Create a custom model

In this chapter we will look at how to implement a model around the The Open Movie Database (OMDB) API.

We will touch useful background information at the same time.

Model modules

Models are Erlang modules that are prefixed with m_ and stored in your main module’s subdirectory models. For example, the model to access Zotonic resources (syntax is written in models/m_rsc.erl.

Each model module is required to implement one function (as defined behavior in zotonic_model.erl):



This function fetches a value from a model. Because there are quite some different variation how to use this function, it is good to understand a bit more about the inner workings of data lookup.

Let’s start with the parsing of a template expression:

{{ m.rsc[1].is_cat.person }}

If you have done some work with Zotonic, you will be familiar with this syntax where we can find out if the resource with id 1 (the Administrator) is of category Person.

This expression contains 4 parts (separated by dots).

At the very start, the template parser resolves m.rsc to module m_rsc. The parser then calls m_rsc:m_get(Keys, Msg, Context) to fetch the value (where Keys in our expression has the value of [ 1, <<"is_cat">>, <<"person">> ]). The Msg is a an MQTT publish message, containing an optional argument passed after the lookup, for example:

{{{ cat:'news' }}

Here the map with the search arguments will be passed in the payload of the MQTT Msg.

This is the function specification of m_get:

-spec m_get(Keys, Msg, Context) -> { term(), RestKeys } when
    Keys :: list(),
    Msg :: zotonic_model:opt_msg(),
    RestKeys :: list(),
    Context:: z:context().

It takes the dotted expression list and returns the looked up value and the unprocessed part of the dotted list (if any).

In this example, the m_get is called as:

m_rsc:m_get([ 1, <<"is_cat">>, <<"person">> ], _Msg, Context)

And will return:

{ok, {true, []}}

Where true is returned because rescource id 1 is indeed a person, and [] is returned because the call consumed all parts of the dotted expression.

Example: Setting up m_omdb

All data calls to the OMDB go through the url, with query string appended. We can pass the movie id, title, and pass a type (movie/series/episode). OMDB offers more parameters but we don’t need them now.

Template interface

Let’s define how will we use the data in templates.

To get all data for a particular ID:


… so that we can get properties like the movie title:

{{ m.omdb["tt1135300"].title }}

Find an item by title:

{{ m.omdb["Alien"].year }}

Get all data from a movie:

{% for k,v in["Alien"] %}{{ k }}: {{ v }}{% endfor %}

Get data from a series:

{{ m.omdb.series[{query title="Dollhouse"}].plot }}

or from an episode:

{{ m.omdb.episode[{query title="Dollhouse"}].plot }}

Model skeleton

We will write our model in module models/m_omdb.erl. Let’s first get the mandatory elements out of the way:




% ... We will add our m_get functions here
-spec m_get( list(), zotonic_model:opt_msg(), z:context() ) -> {ok, { term(), list() }} | {error, term()}.
m_get([ _ | Rest ], _Msg, _Context) ->
    {ok, {undefined, Rest}};
m_get(_, _Msg, _Context) ->
    {ok, {undefined, []}}.

Querying the API

Before diving into the lookup functions, let’s see what we want to achieve as result.

  1. Using m_get we will generate a list of query parameters, for example [{type, "series"}, {title, "Dollhouse"}]
  2. And pass this list to a “fetch data” function
  3. That creates a URL from the parameters,
  4. loads JSON data from the URL,
  5. and transforms the JSON into a property list

The fetch_data function:

-spec fetch_data(Query) -> list() when
    Query:: list().
fetch_data([]) ->
    [{error, "Params missing"}];
fetch_data(Query) ->
    % Params title or id must be present
    case proplists:is_defined(title, Query) or proplists:is_defined(id, Query) of
        false -> [{error, "Param id or title missing"}];
        true ->
            % Translate query params id, title and type
            % into parameters that OMDB wants
            QueryParts = lists:map(fun(Q) ->
            end, Query),
            Url = ?API_URL ++ string:join(QueryParts, "&"),
            % Load JSON data
            case get_page_body(Url) of
                {error, Error} ->
                    [{error, Error}];
                Json ->
                    % Turn JSON into a property list
                    JsonData = z_json:decode(Json),
                    lists:map(fun(D) ->
                    end, JsonData)

It is important to know that we will pass a list, and get a list as result (for other template models this may be different).

Lookup functions

To illustrate the simplest m_get function, we add one to get the API url:

-define(API_URL, "").

