Create your first diary app with Ruby on Rails
We will create a little voting app from scratch using a web development framework for Ruby called Rails. Think what your first application should be about – ideally something simple that includes a collection of some sort: e.g., a to-do list, a diary, etc. We’ll use a diary as the base here.
COACH: For the rationale behind this slightly different beginners tutorial, take a look at this post.
Make sure you have Rails installed. Follow the installation guide to get set up.
Get to know the tools
- Atom, Sublime Text, Vim and Emacs are examples of text editors your can use for writing code and editing files.
Terminal (known as Command Prompt on Windows)
- Where you start the rails server and run commands.
- (Firefox, Safari, Chrome) for viewing your application.
COACH: Assist with the installation; make sure the text editor is set up properly (e.g., check whether the encoding is UTF-8).
It is important that you select the instructions specific to your operating system - the commands you need to run on a Windows computer are slightly different to Mac or Linux. If you’re having trouble check the Operating System switcher at the bottom of the commands. In case you’re using a cloud service (e.g. nitrous), you need to run the Linux commands even if you are on a Windows computer.
File and folder
Create a new directory (folder) and create a file named
index.html in it. Open that file in your editor and web browser.
COACH: Explain that browsers can open local files, only the URL looks stranger than usual.
Start by adding a general skeleton for your HTML by writing the below into the
COACH: Explain the two main parts of HTML,
<body>. Explain the
<title> tag and (briefly)
<script> if needed. Bootstrap is there so that CSS can be skipped altogether (unless participants want to cover it).
First visible content
Add the following HTML between the
</body> tags (feel free to adjust the contents…):
These are your first three diary entries. Note how the different tags get displayed and note the recurring structure.
COACH: Tell a bit about HTML tags and their semantic meaning.
Add the following either before or after the above diary entries (again, do adjust to taste):
This is an HTML unordered list with some list items containing anchors (links) with hypertext references (URLs) to other pages. It’s followed by a paragraph containing an image – and the image’s source is at the given URL.
COACH: Explain how the Web works and talk a bit about HTML elements and attributes.
Here’s a link to repo with styled basic app you can use.
Moving to Rails
COACH: If your students are on Windows, consider using Nitrous.IO as the basis for the following parts.
New Rails application
Open a terminal window (Command Prompt on Windows), change to the directory where your files are (using the
cd command) and run
rails new diary – this will take some time and end up creating a new Rails application. Run
cd diary to change to the app’s directory.
COACH: Explain how to navigate directories and run commands.
Running the server
Once in the
diary directory run
rails server and (once it finishes starting up) go to http://localhost:3000 in your browser. You should see the ‘Welcome aboard’ page. Stop the server by pressing
gem install therubyracer and uncomment the relevant line in
First route and view
Create the controller and the route
rails generate controller welcome index – this will generate your first controller and a route that leads to it. Start your server and go to http://localhost:3000 to see that your application indeed does support the
Stop the server and run
rake routes to see all the routes supported by your application.
COACH: Explain URLs and the URL hierarchy. Explain how in Rails URLs map to ‘what happens behind the scene’.
Move the view to be the top of your site
config/routes.rb file and uncomment (remove the
# from the front) the
root ’welcome#index’ line (this will probably be the 7th line). This will make the root of your application be the view rendered by the
Welcome#index action. Go to http://localhost:3000 and see that indeed the main page of your application now serves this view (rather than the ‘Welcome aboard’ page).
COACH: Explain how the main page of an application is the root of the URL hierarchy and that it’s the page that people visit when they just put the host name into the browser’s address bar.
Move the existing HTML to the right view
app/views/welcome/index.html.erb file and copy the contents of the
<body> tags from your original
index.html file (i.e., the list of diary entries and the website links) there, replacing the two lines (with
<p>) in the view. Refresh the browser to see that the page now indeed contains the right contents.
COACH: Explain that the view only contains the part between
</body>, as the rest is common to the whole application and is defined elsewhere.
If you look at the structure of your list of links, it seems that every list item looks similar to the others – it contains a URL (where the link should take the user when clicked) and a name (what should the user see and be able to click on). Rather than writing the links as raw HTML (and potentially make a mistake with some of them) let’s abstract this a bit and iterate over a collection of URL-and-name pairs.
Replace the contents of the
<ul> tags with the following:
Refresh the browser window to see whether your page still has the same links.
COACH: Explain what happened – what is an array, what do
<%= ERb tags mean (and how they differ), how iteration works.
Keeping code or data (like the above
@websites array) in views is simple, but a bad practice and can bite in the long run. For starters let’s move the
@websites array from the view to the controller. Remove it from the view and put it in
app/controllers/welcome_controller.rb in the
index method so it looks like this:
Note that after refreshing your browser window nothing should change – this is because variables starting with @ (called ‘instance variables’) can be accessed by both the view and the controller.
