Ever wondered how to easily add image attachment support to your Rails application? Then you should definitely give attachment_fu a go, a very easy to use Rails plugin by Rick Olson.

(Note: This article would not have been possible without Mike Clark’s excellent attachment_fu tutorial.)

Step 1: Installation (on Ubuntu 6.10)

Installing the plugin is as easy as it gets:
script/plugin install http://svn.techno-weenie.net/projects/plugins/attachment_fu/

In order to do some image processing you need to install one of the following packages as well:

  • ImageScience
  • RMagick
  • minimagick

ImageScience is the simplest of all of them only allowing to resize images. It depends on FreeImage and RubyInline.
This is the one I have ended up using as it is enough for me.
It is not available on Ubuntu repositories, so I had to install it manually following the instructions in their website:

sudo gem install -y image_science

which also installs RubyInline, hoe and rubyforge gems.

Installing FreeImage required me to install cvs (to check out the sources) and g++ first:

sudo apt-get install cvs g++

cvs -z3 -d:pserver:anonymous@freeimage.cvs.sourceforge.net:/cvsroot/freeimage login (just type enter when asked for a password)
cvs -z3 -d:pserver:anonymous@freeimage.cvs.sourceforge.net:/cvsroot/freeimage co -P FreeImage
cd FreeImage
sudo make install

Step 2: Preparing your Rails application

In my application I have a Work model to which I want to associate images. Images are submitted by users and are associated to one single Work, a has_many / belongs_to association between a Work and the associated images. My application has also users and I want to know who added a particular image (to prevent abuse).

In order to make use of the functionality provided by attachment_fu you need to create an ActiveRecord model with at least the following attributes:

  • content_type: what sort of content you are storing. This is used by web browsers to know how to present this information to users (open an external application, show embedded using a plugin, etc).
  • filename: a pointer to the image location
  • size: the size in bytes of the attachment

When you store images, attachment_fu makes use of some other useful fields:

  • parent_id: if you store thumbnails to associate them to the parent image (this could actually be used for other type of content as well)
  • thumbnail: as you can have more than one thumbnail, this fields contains the identifier assign to each type of thumbnail.
  • width: the width of the image.
  • heigth: the height of the image.

In my case as I have added the following attributes:

  • work_id: the work that the image is associated to.
  • user_id: the user that added the image
  • default: whether this is the default image to be used when displaying the work
  • created_at: when the image was added

Let’s create the model:

script/generate model WorksImages

My migrations file looks like this one:

class CreateWorkImages < ActiveRecord::Migration

  def self.up

    create_table :work_images, :options => 'ENGINE=InnoDB DEFAULT CHARSET=utf8' do |t|
      t.column :work_id, :integer, :null => false
      t.column :user_id, :integer, :null => false
      t.column :default, :boolean, :null => false, :default => false
      t.column :created_at, :datetime, :null => false
      t.column :parent_id,  :integer, :null => true
      t.column :content_type, :string, :null => false
      t.column :filename, :string, :null => false
      t.column :thumbnail, :string, :null => true
      t.column :size, :integer, :null => false
      t.column :width, :integer, :null => true
      t.column :height, :integer, :null => true
    execute "alter table work_images add constraint fk_wi_works foreign key (work_id) references works(id)"
    execute "alter table work_images add constraint fk_wi_user foreign key (user_id) references users(id)"

  def self.down
    drop_table :work_images

Let’s edit the WorksImages model to make use of the attachment_flu plugin:

class WorkImage < ActiveRecord::Base  
  has_attachment :content_type => :image,
                 :storage => :file_system,
                 :max_size => 100.kilobytes,
                 :resize_to => '200x200>',
                 :thumbnails => { :thumb => '50x50>' },
                 :processor => 'ImageScience'


  belongs_to :work
  belongs_to :user

  #The block will be executed just before the thumbnail is saved.
  #We need to set extra values in the thumbnail class as
  #we want it to have the same extra attribute values as the original image
  #except for the default flag that is always set to false
  before_thumbnail_saved do |record, thumbnail|
    thumbnail.user_id = record.user_id
    thumbnail.work_id = record.work_id
    thumbnail.default = false

I wanted to be able to attach images by providing its url, rather than asking the user to download the image and upload it to the system, This can also be used when querying ecommerce apis (like the amazon one) to retrieve and store the images they return. So I enriched my WorkImage model with an extra method (which I guess would be a good feature to be added to the attachment_fu plugin)

def source_url=(url)
  return nil if not url
  http_getter = Net::HTTP
  uri = URI.parse(url)
  response = http_getter.start(uri.host, uri.port) {|http|
  case response
  when Net::HTTPSuccess
    file_data = response.body
    return nil if file_data.nil? || file_data.size == 0
    self.content_type = response.content_type
    self.temp_data = file_data
    self.filename = uri.path.split('/')[-1]
    return nil

I also enrich my Work model to easily retrieve associated images. You can easily add new relationships for easy access to thumbnails.

class Work < ActiveRecord::Base
  has_many :images, :class_name => 'WorkImage', :conditions => ["work_images.parent_id is null"] #The condition avoids retrieving thumbnails
  #Easily retrieve the default image
  has_one  :default_image, :class_name => 'WorkImage', :conditions => ["work_images.default"]

Step 3: Make use of the new model in the controller and view

In my controller, when I want to add an image to a model I do something like the following:

def add_image
  #Store the image if any
  if params[:image_source_url]
    image = WorkImage.new(:source_url => params[:image_source_url])
    image.work_id = @work.id
    image.user_id = self.current_user.id
    image.default = true if params[:is_default_image]

Images will be saved in public/work_images using something that Jaimis buck from 37signals called id partitioning.
That way you can theoretically store 9999 * 10000 attachments (thumbnails are not counted as attachments), which for standard purposes is enough. Anyway, this can easily be changed to support more files if you need it. Look for a method named partitioned_path in vendor/plugins/attachment_fu/lib/technoweenie/attachment_fu/backends/file_system_backend.rb.

In order to display the default image in a view I just need to do the following:

<%= image_tag(@work.default_image.public_filename()) %>

If what you want to display is the thumbnail, just pass the thumbnail identifier (in our case :thumb) to the file:

<%= image_tag(@work.default_image.public_filename(:thumb)) %>

And that should be it really. If you have questions, leave a comment.

I found a small bug in the plugin. It was not storing resized image sizes properly. I had to add edit the vendor/plugins/attachment_fu/lib/technoweenie/attachment_fu/processors/image_science_processor.rb file and set the correct size just after the image is saved in the resize_image method:

img.save self.temp_path
self.size = File.size(self.temp_path)

I also noticed that for images that do not need to be resized, something is done as the size of the images changes, although the dimensions remain the same. I have a file of 5KB that has a size of 12 KB after the resizing process!!! The size of the image is the same and it should have not been modified. Not sure what is going on here but I guess this is an ImageScience issue.


This is my first post sent using Deepest Sender as it will make updating this log much easier.