Usage of TimeWithZone - An Under-Appreciated Notion

2008-02-07 19:00:00 -0500

Over at Ryan’s Scraps, in a post about the new TimeWithZone functionality in edge Rails, there are a pair of comments that I want to highlight. A fella named Ben asks “Couldn’t this be pushed deeper so that current_user.registered_at is a TimeWithZone?”

Then there’s a response from the main guy who developed the TimeWithZone functionality, Geoff Buesig, in regards to how they intend it to be used (and with a bunch of other neat and helpful notes that you should check out):

1.TimeWithZone is similar to the Duration class, in that, you should never need to create an instance directly—in the TWZ case, you’ve got the #in_time_zone, #in_current_time_zone, #change_time_zone and #change_time_zone_to_current methods on Time and DateTime instances that will handle that for you.

So, for example, you can do this:


… and the result will automatically be wrapped in a TimeWithZone

What Ben is asking for, and what Geoff seems to be distancing himself from, is exactly what we here at Zetetic would find incredibly useful: the ability to harness our database backend’s time zone support, PostgreSQL’s ‘timestamp with time zone’.

Here’s the deal. PingMe was designed for users around the globe so it supports time zones. We set it up so that all timestamps (:datetime) were stored in UTC in the database, and converted to the user’s local time on display. We also convert from the user’s local time on datetime input. Nothing fancy or unexpected there, really. And hey, the tzinfo gem supports DST, so we’re good, right?

Well, PingMe is a scheduling system. It has a scheduler daemon that’s constantly checking to see which pings need to be sent out, then it creates outbound events for the dispatcher daemons to deliver. Never mind the terminology, the important thing here is that it’s working in UTC. And that Rails is storing the timestamps in Postgres’ default TIMESTAMP WITHOUT TIME ZONE data type. Here’s an illustrative query:

def lock_a_block(type_name)
before = (

UPDATE events SET dispatcher = '#{@name}'
(( events e INNER JOIN targets t ON e.target_id = )
INNER JOIN pings p ON e.ping_id =
INNER JOIN target_types tt ON t.target_type_id =
tt.const = '#{type_name}'
(e.dt_when < '#{before}' AND e.status = '#{Event::STATUS_PENDING}')
(e.retry_at < '#{before}' AND e.status = '#{Event::STATUS_RETRY}')
AND e.dispatcher IS NULL
AND t.activated_at IS NOT NULL
AND (p.is_done = 'f' OR p.is_done IS NULL)
AND (p.deleted_at IS NULL)
e.dt_when ASC
LIMIT #{@block_size}

So the app is providing a UTC timestamp for the before variable, and the timestamps are in UTC in the database. What happens when DST begins or ends? Nothing changes. Everything is sent at the set time, for UTC. So a ping set for 5pm EST was stored at 12:00 UTC, and when 5pm shifts an hour for EDT, that ping is still stored at 12:00 UTC and will be sent either an hour early or an hour late, depending on the circumstance.

The only way we could break this up to work off the time zone setting on the user model is to execute separate queries for all of our users all the time joining against their timezone. Ridiculous! And following Geoff’s notion of things above, it’s just not a clean solution — storing the ping’s time without the time zone is decidedly inaccurate. I hate to say it.

I think the best solution is not to store in UTC here, but to store as a timestamp with time zone. I realize that sounds like an impure solution, but it’s not: PostgreSQL actually stores the data in UTC and can do all sorts of magical conversions for us. We could still use the code above and work in proper UTC, but any DST on the timezone would be respected:

WHERE ... e.dt_when AT TIME ZONE 'UTC' < '#{before}'

And that is why I hope Geoff changes his mind, because we do need TimeWithZone as a data type in Rails, or perhaps a col definition that will provide a TimeWithZone instead of Time objects:

col.datetime :col_name, :with_time_zone => true

As an aside, we don’t leave PingMe users to hang when DST rolls around, we update the relevant time stamps via SQL. But I would like to get us to a better solution. Being able to store TimeWithZone would do just the thing.

