Hi, I’m Josh Symonds

I blog about Ruby on Rails, coding, and servers

Dynamic Cache Counters in Rails

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I spent a frustrating hour today searching for a way to do dynamic cache counters in Rails.

The problem is best summed up in a use case. I have a model called votes. A vote can be an upvote or a downvote; I set a column called type indicating what it is. Though I call the column type there’s no need for STI here – there’s really only one model, after all. However, it is polymorphic. You can vote up any kind of content on the site. I want to cache the number of upvotes and downvotes separately for that content. Unfortunately, the out-of-the-box Rails counter mechanism doesn’t let you do this. According to the counter_cache documentation, you must either specify true or the name of the column you’re caching under. You’re out of luck if you want to change it dynamically.

This, then, is the solution I came up with to allow dynamic cache counters.

The most ideal way to do this is to hook into the existing ActiveRecord CounterCache module. Given that, the code is quite simple, really:

class Vote < ActiveRecord::Base
  belongs_to :voteable, polymorphic: true, touch: true

  after_create :increment_counters
  after_destroy :decrement_counters

  [:increment, :decrement].each do |type|
    define_method("#{type}_counters") do
      voteable_type.classify.constantize.send("#{type}_counter", "#{self.type}votes_count".to_sym, self.voteable_id)


The CounterCache module has two methods we care about here: increment_counter and decrement_counter. We manually trigger these methods on the parent object’s class after a vote is created or destroyed; note that I don’t intend to change the type of the vote, but if you do, you’ll also need an after_save callback to decrement one counter and increment another. So with these callbacks, if I have a vote with type up, it will call increment_counter on the column upvotes_count with the ID of the saving object.

This code assumes that the parent model will correctly have a counter column of the appropriate type defined.

Instead of this quasi-hack, I briefly investigated patching Rails to allow the counter_cache option to accept a lambda or proc, but doing so would have involved a lot of changes and would probably be stuck forever in Github issues. This change, while not exactly as clean and portable, does the job with a minimum of fuss.

Josh Symonds performs devops and server wrangling on cloud-scale infrastructures, deploys amazing web applications with Ruby on Rails, and creates awesome iOS apps with Objective-C and RubyMotion. He is founder and CTO of Symonds & Son, a development shop focused on quality and excellence.

Josh Symonds