Reusing Rails Controllers is a Good Thing

If there were such a thing as the Ten Commandments of programming, code reuse would surely be included. Now you’re probably thinking I’ve lost my mind, because any good developer knows that code reuse is a pipe dream. But that’s because you are thinking on the macro level and not the micro level. At the micro level, code reuse has altogether more pleasant acronym, DRY, or do not repeat yourself.

The tussle in the Rails community over components illustrated this tension well. On one extreme, advocates dreamed of creating plug-and-play components that could be reused across multiple applications. On the other extreme, detractors sneered at code reuse as a hopeless endeavor and vowed to strip out all traces of components from the the Rails 2.0 release. Left out in the cold was the view that reusing code, specifically controllers, within a single application was a good thing.

Reusing Controllers

Rails is built using the Model-View-Controller pattern, which is designed to segment an application into controllers, models and views. Rails also adds in the concept of filters, which are pieces of code that run before and after controllers.

The Rails community encourages reuse of models, filters and views, but seems to actively discourage the reuse of controllers if the Ruby on Rails book is any indication:

When Rails was initially released, it came with a system for creating components. Unfortunately, the implementation of components left a lot to be desired: performance
was poor, and there were unanticipated side effects. As a result,
components are being phased out.

Instead, the common wisdom now is to synthesize component-like functionality
using a combination of before filters and partials. Use the before filter to set up the context for the partial, and then render the fragment you want using
a regular render :partial call.

Like much conventional wisdom, this advice is hogwash.

Filters + Partials != Controllers

The problem with just using filters and partials is that it only applies to a subset of web applications. A good example, and of course the one used in the Ruby on Rails book, is a shopping website. The focal point of most shopping websites is a shopping cart. The point of the application is to make it easy for users to add things to the cart, modify the cart and hopefully buy the contents of the cart. Since the cart plays such a crucial role, it often make sense to have a filter that setups the cart so each controller has easy access to it. A nice side affect of this approach, is that views also have access to the cart, as described in the quote above.

But for many other types of applications, filters and partials can’t make up for controllers. For example, take a look at the Boulder community on MapBuzz. The top-left side of the page is rendered by the community controller, the comments on the bottom left by a comment controller and the map listings on the right are by a map browser controller. If you log-in, then a couple of additional tabs are added to the page, each rendered by its own controller.

This type of composition is quite common in Web 2.0 applications. Take most social networking sites – they’ll mix together news feeds, discussion boards, friends/friends lists, pictures,etc., in a variety of different ways depending on the current page.

The design problem is that any given controller can be called in two different contexts:

  • When the whole page is rendered via a Browser page refresh
  • When just the controller is rendered via an Ajax call

Trying to do this with just filters and helpers is a non-starter, because you end up with one big controller that needs to run different filters depending on the context of the call.

The better approach is to divide your controllers into logical units, and then have a separate page controller for the entire page. When the page is rendered, the page controllers should delegate rendering the various sub-parts (for example, tabs) of the page to the appropriate controller. When just one of the sub-parts of the page needs to be rerendered, due to an Ajax call, then you directly call the appropriate controller.


In Rails, a controller or view can call another controller using the much maligned render_component method. Part of the problem is the method is misnamed. It no longer has anything to do with rendering components – instead its used to invoke another controller. Therefore, it would be more appropriately named render_controller, call_controller, invoke_controller, etc.

Assuming you agree with my so far, reading the Rails documentation for render_component with certainly give you pause:

Components should be used with care. They‘re significantly slower than simply splitting reusable parts into partials and conceptually more complicated. Don‘t use components as a way of separating concerns inside a single application. Instead, reserve components to those rare cases where you truly have reusable view and controller elements that can be employed across many applications at once.

So to repeat: Components are a special-purpose approach that can often be replaced with better use of partials and filters.

Undoubtedly this was true once upon a time. Is it still? There is one way to find out – run a test. I created a new Rails application using the built-in generators and then added the following simple code:


class MainController < ApplicationController
  def get_without_controller
    a = 1
  def get_with_controller
    a = 1


class SidebarController < ApplicationController
  def get
    render(:partial => 'sidebar/content')


<p>Some fun content goes here</p>
<div class="sidebar">
  <%= render(:partial => 'sidebar/content') %>


<p>Some fun content goes here</p>
<div class="sidebar">
  <%= render_component(:controller => SidebarController,
                       :action => 'get') %>


<p>Hi there</p>

There are two paths through this application:

  • GET ‘/main/get_without_controller.rb’
  • GET ‘/main/get_with_controller.rb’

In case its not obvious, get_without_controller usesrender(:partial) to include the sidebar content while get_with_controller uses render_component. Using both benchmark and ruby-prof, I ran each method 100 times using a souped up integration test (more about that in a future post). The results, using Rails 2.02 on Ruby 1.8.4 on WindowsXP on a Pentium M laptop (about 3 years old) are:

100 Requests (s)
1 Request (s)




So using components is 50% slower, but the overhead is a miniscule 0.0015 seconds per request. That overhead is obviously lost in a real application. Of course you have to be careful when using render_component to not try and do to much per HTTP request – but the same is true using filters and partials.

DRY Up Your Controllers

In truth, render_component is the most primitive way imaginable of reusing controllers. But it does let you to DRY up your Rails application by letting you create more cohesive controllers that can be reused within a single website. For most websites you won’t need this functionality, but when you do, there isn’t a substitute for it and don’t let anyone browbeat you into thinking there is.

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