Elixir, Phoenix Framework and Datatables

I built an administrative tool for my company that used Phoenix server side templating, bootstrap and datatables.js. This is not because I have an overwhelming preference for bootstrap or datatables.js. I just happened to find these first in the course of building the web app and they were able to solve my problem. Phoenix server-side templates are awesome, powerful and easy-to-use. I did have a bit of trouble with datatables so I figured I’d write up a brief blog post on how I got datatables to work with server-side paging.

The rundown on what is used for this project is :

  • Elixir “1.3.3”
  • Phoenix “1.2.1”
  • Ecto “2.1.3”

All of the code is on github.com at https://github.com/fmcgeough/datatables

Datatables has the ability to do server-side paging via AJAX calls. There is enough information on the web to be able to puzzle out how to do this but I didn’t see any Elixir/Phoenix examples so I figured I’d do a simple one in case someone else is looking for this information. Its comforting to find an implementation in your language of choice even though its not, strictly speaking, necessary.

We’ll start off creating a new Phoenix project :

▶ mix phoenix.new datatables
* creating datatables/config/config.exs
* creating datatables/config/dev.exs
* creating datatables/config/prod.exs
* creating datatables/config/prod.secret.exs
* creating datatables/config/test.exs
* creating datatables/lib/datatables.ex
* creating datatables/lib/datatables/endpoint.ex
* creating datatables/test/views/error_view_test.exs
* creating datatables/test/support/conn_case.ex
* creating datatables/test/support/channel_case.ex
* creating datatables/test/test_helper.exs
* creating datatables/web/channels/user_socket.ex
* creating datatables/web/router.ex
* creating datatables/web/views/error_view.ex
* creating datatables/web/web.ex
* creating datatables/mix.exs
* creating datatables/README.md
* creating datatables/web/gettext.ex
* creating datatables/priv/gettext/errors.pot
* creating datatables/priv/gettext/en/LC_MESSAGES/errors.po
* creating datatables/web/views/error_helpers.ex
* creating datatables/lib/datatables/repo.ex
* creating datatables/test/support/model_case.ex
* creating datatables/priv/repo/seeds.exs
* creating datatables/.gitignore
* creating datatables/brunch-config.js
* creating datatables/package.json
* creating datatables/web/static/css/app.css
* creating datatables/web/static/css/phoenix.css
* creating datatables/web/static/js/app.js
* creating datatables/web/static/js/socket.js
* creating datatables/web/static/assets/robots.txt
* creating datatables/web/static/assets/images/phoenix.png
* creating datatables/web/static/assets/favicon.ico
* creating datatables/test/controllers/page_controller_test.exs
* creating datatables/test/views/layout_view_test.exs
* creating datatables/test/views/page_view_test.exs
* creating datatables/web/controllers/page_controller.ex
* creating datatables/web/templates/layout/app.html.eex
* creating datatables/web/templates/page/index.html.eex
* creating datatables/web/views/layout_view.ex
* creating datatables/web/views/page_view.ex

Fetch and install dependencies? [Yn] Y
* running mix deps.get
* running npm install && node node_modules/brunch/bin/brunch build

We are all set! Run your Phoenix application:

    $ cd datatables
    $ mix phoenix.server

You can also run your app inside IEx (Interactive Elixir) as:

    $ iex -S mix phoenix.server

Before moving on, configure your database in config/dev.exs and run:

    $ mix ecto.create

In order to demonstrate server side paging it’s good to have a fairly large dataset. Luckily there are numerous sources of data that can be used. For this example I used zipcodes. I randomly choose one that I found when searching. Its available at https://github.com/devongovett/zipcode. The file consists of the following fields : zipcode, city, state_abbreviation. Not very interesting but its fine to demonstrate the idea.

Lets just create a migration for our table we’ll use for the zipcodes.

