Enhancing your Rails app with SQLite: Branch-specific databases

This is the first in a collection of posts where I want to highlight ways we can enhance our Ruby on Rails applications. Specifically, in this first series, I want to dig into the ways that we can take advantage of and empower using SQLite as the database engine for our Rails applications. In this inaugural post, let’s dig into how using SQLite as our database engine opens up powerful new possibilities for our local development workflow; specifically, allowing us to have and use branch-specific databases.

There has been a surge of interest in using SQLite in production for web applications in the last few years. I readily confess that I am fully onboard as well. SQLite removes network latency, simplifies operations, and makes automated testing against your production stack easy.

Over the course of this series, I want to lay out some of the key tweaks we can make to our Rails applications to make working with SQLite more powerful and pleasurable. To start, I want to focus on a developer experience (DX) improvement for local development.

As anyone who has worked on a Rails application within a team of developers knows, managing your database schema can be tricky. Each developer’s branches might include some migrations, which update the schema, but locally you only have the one single development database. Switching between branches becomes a pain, running migrations becomes a pain, and sometimes bugs sneak into production as schema changes are merged that shouldn’t have been a part of that release.

One of my favorite features from PlanetScale is their branching feature:

Branches are copies of your database schema that live in a completely separate environment from each other. Making changes in one branch does not affect other branches until you merge them, just like you manage code branches in your projects.

This is lovely, and it solves the pain points laid out above. However, this isn’t quite perfect in my opinion. Because we now have two different kinds of “branches” for our app. We have our Git branches, which isolate our code (including migrations), and our database branches, which isolate our schema. Having two separate branches now creates syncing issues. How do Git branches and database branches relate? How do we tie git branch merging to database branch merging to production deployment? etc.

This is a necessary trade-off that PlanetScale needs to make, because their serverless database platform can’t be deeply integrated with every single user’s codebase. However, as Rails developers using SQLite, we have unique opportunities available to us.

Let’s describe our ideal scenario, and then dig into how to implement it. What we want is to have a single branch (a Git branch) which isolates both our code and our schema. We want switching Git branches to automatically switch schema branches. We want production deployment driven by Git branch merging that also automatically ensures a predictable and stable production schema. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Well, luckily for us, Rails and SQLite make such a setup remarkably easy to create.

Let’s start with our last feature, as this is something that Rails gives us, regardless of our database engine. This feature is precisely the value of our /migrations directory and the /db/schema.rb or /db/structure.sql file. By integrating our database schema management into our Rails application codebase, and ensuring that all schema changes are implemented via Rails migrations, we can bind our production schema to simple Git branch merging, while also ensuring that our production schema is predictable and stable.

To be honest, the other two features are also possible with any of Rails’ supported database adapters, but SQLite fits most nicely with the approach. And the approach is simple. Fundamentally, all we need to do is tell Rails to use a dynamic database name, tied to the Git branch name, for local development. Rails makes this easy through the /config/database.yml file, which is where we configure the core details of our database. By default, when using SQLite, Rails will generate a /config/database.yml that looks like this:

# SQLite. Versions 3.8.0 and up are supported.
# gem install sqlite3
# Ensure the SQLite 3 gem is defined in your Gemfile
# gem "sqlite3"
default: &default
adapter: sqlite3
pool: <%= ENV.fetch("RAILS_MAX_THREADS") { 5 } %>
timeout: 5000
<<: *default
database: storage/development.sqlite3
# Warning: The database defined as "test" will be erased and
# re-generated from your development database when you run "rake".
# Do not set this db to the same as development or production.
<<: *default
database: storage/test.sqlite3
<<: *default
database: storage/production.sqlite3

Simple and reasonable. Each Rails environment gets its own database file. Every database file is stored in the /storage directory (where most hosting providers ensure that contents are persisted across deployments). And each database file has a fixed file name. What we want is to have our development environment use a dynamic file name for the database, and we want that file name to be based on the current Git branch. A quick Google search leads to a StackOverflow answer that provides the git command for getting the current branch name:

git branch --show-current

Note: If you are using a Git version less than 2.22 (when the --show-current option was added), you can use git rev-parse --abbrev-ref HEAD instead.

So, how do we use this in our /config/database.yml file? Well, Rails makes this easy as it allows for ERB. Adding a tiny bit of resilience to the code, we can replace our development section with this:

<<: *default
database: storage/<%= `git branch --show-current`.chomp || 'development' %>.sqlite3

Now, instead of always using storage/development.sqlite3 as our database file name, we provide a dynamic file name that will name the database file whatever our current Git branch name is. With this single line change we have implemented the first of our ideal features—we have a single branch (a Git branch) which isolates both our code and our schema.

Next, how can we configure Rails to automatically switch “schema branches” when our Git branch changes? Well, here we need to articulate with a bit more clarity what exactly we need, given our solution above. The change to the /config/database.yml file already ensures that when we switch Git branches, our Rails app will talk to an isolated development database. However, this change alone doesn’t ensure that once we have switched Git branches that our isolated development database is ready for use. Imagine that a colleague has created a branch which adds two new database migrations. You pull down that branch to do some code review and local manual testing. When you switch your local Git repo to checkout your colleague’s branch for the first time, our dynamic /config/database.yml configuration will ensure that a new SQLite database file is created in our /storage directory. However, this new SQLite database file doesn’t yet have anything in it, and it doesn’t have the schema setup either. So, how can we ensure that Rails automatically prepares this new database file whenever we switch database branches?

Well, again, luckily for us Rails makes this pretty easy. Rails provides the ActiveRecord::Tasks::DatabaseTasks utility class, which “encapsulates logic behind common tasks used to manage database and migrations.” For our needs, we can turn to the .prepare_all method, which is the programmatic equivalent to the db:prepare Rake command added in Rails 6. Preparing a database means, simply, running migrations if the database already exists or creating the database and loading the schema if not. All we need is to tell Rails to run this command in development every time we boot up the app. This will ensure that our dynamic database is always ready for use by our Rails app (whether running the server or jumping into a console).

In order to have Rails run this command in development when we boot that app, we can simply add this to our /config/environments/development.rb file:

# Ensure that our branch-specific SQLite database is prepared for our application to use
config.after_initialize do

We simply configure our development environment to run the .prepare_all command after the app has been initialized.

Which this simple configuration added, we now have our ideal setup. Every Git branch has its own, isolated database file. That database is automatically prepared for usage on-demand when we boot our Rails app. And production deploys driven by Git branch merging continues to produce stable and predictable production schemas, by using migrations exclusively to alter our schema.

I can say, I have been using this setup in a few different Rails applications and I absolutely love it! And I love how easy Rails and SQLite make such a feature to setup. This was a grand total of four lines (and could easily be two if we used an inline block for after_initialize) to provide a similar (and in some key ways improved) feature to a fancy platform like PlanetScale.

It is precisely these kinds of enhancements—simple, small, but powerful—that I want to explore in the coming weeks and months. So, stay tuned. And, if you enjoyed this tip, please do reach out on Twitter @fractaledmind.

All posts in this series