Building the Perfect Rails 5 API Only App

Kam Low

This how-to guide aims to help you get started the right way using Rails 5 to build the perfect API. Thanks to the new rails-api gem that ships as part of the Rails 5 core, Rails is now an ideal candidate for building streamlined APIs quickly and easily.

Until now, arguably the best option for creating APIs in Ruby has been Grape, and while Grape is still a brilliant option (especially if you like to DIY), there are some great advantages to using Rails 5 in API mode, such as; ActiveRecord by default, a strong developer community, and having the asset pipeline and front end features available should you need them as your project evolves.

Installing Rails 5

First, make sure you are running Ruby 2.2.2+ or newer as it’s required by Rails 5, then go ahead an install the Rails gem:

gem install rails

# version should be >= Rails 5.0.0
rails --version

According to the official Rails guide all we need to do to create an API only Rails app is to pass the --api option at the command line when creating a new Rails app, like so:

rails new api_app_name --api

The next thing is to run bundle and rake inside our app directory to install the default gems and setup the database:

cd  <parent-folder-path>/api_app_name
bundle install
bin/rake db:setup

Now we have a shiny new API only Rails app without any of the incumbent front end bloat, and all of the inherent Railsy goodness. Nice!

Using RSpec for Testing

Before going any further let’s setup RSpec for spec testing our application. The reason why it’s good to setup RSpec first is that we can save a bit of time using the built-in RSpec generators to auto generate default model and controller specs for us each time we use rails generate scaffold to generate resources later on. To install RSpec, go ahead and add the rspec-rails gem to your Gemfile in the :development, :test group:

group :development, :test do

  # Use RSpec for specs
  gem 'rspec-rails', '>= 3.5.0'

  # Use Factory Girl for generating random test data
  gem 'factory_girl_rails'

Update your bundle:


Run the RSpec installer:

bin/rails g rspec:install  

Finally, you can get rid of the test directory in Rails, since we won’t be writing unit tests, but writing specifications instead.

Bulding Your API

Lets start building out our API controllers.

When an app is created with the --api flag you can use the default scaffold generators to generate your API resources as normal, without the need for any special arguments.

bin/rails g scaffold user name email

This will generate the following file structure:

      invoke  active_record
   identical    db/migrate/20151222022044_create_users.rb
   identical    app/models/user.rb
      invoke    rspec
      create      spec/models/user_spec.rb
      invoke      factory_girl
      create        spec/factories/users.rb
      invoke  resource_route
       route    resources :users
      invoke  scaffold_controller
   identical    app/controllers/users_controller.rb
      invoke    rspec
      create      spec/controllers/users_controller_spec.rb
      create      spec/routing/users_routing_spec.rb
      invoke      rspec
      create        spec/requests/users_spec.rb

Note that no views are created since we are running in API mode.

Go ahead and repeat the process with as many resources as you like, and once you’re done you can migrate and run the app:

bin/rake db:migrate

# run the default server on port 3000
bin/rails s

Your new API is now up and running on http://localhost:3000. Sweet!

You’re not done yet though, there are still a bunch of important points for consideration…

Serializing API Output

In it’s current state our app will just spit out a JSON representation of every column in the database so we need a way to control what data gets served through the API.

Normally we would use a front end templating engine such as jbuilder for this purpose, but since we’re not using views in our super streamlined API app, that’s not going to be an option.

Fortunately AMS (Active Model Serializers) is here to save the day. AMS provides a clean layer between the model and the controller that lets us to call to_json or as_json on the ActiveRecord object or collection as normal, while outputing our desired API format.

Go ahead and add the active_model_serializers gem to your Gemfile:

gem 'active_model_serializers'

Update your bundle:


Now lets create a default serializer for our User model:

rails g serializer user

In app/serializers/user_serializer.rb, we find this code:

class UserSerializer < ActiveModel::Serializer
  attributes :id

Note that only the :id attribute is added by default. That’s not going to be much use to us, so go ahead and add the :name and :email attributes to the serializer:

class UserSerializer < ActiveModel::Serializer
  attributes :id, :name, :email

If your model has relationships just declare them on the serializer as you would any other attributes to be serialized in the output.

You may also need to include the ActionController::Serialization dependency in your controller like so:

class ApplicationController < ActionController::API
  include ActionController::Serialization

  # ...

Now when you hit and User related API endpoint only the attributes in the UserSerializer will be rendered. Nice!

Check the active_model_serializers gem homepage for more detailed configuration options.

Enabling CORS

If you’re building a public API you’ll probably want to enable Cross-Origin Resource Sharing (CORS), in order to make cross-origin AJAX requests possible.

This is made very simple by the rack-cors gem. Just stick it in your Gemfile like so:

gem 'rack-cors'

Update your bundle:


And put something like the code below in config/application.rb of your Rails application. For example, this will allow GET, POST or OPTIONS requests from any origin on any resource.

module YourApp
  class Application < Rails::Application

    # ...

    config.middleware.insert_before 0, "Rack::Cors" do
      allow do
        origins '*'
        resource '*', :headers => :any, :methods => [:get, :post, :options]


For more detailed configuration options please see the gem documentation:

Versioning Your API

Before releasing your public API into the wild, you should consider implementing some form of versioning. Versioning breaks your API up into multiple version namespaces, such as v1 and v2, so that you can maintain backwards compatibility for existing clients whenever you introduce breaking changes into your API, simply by incrementing your API version.