COACH: Explain the connection between the
WecomeController#index action and the view; note and emphasise the difference between @-starting
@websites and plain
Create the model
With the website links out of the hard-coded way, let’s do something with the diary entries. This time we won’t (ab)use a simple Ruby structure like an array, but a proper model that represents a given entry’s data. Let’s start with generating the model – run
rails generate model Entry title:string date:date contents:text to create an
Entry model that can represent a diary entry with a title, a publication date and some contents.
COACH: Explain what models are and the
field:type notation for generating them; explain the difference between
text types if necessary.
Migrate the database
rails db:migrate to migrate the database so that its structure contains a table for entries.
COACH: Explain what databases are (in abstract terms, as vessels for storing our application’s data and providing model structures) and why they are needed. Explain that things which are in memory won’t get persisted by default and they need to be persisted explicitly to be available on the next request.
Play with the model in the Rails console
Now that we have a model, we can start creating instances of that model – i.e., actual diary entries that aren’t hard-coded in the HTML view. For this, we’ll learn a new tool: the Rails console. Start it with
rails console and, once it boots and shows: you the
>> prompt, create a few entries:
Note how the console – just like
rails server – shows you a log of what happens in the background. You can always get an array of all existing entries via
COACH: Explain what’s going on. Slowly.
Viewing the persisted contents
Add the model instances to the existing view
WelcomeController#index action (in the
app/controllers/welcome_controller.rb file) and add the following either before or after the lines containing
app/views/welcome/index.html.erb view and replace the lines with the diary entries with the following:
COACH: Discuss what happened; discuss what’s the order of the entries and how they can be reordered (say, by reverse date) and where it should happen.
Create a controller for diary entries
Now that we have a model we need to create a controller for handling actions related to the instances of the model (creating new entries, showing, editing and deleting existing ones). Run
rails generate controller Entries – this should generate the
EntriesController class. Check
rake routes – notice that the controller isn’t enough, we still need to point URLs to the controller’s actions.
config/routes.rb and add a
resources "entries" line somewhere inside the
Diary::Application.routes.draw block. Run
rake routes again: notice how now your application has all kinds of new routes.
COACH: Explain how Rails’ route resources work and how they make URLs spring to existence and map to controller actions by default.
A view of all the entries
As can be seen in the
rake routes output, the URLs are wired to their relative controller actions. Let’s see what’s missing – visit http://localhost:3000/entries in your browser. Uh-oh, it seems like the ‘index’ action is missing – let’s add it – open
app/controllers/entries_controller.rb and add the below empty method inside the class definition:
Now refresh the browser – we no longer have an ‘unknown action’ problem, we now have a ‘template is missing’ problem. Save an empty file as
app/views/entries/index.html.erb (note it’s just like the
index.html.erb file in the ‘welcome’ directory before, but this time it’s in the ‘entries’ directory) and refresh the browser again – it should display an empty page. This is good, as our view is quite empty at the moment.
COACH: Explain how actions render the related views by default.
Now go to the
app/controllers/welcome_controller.rb file and find the
WelcomeController#index method (the one that starts with
def index). Find the line that sets the
@entries variable (it should start with
@entries =) and copy it to
EntriesController#index (so to the
index method of the
EntriesController, which can be found in
app/controllers/welcome_controller.rb). Similarly, go to the
app/views/welcome/index.html.erb view and copy the
@entries.each block (all of the indented lines up to and including the matching
end) to the
app/views/entries/index.html.erb view. Refresh the browser: it should now show the list of all your diary entries.
COACH: Explain that even though this might look like little to no progress, there is a significant change: we’re no longer operating in the context of the main page of our app, but rather a list of diary entries only (without the links to other websites, for example).
A view of a single entry
Note how, when you run
rake routes, the output says that the
/entries/:id(.:format) pattern maps to the
entries#show controller action. Go to http://localhost:3000/entries/1 – the URL for your first diary entry; notice how we’re, again, missing an action of the
EntriesController. Add that (empty for now) action, then refresh the browser and add the (likewise, empty) missing view.
COACH: Guide through adding the missing action and view if needed; make sure the process (all the way from deciphering the right
rake routes line) is well understood.
Now, let’s figure out how to interpret the
1 from the end of the URL to display the right entry. Make the
EntriesController#show action look like this:
This line means ‘take the
id parameter and use it in the
Entry.find method to find the right entry’. Now edit the
app/views/entries/show.html.erb view and put there the following:
COACH: Explain that the
:id part of the URL template from
rake routes is made into a key for the
params hash; discuss what else can be found in the
rake routes again; notice how the row for the
entries#show action starts with
entry in the ‘prefix’ column. Go to the
app/views/entries/index.html.erb view and change the line responsible for displaying the title to the below:
Note how we use the
link_to method that takes two parameters, the text to display (
entry.title) and the path to link to. Check the source of the page to see what is the path for subsequent titles. Note how the path is created by calling the
entry_path method with
entry as its argument.
