Strong Opinions Weakly Typed

Andrew Warner

Software Engineer and technology enthusiast
Director of Engineering at Genius

The 3 Ways to Get the Size of an Active Record Relation

If you’re reading this and your first thought is, “there are 3 ways to get the size of a relation?”, then you’ve come to the right place! Basically, given a relation like Post.all or User.first.posts, when you want to know the size, you’ve got 3 choices: size, length, and count. At first glance, it seems like these might do the same thing, right? Not so! There are some key differences between them.

TL;DR - use size, it usually “Does the Right Thing”

First off, some background: both Post.all and User.first.posts are instances of ActiveRecord::Relation, a very sneaky and powerful class which manages lazy loading of records from the database. (full disclosure, User.first.posts is actually an instance of ActiveRecord::Associations::CollectionProxy, but the difference between the two isn’t really relevant to this article). It makes a best effort to filter, and order records until the last possible minute when you actually ask for something concrete. It’s that lazy loading which allows you to write code like Post.where(featured: true).order(created_at: :desc).paginate(page: 1), which will generate only one query for the first page of posts. If you want to get the size of a Relation, there are 3 different ways to ask for it:

length

The simplest of the three methods, length is simply delegated to to_a on the collection; in other words, calling length is equivalent to calling Post.all.to_a.length. It will query for ALL records, initialize ruby objects for all of them, and then get the size of the array. Probably not what you want if you just want to display the count of the Posts on your blog!

count

Does a sql count(*) query for the count of the records in the database. You probably want to use this method if you only ever need the count of the records in the association for whatever you’re doing. In the example above, just displaying a count on the page is a perfect use case for count.

size

Size makes a best effort attempt to “Do The Right Thing” based on the current state of the collection. Here is the actual source for size:

From ActiveRecord::Relation:

lib/active_record/relation.rb
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  # Returns size of the records.
  def size
    loaded? ? @records.length : count
  end

Great comment by the way, I never would have known what size did without it.

Basically, size is a heuristic switch between length and count. If the collection is loaded, it just gets the length of the loaded array, otherwise it will hit the database with a query. As pointed out in a much more informative comment which is for some reason in the CollectionProxy object instead, you’ll end up with an extra query if you call size and then actually need the elements of the collection later.

In a lot of cases the differences are completely irrelevant, but, for my money, size is the best of the 3 options. It does the best job of not leaking details about what’s going on under the hood in terms of lazy loading in Active Record.

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