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Rails Generate Migration (handy reference)

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This article is a handy reference for generating migrations in your Ruby on Rails apps — Don't forget to use the table of contents (below)! It's there to help you find what you need quickly.

I also built a GUI tool to help write rails generate migration commands. Check it out — Rails Migration Generator Command Builder.

Table of Contents

There are a few core migrations that we generate again and again in a Ruby on Rails app —

  • adding a column,
  • removing a column,
  • creating a table,
  • adding indexes,
  • and a few smaller things, like column constraints.

I've covered these basics in a handy format below.

Every single rails generate migration command

Create a Table — rails generate migration CreateTable

Creating a table is a migration where ActiveRecord can infer the contents of our migration file for us.

We can generate a migration to add a table by running —

Terminal
# generate a migration to CREATE A TABLE
rails generate migration CreateBlogPost title:string:index body:text

Which will generate the following migration —

20230706225210_create_blog_post.rb
class CreateBlogPost < ActiveRecord::Migration[7.0]
  def change
    create_table :blog_posts do |t|
      t.string :title
      t.text :body

      t.timestamps
    end
    add_index :blog_posts, :title
  end
end

Note how by specifying title:string:index, ActiveRecord automatically generated the add_index command for us as part of the migration.

If we wanted to add a NOT NULL constraint and a default value for one of the columns in our table, we could do that by editing our migration file, and editing the relevant line like —

20230706225210_create_blog_post.rb
t.string :title, null: false, default: ""

By adding null: false, default: "", we enforce a NOT NULL constraint and set a default value of "" on our column.

Reference another Table — rails generate migration AddReference table_name:references

Migrations which reference other tables are common in a Rails app — these migrations will generate a new column to reference to another table, which we use for associations between our models (has_many, belongs_to etc.)

We can generate a migration to reference another table by running —

Terminal
# generate a migration to ADD A REFERENCE TO ANOTHER TABLE
rails generate migration AddUserRefToBlogPost user:references

As usual, Rails will infer the table name when we generate the migration. By default, Rails will also set null: false, foreign_key: true —

20230707110855_add_user_ref_to_blog_post.rb
class AddUserRefToBlogPost < ActiveRecord::Migration[7.0]
  def change
    add_reference :blog_posts, :user, null: false, foreign_key: true
  end
end

Add a Column — rails generate migration AddColumnToTable

In this section, we cover

  • adding a column,
  • adding an index to a column,
  • adding a NOT NULL constraint,
  • and setting a default value for the colummn

Adding a column to an existing table is the migration you'll probably create the most. We add a column like this —

Terminal
# generate a migration to ADD A COLUMN
rails generate migration AddViewsToBlogPost views:integer

Which will generate a migration like this —

20230707025208_add_views_to_blog_post.rb
class AddViewsToBlogPost < ActiveRecord::Migration[7.0]
  def change
    add_column :blog_posts, :views, :integer
  end
end

In general, the format for adding a column in an ActiveRecord migration is —

Terminal
rails generate migration AddColumnToTable column:type

By writing our migration command correctly, Rails will auto-fill the table name, column name and column type into the generated migration.

When we generate our migration, we can add an index to the column by typing column:type:index.

The command looks like this —

Terminal
# add an index with column_name:type:index
rails generate migration AddViewsToBlogPost views:integer:index

Which will generate a migration which includes an add_index like this —

20230707025208_add_views_to_blog_post.rb
class AddViewsToBlogPost < ActiveRecord::Migration[7.0]
  def change
    add_column :blog_posts, :views, :integer
    add_index :blog_posts, :views
  end
end

Note: indexes can be a bit of a sharp knife. An excellent article about indexes in Rails/ActiveRecord is this one — using indexes in Rails | tomafro.

ActiveRecord will also let us specify a NOT NULL constraint and a default value on our column inside our migration — unfortunately, we can't generate this automatically.

To add a NOT NULL constraint and a default value to a column, we need to generate a migration, then edit it like —

20230707025208_add_views_to_blog_post.rb
class AddViewsToBlogPost < ActiveRecord::Migration[7.0]
  def change
    # OLD:
    # add_column :blog_posts, :views, :integer
    # NEW:
    # add a NOT NULL constraint and a default value of 0 to the column
    add_column :blog_posts, :views, :integer, null: false, default: 0
  end
end

We use null: false to enforce a NOT NULL constraint on the column, and default: 0 to specify a default value of 0 (integer). Make sure you adjust your migration to have the correct value and the correct data type for your new column.

Remove a Column — rails generate migration RemoveColumnFromTable

Removing a column is the inverse of creating one. If we run a rails generate migration command like this —

Terminal
# generate a migration to REMOVE A COLUMN
rails generate migration RemoveViewsFromBlogPost views:integer

Rails will automatically generate a migration like this —

db/migrate/20230709003233_remove_views_from_blog_post.rb
class RemoveViewsFromBlogPost < ActiveRecord::Migration[7.0]
  def change
    remove_column :blog_posts, :views, :integer
  end
end

Again, Rails will automatically fill the table_name, column_name, and column_type, based on the information we pass to rails generate migration.

