March 03, 2017

Phoenix 1.3 is pure love for API development

Phoenix 1.3-rc.0 was just released, and while it's still not a final release, it already feels solid as h*ck.

I've been doing a personal project on the side for a while now, and it has a web API component, which I wrote in Phoenix 1.2. That was my first time using Phoenix on a serious project that I intend to ship.

With the release of Phoenix 1.3, and after I watched Chris McCord's talk about the changes it brings to the table, I decided to rewrite my API from scratch with this new version.

And oh boy, is it great.

Here are my first-impressions.

New Folder Structure

It has been said a lot of times that Phoenix is "Rails for Elixir." With 1.3, the core team sure wants that notion to be as dead as the web/ folder and the model concept.

I'm not going to explain everything that Chris talked about on his keynote at Lonestar Elixir (you should seriously go watch it), but I think it's worth saying that the change in the folder structure of a Phoenix project has bigger implications that just files moving from one place to another.

Now, there are concrete boundaries between your actual Elixir application, and the interface that Phoenix provides for it to communicate with the web.

Responsibility separation by design. I love this.


Thinking Ahead

Long gone are the mix phoenix.* commands. Say hi to mix phx.*. Less things to type. Love it.

Also, the generators will make you think in advance of what you want to do before you actually do it.

For instance, in Phoenix 1.2 you could do something like this:

$ mix phoenix.gen.json User users email:string

which then would generate the right migrations, and the model:

defmodule MyApp.User do  
    use MyApp.Web, :model

    schema "users" do
        field :email, :string
    end
end  

along with a (web) controller that would handle the CRUD tasks, with the logic for validation within each action. Over time, using this structure, is easy to end up with controller actions over hundred lines long.

Now, with Phoenix 1.3, you need to specify a context for each resource you create (don't call them "models" anymore 🙄):

$ mix phx.gen.json Accounts User users email:string

In the command above, Accounts is the context module that's going to be also generated, and is through this context that we'll interact with our User module:

Accounts.get_user(2) #=> %User{email: oscar@swanros.com}  
Accounts.create_user(params) #=> {:ok, new_user}  

This is powerful, because now you can define clear boundaries for your application domains.

Say you have the concept of "contacts" in your application. Each user (User) has contacts (also User instances). This can get messy (as I've written before). But using this new notion of "contexts", we can have a ContactRelationship context and handle everything in a clean way:

user  
|> ContactRelationships.relationship_with(another_user)
|> ContactRelationships.accept

user  
|> ContactRelationships.get_contacts

user  
|> ContactRelationships.request_contact(another_user)

This scenario would make our folder structure look something like this:

|- lib/
|---- my_app/
|-------- accounts/
|-------- contact_relationships/
|-------- web/

Defining concrete boundaries between responsibilities within your app makes you come up with better code over time.


action_fallback

So far, the additions to the framework are really nice and welcomed. However, I think my favorite one is the new action_fallback plug.

On Phoenix 1.2 and earlier, every controller needed to return a valid conn for every request. Otherwise, an exception would rise.

This is still true, but with the new action_fallback plug we can delegate that task to another controller whose sole purpose is to handle the cases when other controllers couldn't provide a "successful" response to the request.

Let me explain... before, you wrote code similar to this in every controller action:

def create(conn, %{"user" => user_params}) do  
  user = Repo.get_by(User, phone_number: user_params["phone_number"])

  cond do
    user && checkpw(user_params["password"], user.password_hash) ->
      case create_session(user) do
        {:ok, session} ->
          conn
            |> put_status(:created)
            |> render("show.json", %{session: session, user: user})

        _ ->
          conn
            |> put_status(:unauthorized)
            |> render("error.json")
      end

    true ->
      dummy_checkpw()
      conn
        |> put_status(:unauthorized)
        |> render("error.json")
  end
end  

Is not that bad, truly. But this is still better with Phoenix 1.3:

action_fallback MyApp.Web.FallbackController

def create(conn, %{"user" => user_params}) do  
  user = Accounts.get_user_by_phone(user_params["phone_number"])

  cond do
    user && checkpw(user_params["password"], user.hashed_password) ->
      with {:ok, %Session{} = session} <- Sessions.create_session(user) do
        conn
        |> put_status(:created)
        |> render("auth_success.json", user: user, session: session)
      end

    true ->
      {:error, :wrong_credentials}
  end
end  

With Phoenix 1.3 our controller actions can be simplified to just care about the "happy path", and leave the rest to the fallback controller that we define using the action_fallback plug.

