Implementing Spring-like Classpath Scanning in Android

One of the things that Spring 2.5 introduced back in 2007 was component scanning, a feature which removed the need for XML bean configuration and instead allowed developers to declare their beans using Java annotations. Rather than this:

We can do this:

It’s a pretty simple idea since Java makes it very easy to introspectively check a class’s annotations at runtime through its reflection API. Spring’s component scan feature also allows you to specify the base package(s) to scan for beans.

The big question is how do we get access to the classes in the classpath, specifically, those in the desired package? Java SE doesn’t provide an API for doing it, but there are ways to accomplish this. The most common (if not the only) approach is to load classes by relying on the file system. We know that we can use the ClassLoader to load a class by its package-qualified name, so it becomes a matter of retrieving the file names.

Getting the classpath itself in Java SE is easy:

This will yield something that looks like “/Users/Tyler/Workspace/Test/bin:/Users/Tyler/Workspace/Test/lib/gson-2.1.jar”. Loading the files from here is pretty straightforward, as is filtering on the package name since it maps to a directory one-to-one.

Another similar approach is to use the ClassLoader to load the resources directly:

Transition to Android

Unfortunately, these solutions don’t lend themselves to Android, which made implementing classpath scanning a little more difficult for Infinitum. The reason for this is, more or less, because of the way Android’s Dalvik VM is designed. When an Android application is compiled, the Dalvik bytecode is packaged into a file called “classes.dex” inside the APK. The good news is that the Android SDK provides an API for interacting with DEX files through the DexFile class.

In order to access classes.dex, we need a handle on the APK itself, which is actually quite easy to do:

The above code opens a DexFile for the running APK. Of course, this can have some performance implications. Opening the DexFile will potentially cause the VM to pass classes.dex through a process known as “dexopt”, which is a program that performs bytecode verification and optimization. This is an expensive process, but since we’re opening a DexFile for the APK itself, classes.dex should have already undergone this process, meaning dexopt won’t be run again.

The DexFile gives us access to the classes contained in classes.dex as an enumeration of strings representing the package-qualified class names. With this, we can iterate over the class names and load any which match the desired package.

This gets the job done, and it’s essentially how Infinitum accomplishes component scanning. However, it’s a very expensive operation. DexFile.entries() yields every class in the classpath — that is, every class in classes.dex — which includes not just application binaries, but also those of any libraries included.

It’s great that we can introspect every class in the classpath, but if we’re only interested in classes of a particular package, we’re out of luck. Every class is compiled into classes.dex and, short of decompiling it1,  there’s no way to pull out the classes we want without iterating over the entire classpath.

So, for now we settle with this somewhat inefficient solution. Nonetheless, it accomplishes what it needs to at the cost of maybe a few hundred milliseconds2, so maybe it’s not such a bad approach in the grand scheme of things.

  1. Tools for decompiling DEX files exist, such as Baksmali, but doing such a thing at runtime — if it’s even possible — would arguably not gain you any performance benefits. Still, this is something worth exploring. []
  2. On the emulator running on my MacBook Pro, the classpath scanning takes about 600 milliseconds, while on my Galaxy Nexus, it takes about 200 milliseconds. []

A Look at Spring’s BeanFactoryPostProcessor

One of the issues my team faced during my time at Thomson Reuters was keeping developer build times down. Many of the groups within WestlawNext had a fairly comprehensive check-in policy in that, after your code was reviewed, you had to run a full build which included running all unit tests and endpoint tests before you could commit your changes. This is a good practice, no doubt, but the group I was with had somewhere in the ballpark of 6000 unit tests. Moreover, since we were also testing our REST endpoints, it was necessary to launch an embedded Tomcat instance and deploy the application to it before those tests could execute.

Needless to say, build times could get pretty lengthy. I think I recall, at one point, it taking as long as 20 minutes to complete a full build. If a developer makes three commits in a day, that’s an hour of lost productivity. Extrapolate that out to a week and five hours are wasted, so you get the idea.

