Two Small Findings About SQL and Rails

Posted by Kevin Yaroch on July 1, 2016

Part 2 of the geographic polarization post should be up soon; I got distracted by another project for long enough that I’ll have to spend some time figuring out what it was that I was doing.

In the meantime, here are two minor (and mildly interesting) things I figured out today while I was at work.

Conditions on a LEFT OUTER JOIN

I was working on a new scope for a Rails application I maintain, which uses a legacy MySQL database. I needed to do a LEFT OUTER JOIN between two tables, but include rows from the second table only if they met certain criteria. Of course, using a standard WHERE clause in this situation would effectively convert the LEFT OUTER JOIN to an INNER JOIN. In a similar case I encountered previously, I was able to fix this by adding OR IS NULL to the query, but in this case that didn’t work, for reasons I don’t yet completely understand.

The solution was to put the condition in the join itself:

FROM foo
  ON = bar.foo_id
  AND bar.some_attribute = 'some value';

This is probably obvious to someone more experienced with SQL, but it didn’t initially occur to me that I could do this.

Interpolating a date into a Rails SQL query

Of course, normally you can do this as follows:

where("created_at < ?", date)

However, it turns out that this won’t work in a JOIN clause. It’ll raise RuntimeError: unknown class: DateTime. The solution I ultimately found was to do this:

joins("bar on bar.foo_id = foo_id AND bar.created_at < '#{date.to_s(:db)}'")

Passing :db as a parameter to #to_s will format the DateTime object’s string representation in such a way that it can be used directly in an SQL query. Two major caveats about this:

  • Formatting the string in this way removes the time zone.
  • Interpolating user-submitted input directly into an SQL query is not good practice, obviously. Passing a symbol as a parameter to #to_s will raise an exception with most object types other than DateTime, notably including String itself. Still, I’d be careful with this. (In the context where I used this, it shouldn’t matter, as the times being used in the query are set inside the model and there’s no way for a user to manipulate them.)