Rails 2 :include != Rails 3/4 includes()

December 6, 2013

Not too long ago at work we made the big painful switch of our largest legacy apps from Rails 2 to Rails 3. While there is no shortage of documentation on the pitfalls one may face when doing this, I wanted to bring up one that was particularly insidious.

Some may remember that in Rails 2, eager loading was typically done by passing a :include option to a finder, specifying the graph of records you’d like to eager load, e.g. Post.all(:include => [:author, {:comment => :commenter}]). In most cases, this would issue a query to each table involved, first finding authors whose id corresponded to the author_id on the post, then comments, and so-on. The important thing to note is that it would not do a join.

When upgrading and converting from options-in-finder style to the class method chaining style of ActiveRecord 3, it seemed obvious that .includes() was analogous to :include. It is not.

As this wonderful article points out, there are actually 4 related methods in rails to eager load: preload, includes, eager_load, and joins. includes will do separate queries unless your query is specifying tables and columns explicitly in it, in which case it uses a left outer join. I believe I read in a Rails github issue which I have now lost track of that in Rails 3, this behavior scans your conditions for a ‘.’ character, even if it is against your primary table. We have to be explicit in some of our scopes because they may or may not be used while joining with other tables that have the same column names.


preload always does separate queries, joins always does inner joins, and eager_load always does outer joins. Nothing against the Rails team but the tradeoffs and semantics inherant in these different strategies are in no way communicated via their method names. They sound like aliases.

In our particular case, our wholesale conversion from :include to includes(), especially when applied to rather lengthy scope chains via search caused a huge hit in query performance. Many of these cases could be returned to their previous speed by preferring to use preload instead of includes. This will obviously vary case by case but if your usage of ActiveRecord scopes is not well optimized for left outer joins (which can have pretty poor performance characteristics), be aware of your options and note that while it seems like includes() is equivalent to :include, that is not quite the case.