If you’re using to_json, you’re doing it wrong

At Miso, we have been very busy in the last few months building out a large number of public APIs for our Developer Platform. In a short time, we have already seen early versions of applications built on our platform for Chrome, Windows Mobile 7, Blackberry, Playbook, XBMC among others. This has been very exciting to see the community embrace our platform and leverage our data to power additional services or bring our service to a new group of users. In this post, we will discuss how we started out building our APIs using Rails and ‘to_json’, why we became frustrated with that approach and how we ended up building our own library for API generation.

Our public APIs are designed to be unsurprising and intuitive for a developer. We chose OAuth 1.0a (soon to support OAuth 2) because this is already familiar to developers and there is rich library support across languages for this authentication strategy. The endpoints are for the most part RESTful with GET retrieving and POST / DELETE used to modify the data associated with a user. We also tried to design our API responses as simply as possible, giving every attribute a readable name, keeping node hierarchies relatively flat and not including unnecessary information from our database schema. While this may seem like good design goals when building a Public API, you might find yourself surprised at how difficult this can be using Rails and the baked in ‘to_json’ serialization that the framework provides.

Rails ‘to_json’ API generation

Let’s start by discussing the canonical approach Rails provides for generating APIs. The idea is to have the JSON and XML responses be deeply tied to the model schemas with one-to-one mappings in most cases between the database columns and the api output. This is great if you are working on internal APIs and you wish to dump the data directly into a response but less great for well-designed public APIs. Let’s look at how rendering with this to_json approach works in practice:

# app/controllers/posts_controller.rb
#...
  respond_to :json, :xml
  def index
    @posts = Post.all
    respond_with(@posts)
  end
#...

Now, when this controller action is invoked the @post object automatically has the ‘to_json’ method called which takes the ActiveRecord model and converts seamlessly to JSON output. The model can also optionally be given parameters in the model by overriding the as_json method with options:

# app/models/post.rb
class Post
  def as_json(options={})
    super(options.merge(:methods => [...], :only => [...], :include => [...])
  end
end

This would then render the associated JSON response based on the options specified. In the simplest cases this would be all you need and the Rails way works without a problem. As long as your database schema is deeply coupled with the API output then all is well. As mentioned there are also a few choices to customize the to_json output and alter the output:

  • only – Only show column names in the output as specified in this list
  • except – Show all column names except the ones specified in this list
  • methods – Include these methods nodes (without any arguments) as nodes in the output
  • include – Add child nodes (potentially nested) based on associations within the object

Alright, to recap: There is a model which contains a specific database schema and some methods. There are limited options to transforming that into JSON as described above by passing a hash of options. These options can be passed in as defaults with the ‘as_json’ method in the model itself or through the controller action.

The unravelling of ‘to_json’ begins

Well wait just a minute, what if in different API responses, you want to include different api output options? What if you want to override the ‘as_json’ defaults? Not too bad you can just do:

# app/controllers/posts_controller.rb
#...
  respond_to :json, :xml
  def index
    @posts = Post.all
    respond_with(@posts) do |format|
      format.json { render :json => @posts.to_json(:include => [...], :methods => [...]) }
    end
  end
#...

Using those settings you can change the JSON output on a per action basis. This system as described is a good high level overview of the Rails JSON generation approach. This can work in very simple and naive applications, but it should not be hard to imagine how this approach can be restrictive as well as verbose. Suppose I want to render a JSON output with only a few columns, also adding several methods and including nested options for multiple associations? That might look something like this:

# app/controllers/posts_controller.rb
#...
  respond_to :json, :xml
  def index
    @posts = Post.all
    respond_with(@posts) do |format|
      format.json { render :json => @posts.to_json(
         :only => [:title, :body, :created_at, :tags, :category],
         :include => [
            :likes => { :only => [:created_at], :include => [:author] },
            :comments => { only => [:created_at, :body], :include => [:author]  },
            :user => { :only => [:first_name, :last_name}, :methods => [:full_name] },
         :methods => [:likes_count, :comments_count])
      }
    end
  end
#...

This action code is already starting to smell a bit funny even here. This is a lot of bulk in the controller and quite redundant. This doesn’t even really seem like this belongs in the controller. This is more of a view or template concern discussing the details of a particular JSON representation. You could move that all to the model inside a method, but that actually makes things harder to follow. Already this method of generating JSON doesn’t feel quite right and begins to break down.

You may think this example is a contrived case or poor API design but consider that there’s actually not that much going on here. This type of response is commonplace in almost any public API you will see on the web. In fact, it is actually much simpler then many in the wild. Compare the above to the Instagram API.

More Frustrations with API Generation

The issues above were just the beginning of the issues we ran up against using the ‘to_json’ method because that approach is interested in ‘serializing’ a database object while we are interested in creating a relevant representation for our public API platform. The ‘serialization’ of the object so directly just didn’t quite fit what we were trying to do.

