Hexagonal Rails Controllers

I’ve had a long love-hate relationship with Rails. I love the MVC framework and how it’s improved our speed of writing web apps. But I’ve never really been completely happy with it. I don’t generally agree with most of its opinions. I prefer models that follow the Data Mapper pattern, not the Active Record pattern. This includes separating the persistence layer from the models’ business logic. I prefer Slim or HAML to ERB. I prefer RSpec to Test::Unit or MiniTest. When Merb hit the scene, I was ready to make the jump, until Merb merged with Rails.

So inspired by PJ Hagerty’s recent article on alternative Ruby web frameworks, I started thinking about how I’d write a replacement for Rails. I’d definitely keep the basic MVC framework. But I’d also want to implement a more hexagonal architecture.

I started sketching out what this would look like, but I ended up starting with a Rails controller and finding the simplest way to make it hexagonal. I really don’t like callbacks, because they make tracing program execution difficult. But I didn’t see any other alternative. I found a simple pub/sub Ruby library called Wisper. It literally has only publish, subscribe, and on methods. (You use on to register single callbacks via blocks, and subscribe to register an object with method names corresponding to the callback names.)

The trick was figuring out how to break the controller into 2 pieces. What finally helped me was to find the single responsibilities of the 2 pieces. The Rails controller would remain in charge of managing the web interface, but would delegate to the other piece to handle any application-specific business logic. I decided to re-watch Uncle Bob Martin’s “Architecture The Lost Years” talk, which was the first time I was introduced to the ideas of Hexagonal Architecture. (He doesn’t name the architecture in the talk, but later calls it Clean Architecture.) He does a decent job of explaining how to break these 2 pieces apart. He used the term “interactor” in that talk, so I decided to go with that. He said that Jacobsen calls it a Control Object in Object Oriented Software Engineering, but that’s too close to Rails’s “controller”.

So here’s an example of what I ended up with:

class OrderController < ApplicationController
  def index
    interactor.on(:display) { |orders| render orders }

  def show
    interactor.on(:display) { |order| render order }
    interactor.on(:not_found) { |order_id| render status: 404 }


  def interactor
    @interactor ||= OrderInteractor.new
require "wisper"
require "order"

class OrderInteractor
  include Wisper.publisher

  def list
    orders = Order.all
    publish(:display, orders)

  def get(id)
    order = Order.find(id)
    publish(:display, order)
  rescue ActiveRecord::RecordNotFound
    publish(:not_found, id)

I do have a few problems with this solution though. I’m not a fan of the name “interactor” for the business logic. I thought about calling it OrderOperator, or maybe OrderOperations, because it’s really a collection of operations. Perhaps it would be better to separate each operation into a separate class. Trailblazer does it that way. And for more complicated business logic, I would do that too, using the Method Object pattern. But like a Rails controller, there’s a lot in common among all the operations. I feel like a separate class for each operation for each would create too many coupled classes.

I’m also uncomfortable with the fact that the controller is delegating almost everything to the interactor. I guess this is OK, but it feels like there’s too little left when every line starts with interactor. I suppose extracting things some more would help mitigate this concern I’ll likely write a small gem to perform that extraction. I expect that that will allow a typical controller to be written in only a few lines. And maybe the same for the interactor side.

With the business logic extracted out of the controller, it was really easy for me to write a command-line version of the app. As Uncle Bob says, “the web is not particularly important to your application.”

I’ve put the code for this example on GitHub: https://github.com/boochtek/hexagonal-rails. I’ll likely experiment with it some more over the next few weeks and months.

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