitions, and use it just as you would any other (named) module:

mod = Module.new do
  def with_foo
    self + " with Foo"
  end
end

title = "The Ruby Module Builder Pattern"
title.extend mod
title.with_foo
#=> "The Ruby Module Builder Pattern with Foo"

This is a handy trick, often used in testing when you don’t want to clutter the global namespace with a one-off module used only in a single test (works for Class too).6

The method defined in the block in AdderIncluder is the same + method defined earlier in AdderDefiner, and in this sense, the two modules perform a very similar function. The key difference is that whereas AdderDefiner defines the method on the class, AdderIncluder includes a module with the method into the class.

If you look up the chain of ancestors, you will see this module just after the LineItem class itself:

LineItem.ancestors
#=> [LineItem,
#<Module:0x...>,
...

Given this ancestor chain, it is clear why super works here: when you call + on LineItem, the method calls super, which continues up the class hierarchy to the anonymous module where our + method is defined. It then calculates and returns the result, which gets composed in the LineItem adder with the logging code.

Although at first glance it might seem somewhat strange and unfamiliar, this technique of defining a bootstrap method to include a dynamically-generated anonymous module is in fact extremely useful, and widely used for this reason. This is particularly true for a flexible framework like Rails, where simply defining a model or setting up routes triggers calls to many bootstrap methods like define_adder. The technique can also be found in other gems that require a similar level of flexiblity (including Mobility).

Bootstrapped module building can thus be considered a very important metaprogramming technique in Ruby. Indeed, it underpins the very dynamic nature that enables frameworks like Rails to work the way they do.

That said, I hope to convince you here that the potential of module building goes well beyond the bootstrapping technique shown above, and as such that it is a pattern that deserves more attention. To do this, I’m going to return to the Adder module one last time, and define it in a slightly different way.

The Module Builder

So far we’ve looked at three “adder” modules:

  1. Addable, which adds a + method on two variables x and y,
  2. AdderDefiner, which adds a class method define_adder that defines a + method on an arbitrary set of variables, and
  3. AdderIncluder, which also adds a class method define_adder that defines the + method, but in such a way that the method can be composed using super.

Although not very flexible, note that in hindsight, the first Addable module had some good things going for it:

  • It only included the + method, and left no other bootstrapping “artifacts” like define_adder (unlike both AdderDefiner and AdderIncluder)
  • It allowed the parent class to access its methods using super (like AdderIncluder but not AdderDefiner)
  • It had a name, and was therefore very easy to recognize in the chain of ancestors. While AdderDefiner and AdderIncluder themselves appear in the chain of ancestors, the fact that the bootstrap method was called, and how it was called, is hard or impossible to discern.

In this section, I will show how we can solve the adder problem in a way that retains these benefits, while also offering the flexibility we sought in the last section.

A Self-Replicating Machine

Module Builders

Let’s start by defining an AdderBuilder class which inherits from Module:

class AdderBuilder < Module
  def initialize(*keys)
    define_method :+ do |other|
      self.class.new(*(keys.map { |key| send(key) + other.send(key) }))
    end
  end
end

This is a short but very dense little class. Before going into the details of what it’s doing here, let’s first check that it works. We’ll include (not extend) an instance of this class (a module) into LineItem this time:

class LineItem < Struct.new(:amount, :tax)
  include AdderBuilder.new(:amount, :tax)
end

l1 = LineItem.new(9.99, 1.50)
l2 = LineItem.new(15.99, 2.40)
l1 + l2
#=> #<LineItem:... @amount=25.98, @tax=3.9>

So, as we can see, this little class does the same thing that we achieved with the define_adder bootstrap method in AdderDefiner, except without ever defining a class method to do it.

How does it do this? First, it subclasses Module. Since we can call new on Module, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that we can also subclass it and define our own methods such as initialize. And indeed, as shown above, we can do this.

Here’s that initializer again:

def initialize(*keys)
  define_method :+ do |other|
    self.class.new(*(keys.map { |key| send(key) + other.send(key) }))
  end
end

There are two levels at play here, and it’s important to recognize both of them. On one level, we are initializing a new instance of a class, Module. This instance is itself a module, so it’s a collection of methods we will mix into other classes. We are then, as we initialize this module, defining one of these methods, a method called +.

The method + itself is being defined in terms of the method names we have passed as arguments to Module.new (the “keys”, which were :amount and :tax in the example above).7 When we call self.class.new in the method, this new will be evaluated in the context of the class including this new module, and thus would evaluate to LineItem (or Point, or whatever class the module was included into).

