Friday, March 16, 2007

STI vs. Polymorphic association

This is a common to have join between two tables based on condition. suppose we have table in database called comments and we can have comments on different thing like a video, profile or picture. So keeping DRY (Don’t repeat yourself) principle in mind while designing your database. You may want to have relationship between single comments table and videos or profiles table.

At database level you should have two fields in table one field (i.e. type) that identifies the type of comment whether it is a comment on video or it’s a comment on profile, and another field (i.e source_id) that contains id of the video or profile that comment was on.

In Ruby on Rails currently there are two ways to define this kind of association between your activerecord models:

Single Table Inheritance:

Here you ‘ll create a single table of comments and Comment AR class, there would be two additional classes ProfileComment and VideoComment inheriting from same Comment AR class. Instead of having association between Profile and Comment model there would be association between Profile and ProfileComment subclass. Same will be the case with Video model and VideoComment subclass.

If we take a look at comment table we ‘ll see that class name for each record will be automatically stored in type field. The reference to associated table would be in source_id field.

class Comment < ActiveRecord::Base
class VideoComment < Comment
belongs_to :video, :foreign_key => “source_id”
class ProfileComment < Comment
belongs_to :profile, :foreign_key => “source_id”

Polymorphic Association:

Since Rails 1.1 there is a simpler way to create this kind of relationship called polymorphic association. In case of polymorphic association you ‘ll have two fields called commentable_type and commentable_id, instead of type and source_id. The commentable_type field will store name of class which that instance relates to and commentable_id saves the reference to instance of that class. The relations will be created like this:

class Comment < ActiveRecord::Base
belongs_to :commentable, :polymorphic => true
class Video < ActiveRecord::Base
has_many :comments, :as => :commentable
class Profile < ActiveRecord::Base
has_many :comments, :as => :commentable

Pros and Cons:

  • The STI approach offers more flexibilty by allowing you to have additional fields that only have value in case of one sub class. For access from other sub class can be disallowed be overridden accessors.
  • The STI requires you to create a seperate class to implement a relation between two models, resulting in more classses. which is not case with polymorphic association
  • The STI results in more code.It is confusing to some programmers to understand relation between STI classes
  • The polymorphic association is very easy to implement.


fayyaz said...

It would be great if you could write at a little more basic level. That will improve the target audience greatly. You know explaning basic rails, ruby etc. along with advanced implementations. Nice piece of work any way and i look forward to learning from your writings.

best regards,


Anonymous said...

Good stuff. I was modelling something like this and googled polymorphic vs. subclasses and this article really hit the spot.

generic cialis 20mg said...

In principle, a good happen, support the views of the author

gaRex said...

Tnx a lot.

This is much more understanable than these default manuals:

Why google so much bad in finding realy good articles on the not-first pages??? :(

The main idea on this kind of assoctiation is on type & source_id columns in entity`s table. And this is what should be bolded in red in all manuals.

Hasham Malik said...

Thanks gaRex,

The article was written a long time ago thats why it must have not been on google's first page.

Cheers ...