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Kayla Reopelle
Kayla Reopelle

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Revamp your existing Rails app to use a JavaScript frontend

This is the first part of a tutorial that covers how to transition an existing Rails app to use a Javascript frontend without using remote: true. It walks through the process to load content for index and show actions in a single model with Javascript.

This first part outlines the process for setting up the requirements for your application to respond to jQuery and access your data in JSON. The second part will focus on painting the DOM using event listeners and asynchronous requests.

Duplicate the repository that holds your Rails app.

To duplicate the repository, I followed the method to mirror a repository as listed on GitHub Help.

First, create a new repository on Github for your Rails/JS app to live in. I named this repo after my Rails app with “-js” tacked on the end.

Next, open your terminal, and create a “bare clone” of the repository that holds your existing Rails app using the https:// URL.

$ git clone --bare

If you look at the new folder that’s created, it doesn’t include a lot of human-meaningful information or resemble much of what you might expect the repository to look like at all.

My understanding of this bare clone is a GitHub skeleton copy of the repository, just basic, under the hood stuff that makes up the structure of the repo – stuff you probably didn’t create.

cd into this skeleton copy.

$ cd existing-rails-repository.git

The next step is where the magic happens:

$ git push --mirror

This command pushes a "mirror" of your existing repository to the new repository we created to house the JS-ified version of your Rails app.

Think of a mirror push as copying and pasting everything from your old repo–the directory structure, files, commits, branches, etc.–to the new repository. You may have to log in to your GitHub account via the command line to make this work.

Visit the page that houses your new repository to check it out. You should see a perfect copy of the repository that housed your Rails app! Visit the page for your Rails app’s repository, and you should see nothing changed there either!

Let’s clean up our work. Delete the bare clone copy of your old repo:

$ cd ..
$ rm -rf existing-rails-repository.git

Now you have a fresh copy of your Rails repo to start adding JavaScript. Clone down a copy of this repository onto your device and let's start preparing it to handle your new JS code.

$ git clone
$ cd new-repository-js

Add jquery-rails and active_model_serializers to your Gemfile

The following gems help to make your transition a lot easier:

  • jquery-rails: provides access to jQuery, a Javascript Library that simplifies DOM manipulation and AJAX requests, and the jQuery UJS adapter, enables JavaScript functionality for browsers that support it without negatively impacting browsers that don’t.

  • active_model_serializers: provides a Rails-y way to facilitate converting models into JSON by specifying attributes and relationships that should be present in the JSON version of your data.

In your Gemfile, add active_model_serializers and gem ‘jquery-rails’. Run bundle install.

gem ‘jquery-rails’ 
gem ‘active_model_serializers’

Add jquery and jquery_ujs to your Asset Pipeline

Rails optimizes the use of Javascript and CSS through the asset pipeline. According to RailsGuides, The three main features of the pipeline are:

  1. Concatenate assets into one master .js and one master .css file to allow the browser to make one request for all JS and all CSS content (fewer requests —> faster loading)

  2. Minify/compress files, moving them from a human-friendly format to the smallest possible version (smaller files —> faster loading)

  3. Allow assets to be written in higher-level languages, such as Sass for CSS and CoffeeScript for JavaScript

application.js is a manifest file–a file that tells the Asset Pipeline which files it should include when it makes the minified, concatenated JS file to send to your browser. This works through “directives”, a functionality enabled by the Sprockets gem, the gem that powers the asset pipeline. The syntax for a directive is:

//= require your_js_file

This is where all JS requirements, including libraries (such as jQuery) and your own JavaScript files, should be listed.

Add to app/assets/javascripts/application.js:

//= require jquery
//= require jquery_ujs 

While we’re here, let’s make sure //= require_tree is both present and the very last line in the file.

require_tree adds all JS files located within the assets/javascripts directory to the application.js manifest. See the Rails Guide on the Asset Pipeline to learn about how to add files from other directories to your application.js manifest.

The directives are processed from top to bottom, so make sure the external libraries your js files depend on are listed before require_tree or any other js file that may require them.

