Sharing Functions Between Phoenix Controllers

When building applications in Phoenix we often need to share some functions between controllers in order to DRY-up our code.

Lets say we have some helpers that we’d like to be able to use in our controllers:

I usually put these into a helpers.ex file in my web/controllers directory.

We could write an import statement at the top of each of the controllers we want to have this functionality:

This approach is fine but what if we wanted to do this across all of the controllers in our application without duplicating this line each time?

The answer lies in the web/web.ex file that contains our definitions for the controllers, views, and models in our application. These are just functions that use, alias or import some useful modules and functions for you.

(If you’re unfamiliar with use, import, and alias you can read more about the differences between them here).

Each time we create a new controller in Phoenix you actually call the controller/0 method in this file explicitly with use MyApp.Web, :controller (usually the first line under the controllers definition). The use call here will call the MyApp.Web modules __using__ macro, passing the atom :controller as the first argument.

The __using__ macro calls apply/3 on the Web module with the passed in atom as the function name and an empty list. Given the atom :controller, this then calls the controller/0 method and expands the quoted code inside of your controller — just like manually defining each one of those use, alias, and import statements yourself in the controller.

Armed with this knowledge, we can now share our helper module between all of our controllers by adding another import line to controller/0 in the web/web.ex file (notice the import statement on line 13 that corresponds to our Helper module):

Et voila, we are done 🎉!

As an added bonus this technique can be used to bring other external functionality to other parts of the application (views, channels, router, models).


If you’re looking to understand more about how Elixir’s macro system works, I highly recommend Chris McCord’s book ‘Metaprogramming Elixir’.