So AdderBuilder.new(:amount, :tax) evaluates to a module functionally equivalent to this:

Module.new do
  def +(other)
    self.class.new(amount + other.amount, tax + other.tax)
  end
end

… which is what we had in Addable, with x and y swapped for amount and tax. But the power here comes from the fact that we can define our dynamic module in terms of whatever variable names we want.

And herein lies the essential ingenuity of this pattern: that it allows you to define modules not as fixed collections of methods and constants, but as configurable prototypes for building such collections. There is no need for class methods or other metaprogramming tricks to bootstrap the module-inclusion step; the builder builds modules directly, so they can be included in one step.

Not only that, but the modules created in this process, unlike the anonymous modules generated by techniques described in the last section, actually have a name, so you can clearly see them in the chain of ancestors:

LineItem.ancestors
[LineItem, #<AdderBuilder:0x...>, Object, ... ]

This is a nice by-product of the encapsulation we have achieved by subclassing Module.8 With an anonymous module, this is much harder to debug:

LineItem.ancestors
[LineItem, #<Module:0x...>, Object, ... ]

Module Builders thus have the benefits of anonymous modules (their instances can be defined “on the fly” and do not clutter the global constant namespace), are easily traceable since their instances have a name (like “normal” modules), and yet do not require defining (and calling) new methods on the including class to bootstrap them.

We can go a step further. We previously added some logging code to the including class. This logging code can also be rewritten as a module builder, which we will call LoggerBuilder:

class LoggerBuilder < Module
  def initialize(method_name, start_message: "", end_message: "")
    define_method method_name do |*args, &block|
      print start_message
      super(*args, &block).tap { print end_message }
    end
  end
end

Now we can log any included or inherited method by creating an instance of LoggerBuilder with the name of the method to be logged:

class LineItem < Struct.new(:amount, :tax)
  include AdderBuilder.new(:amount, :tax)
  include LoggerBuilder.new(:+, start_message: "Enter Adder...\n",
                                end_message: "Exit Adder...\n")
end

And, presto, we’ve got a logged addable line item:

l1 = LineItem.new(9.99, 1.50)
l2 = LineItem.new(15.99, 2.40)

l1 + l2
Enter Adder...
Exit Adder...
#=> #<LineItem:... @amount=25.98, @tax=3.9>

But of course, we can now also log any other included or inherited method we like:

LineItem.include(LoggerBuilder.new(:to_s, start_message: "Stringifying...\n"))

l1.to_s
Stringifying...
=> "#<struct LineItem amount=9.99, tax=1.5>"

There are many other directions you can take this; I’ve only scratched the surface here. For a relatively simple (yet powerful) example of this “in the wild”, take a look at Dry Equalizer, which dynamically defines equality methods on a class using an instance of an Equalizer class that, like AdderBuilder, subclasses Module.

Module Builders and Composition

You may have noticed that I have used the word “compose” quite a lot in this post with respect to including modules into a class. Any time you include a module which overrides a method and calls super, you are in effect using function (method) composition, although it is not generally referred to as such.

The same is true of our logging code in the last section. When we include an instance of both AdderBuilder and LoggerBuilder, we are building + as a composite function, which we could alternatively write as:

class LineItem < Struct.new(:amount, :tax)
  def add(other)
    self.class.new(amount + other.amount, tax + other.tax)
  end

  def log(result)
    print "Enter Adder..."
    result.tap { print "Exit Adder..." }
  end

  def +(other)
    log(add(other))
  end
end

So super is essentially taking the output of the last method call and incorporating it into the result of the current module’s method.

Composition happens to be a very interesting way to “combine” different instances of a module builder, like we combined logging and adding modules in the example above. With module builders, we can configure and combine many modules to build more complex methods and class behaviours.

One way to do this is via a “branching” method flow. We define multiple modules that each override the same method, but only trigger some special processing if a condition on the method and its arguments matches the module’s state; otherwise, the control flow continues up the class hierarchy to the next module via super.

If you’ve worked with Ruby for any length of time, this “branching composition” should make you think of one method: method_missing. Rarely does anyone override method_missing without a call to super somewhere, since doing so would catch any method not defined on the class, which is generally not what you want.

Instead, a typical method_missing override looks something like this:

def method_missing(method_name, *arguments, &block)
  if method_name =~ METHOD_NAME_REGEX
    # ... do some special stuff ...
  else
    super
  end
end

… where METHOD_NAME_REGEX is a regex used to determine if we should “do some special stuff”.

