Jocellyn's Blog

Rails queries with Arel

This article is focusing on basics of building up queries in Rails. What is a query? Well, we can imagine that as a question to our database which gets us some subset of what is stored there. When we do Model.first or Model.all we are building up a simple queries. But what if you want something more complex and possible something involving more than one model?

Well, there are several ways how to get such results from your database. First and probably most well known is to combine Active Record methods with pure SQL in strings for a specific and difficult parts. I will soon discuss why that is not always ideal solution and I will present the alternative way using Arel library. Oh and of course there is also the “beginners” way how to get desirable data - you can use only Ruby to filter what has been returned by simple queries like .all. This is really slow and ineffective as will be also described.

Lets say we have two tables tasks and solutions and we want to join them, group them based on their relationship and then select task title and the count of that task belonging solutions. We want to end up with a simple table like this:

"Abandoned Island",1
"I am so grateful",8
"Describe your relationship",11
"Your fear",17
"Write something about you!",1
"My new professions",8
"What makes you smile",6

A complete beginner, like me few months ago, would say: “hey, that’s easy. We will get all tasks, all solutions and then we will somehow get what we need”. This could look like:

result = {}
Task.each do |task|
   all_solutions = Solution.where(task_id:
   result[:task] = all_solutions.count

Or even worse, someone could decide to use filter instead of where. It is really not hard to see that this is the completely wrong way. We are pulling all the tasks into memory and then we are looking at each task and pulling all his solutions only to in the end we would count the desirable count and produce a final Hash. For this purpose we have the database abstraction - Active Record - to do the hard stuff. We should keep Ruby methods away from database queries as much as it is possible.

So what are these database methods which we can use? Of course there is where, but that is usually not enough. Now it is time for the promised SQL in the string. To compose the previous example we could do something like this:

Task.joins(:solutions).group("").select("tasks.title, count(")

The part in the string "tasks.title, count(" is the pure SQL which doesn’t have anything in common with the rest of the code. It is embedding a different language into Ruby just for this little part. Well, we helped ourselves significantly in compared to the each variant. But this is still far from perfect.


  • We need to know the syntax of our database language, in this case SQL. If we switched database, we would have to rewrite this part.
  • It is not very object oriented way how to write code, you can not e.g. chain methods together
  • You do not have any syntax check inside of the string

And here come the third option - Arel. Arel is a library which helps us to construct queries. It is used by Active Record to construct queries, so everytime you do where or limit or first, you essentially use Arel. But there is more to that - we can exchange Arel methods for that ugly SQL strings we saw before.

The previous example from previous could be written as:

Task.joins(:solutions).group("").select(Task.arel_table["title"], Solution.arel_table["id"].count)

Every Rails model has a method called arel_table which allows us to get information about a table or a column on that belonging table by using Hash syntax. We can see what is returned by arel_table in this example:

pry(main)> User.arel_table

=> #<Arel::Table:0x007ff9f39ab718
  User(id: integer, email: string, encrypted_password: string, reset_password_token: string, reset_password_sent_at: datetime, remember_created_at: datetime, sign_in_count: integer, current_sign_in_at: datetime, last_sign_in_at: datetime, current_sign_in_ip: string, last_sign_in_ip: string, created_at: datetime, updated_at: datetime, admin: boolean, authentication_token: string, uid: string, provider: string),

This is used in building up queries. Arel is in the end writing the SQL queries for us.To find out which SQL is produced we can write


in the end of our query and immediately get the raw SQL. Anyway, we can see that it is much more object oriented, we can chain queries, we can call methods as count on them, we can reuse them better and store parts in variables..

Ok, so what else can we do with arel_table ? We can build predicates very easily, like:


There is another advantage of using Arel instead of row SQL. We do not have to use the hideous question marks to match arguments, check out this last example:

  # SQL question marks
  .where("title" = ? AND is_active = ?", "Love", true)

  # Arel!

If you want to dive deeply into Arel, I recommend this video and these articles I and II.


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