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Spring Annotation Programming Model

Sam Brannen edited this page Jun 4, 2018 · 20 revisions

Spring Annotation Programming Model

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Over the years, the Spring Framework has continually evolved its support for annotations, meta-annotations, and composed annotations. This document is intended to aid developers (both end users of Spring as well as developers of the Spring Framework and Spring portfolio projects) in the development and use of annotations with Spring.

Goals of this Document

The primary goals of this document include explanations of the following:

  • How to use annotations with Spring.
  • How to develop annotations for use with Spring.
  • How Spring finds annotations (i.e., how Spring's annotation search algorithms work).

Non-goals of this Document

This document does not aim to explain the semantics or configuration options for particular annotations in the Spring Framework. For details on a particular annotation, developers are encouraged to consult the corresponding Javadoc or applicable sections of the reference manual.



A meta-annotation is an annotation that is declared on another annotation. An annotation is therefore meta-annotated if it is annotated with another annotation. For example, any annotation that is declared to be documented is meta-annotated with @Documented from the java.lang.annotation package.

Stereotype Annotations

A stereotype annotation is an annotation that is used to declare the role that a component plays within the application. For example, the @Repository annotation in the Spring Framework is a marker for any class that fulfills the role or stereotype of a repository (also known as Data Access Object or DAO).

@Component is a generic stereotype for any Spring-managed component. Any component annotated with @Component is a candidate for component scanning. Similarly, any component annotated with an annotation that is itself meta-annotated with @Component is also a candidate for component scanning. For example, @Service is meta-annotated with @Component.

Core Spring provides several stereotype annotations out of the box, including but not limited to: @Component, @Service, @Repository, @Controller, @RestController, and @Configuration. @Repository, @Service, etc. are specializations of @Component.

Composed Annotations

A composed annotation is an annotation that is meta-annotated with one or more annotations with the intent of combining the behavior associated with those meta-annotations into a single custom annotation. For example, an annotation named @TransactionalService that is meta-annotated with Spring's @Transactional and @Service annotations is a composed annotation that combines the semantics of @Transactional and @Service. @TransactionalService is technically also a custom stereotype annotation.

Annotation Presence

The terms directly present, indirectly present, and present have the same meanings as defined in the class-level Javadoc for java.lang.reflect.AnnotatedElement in Java 8.

In Spring, an annotation is considered to be meta-present on an element if the annotation is declared as a meta-annotation on some other annotation which is present on the element. For example, given the aforementioned @TransactionalService, we would say that @Transactional is meta-present on any class that is directly annotated with @TransactionalService.

Attribute Aliases and Overrides

An attribute alias is an alias from one annotation attribute to another annotation attribute. Attributes within a set of aliases can be used interchangeably and are treated as equivalent. Attribute aliases can be categorized as follows.

  1. Explicit Aliases: if two attributes in one annotation are declared as aliases for each other via @AliasFor, they are explicit aliases.
  2. Implicit Aliases: if two or more attributes in one annotation are declared as explicit overrides for the same attribute in a meta-annotation via @AliasFor, they are implicit aliases.
  3. Transitive Implicit Aliases: given two or more attributes in one annotation that are declared as explicit overrides for attributes in meta-annotations via @AliasFor, if the attributes effectively override the same attribute in a meta-annotation following the law of transitivity, they are transitive implicit aliases.

An attribute override is an annotation attribute that overrides (or shadows) an annotation attribute in a meta-annotation. Attribute overrides can be categorized as follows.

  1. Implicit Overrides: given attribute A in annotation @One and attribute A in annotation @Two, if @One is meta-annotated with @Two, then attribute A in annotation @One is an implicit override for attribute A in annotation @Two based solely on a naming convention (i.e., both attributes are named A).
  2. Explicit Overrides: if attribute A is declared as an alias for attribute B in a meta-annotation via @AliasFor, then A is an explicit override for B.
  3. Transitive Explicit Overrides: if attribute A in annotation @One is an explicit override for attribute B in annotation @Two and B is an explicit override for attribute C in annotation @Three, then A is a transitive explicit override for C following the law of transitivity.