The JavaScript manifest file is pre-loaded into your html when you create a Rails app using the rails new app_name command. Nested within the <head> tag in your app/views/layouts/application.html.erb file, you should see:

<%= javascript_include_tag 'application', 'data-turbolinks-track': 'reload' %>

The javascript_include_tag ‘application’ part of this line of code is telling the browser to load the application.js file, enabling all of the required JavaScript listed within it to be loaded as well.

Create your serializer(s)

Active Model Serializers has a generator to create a serialize for an existing model:

rails g serializer your_model

This will create a new serializers directory within the app directory, and a new file, your_model_serializer.rb. The contents of the file should look something like:

class YourModelSerializer < ActiveModel::Serializer
  attributes :id

The default generated serializer includes just the :id attribute for your model. Any attributes specified in the attributes line will be included in the JSON object that represents instances of your model. To add additional attributes, just add the attribute names as symbols after attributes. Using the example of a Post model, this may look like:

class PostSerializer < ActiveModel::Serializer
  attributes :id, :title, :body

You can also delete the id attribute if you so desire (though I like to use ids for data attributes to pass information about my instance to JS click events).

To represent relationships to other models in your serializer, generate another serializer for that model using the process above, and add the appropriate has_many/belongs_to relationships to the serializer. Continuing the Post example, if it belongs to an Author, you may write:

rails g serializer author

# app/serializers/author_serializer.rb

class AuthorSerializer < ActiveModel::Serializer
  attributes :id, :name

   has_many :posts  

# app/serializers/post_serializer.rb
class PostSerializer < ActiveModel::Serializer
  attributes :id, :title, :body

  belongs_to :author 

NOTE: Serializers can also be generated with the resource generator if the Active Model Serializers gem is installed when the resource is created. If this is the case, basic attributes and relationships may also be included in your generated serializer.

NOTE 2: Active Model Serializers is undergoing renovations. The jbuilder gem is an alternative that works out of the box when running a scaffold generator.

Edit controller to render json

There are two different ways (that I know of) to tell the browser to render JSON in your controller. Using the example of a posts#index action:

def index
  @posts = Post.all 
  render json: @posts 


def index
  @posts = Post.all
  respond_to do |format|
    format.json {render json: @posts}

Let's do a little experiment. Set the body of your model's index action to the first option, and fire up your Rails server. Visit the index action in your browser, using something like localhost:3000/posts. Presuming you have an index.html.erb file in the views/your_model directory, your beautiful index template should be replaced in the window with bare JSON.

The first option changes your action to exclusively render JSON. The controller will ignore any HTML it may otherwise assume you want to be rendered on the page.

Now, set the body of your index action to the second option and refresh the page. You should see your pre-existing index template render in the browser. Add “.json” to the end of your URL (localhost:3000/posts.json), and you should see the bare JSON rendered in your browser again. Add “.html” to the end of your URL, and you’ll see the index.html.erb template rendered in your browser.

Why does this happen? Using respond_to tells your browser, “If the user wants to see the content of this URL as HTML (the default), I'll serve them the content as HTML. If the user requests the data in JSON (data being the information from the database saved in @posts), just add .json at the end of the URL and I’ll show it to them that way.”

Adding the ability for your controller actions to render JSON enables the Javascript you write to access information from your database in a format it natively understands.

Now you’re all set up to start writing JavaScript!

My next blog post will be about commandeering the DOM with JavaScript event listeners to paint your browser with content retrieved and sent using asynchronous requests to your database.

Discussion (4)

thorstenhirsch profile image
Thorsten Hirsch

Your way to use git seems pretty unusual to me. Why do you want to have 2 repos with the same history after all? I guess most of your readers prefer to create a branch in the existing repo instead of doing a bare-clone and mirror-push to a new repo.

kreopelle profile image
Kayla Reopelle Author

Hi Thorsten! Good point, most probably do prefer to create a branch in their existing repo. I'll probably use this approach in the future too.

The project that prompted me to write this post was for a coding school. I wanted an exact duplicate to leave my existing Rails repo as-is for my portfolio while fulfilling the requirements for this new JS front-end project. I didn't anticipate merging the two branches in the end, so I figured I would treat them as essentially separate projects.

thorstenhirsch profile image
Thorsten Hirsch

Now that makes sense. :) Thank you for clearing this up.

christinaxt profile image

Hi kayla, did you ever write and share the second part to this tutorial?