If you’ve ever wondered how your Rails ActiveRecord models end up magically translating some connection details (probably you have these in config/database.yml) into data you can interact with, establish_connection is a pretty significant part of that magic. In this post, I’m going to be laying out the different arguments this method accepts to determine how to connect to a database. Just so you know, this is largely a paraphrasing of the APIDock documentation to reinforce these arguments in my memory, so if you would prefer to directly read the documentation, go ahead.

Normal operation

Your standard Rails set up has your database connection settings listed per-environment in config/database.yml. You probably at least have settings in this file for development and test, but may have other environments there as well. The normal definition of a model (e.g. what you get if your application models inherit from ActiveRecord::Base and don’t change any settiings) is to call establish_connection, passing a symbolized version of Rails.env - :development, :test and so on.

When establish_connection is passed a symbol, it will assume that the symbol is a “configuration”. A configuration in this context is a key of the ActiveRecord::Base.configurations hash, where the value contains the actual connection settings for your database. When Rails starts, it loads and parses your config/database.yml YAML file into this hash, which is exactly how your Rails app knows how to connect to your development, test or even production database.

Passing connection information via a hash

This argument is the lowest level form of argument that can be passed in to establish_connection. A hash is passed in, containing (at least) a key specifying the ““adapter”. Any additional options are delegated to the particular adapter - MySQL, PostgreSQL, SQLite, etc - however, many of these options are common across database engines - option names like “user”, “host”, “password” and “database”. This is why, if you do ever change from one database to another, often the only key that needs to be changed is “adapter”.

This hash is accessed with indifferent access, which means that you can pass in hash keys as either symbols or strings - either is acceptable. A situation where you might use this kind of argument to establish a database connection could be a scenario where you have dynamic connection details - perhaps you have a multi tenanted application where customers can provide their own database to use, for exmaple.

An example of passing a hash to establish_connection:

ActiveRecord::Base.establish_connection(
  adapter: "postgresql"
  database: "myapp_development_1"
)

Passing connection information via a connection URI (string)

Finally, a database URL can be passed to establish_connection, which will detect the correct adapter to use from the connection string, and parse other connection details, such as the host, port, username, password and database to use from the URI. The default of establish_connection is to try and find a URI to a databse in an environment variable named "DATABASE_URL", falling back to looking up a configuration matching the current Rails environment name (as described in ‘Normal operation’).

Passing a connection string to establish_connection is quite a flexible way of establishing connections to different databases, and can be used in a number of scenarios where you might establish to different databases, either when the app starts, or during runtime.

An example of passing a connection string to establish_connection:

ActiveRecord::Base.establish_connection("postgres://[email protected]:5432/mydatabase")

Note: For actual applications, it would be more appropriate to store this connection string as configuration, or even as a secret, rather than hardcoding it into your script.


I wanted to blog about this particular ActiveRecord for a couple of reasons. First, it is actually a method that is very widely used, but probably not very well known. Second, while I knew of the existence of this method, and suspected some of what the method could do, I learned a lot while having a read through the documentation and implementation of establish_connection. It’s certainly one worth remembering.