▶ mix ecto.gen.migration create_zips
* creating priv/repo/migrations
* creating priv/repo/migrations/20170212204915_create_zips.exs

This created the file 20170212204915_create_zips.exs but left it empty. You have to provide the information (in this case, creating a table). Edit the file to give :

defmodule Datatables.Repo.Migrations.CreateZips do
  use Ecto.Migration

  def change do
    create table(:zips) do
      add :zip_code,     :string
      add :city,    :string
      add :state,     :string



Migrations should provide a way to migrate and a way to rollback. The change method can be used in migrations if Ecto can puzzle out how to do a rollback. If you are doing something more complex than creating a table or index you’ll have to use the up and down methods instead of change. The down method allows you to code your own rollback.

We probably should have made zip_code unique but since we’re just using this table to demonstrate server-side paging I’ve left it as-is.

The schema object used for interacting with the database is simple.

defmodule Datatables.Zip do
  use Ecto.Schema

  schema "zips" do
    field :zip_code,  :string
    field :city,      :string
    field :state,     :string


I cloned the github repo containing the zip_codes.csv file (with no header) then fired up psql with :

psql datatables_dev
datatables_dev=# create table t(zipcode character varying, city character varying, state character varying);
datatables_dev=# COPY t FROM 'zip_codes.csv' WITH DELIMITER ',';
COPY 42741
datatables_dev=# insert into zips SELECT nextval('zips_id_seq'), t.zipcode, t.city, t.state, now(), now() FROM t;
INSERT 0 42741

So now the data is in the database table.

Since datatables relies on jquery we’ll have to update the package.json file to install jQuery and datatables. Modify the “devDependencies” section in package.json to include the following :

"jquery": "^3.1.1",
"datatables.net": "~1.10.12",
"datatables.net-bs": "~1.10.12",
"bootstrap": "~3.3",

And then run :

npm install

A couple of more infrastructure things and we’ll be ready to view the web page. In order to do paging we need to include the Ecto pagination library - Scrivener. We setup our Repo to use Scrivener with :

defmodule Datatables.Repo do
  use Ecto.Repo, otp_app: :datatables
  use Scrivener, page_size: 25

and we add :

{:scrivener_ecto, "~> 1.0"},

to our mix.exs and also add :scrivener_ecto to the set of applications in mix.exs.

Now we do :

▶ mix deps.get
Running dependency resolution...
Dependency resolution completed:
  scrivener 2.2.1
  scrivener_ecto 1.1.3
* Getting scrivener_ecto (Hex package)
  Checking package (https://repo.hex.pm/tarballs/scrivener_ecto-1.1.3.tar)
  Using locally cached package
* Getting scrivener (Hex package)
  Checking package (https://repo.hex.pm/tarballs/scrivener-2.2.1.tar)
  Using locally cached package

Now, before we go further lets see if this works in iex. We’ll try getting a page worth of data but sort it in descending order by city name.

▶ iex -S mix
Erlang/OTP 19 [erts-8.0.2] [source] [64-bit] [smp:8:8] [async-threads:10] [hipe] [kernel-poll:false] [dtrace]

Interactive Elixir (1.3.3) - press Ctrl+C to exit (type h() ENTER for help)
iex(1)> alias Datatables.Zip
iex(2)> import Ecto.Query
iex(3)> query = from z in Zip, order_by: [desc: z.city]
#Ecto.Query<from z in Datatables.Zip, order_by: [desc: z.city]>
iex(4)> results = Datatables.Repo.paginate(query)
[debug] QUERY OK db=400.8ms
SELECT count('1') FROM (SELECT z0."id" AS "id", z0."zip_code" AS "zip_code", z0."city" AS "city", z0."state" AS "state", z0."inserted_at" AS "inserted_at", z0."updated_at" AS "updated_at" FROM "zips" AS z0 ORDER BY z0."city" DESC) AS s0 []
[debug] QUERY OK source="zips" db=37.7ms decode=2.8ms
SELECT z0."id", z0."zip_code", z0."city", z0."state", z0."inserted_at", z0."updated_at" FROM "zips" AS z0 ORDER BY z0."city" DESC LIMIT $1 OFFSET $2 [25, 0]
%Scrivener.Page{entries: [%Datatables.Zip{__meta__: #Ecto.Schema.Metadata<:loaded, "zips">,
   city: "ZWOLLE", id: 31343, inserted_at: ~N[2017-02-13 13:51:48.185440],
   state: "LA", updated_at: ~N[2017-02-13 13:51:48.185440], zip_code: "71486"},
  %Datatables.Zip{__meta__: #Ecto.Schema.Metadata<:loaded, "zips">,