Using PingMe With Twitter

2008-01-06 19:00:00 -0500

We’re big Twitter fans, and for quite some time we’ve wanted to allow PingMe users to interact with our service through Twitter. A number of folks have asked for it and, selfishly, we also wanted this capability for ourselves. Now, if you’re a twittaholic, you can access all mobile PingMe functionality straight through the service you know and love.

On a side note, this feature also introduces an alternate way to use SMS messages with PingMe. Previously, in order to send and receive SMS messages with our users (in a cost-efficient way) PingMe would send reminders through a provider’s sms-to-email gateways. These gateway’s are provided by most (but unfortunately not all) cell carriers, and some people pay an extra fee for the capability. Now that we’ve added support Twitter, you can use their service as a universal transport for SMS or even Instant Messaging.

In this post I’ll step you through the process of using PingMe with Twitter. Various details about how messages to create and update pings in this way are covered in older articles and our help section, so I’m going to stick to just the bits pertinent to Twitter.

To get started I’ll assume you already have a Twitter account, and are logged in to their web site. To be able to send get messages from PingMe on twitter, you have to “follow” the PingMe twitter account, ‘gpm’, like so:

Follow gpm on Twitter

Now that you’ve got your twitter account set up, log in to PingMe and click that “Add target” link under the Targets listing on the right side of the page. There’s not much to do but select ‘Twitter’ from the type drop-down and then enter your username on twitter:

Create Twitter Target

Note that if you skipped the first step, where you follow gpm on Twitter, you’ll get an error in that last step.

Now that you’ve got a Twitter target for your account, you can have your pings sent there just like any other target:

Select Twitter Target

So let’s try creating a ping from Twitter. We’ll use the web interface for our example, but keep in mind that you can do this in all the ways you interact with Twitter – including from your phone or IM. What we are doing is sending a direct message to gpm (‘d gpm …’) that contains a create-ping instruction.

Create Twitter Ping

The syntax is very similar to the format we use for creating remote pings from e-mail and SMS. The ‘5h’ tells ping me “five hours”, the “p:10” tells us to pester you every ten minutes until you respond with ‘done’, and the ‘t:t’ tells us that you want this ping sent to your Twitter targets (click here for info on setting default targets). The only new trick here is the addition of the ‘+’ sign. Since Twitter is conversational, we have to have a way of distinguishing your create messages from your updates, so after the direct message bit, you begin your ping creation with a plus sign.

Updates, as you might have expected, are simpler. The only caveat is that we don’t necessarily know which ping you are trying to update, so we assume it is the most recent one sent to you. You can send an update like this:

Update Twitter Ping

That message will update the most recent ping sent to you to be sent again in 30 minutes.

Updating PingMe's Scheduling System

2008-01-06 19:00:00 -0500

Over the last few months we’ve put a lot of work into PingMe‘s scheduling system because it was necessary if we wanted to expand the service and make it more reliable. Before I get into what we are doing differently I’ll take a moment to describe the previous situation and our setup.

PingMe has a number of daemons – independent processes that are always running, scheduling pings, sending them out, and processing messages that you send to the service. These daemons are implemented in Ruby using Ruby On Rails. This allows them to be tightly coupled with the PingMe web application – the daemon processes and the webapp operate with the same model, which helps us keep the code pretty clean.

The ones of most concern are the dispatchers, the daemons who’s job it was to check for new pings to deliver, and then reschedule them for the next delivery (if necessary). Getting the concurrency right was rather tricky and involved some real nerding out in Postgres (our database engine of choice). Basically, the dispatchers had to do what’s called mutex locking in order to guarantee that different dispatchers would try to send out the same message. The locking code is a neat trick, btw, and it’s still in use, it’s served us well:

def acquire_mutex

Different database engines have different facilities for this sort of thing, but basically doing this within a transaction caused the other dispatchers to wait until the lock was released. What were they waiting for? A chance to grab a block of pings to dispatch.