This guide will show you how to setup versioning with the following URL format:


Using a subdomain instead of something like /api/v1/users/ is just a preference, although both are easy to accomplish in Rails.

We can use a directory structure like this to keep our controller code clean by defining all our v1 controllers within the Api::V1 namespace:

|-- api
|   `-- v1
|       |-- api_controller.rb
|       `-- users_controller.rb
|-- application_controller.rb

Here’s what the controllers look like:

# app/controllers/api/v1/api_controller.rb

module Api::V1
  class ApiController < ApplicationController
    # Generic API stuff here
# app/controllers/api/v1/users_controller.rb

module Api::V1
  class UsersController < ApiController

    # GET /v1/users
    def index
      render json: User.all


Now let’s setup our config/routes.rb to tie everything together:

constraints subdomain: 'api' do
  scope module: 'api' do
    namespace :v1 do
      resources :users

The scope module: 'api' bit lets us route to controllers in the API module without explicitly including it in the URL. However, the version v1/ is part of the URL, and we also want to route to the V1 module, so we use namespace.

Now you’re API routes are looking pretty sharp!

Rate Limiting and Throttling

To protect our API from DDoS, brute force attacks, hammering, or even to monetize with paid usage limits, we can use a Rake middleware called Rack::Attack. The rack-attack gem was released by Kickstarter, and it allows us to:

  • whitelist: Allowing it to process normally if certain conditions are true
  • blacklist: Sending a denied message instantly for certain requests
  • throttle: Checking if the user is within their allowed usage
  • track: Tracking this request to be able to log certain information about our requests

Get started by adding the dependency to your Gemfile:

gem 'rack-attack'

Update your bundle:


Now update your config/application.rb file to include it into your middleware stack:

module YourApp
  class Application < Rails::Application

    # ...

    config.middleware.use Rack::Attack


Create a new initializer file in config/initializers/rack_attack.rb to configure your Rack::Attack rules. The example below is very basic, and it should give a good starting point although you may have different requirements altogether.

class Rack::Attack

  # `Rack::Attack` is configured to use the `Rails.cache` value by default,
  # but you can override that by setting the `` value =

  # Allow all local traffic
  whitelist('allow-localhost') do |req|
    '' == req.ip || '::1' == req.ip

  # Allow an IP address to make 5 requests every 5 seconds
  throttle('req/ip', limit: 5, period: 5) do |req|

  # Send the following response to throttled clients
  self.throttled_response = ->(env) {
    retry_after = (env['rack.attack.match_data'] || {})[:period]
      {'Content-Type' => 'application/json', 'Retry-After' => retry_after.to_s},
      [{error: "Throttle limit reached. Retry later."}.to_json]

For a full list of configuration options check the Rack::Attack gem homepage.

Now that your API is safe from brute force attacks and bad client code you can sleep a little better at night!

Authenticating Your API

Let’s lock our API down with some authentication.

As a rule API’s should be stateless, and therefore should not have any knowledge of cookies or sessions.

If you require sessions then you should be looking at implementing some form of OAuth based authentication, but that won’t be covered in this guide.

A good way of authenticating API requests is using HTTP token based authentication, which involves clients including a API key of some sort in the HTTP Authorization header of each request, like so:

Authorization: Token token="WCZZYjnOQFUYfJIN2ShH1iD24UHo58A6TI"

First let’s update create a migration to add the api_key attribute to our User model:

rails g migration AddApiKeyToUsers api_key:string

Now update the User model to include the following methods:

class User < ActiveRecord::Base

  # Assign an API key on create
  before_create do |user|
    user.api_key = user.generate_api_key

  # Generate a unique API key
  def generate_api_key
    loop do
      token ='+/=', 'Qrt')
      break token unless User.exists?(api_key: token)

On the controller side we can implement the authentication using the built in authenticate_or_request_with_http_token Rails method.

class ApplicationController < ActionController::Base
  include ActionController::HttpAuthentication::Token::ControllerMethods

  # Add a before_action to authenticate all requests.
  # Move this to subclassed controllers if you only
  # want to authenticate certain methods.
  before_action :authenticate


  # Authenticate the user with token based authentication
  def authenticate
    authenticate_token || render_unauthorized

  def authenticate_token
    authenticate_with_http_token do |token, options|
      @current_user = User.find_by(api_key: token)

  def render_unauthorized(realm = "Application")
    self.headers["WWW-Authenticate"] = %(Token realm="#{realm.gsub(/"/, "")}")
    render json: 'Bad credentials', status: :unauthorized

Now we can test our authenticated API using curl:

curl -H "Authorization: Token token=PsmmvKBqQDOaWwEsPpOCYMsy" http://localhost:3000/users


Now you have the keys to the castle, and all the basics for building an API the Rails way.

Hopefully then guide was helpful for you, and if you want any points clarified or just want to say thanks then feel free to use the comments below.

Cheers, and happy coding!

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