So, yep..it looks like it works. If you inspect the results variable (with “i results”) you’ll see the following information about it.

Data type
  This is a struct. Structs are maps with a __struct__ key.
Reference modules
  Scrivener.Page, Map

So, its a struct containing some paging information. It contains an entries element that contains the data that we asked for and various paging related elements. The paging elements in the struct are :

page_number: 1, page_size: 25, total_entries: 42741, total_pages: 1710

You can see that although we didn’t pass any information into the paginate call we received the 25 rows specified as a default on our Repo. By default you’ll get the first page of rows.

Let’s build a route and a controller now. Datatables.js server-side paging works by presenting a web page and then firing an API call to the server in order to get data to populate the table so we’ll need both a regular “/” (browser) scope and an “api” scope.

    scope "/", Datatables do
      pipe_through :browser # Use the default browser stack
      resources "/zips", ZipController, only: [:index]

      get "/", PageController, :index

    # Other scopes may use custom stacks.
    scope "/api", Datatables do
      pipe_through :api

      resources "/zips", ZipApiController, only: [:index]

Now lets create the controllers, the server-side template to get our initial page and the javascript that turns our table into a “datatable”.

The ZipController is incredibly simple. We’re not doing any heavy lifting in that code. Simply displaying the page.

    defmodule Datatables.ZipController do
      use Datatables.Web, :controller

      def index(conn, _params) do
        render(conn, "index.html")

The ZipApiController has the logic, such as it is. First, we need to consider that datatables.js is what is performing the AJAX request and its going to send parameters in that make sense to it. Its up to the server to interpret this data. For our purposes we’ll have to map these datatables parameters into data that can be understood by Scrivener. So lets write a simple module to help with parsing what datatables sends up :

    # Provide common code for parsing paging parameters
    defmodule Datatables.DatatablesParamParser do
      def build_paging_info(params) do
        page_size = calculate_page_size(params["length"])
        page_number = calculate_page_number(params["start"], page_size)
        search_term = params["search"]["value"]
        draw_number = increment_draw(params["draw"])
        {page_size, page_number, draw_number, search_term}

      defp increment_draw(value) when value == nil, do: 1
      defp increment_draw(value) do
        {draw_number, _} = Integer.parse(value)
        draw_number + 1

      defp calculate_page_number(nil, _), do: 1
      defp calculate_page_number(value, page_size) do
        {start_value, _} = Integer.parse(value)
        round((start_value / page_size) + 1)

      defp calculate_page_size(nil), do: 25
      defp calculate_page_size(value) do
        {page_size, _} = Integer.parse(value)

The datatables “draw_number” took a bit to figure out. Datatables wants that number to increment each time it gets data so it knows that it doesn’t overwrite new data with old data. The “search_term” in the parameters is the global search for datatables. We’re not going to provide individual search per column. We will just let the global search do a search across zip_code and city.