The easiest way to demonstrate the limitations that frustrated us is to show relevant examples. Let’s start with a simple idea. In our system we have ‘posts’ and we have the idea of ‘liking a post’. In our API we want to return if the authenticated user ‘liked’ a particular post in the feed. Something like:

[ { post : { title : "...", liked_by_user : true }, ...]

Notice the node ‘liked_by_user’ which contains whether or not a user has liked the given post. Assuming we have this method in the model:

class Post
  # Returns true if given user has liked the post.
  # @user.liked_by_user?(@user) => true
  def liked_by_user?(user)
    self.likes.exists?(:user_id => user.id)
  end
end

We simply want to get this boolean value into the API response with the node name ‘liked_by_user’. How would we do this in ‘to_json’? How do we pass an argument to a method? After doing some research, it was apparent that this was not particularly easy or intuitive. It would be nice to have a simple way to pass multiple arguments to a method in the model without jumping through hoops.

Let’s move onto another example. Suppose we want to change the ‘user’ association to be aliased as an ‘author’ node in the output. Let’s say we have:

class Post
  belongs_to :user
end

and we want to have the output be:

[ { post : { title : "...", author : { first_name : "...", last_name : "..." }  }, ...]

What if I just need a minor change to the value of an attribute before inserting it into the JSON? What if I need a custom node in the JSON that is not needed in the model directly? What if I want to include the value of a method only if a condition on the record is met? What if I want to reduce duplication and render a JSON hash as a child of the parent response? What if I want to glue a couple of attributes from the user to the post? Change the model and fill it with this display logic every time? Fill our controllers with complicated JSON display options? Workaround the problems by fighting with ‘to_json’ and/or monkeypatching it?

Perhaps a better approach

As we came against these issues and many more while we designed and implemented our public APIs, we butted our heads against ‘to_json’ again and again. Often we wanted the attributes defined in the schema to be renamed or modified for the representation, or we wanted to omit attributes, or we wanted to include attributes if a condition was met, we wanted to handle polymorphic associations in a clean and easy way, we wanted to keep a flat hierarchy by ‘gluing’ attributes from the child to the parent.

Furthermore, the model and/or controller was getting filled up with tons of json specific details that had nothing to do with model or business logic. In fact, these JSON responses and verbose declarations didn’t seem to belong in the model or the controller at all and were cluttering up our code. In fact, true to MVC these details of the response seemed much more appropriate in a view of some kind. This idea of storing the JSON in a view sparked an experiment. Why not just generate the JSON in a template and move all of the display details out of the model and the controller. What if the API could be crafted easily in the view where a JSON representation belongs?

We agreed that implementing APIs in a view made the most sense both conceptually and practically. The next question becomes what templating language to use to generate these APIs? Forming the XML or JSON manually in ‘erb’ seemed verbose and error-prone. Using builder seemed silly since we wanted to build APIs that work primarily in JSON. Indeed, none of the default templating languages we grab for seemed to fit. We didn’t want to painstakingly handcraft nodes manually, we just wanted a simple way to declare how our APIs should look that afforded us the flexibility we needed.

We investigated a wealth of different libraries that seemed to fit the bill from tequila, to json_builder, to argonaut and many more attempts to solve this problem. Clearly we weren’t the only ones that had experienced the pain of ‘to_json’. Perusing the READMEs of any of these libraries quickly revealed people fed up with the limitations same as we had become. Problem was every option we could find didn’t work for one reason or another. Either the syntax was awkward, the libraries weren’t maintained, there were too many bugs, or the templates became verbose and difficult to manage. After reviewing the available options, we decided to try and design our own library for creating APIs. One that would solve all the problems we had encountered thus far.

The Ruby API Builder Language

We embarked on a thought experiment before building the library. What were our frustrations with existing libraries and tools? Where do we want the JSON options to live? How did we want to specify them? What options did we want to have? What language or syntax should we use to define the output? How do we keep the options DRY and intuitive?

Early on we decided we wanted the JSON output to be defined in the views. Logic that belonged in the models would stay there where it belonged, but this was rarely the case. Most of the options were simply crafting the JSON response and clearly belongs in a template. So that meant a file living in the views folder within Rails. We also decided we didn’t want to learn a new language and that Ruby was as good an API builder as any. Why not just leverage a simple Ruby DSL to build our APIs? Why not support inheritance and partials for our APIs? Why not allow the same template to describe both the JSON and XML responses for our API?

From these design questions and several days of work, the RABL gem was born. We started using this approach and fell in love with it immediately. All of a sudden, generating APIs was easy and intuitive. Even the most complex or custom API output was very simple and maintainable through the use of inheritance, partials and custom nodes. All of this was kept neatly tucked away in a view template where it belonged without requiring any extra code in the models or worse the controller actions.

Stay Tuned

Since we built RABL, we have gotten excellent feedback from the community. We have deployed in production all of our Public APIs using RABL and we couldn’t be happier. Please checkout the README and let us know what you think! We would love to hear your experiences with building APIs on Rails or Sinatra. This post is a setup for a thorough step-by-step tutorial we plan to publish soon on generating clean JSON and XML APIs in Rails 3 using RABL.