Tom Mango

Getting to Know ActiveSupport::Callbacks

While writing ActiveConfiguration, I needed a way to run a callback when certain methods were executed. Thankfully, ActiveSupport was already available, so I had access to ActiveSupport::Callbacks.

What is a Callback?

At this point, you may be wondering what a callback even is. Simply put, a callback allows you to run some code (usually a method) automatically when another piece of code is run. In Rails, you’ll commonly see callbacks that run before, after or even around other bits of code. In fact, if you’ve ever used before_create, after_save or any of the other ActiveRecord life cycle callbacks, you’ve already been using the ActiveSupport::Callbacks module, albeit indirectly and through a layer of abstraction.

While those life cycle callbacks are indispensable in an ActiveRecord model, they wouldn’t help me in ActiveConfiguration. So, what if like me you want a custom callback or need callbacks in a class that isn’t an ActiveRecord model?

Walking Through ActiveConfiguration::Option

Let’s start by looking at a simple class with three methods:

Here, the plan is to run the #validate! method after the #default and #format methods are run. To do that, let’s first include ActiveSupport::Callbacks:

Next, we’ll define a callback named validate (not to be confused with the #validate! method defined above - more on this later):

After defining a new callback named validate, we’ll use set_callback to actually set a callback up to run:

When using ActiveSupport::Callbacks, I think #set_callback may be a source of confusion for some people. Unfortunately, by showing a complicated example with a subclass in addition to using the same name for both the callback itself as well as the method to be run, the documentation doesn’t help to make it any easier.

Admittedly, my validate example isn’t much better. Here, the callback is named validate and the method that I want to be run when the callback fires is validate! - a subtle, but important distinction.

So, what exactly are we passing to #set_callback?

  1. The name of the callback we used in define_callbacks.
  2. When the method should be run in relation to the callback being defined 1.
  3. The method to execute when the callback fires.

The way I remember what set_callback means is by reading it backwards:

Execute the validate! method after the validate callback is fired.

Putting It All Together

Up to this point, we’ve only defined what should happen when the validate callback fires. We’ve yet to specify when the validate callback actually should be fired.

To do that, we’ll use the #run_callbacks method:

(For the unabridged version of ActiveConfiguration::Option, see the source on GitHub.)

That’s really all there is to it when looking to add custom callbacks to your own classes. By wrapping your code in #run_callbacks, any callbacks you’ve setup to run before, after or even around, will be executed at the correct time.

Life Cycle Callbacks in ActiveRecord

Fair warning, things start to get a bit more hairy from here on out, so if you’re just interested in using callbacks in your own class, feel free to skip the rest of this article. But if you’d like to dive into Rails a bit, keep reading.

As I mentioned earlier, ActiveRecord supports a number of life cycle callbacks that are extremely useful. These callbacks are actually defined using ActiveSupport::Callbacks under the hood and after looking at the example above, we should be able to figure out how that’s being done.

First, let’s look at the ActiveRecord::Callbacks module:

Some of this should be familiar to you. First you’ll notice that ActiveModel::Callbacks is being extended, so we’ll want to look at that in a moment. Next, you’ll see two calls to define_model_callbacks and multiple mentions of run_callbacks, which we used earlier in our #default and #format methods.

Let’s pick out just one of the methods above to focus on, say create_or_update:

This method is overriding AR’s #create_or_update method and wrapping a call to the existing method (super) with run_callbacks(:save). From what we learned earlier, we know this means that any callbacks to save should be fired here.

But, this doesn’t tell the entire story. We haven’t seen a call to set_callback yet which we know is necessary to actually hook a method up to a callback.

To get to the bottom of this implementation, let’s venture into ActiveModel::Callbacks:

I admit, this may look a little scary, but let’s go through it a piece at a time.

First, our faithful ActiveSupport::Callbacks is included:

Next, we see define_model_callbacks, which was called in ActiveRecord::Callbacks:

If you’ve ever gone spelunking in the Rails source before, the beginning of that method where options are being extracted should look familiar, otherwise, let’s not worry about it.

The more relevant part to this discuss is when the array of callbacks is iterated over. For each callback, define_callbacks (the method we used earlier) is called. This means callbacks are defined from those specified back in ActiveRecord::Callbacks such as :initialize, :find, :touch and :save, :create, :update, :destroy.

Additionally, after specifying each callback, the allowed types (before, after, around) are iterated over and the actual callback methods are defined.

Let’s just take one example. One of the callbacks defined was save. For this callback, send("_define_#{type}_model_callback", self, callback) would be called three times (once for each of before, after and around). Looking further down the implementation, we’ll see the three methods being called:

If you look at the first method, _define_before_model_callback, you’ll see that a class method is being dynamically defined for the callback given (save). So, this call to _define_before_model_callback will define the method before_save and make it available for you to use in your ActiveRecord model, like so:

Now, if you look again at the the before_save method that was defined from within _define_before_model_callback, you’ll see a call to set_callback. This means that a method you pass to before_save will be passed into the set_callback method and will be executed before the save callback.

Looking back to ActiveRecord::Callback, you’ll remember the following method:

This means that the method passed to before_save in the Post class above is set as a callback method to the save callback and before the #create_or_update method is run, the callback method you set will be executed.

Final Thoughts

When used thoughtfully, ActiveSupport::Callbacks can be very helpful and I think this example of how Rails uses the underlying module to expose specific life cycle callback methods to ActiveRecord models is fascinating. And really, this module is just one of the many excellent things you’ll find in the Rails codebase. So while it may feel overwhelming to try and understand the entire Rails source all at once, taking an example like this where you look at a specific method and peel back the layers of how it’s implemented can be very approachable and can lead to understanding and reusing some great code that’s already available to you.

If you have any feedback, please feel free to send me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

  1. This can either be before, after or around.