With this in place our ZipApiController becomes :

defmodule Datatables.ZipApiController do
  use Datatables.Web, :controller
  alias Datatables.Zip
  alias Datatables.DatatablesParamParser

  def index(conn, params) do
    {page_size, page_number, draw_number, search_term} = DatatablesParamParser.build_paging_info(params)
    zips = retrieve_zips(page_size, page_number, search_term)
    render(conn, :index,
           zips: zips,
           page_number: page_number,
           draw_number: draw_number)

  defp retrieve_zips(page_size, page_number, search_term) do
    query = from z in Zip,
    select: struct(z, [:zip_code, :city, :state ])
    query = add_filter(query, search_term)
    Datatables.Repo.paginate(query, page: page_number, page_size: page_size)

  defp add_filter(query, search_term) when search_term == nil or search_term == "", do: query
  defp add_filter(query, original_search_term) do
    search_term = "#{original_search_term}%"
    from z in query,
    where: like(z.zip_code, ^search_term) or like(z.city, ^search_term)

When the render call is done Phoenix will use the View associated with this route : Datatables.ZipApiView. This module needs to implement an index function that will render the JSON returned to the client.

defmodule Datatables.ZipApiView do
  use Datatables.Web, :view

  def render("index.json", %{zips: zips, draw_number: draw_number}) do
    %{ recordsTotal:  zips.total_entries,
       draw: draw_number,
       recordsFiltered: zips.total_entries,
       data: Enum.map(zips, &zip_json/1)

  def zip_json(zip) do
      zip_code: zip.zip_code,
      city: zip.city,
      state: zip.state

Notice that we’re setting the recordsTotal, recordsFiltered, and draw JSON elements. Those are all required by datatables.js. The data element needs to contain the data used to populate the table.

Now, all we need is the javascript to tie this altogether. For the javascript I used a technique that I found on a great blog post at https://blog.diacode.com/page-specific-javascript-in-phoenix-framework-pt-1. It describes how to do page specific javascript. Not actually needed for this simple project but I like the idea so much that I’ll use it here too.

We’ll first modify our LayoutView as described in the blog post above with :

defmodule Datatables.LayoutView do
  use Datatables.Web, :view

  @doc """
  Generates name for the JavaScript view we want to use
  in this combination of view/template.
  def js_view_name(conn, view_template) do
    [view_name(conn), template_name(view_template)]
    |> Enum.reverse
    |> List.insert_at(0, "view")
    |> Enum.map(&String.capitalize/1)
    |> Enum.reverse
    |> Enum.join("")

  # Takes the resource name of the view module and removes the
  # the ending *_view* string.
  defp view_name(conn) do
    |> view_module
    |> Phoenix.Naming.resource_name
    |> String.replace("_view", "")

  # Removes the extension from the template and returns
  # just the name.
  defp template_name(template) when is_binary(template) do
    |> String.split(".")
    |> Enum.at(0)

Now we add to our body tag in app.html.eex

<body data-js-view-name="<%= js_view_name(@conn, @view_template) %>">

This allows each page to have a name that can be grabbed by Javascript and from there we can direct to the right js file to load for the page. You can check out the Javascript in the github repo and go read the original blog post for insights but what we actually end up with that matters for the datatables is a js file that does the following : 1) gets datatables.net-bs into our scope and binds it with jQuery; 2) sets up our table on that page (identified by its id) as a DataTable with parametere that indicate that its populated with an Ajax call; 3) the js also sets up a debug statement that will show us the JSON returned by the server.

import MainView from '../main';
import $ from "jquery"
require( 'datatables.net-bs' )( window, $ );

export default class View extends MainView {
  // Called after the view becomes active
  mount() {

    console.log('ZipsIndexView mounted');
    var table = $('#zips').DataTable(
      { "processing": true,
        "serverSide": true,
        "pageLength": 25,
        "searching": true,
        "searchDelay": 1500,
        "ordering": false,
        "lengthChange": false,
        "ajax": {
           "url": "/api" + window.location.pathname
        "columns": [
            { "data": "zip_code" },
            { "data": "city" },
            { "data": "state" }
      table.on( 'xhr', function ( e, settings, json ) {
        console.log( 'Ajax event occurred. Returned data: ', json );
      } );
  unmount() {

    // Specific logic here
    console.log('ZipsIndexView unmounted');

So, that was a number of moving parts and became a bit long-winded but its a complete example of how to use datatables.js with Phoenix. Hopefully its helpful to someone.

Written on February 12, 2017