I actually use exactly this branching flow in Mobility in a module builder called FallthroughAccessors. Each instance of FallthroughAccessors is initialized with a set of attributes (its “state”) and intercepts method calls where the method name is made up of one of these attributes plus a locale suffix (e.g. title_fr for the title attribute in French), which I refer to as an “I18n accessor”. If the method name matches, the attribute value in the suffix locale is returned, otherwise control continues up the class hierarchy.

Composing method_missing in module builders this way results in an sequence of nested regex conditionals spread across a series of modules, which I call “interceptors”. The fact that these interceptors are entirely encapsulated, with no external dependencies on the class itself, enables Mobility to “plug in” i18n accessors for each translated attribute independently, at any time and in complete isolation from each other.

Having found this pattern useful in Mobility, I extracted it into a gem called MethodFound. MethodFound is essentially one module builder, MethodFound::Interceptor, which intercepts method calls that match a regex or proc (the “state” in this case) and passes the method name, any matches captured in the regex (or the return value of the proc), and any method arguments to a block (the “do some special stuff” in the conditional above). This block is evaluated in the context of the instance of the class including the module.

Here’s an example:

class Greeter < Struct.new(:name)
  include MethodFound::Interceptor.new(/\Asay_([a-zA-Z_]+)\Z/) { |method_name, matches|
    "#{name} says: #{matches[1].gsub('_', ' ').capitalize}."
  }
  include MethodFound::Interceptor.new(/\Ascream_([a-zA-Z_]+)\Z/) { |method_name, matches|
    "#{name} screams: #{matches[1].gsub('_', ' ').capitalize}!!!"
  }
  include MethodFound::Interceptor.new(/\Aask_([a-zA-Z_]+)\Z/) { |method_name, matches|
    "#{name} asks: #{matches[1].gsub('_', ' ').capitalize}?"
  }
end

Here we have composed three interceptors on method_missing. No other trace is left in Greeter, but you can peek at its ancestors to see directly the three module builders along with their regex matchers (interceptors override Module#inspect to show this):

Greeter.ancestors
=> [Greeter,
#<MethodFound::Builder:0x...>,
#<MethodFound::Interceptor: /\Aask_([a-zA-Z_]+)\Z/>,
#<MethodFound::Interceptor: /\Ascream_([a-zA-Z_]+)\Z/>,
#<MethodFound::Interceptor: /\Asay_([a-zA-Z_]+)\Z/>,
Object, ...]

So when a method is called that the class does not know, it will bubble up first to the “ask” interceptor and see if it matches the regex. If it does, it will return a value; if not, it continues up to the “scream” interceptor and checks against the second regex, and so on.

Here is the result:

greeter = Greeter.new("Bob")
greeter.say_hello_world
#=> "Bob says: Hello world."
greeter.scream_good_morning
#=> "Bob screams: Good morning!!!"
greeter.ask_how_do_you_do
#=> "Bob asks: How do you do?"

Given this example using module builders and method_missing, here’s a problem for you: how would you implement what we have shown above without module builders, but with the same level of flexibility?

The first thing that happens when you take away the module builder is that you lose the home for your module state – “normal” modules have no place to put it. So those regexes and blocks in the interceptor will need to go somewhere else, and the only other natural place to put them is the including class itself.

There are problems with this, which a real-world example should make clear.

Module Builders and Encapsulation

Let’s now take everything we’ve learned so far and apply it to some real living code at the core of Ruby’s most popular application framework.

Continuing from our discussion in the last section, I want to focus here on how modules are typically used to configure state, where that state is stored, and the problems with this approach to module configuration. I hope to convince you that module builders offer a much more natural way to encapsulate this state in the place where it best belongs: in the module itself.

ActiveModel::AttributeMethods

The module we will look at is ActiveModel’s AttributeMethods, which adds support for prefixed and suffixed attribute methods to Rails models10. If you have worked with Rails for any length of time, you are probably familiar with these prefix/suffix patterns through their use in change-tracking methods like name_changed? in ActiveModel::Dirty. The module implements both module bootstrapping (like AdderIncluder) and message interception using method_missing (like MethodFound::Interceptor).