In this case, when the cond evaluates to true we return from the action {:error, :wrong_credentials}. Since this is not a valid connection, our fallback controller comes forward:

defmodule MyApp.Web.FallbackController do  
  use MyApp.Web, :controller

  def call(conn, {:error, %Ecto.Changeset{} = changeset}) do
    conn
    |> put_status(:unprocessable_entity)
    |> render(MyApp.Web.ChangesetView, "error.json", changeset: changeset)
  end

  def call(conn, {:error, :unauthorized}) do
    conn
    |> put_status(:unauthorized)
    |> render(MyApp.Web.ErrorView, "auth_required.json")
  end

  def call(conn, {:error, :wrong_credentials}) do
    conn
    |> put_status(:unprocessable_entity)
    |> render(MyApp.Web.ErrorView, "wrong_credentials.json")
  end
end  

By pattern matching, the fallback controller knows exactly what to send back as a response to the request.

This also means that we can have a centralized list of error codes that our API can expose to our clients, on our ErrorView module.

No more error definitions scattered around our codebase. ❤️

However, why stop with errors? If your API has "default" responses for actions, you can rely on the fallback controller too to display them:

def delete(conn, _params) do  
  with {:ok, session} <- Authentication.get_session(conn),
       {:ok, deleted} <- Sessions.delete_session(session) do
    :success
  else _ ->
    {:error, :unauthorized}
  end
end  

:success will be passed to the appropriate action on your fallback controller, and there goes your default response. 🎉


Final thoughts

Phoenix 1.3 is a great update.

Please keep in mind that the defaults 1.3 offers could be done with 1.2, too. But the fact that this is now the default, really speaks of how much attention to detail the Phoenix team is putting in.

They don't want us to be using "The Phoenix Way™", but rather provide sensible defaults that enable us to create our own solutions in the best possible way.

Some points:

  • The new fallback_controller plug is awesome.
  • The fact that you need to think in terms of boundaries for your app, I think will eventually lead to better, more maintainable codebases.
  • Smarter code generation is 👌.
  • For APIs, the centralized list of available errors is really welcomed.

I love how productive I am with Phoenix when building APIs, and I'm really looking forward to how this already-great framework will evolve past 1.X.


edit: I also wrote about how action_fallback and contexts in Phoenix 1.3 made my controllers tiny.


July 25, 2016

Filtering has_many relationships in Ecto

This is sot-of a follow up to my last post, about self-referencing many_to_many relationships using Ecto.

I find myself in a scenario where I have a User:

# User model
defmodule MyApp.User do  
  use MyApp.Web, :model

  alias MyApp.Contact

  schema "users" do
    has_many :_internal_contacts, MyApp.Contact
    has_many :contacts, through: [:_internal_contacts, :contact]

    timestamps
  end
end  

and an association model Contact through which the User has many contacts (User instances):

defmodule MyApp.Contact do  
  use MyApp.Web, :model

  alias MyApp.User

  schema "contacts" do
    field :status, :integer

    belongs_to :user, User, foreign_key: :user_id
    belongs_to :contact, User, foreign_key: :contact_id

    timestamps
  end

  def status_code(status) do
    case status do
      :accepted ->
        1
      :pending ->
        0
      :rejected ->
        -1
      _ ->
        0
    end
  end

I created an endpoint on my app that's supposed to get me only the user's contacts that have the :accepted status (1). How can this be accomplished?

The Repo module has a set of handy functions that let you preload associations on your models.

user = User |> Repo.get(1) |> Repo.preload(:contacts)  

The above will preload all contacts on the user. Pay attention to the fact that it is of type has_many and it goes through the :_internal_contacts property. This is the important cue.

Turns out that the preloads parameter on Repo.preload/3 can be accompanied by a query.

import Ecto.Query

#1
query = from c in Contact, where: c.status == 1 and c.user_id == 1

u = User  
    |> Repo.get(1) #2
    |> Repo.preload(_internal_contacts: query) #3
    |> Repo.preload(:contacts) #4

The code above will:

  1. Create a query that will ask for Contacts with status 1 and with user_id 1.
  2. Get a User instance.
  3. Preload the _internal_contacts on that instace using our query (these are Contact instances, not User instances)
  4. Preload the :contacts on our user. And since :contacts goes through: _internal_contacts, :contacts has only valid contacts now (User instances).

Notes:

Honestly, I don't know if this is the right approach here (let me know!). I did find this thread on GitHub where the general issue that we're facing here is described. It seems that there's an interest to have the ability to filter the relationships on the declaration itself:

It would look something like this:

has_many :comments, MyApp.Comment, foreign_key: :commentable_id,  fn (query) ->  
  from c in query, where: c.commentable_type == "articles"
end  

However, right now, the saner approach seems to be the use of composable queries.

Have anything to add to this article or did I miss something? Please let me know on Twitter.