Cells 4.0 – Goodbye Rails! Hello Ruby!

The Cells gem has helped many developers to re-structure and re-think their view layer in Rails. It provides view models that embrace parts of your UI into self-contained widgets.

What was partials, filters, helpers and controller code is now moved into a separate class. View models are plain Ruby and use OOP features like inheritance while benefiting from encapsulation. The times of global view namespace and lack of interfaces in views are over.

class CommentCell < Cell::ViewModel
  def show

  def author_link
    link_to model.author

Cells can render their own views which sit in a private directory.

Logicless Views.

In views, we try to gently enforce simplicity: When calling a method in the view, it is called on the cell instance. The view is always executed in cells context. There is no concept of “helpers” and data being copied between controller and view anymore.

Written by 

Every method called in the view has to be defined on the cell. Every helper you intend to use has to be included into the class – remember: everything is an instance method.

No Rails!

What makes me really happy about Cells 4 are the following two lines of code that have substantially changed how Cells does its work. Those lines represent the end of a painful era for Cells: they completely decouple the gem from Rails.

module Cell
  class ViewModel # < AbstractController::Base

That’s right, Cells does no longer inherits anything from AbstractController. With our own implementation for rendering templates, we don’t need this dependency anymore. In earlier version this was mainly done to import Rails’ #render and the rabbit hole of dependencies coming with this.

spec.add_dependency "uber", "~> 0.0.9"
spec.add_dependency 'tilt', ">= 1.4", "= 3.0"

We also removed the dependency to actionpack, and, in turn, to actionview. ActionView is no longer used in Cells, except for helpers, which brings me to the next point.

Long live Rails!

Hey, hey, don’t you cry. Cells still supports Rails and works exactly as it did before in Rails apps. It still provides Rails’ (actually, not-existing) view “API” and allows you to use helpers, form builders, simple_form_for and all the good guys.

The difference here is you have to include those helpers into your cell class. This might end up in quite a number of includes, as the following snippet illustrates.

class CommentCell < Cell::ViewModel
  include ActionView::RecordIdentifier
  include ActionView::Helpers::FormHelper
  include SimpleForm::ActionViewExtensions::FormHelper

This is not Cells’ fault, though.

Helpers Are Shit.

What gets unrevealed now is how horribly helpers are implemented in Rails. Not only do they all exist as global methods in one namespace, also do they all depend on each other without including the respective modules.

Helpers in Rails simply assume that all the other 250 helper functions are available.

It is now your task to properly include required helper modules yourself. Maybe this will spark an impulse in Rails core to properly decouple helpers, and use more object-orientation and composition instead of the current global PHP functions.

Anyway, most helpers are reported (and tested) to be working in Cells.

Performance. You asked for it.

In the 4.0 release we got rid of many many lines of code. We also got rid of ActionView. Replacing this jurassic gem with our own 30 lines rendering code has sped up rendering about 25%.

Performance gains could also be achieved by only escaping defined properties of a cell. Where Rails literally escapes every string several times per request, which leads to a significant performance decrease, Cells does this once, and only where you want it.

I need to remark that not any performance-relevant work has been done in Cells 4, yet. Path execution improvements will make this even faster in future versions.

View Models

Render cells works virtually from anywhere. In controllers and views, Cells brings in a helper to make it straight-forward.

Although this sounds like a contradiction – “didn’t you just say helpers are shit? – in fact this acts as a single entry point to invoke cells.

The new call style allows to work with the cell instance before rendering. And: you can have as many rendering methods (“states”, as we call them) as you want per cell class.


The same API can be used in tests. Cells comes with UnitTest/MiniTest support out of the box, and Rspec can be pulled via the rspec-cells gem.

it "renders nicely"
  html = cell(:comment, comment).()
  expect(html).to have_content "Hello!"

Isolated view rendering tests are inevitable when writing rock-solid components that are resuable across your application.

Upgrading from Cells 3

View models have been around in Cells 3, too, but not as fast. Anyway, if you’re upgrading, you might want to peek inside the upgrading guide. Let us know if you find anything missing in there.

One thing I need to mention: You don’t need to rewrite all your cells – you can still use instance variables and the old-style calling – it’s just not encouraged anymore.

Another point you shouldn’t miss is to include the respective template engine support into your projects. Please read the installation instructions to learn about cells-haml and friends.

Cells Everywhere

With the removal of the Rails dependencies Cells work in any Ruby environment. You can implement your view models in Lotus or Sinatra, or in plain Ruby scripts.