Let’s start with a simple class that implements a method prefix and a method affix:11

class Person
  include ActiveModel::AttributeMethods

  attribute_method_affix  prefix: 'reset_', suffix: '_to_default!'
  attribute_method_prefix 'clear_'
  define_attribute_methods :name

  attr_accessor :name, :title

  def attributes
    { 'name' => @name, 'title' => @title }
  end

  private

  def clear_attribute(attr)
    send("#{attr}=", nil)
  end

  def reset_attribute_to_default!(attr)
    send("#{attr}=", "Default #{attr.capitalize}")
  end
end

This is how we would use these attribute methods:

person = Person.new
person.name = "foo"
person.name
#=> "foo"
person.clear_name
person.name
#=> nil
person.reset_name_to_default!
person.name
#=> "Default Name"

Just looking at the code above, it is clear that the module is storing state somewhere, since it needs to know what prefixes, suffixes and affixes have been defined for a given class. We can see where this state is stored in the code for attribute_method_prefix, which is called in Person to setup a method prefix:

def attribute_method_prefix(*prefixes)
  self.attribute_method_matchers += prefixes.map! { |prefix| AttributeMethodMatcher.new prefix: prefix }
  undefine_attribute_methods
end

So the array of prefix strings are mapped to instances of a class, AttributeMethodMatcher, stored in an array attribute_method_matchers on the Person class. (The affix and suffix methods are similar.) These matchers are the module’s core configuration, and they are stored outside the module itself.

What’s in one of these matchers? Let’s have a look at the initialize method of the class to get an idea:

def initialize(options = {})
  @prefix, @suffix = options.fetch(:prefix, ""), options.fetch(:suffix, "")
  @regex = /^(?:#{Regexp.escape(@prefix)})(.*)(?:#{Regexp.escape(@suffix)})$/
  @method_missing_target = "#{@prefix}attribute#{@suffix}"
  @method_name = "#{prefix}%s#{suffix}"
end

So essentially, a matcher is two things: a prefix and suffix pair, and a regex generated from them (the rest is mostly for convenience). This internal state is used for two different but related purposes.

The first of these two purposes is important but not well-documented at all; you can find it explained inline in a comment here. The purpose is to provide a way to convert a hash of keys and values returned from an attributes method into a set of first-class attribute methods, supporting all defined prefix, suffix and affix method patterns. In the example above, attributes returns a hash with keys name and title, so these become attributes that dispatch to methods like clear_attribute and reset_attribute_to_default!.

Like MethodFound, this is implemented using method_missing: any method call which matches a matcher regex and whose target (captured from the regex) is a key in attributes is intercepted and dispatched to an attribute handler. So reset_title_to_default! is dispatched to reset_attribute_to_default!, with the name of the attribute ("title") as its argument.

Method interception is great for an open-ended, changing hash of attributes, but method_missing is slow as molasses. If you know what attributes you want, it’s generally better to define the methods explicitly.

This is the second purpose of the method matchers, triggered by calling define_attribute_methods with one or more attribute names after setting up prefixes, suffixes and affixes: to define methods for each combination of prefix and/or suffix on each attribute. Person defines methods for name, so clear_name and reset_name_to_default! dispatch to clear_attribute and reset_attribute_to_default!, respectively.

These methods are bound to an anonymous module defined and included in another method added to the Person class, named generated_attribute_methods. As instance methods, they take precedence over method interception, so while both clear_title and clear_name will return the same result, the former falls through to method_missing, whereas the latter is handled (much more quickly) by the attribute method.

ActiveModel AttributeMethods

ActiveModel's AttributeMethods

You can see the defined attribute methods if you grep the methods on an Person instance:

person = Person.new
person.methods.grep /name/
#=> [:name, :name=, :reset_name_to_default!, :clear_name, ...]

You can confirm these generated methods are defined on the module, and not somewhere else, by grabbing the module and checking its instance methods:

Person.ancestors
#=> [Person, #<Module:Ox...>, ActiveModel::AttributeMethods, ...]
Person.ancestors[1].instance_methods
#=> [:name, :name=, :reset_name_to_default!, :clear_name]

You can also find the method_missing override described earlier here on ActiveModel::AttributeMethods, just after the anonymous module in the class hierarchy.

These two implementations of attribute methods, one using method interception with method_missing and the other using method definition, complement each other since they are suited to different access patterns (one for a large open-ended set of attributes, the other for a smaller fixed set of attributes). Mobility actually uses the same approach in defining i18n accessors.12 However, whereas AttributeMethods adds a dozen class methods and variables, Mobility adds none, instead hiding all state in its modules.

Let’s now look at an alternative implementation of AttributeMethods which, like Mobility, uses module builders to encapsulate state in the modules it builds.