COACH: Remind how the HTML for links looks like. Explain the relation between
entry_path and the
entry prefix from
rake routes. Explain why the
entry_path method needs the
entry argument. Explain what the
entry_url method does (and how it differs from the
entry_path method) if you want to.
Now let’s try to get back from an entry screen to the index of all entries: edit the
app/views/entries/show.html.erb template and add a link to the entries index, like this:
Note, again, how the
entries prefix from
rake routes is used to construct the
entries_path method name. Note how this method does not need a parameter.
Creating entries via the UI
Adding the ‘new entry’ form
Now that we have a way to display a list of all entries and a single entry, let’s add a way to create new diary entries. Run
rake routes and try to figure out which URL (and action) is responsible for new entry creation.
Go to the index of all entries and add a link for creating new entry:
Click the link – and add the missing action and view.
COACH: Make sure this process is well understood by now.
app/views/entries/new.html.erb view and paste in the below:
Note: we can skip labels for now
COACH: Show how the HTML produced by the
form_for helper looks like and try to explain how it works.
Handling the ‘new entry’ form
Refresh the browser and try adding a new entry – you should see the well-known-by-now ‘unknown action’ error. Add the action to the
EntriesController, but for starters let’s display what the action receives:
Refresh the browser and inspect what exactly the action gets as its params.
COACH: Explain how filling a text field and a text area and submitting the form ends up with all the params being POSTed to the controller’s action. Explain what .inspect does.
Creating and persisting the new entry
create action and make it look like this:
Note how we try to get the parameters of the new entry (its title and contents) from the
params hash and then create a new entry from them, just like in the console. Try submitting the form again – notice that we’re still not there yet, as we get a
- Note: we can skip strong_parameters in the beginning, keeping the application not secure from parameter injection.
- config.action_controller.permit_all_parameters = true
- ^^ yeah, but it will be removed soon.
- maybe not before workshops ;)
This error is because of security measures – it’s relatively simple to POST whatever parameters a user wants to, and Rails protects us from a rogue user that would want to set parameters that they’re not supposed to set (like ‘id’). We need to declare which parameters can be set by the user; change the first line of the
create action to the below:
Now try submitting the form again – this time it should work and you should get redirected to the newly-created entry.
COACH: Make sure the plucking of the new entry’s parameters from
params is well understood and that it’s accepted that certain fields need to be permitted explicitly.
Editing via the UI
Adding the ‘edit entry’ form
Now that we can view and create entries, let’s also add the option to edit them. Run
rake routes and try to guess which route is responsible for editing an entry.
COACH: Make sure this is well understood by now.
app/views/entries/show.html.erb view and add the below line somewhere:
Refresh a given entry’s view and click the link. Add the missing action and an empty view.
COACH: Again, make sure this is well understood.
Let’s first make sure our
edit action exposes the right entry to the view. Make sure the
edit action looks just like the
show action – i.e., it grabs the right entry based on the id from the URL:
Now copy the contents of the
app/views/entries/new.html.erb view to the
app/views/entries/edit.html.erb view, but change the first line so that it’s a form for this particular entry – and, optionally, add a link back to this entry’s show screen:
COACH: Make sure all of this is well understood.
Now try to submit the form – which action is still missing? Create it in the controller:
Check whether this all works and whether you can now edit the entries.
COACH: Make sure the
update action’s contents are well understood – from permitting params through finding entries to redirecting to the right path.
Play with your application! Here are some further ideas you might want to add:
- extract form to a partial
- links for editing an entry straight from the index of entries,
- a way to delete an entry,
- a way to edit entry dates,
- a model for tracking website URLs and names (the list on the main page),
- setting entry dates to the future and not displaying future entries in the index until their day comes,
- automatic embedding of video URLs,
- support for different entry authors,
- support for different categories of entries,
- upload and display of images.
- Handy cheatsheet for Ruby, Rails, console etc.
- Guide 1: Guide to install Rails
- Guide 2: Build Your First App
- Guide 3: Push Your App to GitHub
- Guide 4: Put your app online with…
- Guide 5: Allow Comments on Your App
- Guide 6: Add design using HTML & CSS
- Guide 7: Create thumbnails with Carrierwave
- Guide 8: Add Authentication (user accounts) with Devise
- Guide 9: Add Profile Pics with Gravatar
- Guide 10: Improve your design with HTML and CSS
- Guide 11: Continuous Deployment
- Guide 12: Build a voting app in Sinatra
- Guide 13: Build a diary app in Ruby on Rails (Current page!)
- Guide 14: Add a back-end to your app (admin pages)
- Guide 15: Go through additional explanations for the App