Many users do that already. I hear that Cells and Roda, a framework I really want to check out, do a great job together.

Outside of Rails, the only thing that needs configuration is where to find the views.

class SongCell < Cell::ViewModel
  self.view_paths = "lib/views"

After defining the view_paths, cells can be rendered anywhere in your application.


This will instantiate the cell and render the show state. Examples for how to use advanced features like caching and view inheritance can be found in my cells-examples repository.

Mailers, Rake Tasks, Here Comes Cells!

Cells have been used in Rails for many things: In mailers, in rake tasks to compile views, directly hooked to routes to bypass ActionController, and so on.

This is even simpler now as there is no dependency to drag around anymore. You simply instantiate and render your view model. However, some helpers still insist on a controller instance to operate properly. For example, they might need the config object.

Pass the controller into a cell for that. Being a special dependency in a Rails environment, this will delegate all known controller methods to the real controller.

SongCell.(song, controller: controller).(:show)

We’ve been using this “technique” in Cells for years without major problems cough.

Engines and the Asset Pipeline

Cells can be bundled into gems and Rails engines and allow you to distribute them as proper widgets to other applications.

Nothing really changes, you simply chuck them into your gems and they become renderable in the importing application. If you’re having problems, it’s all documented on the new (and still under construction) Trailblazer website.

Another great thing is: you can bundle assets right into your cell’s views directory and include them in your asset pipeline.

├── cells
│   ├── comment_cell.rb
│   ├── comment
│   │   ├── show.haml
│   │   ├── comment.css
│   │   ├── comment.coffee

Using the asset pipeline is documented here.

View Inheritance

Cells can inherit views from their parents. If a view is not found in the local directory, it is looked up in the parent’s directories.

class PostCell  ["app/cells/post", "app/cells/comment"]

The new explicit version of prefixes makes it really simple to understand where views come from.

And we have another awesome feature planned for upcoming Cells versions: Block inheritance. That’s right: Block inheritance. This means you can define overridable parts directly in your view, without the need to implement that in a separate file.

Make sure to read the documentation about view inheritance and check out the Trailblazer book which will explain this nifty topic in great detail.

From Here.

Cells 4 is clean and fast. Go through the code base, and you will see how incredibly simple it is. There will be problems with certain helpers or gems, but I am confident we can fix them together.

From the very beginning I put a lot of effort into communication with the different template engines teams, for example the fine peeps from Haml. My dream is to have a unified interface for capturing and helpers, so markup languages don’t need to get patched by Rails, or patch Rails, or both.

The next big step is evaluating how much of ActionView we can strip and replace with the learnings from 10 years of Cells without changing Rails’ API, dear DHH. I am currently experimenting with Rafael França in a top secret mission, so don’t tell anyone about this.


8 thoughts on “Cells 4.0 – Goodbye Rails! Hello Ruby!

  1. Good Job!

    Now I need to move my existing cells to concept cells first before upgrading. It’s my personal choice (since I hate using instance variables for passing values, cell or controller or mailer)

    I really hope more people can realize the problem of rails “view system” by using this gem.

    I am now doing similar thing on mailers, but I am not using cell as the whole mailer.
    Instead I use private methods and `helper_method` to simulate the passing of data via instance methods (and one class per kind of mail)
    Any suggestion on how to improve my implementation?


  2. Cells is a great project, love the concept behind it.

    The only thing I wish is for it to go a it further and have cells on a view level. So instead of a cell that resembles a rails controller grouping index, show, and edit, etc. it would be great to have completely different cells for each view. Each view is a component.


  3. Sebastian: Thanks! I hope you know that it’s up to the cells user to implement those different views. You don’t have to map an index “controller action” to a cell – you can render as many cells as you want in one page.


  4. @nick: Wait, I could do that?
    I just don’t how to / haven’t tried to do it I guess.
    Would love to see an example! (Since I am refactoring remaining cells, don’t have spare time for trying other things :P)

    @Sebastian: In the past (before 4.0 I guess)
    I treat cells as a “mini-controller” and some templates (which is the old cell in 3.x, I still got many).
    But in last versions of 3.x, there is a new ViewModel cell (and Concept, which is self-contained, and I use that only)
    So the new cell classes would be view itself, and template is just one kind of implementation. (You can actually ONLY use tag helper methods to generate HTML string, without any template file. But it’s a rare case)

    I think we need a chat room for discussing this 😛
    @nick: Gitter maybe?


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