MethodFound::AttributeMethods

This is where we bring all the ideas discussed so far together and apply them to a real application. Before jumping into more code, let’s review the elements implementing attribute methods on a class:

  1. a class variable (attribute_method_matchers) holding an array of matchers for prefixes/suffixes/affixes
  2. a method_missing override to dispatch method calls matching the attribute matchers and the attributes hash to handlers accordingly
  3. an included anonymous module (generated_attribute_methods) holding defined attribute methods

Now consider that each of these core elements is located in a different place:

  • the method matchers are defined on the including class
  • the generated attribute methods are defined on an anonymous module included in this class
  • method_missing is defined on AttributeMethods itself, also included in the class

So we have the three elements of our implementation, coupled to each other through the method matchers class variable, spread out across different parts of the implementing system. Not only that, but the method matchers and generated methods, which (as we will see below) are essentially functionally independent, are stored together in the same place (an array and an anonymous module, respectively).

Let’s consider an alternative implementation which distributes state in a different way. In this implementation, we will group the following elements together into a single module using a module builder:

  • a single prefix/suffix pair, from which a matcher regex is generated
  • a single method_missing override which uses the regex to intercept methods
  • a method to define attribute methods for the given prefix/suffix pair

The module builder is named AttributeInterceptor and can be found in MethodFound. It inherits from MethodFound::Interceptor, which we saw in the last section, customizing the initializer so that it accepts a prefix and/or suffix instead of the more open-ended format of the default interceptor builder. Although it is not very big, I won’t include the actual code here so we can instead focus on what the class actually does.

MethodFound AttributeMethods

Implementing AttributeMethods with MethodFound interceptors

Let’s first take a look at intercepting. We can reproduce this by replacing calls to define_attribute_prefix and define_attribute_affix in the Person class above with attribute interceptors, like this:

class Person
  include MethodFound::AttributeInterceptor.new(prefix: 'clear_')
  include MethodFound::AttributeInterceptor.new(prefix: 'reset_', suffix: '_to_default!')

  attr_accessor :name, :title

  def attributes
    { 'name' => @name, 'title' => @title }
  end

  # ...
end

We are instantiating two attribute interceptors and including each of them into the class. There is no special case here for “affix”; we simply build an interceptor with both a prefix and suffix.

With these modules included, Person behaves externally exactly the same as the earlier version using the ActiveModel module, but the internal implementation is quite different. This can be seen from its ancestors:

Person.ancestors
#=> [Person,
 #<MethodFound::AttributeInterceptor: /\A(?:reset_)(.*)(?:_to_default!)\z/>,
 #<MethodFound::AttributeInterceptor: /\A(?:clear_)(.*)(?:)\z/>,
 ...  ]

Like the MethodFound interceptors described earlier, these two modules each override method_missing and branch the code path if the method name matches their regex (stored on the module).

The resulting set of distributed nested conditionals is equivalent to this line from ActiveModel, which iterates through attribute method matchers checking for matches:

matchers.map { |method| method.match(method_name) }.compact

The key difference between these two implementations is that whereas this line is executed in ActiveModel::AttributeMethods (a module), using a class variable stored in Person (a class), the MethodFound version is executed across independent modules through method composition, using super.

The implementation of generated attribute methods is similar. AttributeInterceptor has a method define_attribute_methods which takes one or more attribute names and defines attribute methods for each of them with the module’s prefix and/or suffix, on the module itself. Again, because the module already contains its own prefix and suffix, it has all the information it needs to do this.

So functionality is truly encapsulated: a single module contains its own prefix and suffix, the method_missing override to catch attribute method calls, and a method to generate its own attribute method.13

Given this module builder, we can reproduce ActiveModel’s implementation without any class methods or class variables, like this:

class Person
  [ MethodFound::AttributeInterceptor.new(prefix: 'clear_'),
    MethodFound::AttributeInterceptor.new(prefix: 'reset_', suffix: '_to_default!')
  ].each do |mod|
    mod.define_attribute_methods(:name)
    include mod
  end

  #...
end

MethodFound includes another module, MethodFound::AttributeMethods, which adds class methods do simplify the code above, so it can be used as a drop-in replacement for ActiveModel::AttributeMethods. The implementation of define_attribute_methods in this module is interesting:

def define_attribute_methods(*attr_names)
  ancestors.each do |ancestor|
    ancestor.define_attribute_methods(*attr_names) if ancestor.is_a?(AttributeInterceptor)
  end
end

Since the class no longer stores the matchers in its state, the module cannot simply iterate through these matchers to define methods. Instead, it iterates through its own ancestors, which are module instances each with a prefix/suffix pair, and calls define_attribute_methods if the ancestor is an attribute interceptor. This generates attribute methods on each interceptor module, which can then be called by instances of the class.