Many of the annotations within the Spring Framework and Spring portfolio projects make use of the @AliasFor annotation for declaring attribute aliases and attribute overrides. Common examples include @RequestMapping, @GetMapping, and @PostMapping from Spring MVC as well as annotations such as @SpringBootApplication and @SpringBootTest from Spring Boot.

The following sections provide code snippets to demonstrate these features.

Declaring attribute aliases with @AliasFor

Spring Framework 4.2 introduced first-class support for declaring and looking up aliases for annotation attributes. The @AliasFor annotation can be used to declare a pair of aliased attributes within a single annotation or to declare an alias from one attribute in a custom composed annotation to an attribute in a meta-annotation.

For example, @ContextConfiguration from the spring-test module is declared as follows.

public @interface ContextConfiguration {

    String[] value() default {};

    String[] locations() default {};

    // ...

The locations attribute is declared as an alias for the value attribute, and vice versa. Consequently, the following declarations of @ContextConfiguration are equivalent.

public class MyTests { /* ... */ }
@ContextConfiguration(value = "/test-config.xml")
public class MyTests { /* ... */ }
@ContextConfiguration(locations = "/test-config.xml")
public class MyTests { /* ... */ }

Similarly, composed annotations that override attributes from meta-annotations can use @AliasFor for fine-grained control over exactly which attributes are overridden within an annotation hierarchy. In fact, it is even possible to declare an alias for the value attribute of a meta-annotation.

For example, one can develop a composed annotation with a custom attribute override as follows.

public @interface MyTestConfig {

    @AliasFor(annotation = ContextConfiguration.class, attribute = "value")
    String[] xmlFiles();

    // ...

The above example demonstrates how developers can implement their own custom composed annotations; whereas, the following demonstrates that Spring itself makes use of this feature in many core Spring annotations.

@RequestMapping(method = RequestMethod.GET)
public @interface GetMapping {

	 * Alias for {@link RequestMapping#name}.
	@AliasFor(annotation = RequestMapping.class)
	String name() default "";

	 * Alias for {@link RequestMapping#value}.
	@AliasFor(annotation = RequestMapping.class)
	String[] value() default {};

	 * Alias for {@link RequestMapping#path}.
	@AliasFor(annotation = RequestMapping.class)
	String[] path() default {};

	// ...

Spring Composed and Spring Polyglot

The Spring Composed project is a collection of composed annotations for use with the Spring Framework 4.2.1 and higher. There you will find annotations such as @Get, @Post, @Put, and @Delete that served as the inspiration for the @GetMapping, @PostMapping, @PutMapping, and @DeleteMapping annotations that are now part of Spring MVC and Spring WebFlux.

Feel free to check out spring-composed for further examples and inspiration for how you can implement your own custom composed annotations, and for a bit of geek humor and entertainment that further demonstrate the power of @AliasFor, take a look at Spring Polyglot.


1) Can @AliasFor be used with the value attributes for @Component and @Qualifier?

The short answer is: no.

The value attributes in @Qualifier and in stereotype annotations (e.g., @Component, @Repository, @Controller, and any custom stereotype annotations) cannot be influenced by @AliasFor. The reason is that the special handling of these value attributes was in place years before @AliasFor was invented. Consequently, due to backward compatibility issues it is simply not possible to use @AliasFor with such value attributes.

Topics yet to be Covered

  • Document the general search algorithm(s) for annotations and meta-annotations on classes, interfaces, methods, fields, parameters, and annotations.
    • What happens if an annotation is present on an element both locally and as a meta-annotation?
    • How does the presence of @Inherited on an annotation (including custom composed annotations) affect the search algorithm?
  • Document support for annotation attribute aliases configured via @AliasFor.
    • What happens if an attribute and its alias are declared in an annotation instance (with the same value or with different values)?
      • Typically an AnnotationConfigurationException will be thrown.
  • Document support for composed annotations.
  • Document support for meta-annotation attribute overrides in composed annotations.
    • Document the algorithm used when looking up attributes, specifically explaining:
      • implicit mapping based on naming convention (i.e., composed annotation declares an attribute with the exact same name and type as declared in the overridden meta-annotation)
      • explicit mapping using @AliasFor
    • What happens if an attribute and one of its aliases are declared somewhere within the annotation hierarchy? Which one takes precedence?
    • In general, how are conflicts involving annotation attributes resolved?
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