ProtectA few days ago Chad Fowler ran the following quick quiz on Twitter:

Ruby quiz: in 140 chrs or less, why doesn't this work: class Y; def a;
self.x end; private; def x; puts "hi" end end; Y.new.a

Here is the formatted version:

```ruby class Y def a self.x end private def x puts “hi” end end

Y.new.a```

Running this produces the following error:

a.rb:3:in `a': private method `x' called for #<Y:0x7f819a82d548> (NoMethodError)
    from a.rb:11

I wasn’t immediately able to figure out what was wrong with this code and since access control is one of those fundamental things that you should know, if you want to be a decent Ruby developer, I decided to dig a little further to figure it out. Here is the scoop.

Private, Protected and Public – Ruby Method Visibility

The concept of private, protected and public methods in Ruby is somewhat different than it is in languages like Java (well, not so much public, that’s very similar :)). In Java if a method is declared private, it can only be accessed from other methods in the same class. When a method is declared protected it can be accessed by other classes in the same package as well as by subclasses of its class in a different package. When a method is public it is – of course – always visible to everyone. So, in essence with Java, these keywords protect the various members from access by classes, depending on where these classes are in the inheritance/package hierarchy.

In Ruby, the inheritance hierarchy or the package/module don’t really enter into the equation, it is rather all about which object is the receiver of a particular method call. When a method is declared private in Ruby, it means this method can never be called with an explicit receiver. Any time we’re able to call a private method with an implicit receiver it will always succeed. This means we can call a private method from within a class it is declared in as well as all subclasses of this class e.g.

```ruby class A def main_method method1 end

private def method1 puts “hello from #{self.class}” end end

class B < A def main_method method1 end end

A.new.main_method B.new.main_method```

[email protected]:~/tmp$ ruby a.rb
hello from A
hello from B

However, as soon as we try to use an explicit receiver, even if the receiver is “self”, the method call will fail e.g.

```ruby class C < A def main_method self.method1 end end

C.new.main_method```

[email protected]:~/tmp$ ruby a.rb
a.rb:36:in `main_method': private method `method1' called for #<C:0x7f67025a0648> (NoMethodError)
    from a.rb:40

Do you recognise the error? This was the answer to the quiz that Chad ran. We were trying to call a private method with an explicit receiver and even though we were doing it from within the class where our private method was defined, it would still fail for that reason. And of course, since you can’t call a private method with an explicit receiver, you can never call it from outside the class hierarchy where it was defined.

Protected methods are also a little different. You can always call a protected method with an implicit receiver, just like private, but in addition you can call a protected method with an explicit receiver as long as this receiver is self or an object of the same class as self. Let’s modify our example above and make the method protected:

```ruby class A def main_method method1 end

protected def method1 puts “hello from #{self.class}” end end

class B < A def main_method method1 end end

class C < A def main_method self.method1 end end```

[email protected]:~/tmp$ ruby a.rb
hello from A
hello from B
hello from C

Now, the call with the implicit receiver in class B succeeds (as before) but the call with the explicit receiver in class C also succeeds (unlike when method1 was private). Furthermore, doing the following is also fine:

```ruby class D < A def main_method B.new.method1 end end

D.new.main_method```

[email protected]:~/tmp$ ruby a.rb
hello from B

Everything works because B.new is the same type of object as self and so the call to method1 succeeds. If however we make class D NOT inherit from A, we get the following:

```ruby class D def main_method B.new.method1 end end

D.new.main_method```

[email protected]:~/tmp$ ruby a.rb
a.rb:39:in `main_method': protected method `method1' called for #<B:0x7fe81d00efa8> (NoMethodError)
    from a.rb:46

In this case B.new is no longer the same type of object as self and so trying to call a protected method with B.new as the receiver – fails. So, I guess the inheritance hierarchy does actually play a role when it comes to access control in Ruby, it’s just not as big a role as it is in a language like Java.

Public methods are – of course – accessible with any kind of explicit or implicit receiver from anywhere (as the name implies).

It Is All Just A Guideline Anyway

Invisible

What if we don’t want to obey these access rules? For example, what if I want to test my private method? This is reasonably easy to do in Ruby, you simply need to “call” your private method using “send” (I will cover the use of “send” in more detail in a subsequent post I am planning to do, on passing methods as arguments in Ruby). For example, let’s modify our original example as follows:

```ruby class A private def method1 puts “hello from #{self.class}” end end

A.new.send(:method1)```

[email protected]:~/tmp$ ruby a.rb
hello from A

That was just way too easy! It works fine in both Ruby 1.8 and 1.9, it was supposed to disappear in 1.9 but it hasn’t yet. However even if it does, we can always simply define a public method on the object in question which delegates to the private one or redefine our private methods as public and then change them back again when we’re done.

Testing private methods is often frowned upon since we’re breaking encapsulation and not testing through the interface. However, I do believe that sometimes, it simply makes sense to test private method separately, especially if they are used by multiple public methods. You can then simply mock out the private method when testing the public API rather than having to indirectly test its functionality over and over again. I think it makes for a better and more terse set of tests, which I think is smarter in a TDD context.

It is worth mentioning that in the Java world, this practice (testing private methods) is frowned upon much more strongly. I believe this attitude is more to do with refactoring support than with anything else. It is possible to invoke private methods in Java from outside the class. But, aside from the fact that this is much more labour intensive than in Ruby, the fact that you have to use reflection means you give up the refactoring support that Java IDEs provide. This is a big deal in Java, since it has excellent refactoring tools (being a strongly typed language). In Ruby it is not really much of an issue since refactoring support is minimal and arguably not as necessary due to the dynamic nature of the language.

Well, I hope this post has helped to clarify how access control works in Ruby as well as giving a bit more of an insight into the inner workings of the language. Until next time.

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