The resulting implementation encapsulates related elements together into separate modules without coupling via class variables or methods. This encapsulation means that we could now design totally different types of attribute interceptors and include them in the same way; as long as they have the same interface (for generating attribute methods), the internals can be entirely different and nothing else will need to change.

This, it seems to me, is what a “module” should really be: an independent, interchangeable unit containing everything it needs to execute only one aspect of some desired functionality. Not only that, but the interface for building these modules falls directly out of Ruby’s own object model, a model that has been around as long as the language itself. Ruby has had this trick up its sleeve for years, most of us just never realized it.

What’s in a Name?

You may argue that the “Module Builder Pattern” I’ve introduced is just a Ruby subclass where the class happens to be Module, and what’s the big deal? And technically, you would be right. I’m not the first to notice this idea, nor am I the first to write about it. Just Foo < Module, and I could be done with it.

But programming languages are written and read by and for humans, and to humans, names mean a lot. If you can’t find the module with the methods on it buried in a list of ancestors, you won’t notice it, and if you can’t remember that subclassing thing some blogger wrote about, you won’t use it. The fact that this pattern has been around for this long without almost anybody knowing about it is testament to this fact.

So I gave it a name. A catchy one.

Because as Rubyists, I think we need this pattern. Take a look at the code of a large Ruby project and how modules are used (and abused) in practice. Our modules trigger callbacks that bootstrap all kinds of extra state into our classes, coupling them to the modules they include. A module should be self-contained, but we use the excuse that we cannot configure modules at runtime to justify storing configuration all over the place.

Ruby can do better than this, and we can do better than this. So take another look at that bloated module, the one with the tentacles that seem to have crept over every corner of your application, and give it a chance to be free. I think you will find that it — and you — will be all the better for it.


Notes

1 The first reference I can find to the idea of “subclassing Module” is in an article in 2012 by Piotr Solnica. Eric Anderson and Andreas Robecke have written about it more recently, but hardly anything else even mentions it.
2 At the time of writing this post, it is used here and here.
3 By this I mean you can include modules on over another and use super to build complex composed method chains. I do a lot of this in Mobility.
4 And, to be precise, which also has an initializer which takes the values of these attributes as its arguments.
5 I’ve used a trick here to add a module’s methods as class methods to a class using include, by extending the class when the module is included. This is a common trick, if it looks a bit mysterious you might want to read up on the technique before continuing.
6 This “no-clutter” property of anonymous modules is also what makes them so handy in metaprogramming, since it means you don’t need to worry about constant name collisions.
7 It is actually being defined from these keys using a closure.
8 Defining an inspect method in the module builder class which includes the variables (e.g. amount and tax) which define makes this ancestor chain even easier to read.
9 MethodFound actually does a bit more than this: it also “caches” the method name matched in the regex or proc and defines it on the interceptor module, so that future calls will be much faster. You can see this if you look at the methods on an interceptor after it has matched a method using method_missing.
10 ActiveRecord models in fact include ActiveRecord::AttributeMethods, which itself includes ActiveModel::AttributeMethods and overrides some of the methods discussed here, specifically define_attribute_methods. The relationship between these two modules, and between how persisted and non-persisted attribute methods are handled, is somewhat complex, but the ideas discussed here are relevant to both.
11 Note that I have slightly modified and simplified this example class from the one in the inline documentation to highlight some things that the standard docs do not mention.
12 Mobility handles these two cases with the module builders FallthroughAccessors and LocaleAccessors. I also extracted these from Mobility into a gem called I18nAccessors.
13 It actually also has a method alias_attribute to alias attributes, like ActiveModel::AttributeMethods.

Figures

a “Drawing Hands” by M.C. Escher. [reference]
b “Automated space exploration and industrialization using self-replicating systems.” From Advanced Automation for Space Missions: 5. REPLICATING SYSTEMS CONCEPTS: SELF-REPLICATING LUNAR FACTORY AND DEMONSTRATION. [reference]
c “Proposed demonstration of simple robot self-replication.” [reference]

Posted on May 20th, 2017. Filed under: ruby, rails, module, method_found, mobility, metaprogramming.
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