How to Make an API for a Rails App

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I've come across the same problem in my personal projects and also at work. You have an existing Rails app that has some authentication and authorization scheme to protect who has access to your controllers, but now you need to write an API that can access those controllers. How do you keep the same authentication routine for your API users?

The are two approaches I've seen used. One is based on using HTTP AuthBasic, and the other is to generate a unique API key for API users.

Option 1: HTTP Basic Auth

I learned this snippet from working with Mike. Rails 2.x support HTTP Basic Auth out of the box. For our app, we check the request format and only do basic auth if the format is xml.

class ApplicationController < ActionController::Base
  def http_basic_authentication
    if request.format == Mime::XML
      authenticate_or_request_with_http_basic do |username, password|
        username == 'foo' && password == 'bar'

Then for controllers that allow API access, we simply add a before filter.

class OrangesController < ActionController::Base
  before_filter :http_basic_authentication, :only => :create

  def create
    # do stuff

Then to create an Orange via the API, we could do:

# we expect an XML response, so we suffix url with 'xml'
# optionally, we can also add 'foo:bar@' before the domain name.
url = URI.parse("")

req =
req.basic_auth 'foo', 'bar'

req.set_form_data({'size' => 'large', 'juicy' => '1'})
http =, url.port)
response = http.start {|http| http.request(req) }

(Note: Beware of ssl, remember to set http.use_ssl = true)

Options 2: Using API key

I didn't know about HTTP Basic Auth when I was writing my Money app, so I took a little time to fully understand how Rail's ActionController::Filters work. The documentation is clear and the source is straightforward to understand.

For API authentication, I decided to write my own custom filter object and put it in lib/api_authorized_filter.rb

# Use this filter as an around_filter around actions that can be
# accessed via the API.
# Example:
#   class ItemsController < ApplicationController
#     prepend_around_filter, :only => [:create]
#   end
class ApiAuthorizedFilter
  def before(controller)
    return true unless controller.params[:api_key]
    controller.current_user = User.find_by_api_key(controller.params[:api_key]))

  def after(controller)
    controller.current_user = nil

ApiAuthorizedFilter is put at the very beginning of the filter chain with prepend_around_filter, before any normal authentication before_filters. When it's called, the before method is invoked with the current controller, and the filter 'logins' an API User if the api_key is valid. When my normal authentication filters run, they won't halt because it'll seem like there is a logged in user. Finally, when the action is finished running, the after method will log out the API User to prevent a User from staying logged in. This last step is optional, but I think it's better to only let API Users authenticate every time they need something.

In order to use this Filter, you'll have to add an 'api_key' column to your User model, and also tweak the before and after code to login and logout the user.

Which one should I use?

I personally like the latter because the api key gives me another way to reference a logged in user. Since the api key is independent of a user's login and password, it's also easier to replace the key without resetting the user's web credentials. Of course, you can make both methods work the same way, so it's really a matter of personal taste.

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