If you added an index in your migration, make sure to adjust the command to rails generate migration RemoveViewsFromBlogPost views:integer:index to remove the index too.

This will generate a migration like this —

db/migrate/20230709003233_remove_views_from_blog_post.rb
class RemoveViewsFromBlogPost < ActiveRecord::Migration[7.0]
  def change
    remove_column :blog_posts, :views, :integer
    remove_index :blog_posts, :views
  end
end

Even though Rails will remove the index from Rails 4 upwards, you should make sure to add :index to ensure your migration is reversible. If you try to db:rollback your RemoveIndex migration, but you forgot to add :index, Rails won't rollback your migration correctly.

(Thanks to /u/lommer0 on Reddit for pointing this out to me!)

Rename a Column — rails generate migration RenameColumn

ActiveRecord makes renaming a column simple, as usual, but with one small hiccup.

When we generate our migration, Rails can't automatically infer what we're trying to do here — it just generates an empty def change method, and we have to fill out the migration steps.

To rename a column, we first need to generate our migration —

Terminal
# generate a migration to RENAME A COLUMN
rails generate migration RenameViewsToViewsCountInBlogPosts

Which will generate our empty migration, as expected —

20230707030059_rename_views_to_views_count_in_blog_posts.rb
class RenameViewsToViewsCountInBlogPosts < ActiveRecord::Migration[7.0]
  def change
  end
end

Then, we have to open the migration up and add rename_column :table_name, :old_column_name, :new_column_name. Your migration might look like this —

20230707030059_rename_views_to_views_count_in_blog_posts.rb
class RenameViewsToViewsCountInBlogPosts < ActiveRecord::Migration[7.0]
  def change
    rename_column :blog_posts, :views, :views_count
  end
end

Change a Column's type — rails generate migration ChangeColumnType

Changing a column's type has the same hiccup as renaming it. Rails can't auto-generate the change_column command for us. As with renaming a column, we'll need to edit our ActiveRecord migration file.

First, generate the migration —

Terminal
# generate a migration to CHANGE A COLUMN'S TYPE
rails generate migration ChangeViewsCountTypeInBlogPosts

This will generate the following empty migration —

20230709004004_change_views_count_type_in_blog_posts.rb
class ChangeViewsCountTypeInBlogPosts < ActiveRecord::Migration[7.0]
  def change
  end
end

As before, we need to edit the migration ourselves, and add a change_column :table_name, :old_type, :new_type command like —

20230709004004_change_views_count_type_in_blog_posts.rb
class ChangeViewsCountTypeInBlogPosts < ActiveRecord::Migration[7.0]
  def change
    change_column :blog_posts, :views, :float
  end
end

Some helpful Rails Migration patterns, tips and tricks

In this section, I've included some handy information and commands that I use when I'm working with ActiveRecord, or generating Rails migrations with rails generate migration.

If you've got other handy database / migration related commands that you think would be worth adding, please reach out!

ActiveRecord migration data types

ActiveRecord supports the following data types when generating migrations in our Rails apps:

activerecord_migration_types.rb
:primary_key  # A unique key that can identify each record in a model.
:string       # Used for small data types such as titles.
:text         # Used for longer pieces of textual data such as paragraphs of information.
:integer      # Used for storing whole numbers.
:float        # Used for storing floating-point numbers.
:decimal      # Used for storing decimal numbers.
:datetime     # Stores both date and time components.
:timestamp    # Stores both date and time components.
:time         # Stores only the time component.
:date         # Stores only the date component.
:binary       # Used for storing binary data such as images, audio, or movies.
:boolean      # Stores true or false values.

So, when you generate a migration with a command like -

Terminal
rails generate migration AddColumn column_name:type

Make sure :type matches one of these supported data types, so that ActiveRecord can generate your migration correctly.

Rolling back migrations

Rolling back migrations is pretty common, and Rails has a few helpful commands to make it easy.

If you want to rollback the last 3 migrations, you can run —

Terminal
rails db:rollback STEP=3

Of course, you can adjust STEP= to rollback the correct number of migrations.

Rails also includes the rails db:migrate:redo command, which is equivalent to a rails db:rollback followed by a rails db:migrate.

To redo the last 3 migrations, you can run —

Terminal
rails db:migrate:redo STEP=3

Adjusting STEP= to redo the correct number of migrations, same as before.

Setting up your database

The rails db:setup command will create the database, load the schema, and initialize it with the seed data. Running rails db:setup is equivalent to —

Terminal
rails db:create
rails db:schema:load
rails db:seed

Resetting your Database

The rails db:reset command will drop the database and set it up again. Running rails db:reset is equivalent to —

Terminal
rails db:drop
rails db:setup

Use the rails g shorthand

This is more of a general tip for working with the rails command, and the Rails generator commands.

The rails command supports heaps of shorthands, — a handy one for us, since we're generating migrations, is rails g migration.

Running rails g migration command is identical to running rails generate migration command, just 7 characters shorter.

For instance, to add a column, we might run —

Terminal
rails g migration AddColumn column_name:type

This is a general tip for working with rails generate — we can use rails g to run any of the Rails generators, like rails g model or rails g scaffold_controller.

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