% Syntax: m.omdb.api_url
m_get([ <<"api_url">> | Rest ], _Msg, _Context) ->
    {ok, {?API_URL, Rest}};

The functions that will deliver our template interface are a bit more involved. From the template expressions we can discern 2 different patterns:

  1. Expressions with 1 part:
  • m.omdb["Dollhouse"]
  • m.omdb[{query title="Dollhouse"}]
  1. Expressions with 2 parts:
  • m.omdb.series["Dollhouse"]
  • m.omdb.series[{query title="Dollhouse"}]

When an expression is parsed from left to right, each parsed part needs to be passed on using our m record. For instance with m.omdb.series["Dollhouse"] we first tranform “series” to {type, "series"}, and then “Dollhouse” to {title, "Dollhouse"}, creating the full query [{type, "series"}, {title, "Dollhouse"}].

To parse the type, we add these functions to our module:

% Syntax:[QueryString]
m_get([ <<"movie">>, QueryString | Rest ], _Msg, Context) when is_binary(QueryString) ->
    Query = [ {type, movie}, {title, QueryString} ],
    {ok, {fetch_data(Query), Rest}};

% Syntax: m.omdb.series[QueryString]
m_get([ <<"series">>, QueryString | Rest ], _Msg, Context) when is_binary(QueryString) ->
    Query = [ {type, series}, {title, QueryString} ],
    {ok, {fetch_data(Query), Rest}};

% Syntax: m.omdb.episode[QueryString]
m_get([ <<"episode">>, QueryString | Rest ], _Msg, Context) when is_binary(QueryString) ->
    Query = [ {type, episode}, {title, QueryString} ],
    {ok, {fetch_data(Query), Rest}};

Notice the | Rest in the patterns. This is needed for expressions like:


Which calls our m_get function as:

m_get([ <<"series">>, <<"Dollhouse">>, <<"title">> ], _Msg, Context)

We can also pass:

  1. The movie ID: m.omdb["tt1135300"]
  2. The title: m.omdb["Alien"]
  3. A search expression: m.omdb[{query title="Dollhouse"}]

Luckily, the movie IDs all start with “tt”, so we can use pattern matching to distinguish IDs from titles.

For the ID we recognize 2 situations - with or without a previously found value:

% Syntax: m.omdb["tt1135300"]
m_get([ <<"tt", _/binary>> = Id | Rest ], _Msg, Context) ->
    Query = [ {id, Id} ],
    {ok, {fetch_data(Query), Rest}};

% Syntax: m.omdb.sometype["tt1135300"]
m_get([ <<"sometype">>, <<"tt", _/binary>> = Id | Rest ], _Msg, _Context) ->
    Query = [ {type, sometype}, {id, Id} ],
    {ok, {fetch_data(Query), Rest}}.

We need to place these two patterns above the title searches we already wrote

fetch_data will return a property list, so we can write this to get all values:

{% for k,v in m.omdb["tt1135300"] %}
    {{ k }}: {{ v }}
{% endfor %}

Handling the title is similar to the ID. Title must be a string, otherwise it would be a property key (atom):

% Syntax: m.omdb["some title"]
% If no atom is passed it must be a title (string)
m_get([ Title | Rest ], _Msg, _Context) when is_binary(Title) ->
    Query = [ {title, Title} ],
    {fetch_data(Query), []};

To parse the search expression, we can simply use the readymade property list:

% Syntax: m.omdb[{query QueryParams}]
% For m.omdb[{query title="Dollhouse"}], Query is: [{title,"Dollhouse"}]
m_get([ {query, Query} | Rest ], _Msg, _Context) ->
    {fetch_data(Query), []};

% Syntax: m.omdb.sometype[{query QueryParams}]
% For m.omdb.series[{query title="Dollhouse"}],
% Query is: [{title,"Dollhouse"}] and Q is: [{type,"series"}]
m_get([ <<"series">>, {query, Query} | Rest ], _Msg, _Context) ->
    {fetch_data([{type, series} | Query), []};

If we want to fetch the year of the first result we use:


… we get called as:

m_get([ <<"Alien">>, <<"year">> ], _Msg, Context).

Which (after a search on the title “Alien”) returns:

{ok, {SomeSearchResultList, [ <<"year">> ]}}.

The [ year ] will then be used to lookup the year property of the found result.

We won’t do any validity checking on the parameter here, but for most modules it makes sense to limit the possibilities. See for instance how m_search:get_result is done.

Full source code

The source code of the documentation so far can be found in this gist: Zotonic 1.0 - Template model for the OMDB movie database - source code to accompany the documentation.

Possible enhancements

For a complete model for this API, I would expect:

  • Data caching to speed up identical calls
  • Support for all API parameters
  • Better error handling (the service might be down or return wrong data)

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Referred by


Templates are text files marked up using the Zotonic template language. Zotonic interprets that mark-up to dynamically…