Of course, there were things we could do to cut down on that time — disabling the Cobertura and Javadoc Ant tasks for instance — but that only gets you so far. The annoying thing was that you typically had a Tomcat server running with the application already deployed, yet the build process started up a whole other instance in order to run the endpoint tests.

I explored the possibility of having endpoint tests run against a developer’s local server (or any server, in theory) by introducing a new property to the developer build properties file. It seems like a pretty simple concept: if the property doesn’t exist, run the tests normally by starting up an embedded Tomcat server. If it does exist, then simply route the HTTP requests to the specified host. Granted, it’s not going to significantly reduce the build time, but anything helps.

Unfortunately, it was not that simple. That’s because we couldn’t just run endpoint tests against the “live” app. The underlying issue was that our API, which we called ourselves from JavaScript and was also exposed to other consumers, relied on some other WestlawNext web services, such as user authentication and document services. We weren’t doing end-to-end integration testing, we were just testing our API. As a result, we used a separate Spring context which allowed the embedded Tomcat hook to deploy the application using client stubs in place of the actual web service clients.

So, things started to look a little moot. A developer would have to start their Tomcat server such that the client stub beans were registered with the Spring context in place of the normal client bean implementations. At the very least, it presented an interesting exercise. It was especially interesting because the client stubs were not part of the application’s classpath, they were separate from the app’s source and compiled to a bin-test directory.

Introducing the BeanFactoryPostProcessor

The solution I came up with was to implement one of Spring’s less glamorous (but still really neat) interfaces, the BeanFactoryPostProcessor. This interface provides a way for applications to modify their Spring context’s bean definitions before any beans get created. In my case, I needed to replace the client beans with their stub equivalents.

We start by implementing the interface, which has a single method, postProcessBeanFactory.

So the question is how do we implement registerClientStubBeans? This is the method that will overwrite the client beans in the application context, but in order to avoid the dreaded NoClassDefFoundError, we need to dynamically add the stub classes to the classpath.

The addClasspathDependencies method will add the stubs to the classpath, while getClientStubBeans will do just as its name suggests. I’ve also created a Bean class that will hold a bean name and its BeanDefinition. In order to register beans with the BeanFactory, we use the registerBeanDefinition method and pass in a bean name and corresponding BeanDefinition.

Let’s take a look at how we can add the stubs to the classpath at runtime.

It looks like there’s a lot going on here, but it’s actually not too bad. The addClasspathDependencies method is simply going to call addToClasspath to add some classes we need, which include the stubs in bin-test but also some libraries they rely on in the libs directory. The more interesting code is in the latter of the two methods, which is responsible for taking a File, which will be a .class file, and adding it to the classpath. We do that by getting the context ClassLoader and then, using reflection, we invoke the method “addURL” by passing in the .class URL we want to add.

Lastly, we need to implement the getClientStubBeans method, which returns a list of the bean definitions we want to register with the context.

Again, it’s a lot of code, but it’s not difficult to follow if you take it piece by piece. The getClientStubBeans method is going to get the directory in which the stubs classes are located and pass it to buildBeanDefinitions. This method iterates over each file, extracts the file name (e.g. “com/foo/client/stub/WebServiceClientStub.class”) and converts it into a fully-qualified class name (e.g. “”). Since we already added the stubs to the classpath, the class is then loaded by this name. Once the class is loaded, we can check if it is indeed a stub by introspectively looking for the ClientStub annotation (this custom annotation makes a bean eligible for auto-detection and specifies a bean name). If it is a stub, we use Spring’s handy BeanDefinitionBuilder to build a BeanDefinition for the stub.

Now, when Spring initializes, it will detect this BeanFactoryPostProcessor and invoke its postProcessBeanFactory method, resulting in the client stubs being registered with the context in place of their respective implementations. It’s a pretty unique use case (and, frankly, not particularly useful for the given scenario), but it helps illustrate how the BeanFactoryPostProcessor interface can be leveraged.