22 August 2021

It's hard to think about structuring applications. There's a lot to think about at the higher level - is it a batch job, a web application, a messaging application, etc. The frameworks - Spring Batch, Spring Webflux, Spring Integration, respectively - will guide those decisions.

It is easier to talk about how to structure your Java objects to work well in an IoC container like Spring. Remember, at the end of the day, Spring is a big bag of objects. It needs to know how you want to arrange your objects - how they wire up and how they relate to each other - to provide services to them. For example, it can begin and commit transactions when a method starts and stops. It can create HTTP endpoints that invoke your Spring controller handler methods when a request arrives. It can invoke your message listener objects in response to new messages coming from an Apache Kafka broker or AWS SQS or RabbitMQ or whatever. The list of things Spring can do goes on and on, but it all assumes that you've registered the objects with Spring, first.

Spring has a metamodel of your objects - it's sort of like the Java reflection API. It knows which classes have annotations. It knows which objects have constructors. It knows on which dependencies, which beans and which type, a given object depends. Your job is to help it build up this metamodel to manage all your objects for you. For example, if it can control the creation of your objects, then it can also change the creation of your objects before they get created.

Spring can only provide all those services for you if it knows how the objects are wired together. So the idea is that you give Spring plain 'ol Java objects (POJOs), and it'll detect annotations on them and use those annotations to wire up the behavior for your services. But, of course, it can't do that unless it controls the creation of your Java objects.

Behind the scenes, it does this by either creating a Java InvocationHandler (a JDK proxy) or, more commonly, by using something like CGLIB to make a new class that extends your Java class. This class is a subclass of your class. So, imagine you have a class like this:

class CustomerService  {

	private final JdbcTemplate template; 

	CustomerService (JdbcTemplate jt) {
		this.JdbcTemplate = jt;

	public void updateCustomer ( long customerId, String name){
       // .. .

You want Spring to automatically start and stop a transaction each time that method is invoked. For this to work, Spring needs to insert itself before and after your method is called. Behind the scenes, it does something like this:

class SpringEnhancedCustomerService extends CustomerService {

    // Spring provides a reference from the applicationContext of type JdbcTemplate
	SpringEnhancedCustomerService (JdbcTemplate jt) {
		 super(JdbcTemplate ) ;

	public void updateCustomer (long customerId, String name) {
		// call Java code to start a JDBC transaction 
		super.updateCustomer(customerId, name);
		// call Java code to stop a JDBC transaction

In your code, you can then inject a reference to CustomerService. You'll still get one, but not the one you created. Instead, you'll get the subclass. It's this magic trick - of you asking for a hat and getting a hat with a rabbit in it instead - that makes Spring so powerful.

So, Spring must know about your objects. There are many ways to do this.

One is you can be very explicit. Before Spring Boot, you had two standard options: XML and Java configuration. That was 2013 and earlier, however. Nowadays, we don't encourage the use of XML, so you're left with Java configuration. Here's an example:

class ServiceConfiguration {

 @Bean DataSource h2DataSource (){
 	return ... ;

 @Bean JdbcTemplate JdbcTemplate (DataSource ds) {
 	return new JdbcTemplate(ds);

  @Bean CustomerService customerService (JdbcTemplate jdbcTemplate) {
  	return new CustomerService (jdbcTemplate);

Here, you're creating three objects and explicitly wiring things together. When Spring starts up, it finds the @Configuration classes, invokes all the methods annotated with @Bean, stores all the return values in the application context, and makes them available for injection. If it seems that the method takes parameters, it looks to find any other method that returns a value of that type and invokes it first. This value is then injected into the method as a parameter. If it's already invoked the method for some other injection, it just reuses the already created instance.

This approach benefits from being explicit - all the information about how your objects are wired up is in one place - the configuration classes. But, for classes you created, you have knowledge in two different locations: the class itself and the configuration class.

So, there's another, more implicit approach you can use: component-scanning. In this approach, Spring looks for classes on the classpath that have stereotype annotations, like @Component or @Controller. All stereotype annotations are ultimately annotated with @Component. @Component is the lowest, most undifferentiated annotation. If you look at @Controller, it is annotated with @Component. If you look at @RestController, it is annotated with @Controller. There are three bits of indirection, but the class annotated with @RestController is still treated, at a minimum, like a class annotated with @Component. The specialized annotations add on specialized treatment, but they're still specializations of @Component, not alternatives to it.

So, we might decide that it's annoying to define CustomerService and configure it in the configuration class. After all, if Spring only knew about the class, it could figure out the rest of the relationships by itself, surely? It could look at the constructor and see that, to construct an instance of CustomerService, it would need a reference to JdbcTemplate, which has already been defined elsewhere.

So, that's what component scanning does. You can add @Service, another stereotype annotation that's annotated with @Component, to the class and then remove the @Bean method in the configuration class. Spring will automatically create the service, it'll provide the required dependencies. It'll also subclass the class to provide those services.

We're making progress, removing ever more boilerplate. But what about the DataSource and the JdbcTemplate? You need them, but surely you shouldn't have to recreate them each time? This is the insight of Spring Boot. It uses @Condition annotations to decorate classes annotated with @Component or @Configuration to evaluate a test before creating the class or invoking the @Bean method. These tests can look for clues in the environment. For example, let's suppose you have H2 - an embedded SQL database on the classpath. And you have the spring-jdbc library on the classpath that contains the JdbcTemplate class. It can use a test to test for the presence of those classes on the classpath and infer that you want an embedded SQL DataSource and that you want a JdbcTemplate instance wired up with the newly-minted DataSource. It has its own configuration to provide those beans for you. Now, you can drop the @Configuration class altogether! Spring Boot provided two of the beans and implied the other one based on the stereotype annotations.

We've looked at the basic motivations for the Spring IoC container, and we've looked at how the IoC container works to help satisfy the promises that the framework puts forward.

We could indeed go a lot further, exploring aspect oriented programming (AOP), auto-configuration, and so much more, but this was meant to provide a mental framework for understanding when to apply which kind of configuration so that you can focus on the important work of getting working software to production safely and quickly.