Now the rescheduling of pings, and the scheduling of pings was honestly a not very clean thing to begin with. We had callbacks on the Ping model that would create the actual instances of an outbound message for delivery (we called these Events), and then the dispatchers would need to block those callbacks in certain situations to cause a reschedule. It worked, I don’t want to get into the details of it, but it had one particular problem:

Events are an instance of a Ping associated with a Target for delivery. The one dispatcher we were running would do it’s selection of events to deliver based on target-types. Once we created the new Twitter target type and added a new dispatcher that only handled that one target type (this was all in our dev environment), the daemon would conflict with the other dispatcher. Which ever daemon picked up a ping first for it’s target type and then marked the ping as done was basically preventing the other daemon for processing the ping for its other targets.

The solution was to implement a new daemon, that we called Scheduler, and to move all the rescheduling code into this one serial process. Once we stripped all that out of the Ping model and the dispatcher code, we had a much leaner and faster system. We can now run as many dispatchers as our memory allows and configure them to handle various target types.

Making Rails Logs More Useful

2007-11-07 19:00:00 -0500

Here at Zetetic we do a lot of logging, and a lot of looking at logs. In particular, we have a couple of daemon processes implemented in Rails for PingMe that handle our message queueing and parsing of incoming messages (when you reply to your pings or create new ones by remote). If you have any experience with message queueing systems, you’ll recall that these are not easy things to maintain, and require access to really good diagnostics. And if you are familiar with Rails you’ll recall that there are no time-stamps prepended to the log messages, making it very difficult sometimes to track down what happened when.

I did a quick bit of poking around and came across this fantastic article with a number of tips in terms of logging. Their solution for the issue of formatting the messages (so that you can have timestamps) is to subclass Logger, and instantiate that.

However, we have our own Loggers all over the place, in our daemons, they use the Logger class which has been patched by Rails to have that timestamp-less format. What we do from there is replace the Rails logger instance with our own (there are a few reasons for this, having to do with forking processes, resources, and the nature of daemons that I don’t want to get into), which works beautifully:

logger ="#{config[:log_dir]}/#{config[:name]}.log", 'daily')
unless config[:log_level].blank?
logger.level = Logger.const_get(config[:log_level])
rescue StandardError => e
logger.level = Logger::INFO
logger.error "An exception occurred while setting log level to #{config[:log_level]}, setting to INFO. Exception: #{e.message}"
logger.level = Logger::INFO
end "Initialized log @ #{} with log_level #{logger.level.to_s}" "Starting up Dispatcher #{config[:name]}..."

# over-ride the active record logger (which would be closed now)
ActiveRecord::Base.logger = logger
ActionMailer::Base.logger = logger

I really don’t feel like subclassing Logger, I just want to adjust the default behavior, since we’re using the same loggers everywhere. So I opened up config/environment.rb, and at the bottom of it, added this:

# re-patch logger to restore format patched out by Rails
class Logger
def format_message(severity, timestamp, program, message)
"#{timestamp.to_formatted_s(:db)} #{program}: [#{severity}] #{message}\n"

Works fantastic! Thanks to Maintainable Software for their post.

Social Networking with Rails using acts_as_network

2007-09-20 20:00:00 -0400

Update 25-APR-2008: This plugin has been updated for Rails 2.0. Update 06-JUN-2008: This plugin now includes acts_as_union, and we moved the repository to GitHub.

When we started integrating simple social networking features into PingMe we wanted to easily represent a bi-directional relationship between users in the system. When a user signs up for PingMe they can invite another user to join them. Once an invite is accepted, the users become mutual friends, or contacts in PingMe parlance, and can send Pings to each other.

Most importantly, we wanted the relationship to be bidirectional -when Jack is a friend of Jane then Jane should alsobe a friend of Jack.

