Generating Java Code With Maven, QDox and StringTemplate

Introduction: why would you ever want to generate Java code?

In my current project at work we have quite a few value objects with giant constructor methods; these behemoths take 20 to 30 arguments each and it’s crucial that you get all of them in the right order, which is a pain in those cases when you’re only really interested in setting one or two of them. Just as an example, let’s just say that these classes looks something like this:

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public class ValueObj {
   private int value1;
   private int value2;
   private int value3;
   ...
   private Object obj1;
   private Object obj1;
   ...
   public ValueObj(int value1, int value2, int value2, ... Object
       obj1, Object obj2, ...) {
      this.value1 = value1;
      this.value2 = value2;
      this.value2 = value3;
      ...
      this.obj1 = obj1;
      this.obj2 = obj2;
      ...
   }

   public int getValue1() {
      return this.value1;
   }
   ... (other getter methods follow)
}

About a year ago or so we started using the Builder pattern, creating a separate Builder class for each value object class. The builder has one setter method for each parameter, and one create() method that instantiates the new object.

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public class ValueObjBuilder {
   private int value1;
   private int value2;
   private int value3;
   ...
   private Object obj1;
   private Object obj1;
   ...

   public ValueObjBuilder value1(int value1) {
       this.value1 = value1;
       return this;
   }
   public ValueObjBuilder value2(int value2) {
       this.value2 = value2;
       return this;
   }
   ...

   public ValueObj create() {
       return new ValueObj(value1, value2, ...);
   }
}

Since the setter methods return a reference to the builder itself it is possible to chain invocations:

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ValueObj obj = new ValueObjBuilder().value1(23).value2(47).create();

However convenient these builder classes are to use, I very quickly tired of maintaining them. Every time you add or remove a property to a value object, you also need to make the corresponding change to the builder. Keeping two classes in sync doesn’t seem like too much work, but it is unnecessary, and it occurred to me that I could probably write something to generate the builders automatically.

Writing a Maven plugin

We use Maven for our builds. Ok, ok, I know. Maven is horrible, maven downloads the whole universe, maven is braindead. Yes, I know all these things. But here’s the ting: Maven is like democracy: It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have.

One of the nice things about maven is that it has a well-defined standard build lifecycle. The build process is divided into steps, and during one of the steps, generate-sources, a maven plugin has the opportunity to generate source that will then be compiled during the compile step.

When invoked, we’d like the plugin to:

  1. Loop over our java classes, looking for constructors marked with our custom @builder javadoc comment.

  2. For each matching constructor, generate a new source file under target/generated-sources/builderbuilder/ containing the Builder class.

The plugin is invoked before the compilation step, meaning that all the generated code will be included in the final output.

As an example, this code (in src/main/java/example/ValueObj.java):

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package example;

public class Cat {
   private String name;
   private int age;

   /**
    * @builder
    */
   public Cat(String name, int age) {
      this.name = name;
      this.age = age;
   }
}

Will generate the following (in target/generated-sources/builderbuilder/example/CatBuilder.java) when run through our plugin:

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package example;

public class CatBuilder {
   private String name;
   private int age;

   public CatBuilder name(String name) {
      this.name = name;
      return this;
   }

   public CatBuilder age(int age) {
      this.age = age;
      return this;
   }

   public Cat create() {
      return new Cat(name, age);
   }
}

For those of you who like to read along, the code for the whole plugin is on github. The finished version has some extra bells and whistles, like the ability to generate abstract builder classes and explicitly the name of the create() method.

Parsing Java code

Okay, so let’s say we want to pick apart the java class files and for each constructor found we want to generate a helper class as discussed above. Now, normally we’d use the introspection facilities already built into java, but now we have one problem: our code-generating code will run during the generate-sources step, before any compilation has actually taken places.

This is a problem. What we need is a java parser that can pull apart the relevant bits of the source files and give us enough information that so we can generate the new classes. Preferably the level of detail should be on par with with that of the java.util.reflect.* functions, and it should also be fast. I actually started writing something like that, but that’s another story. Instead, let’s check out QDox, an amazing little library used internally by maven.

Using it is pretty simple. First, create a new JavaDocBuilder object and tell it where the source code you want to parse lives:

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this.docBuilder = new JavaDocBuilder();
for (String r : sources) {
    docBuilder.addSourceTree(new File(r));
}

Then loop over all known classes and generate the builder:

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for (JavaClass jc : docBuilder.getClasses()) {
    generateBuilderFor(jc);
}

Generating the output

This is the generateBuilderFor() method:

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public void generateBuilderFor(JavaClass jc) throws IOException {
    for(JavaMethod m: jc.getMethods()) {
        if (m.isConstructor()) {
            DocletTag dc = m.getTagByName("builder");
            if (dc != null) {
                String builderName = dc.getNamedParameter("name");
                if (builderName == null)
                    builderName = jc.getName() + "Builder";

                String packageName = dc.getNamedParameter("package");
                if (packageName == null)
                    packageName = jc.getPackageName();

                StringTemplate st = templates.getInstanceOf("builder");
                st.setAttribute("packageName", packageName);
                st.setAttribute("builderName", builderName);
                st.setAttribute("resultClass", jc.asType().toString());

                List<Param> ps = new LinkedList<Param>();
                for(JavaParameter p: m.getParameters()) {
                       ps.add(new Param(p.getType().toGenericString(), p.getName()));
                }
                st.setAttribute("parameters", ps);

                File pd = new File(outputDirectory, packageName.replaceAll("\\.", "/"));
                pd.mkdirs();

                FileWriter out = new FileWriter(new File(pd, builderName + ".java"));
                try {
                    out.append(st.toString());
                } finally {
                    out.flush();
                    out.close();
                }
            }
        }
    }
}

public static class Param {
    public final String type;
    public final String name;
        public Param(String type, String name) {
        this.type = type;
        this.name = name;
    }
}

This is all pretty straightforward; we loop through the methods for the class, looking for a constructor that has the @builder javadoc tag.

Lines 6-12 checks if the tag has any values specified for name and package, reverting to default values if not.

Lines 14-23 instantiates a new StringTemplate object and supplies it with values for the packageName, builderName and resultClass attributes (the latter being the class that we want the builder to actually build). Lines 19-23 loops through the constructor arguments and creates value object holding the name & type of each.

Finally, a new file is created (lines 25-26) and written (lines 28-34).

Templating

There are an abundance of templating frameworks out there. I choose to go with StringTemplate for this project, since it makes it easy to use subtemplates in a functional way, and generally fits my way of thinking. I could just as easily have used something like FreeMarker or Velocity, though.

The templates are not that interesting, so I won’t go into it here. You can check them out on github if you are curious.

Conclusion

Automatic code generation in java projects is not only feasible, but also quite convenient with maven. We’ve been using BuilderBuilder internally in production for a few months now, and it greatly cuts down on code maintenance.

It would be nice, though, if there was a more general approach to code generation. Just for BuilderBuilder, I had to dive into Maven internals (which are surprisingly poorly documented), learn QDox (ditto) and write all the java code that solved this particular problem. Imagine instead if there was some kind of transformation language that operated on java sources, kind of like what XSLT does for XML? Now, that would be cool.