I want to share a pattern that I’ve repeated multiple times in the past when developing API-s with Rails, which grants the ability to respond to invalid requests with a standardized message format by raising an exception.

To be clear, I’m talking about exceptions, and not errors. To quote a Haskell wiki page on the topic:

…we use the term exception for expected but irregular situations at runtime and the term error for mistakes in the running program that can be resolved only by fixing the program.

A few examples of exceptions would be a client which supplies invalid authentication credentials, or one supplying insufficient data for an operation, etc.

Preview of the end result

To decide whether this interests you, have a look at the end result - a few exception responses:

raise Users::AuthenticationFailure # => HTTP 401
{
  "code": "authentication_failure",
  "message": "Could not validate authorization",
  "description": "Please authenticate and acquire JWT before attempting to access restricted routes. JWT should be passed in the Authorization header."
}
raise Users::ValidationFailure.new(user) # => HTTP 422
{
  "code": "validation_failure",
  "message": "Validation of params failed",
  "description": "The server could not validate the parameters present with the request. Please check the validation_errors key (hash) for more details.",
  "validation_errors": {
    "name": [ "cannot be blank" ],
    "email": ["does not look like an email address"]
  }
}

Let’s dig in!

First-class

I organize my exceptions inside the app folder, treating it as equal to any of the other piece of the Rails application:

Rails.root
├── app
... ├── channels
    ├── controllers
    ├── exceptions
    │   ├── users
    │   │   ├── authentication_failed_exception.rb
    │   │   └── validation_failure_exception.rb
    │   └── application_exception.rb
    ├── jobs
    ...

Exception classes

Each exception class sets four instance variables that describe the exception.

module Users
  class AuthenticationFailureException < ApplicationException
    def initialize
      @code = :authentication_failure
      @message = 'Could not validate authorization'
      @description = 'Please authenticate and acquire JWT before attempting to access restricted routes. JWT should be passed in the Authorization header.'
      @status = 401
    end
  end
end
  • code is useful for clients to programmatically handle these responses.
  • message is a short error message.
  • description is a longer message that can help developers understand the reason for the exception, and fix or incorporate it into the design of the client.
  • status is an over-ride status code for the HTTP response.

ApplicationException

The ApplicationException class defines the response object and a default HTTP status code.

class ApplicationException < StandardError
  def response
    { code: @code, message: @message, description: @description }
  end

  def status
    @status || 422
  end
end

Bringing it to life with rescue_from

On the ApplicationController, we handle raised ApplicationException-s as follows:

class ApplicationController < ActionController::API
  # ...
  rescue_from ApplicationException, with: :show_exception
  # ...

  protected

  def show_exception(exception)
    render json: exception.response, status: exception.status
  end
end

This allows us to raise custom exceptions from any location while handling a request.

Adding more detail to exceptions

Note that the second preview example included a validation_errors key with extra information about the event. Using plain objects allows us to add or modify the response as per our requirements.

module Users
  class ValidationFailureException < ApplicationException
    def initialize(user)
      @code = :validation_failure
      @message = 'Validation of params failed'
      @description = 'The server could not validate the parameters present with the request. Please check the validation_errors key (hash) for more details.'
      @user = user
    end

    def response
      super.merge({ validation_errors: @user.errors })
    end
  end
end

Conclusion

I’ve used variants of this pattern multiple times over the years, and find it a clean way to handle exceptional situations that require a simple response to indicate failure. To see this pattern in action in a project, check out GoDreams Admin Server.