Unfortunately we quickly realized that thismodel was not going to be so easy. The usual way of representing this type of network relationship using ActiveRecord is with an intermediate HABTM join, or with a self-referential has_many :through association. For example one might define a simple person model and then a join table tostore the friendship relation:

create_table :people, :force => true do |t|
  t.column :name, :string
  create_table :friends, {:id => false} do |t|
  t.column :person_id, :integer, :null => false
  t.column :person_id_friend, :integer, :null => false      # target of the relationship

The problem is that this model requires two rows in the intermediate table to make a relationship bi-directional.

jane = Person.create(:name => 'Jane')
jack = Person.create(:name => 'Jack')
jane.friends << jack
jane.friends.include?(jack)    =>  true   # Jack is Janes friend
jack.friends.include?(jane)    =>  false  # Jane is NOT Jack's friend

In short, you must explicitly define the reverse relation in order for this to work.

jack.friends << jane
jack.friends.include?(jane)    =>  true  # now they're buds

This can be implemented in a fairly DRY way using association callbacks as documented in Rails Recipes, but things start to get ugly when you want to express the relationship through a "proper" join model (like for an Invite) using has_many :through.

create_table :invites do |t|
  t.column :person_id, :integer, :null => false           # source of the relationship
  t.column :person_id_friend, :integer, :null => false    #  target of the relationship
  t.column :code, :string                                 # random invitation code
  t.column :message, :text                                # invitation message
  t.column :is_accepted, :boolean
  t.column :accepted_at, :timestamp                       # when did they accept?

In this case creating a reverse relationship is much more complex and could require the duplication of multiple values, making the data model decidedly non-DRY.

Enter acts_as_network

acts_as_network is a plugin that we developed for PingMe to resolve some of these issues. It drives the social networking features of the site. It'sintended to simplify the definition and storage of reciprocal relationships between entities using ActiveRecord by exposing a "network" of 2-wayconnections.

What makes it special is that it does this in a DRY way using only a single record in an intermediate has_and_belongs_to_many join table or has_many :through join model. There is no redundancy, and you need only one instance of an association or join model to represent both directions of the relationship. Consider this more desirable implementation:

class Invite <ActiveRecord>::Base
  belongs_to :person                    # the source of the invite
  belongs_to :person_target,            # the target of the invite
  :class_name => 'Person',
  :foreign_key => 'person_id_target'

class Person <ActiveRecord>::Base
  acts_as_network :friends, :through => :invites, :conditions => ["is_accepted = ?", true]

In this case acts_as_network implicitly defines five new properties on the Person model

person.invites_out        # has_many invites originating from me to others
person.invites_in         # has_many invites originating from others to me
person.friends_out        # has_many friends :through outbound accepted invites from me to others
person.friends_in         # has_many friends :through inbound accepted invites from others to me
person.friends            # the union of the two friend sets
- all people who I have invited all the people who have invited me and
# Jane invites Jack to be friends
invite = Invite.create(:person => jane, :person_target => jack, :message => "let's be friends!")
jane.friends.include?(jack)    =>  false   # Jack is not yet Jane's friend
jack.friends.include?(jane)    =>  false   # Jane is not yet Jack's friend either

invite.is_accepted = true  # Now Jack accepts the invite and jane.reload and jack.reload

jane.friends.include?(jack)    =>  true   # Jack is Janes friend now
jack.friends.include?(jane)    =>  true   # Jane is also Jacks friend

So much cleaner!

Most of this magic is actually accomplished with a UnionCollection class that provides useful application-space functionalityfor emulating set unions across ActiveRecord collections. Once initialized, the UnionCollection itself will act as an array containing all of the records from each of its member sets, but its more interesting feature is that it will intelligently forward ActiveRecord method calls likefind, find_all_by_*, etc. to its member sets.

Check it out

Further documentation is available online, and you can easily install acts_as_network as a plugin to try it out:

% script/plugin install git://
% rake doc:plugins

Please check it out and let us know what you think.

Zetetic is the creator of the super-flexible Tempo Time Tracking system.