image by Joanna Kosinska

Don’t Email From Active Record Callbacks

One of the first things you often want to do within your Rails application is send email.

A frequent pattern is that an email is sent after a change to, or creation of, an instance of one of your models.

Instead of…

…sending email inside a callback in your model:

class BookReview < ApplicationRecord
  after_create :send_email_to_author


  def send_email_to_author
      with(author: author).


…the controller to send your email.

class BookReviewsController < ApplicationController
  def create
      with(author: author).


This is all about clarity and preventing surprises when you come back to the code.

Let’s consider the example above. Creating a review doesn’t always need to send an email to the author of the book. In the first code sample, the email sending happens as a side effect of creating a new book review.

At some point, you’ll likely need to create a review without emailing the author; perhaps in the rails console or in another action. You can use methods that skip callbacks, but then you’re into a whole new world of complexity.

It’s clearer to have a simple, procedural, ‘list of things to do’ inside controller actions that you can read through from A to Z. In this case, having the email sending be a separate thing that happens after the creation of the review makes things much more obvious when you come back to the code later.

In addition, debugging tangential functionality through a model’s callbacks is much more cognitively difficult, as you have to keep more context—from more files—in your head.

Why not?

Using callbacks in models to send email could be considered “the Rails Way” given examples like this have always been part of the documentation. And there’s no real harm in this simple case, but the pain of this approach often only becomes apparent later as the complexity of your application increases.

There’s a frequently stated colloquial recommendation that we should prefer “fat models and thin controllers”, pushing as much functionality as you can into your model layer. This is generally good advice. But, it is more about keeping complexity out of the controller layer, by making the activities of your application clear, rather than advocating for more use of side effect-generating callbacks.

I’d also argue that sending an email alongside a model change is not complex enough to merit a confusing callback-based abstraction. It is important to be clear that these two important things will happen to users of your application when this controller action is called.

In situations where controller methods do become complex, I prefer to move the functionality into a plain Ruby “service object”, rather than move it into callbacks.

Last updated on June 2nd, 2019 by @andycroll

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