Java - - By Alejandro Gervasio

Effective Domain Model Validation with Hibernate Validator

Let’s face it, domain model validation has always been a pretty untamable beast (and most likely this won’t change anytime soon) because the validation process itself is strongly bound to the context where it takes place. It’s feasible, however, to encapsulate the mechanics of validation by using some external class libraries, rather than messing up our lives doing it ourselves from scratch. This is exactly where Hibernate Validator comes into play, the reference implementation of Java Beans Validation 1.0 / 1.1 (JSR 303), a robust validation model based on annotations that ships with Java EE 6 and higher.

This article will walk you through using Hibernate Validator in a pragmatic way.

The Contextual Nature of Domain Model Validation

Independent of your language of choice, building a rich domain model is one of the most challenging tasks you can tackle as a developer. And on top of that you’ll have to make sure that the data that hydrates the model is valid, thus assuring that its integrity is properly maintained. Unfortunately, in many cases making domain objects valid in the context of the containing application is far from trivial, due to the intrinsic contextual nature of the validation process per se.

To put it in another way: If the arguments taken by a domain object are supplied by the application’s environment (for instance by using plain Dependency Injection, Factories, Builders and so on) rather than by an external upper tier, then validating the object should be straightforward and constrained to a very limited scope.

Conversely, if the arguments in question are injected from an outer layer (a user interface layer is a good example of this), the validation process can be cumbersome and tedious, in most cases leading to having chunks of boilerplate code scattered across multiple application layers.

In the end, everything boils down to this simple yet fundamental question: What makes a domain object valid? Should its state be validated before being persisted or updated in a database, or when passed around to other layer(s)? The logical answer is: It depends. Remember that validation is always contextual! So no matter what approach you use to decide whether your domain objects are valid, Java Beans Validation will make the process easier.

Introducing Java Bean Validation with JSR 303

Prior to Java EE 6, Java didn’t provide a standard way of validating the fields of a domain class by mean of a centralized mechanism. But things have changed for the better since then. The Java Beans Validation specification makes it fairly easy to selectively validate class fields (and even entire classes) by using constraints declared with a few intuitive annotations.

At the time of this writing, JSR 303 has only two compliant implementations that you can pick up out there, Apache BVal and Hibernate Validator. The latter is the reference implementation, which can be consumed as a standalone library, completely decoupled from the popular ORM framework.

With that said, let’s see now how to get started using the Java Beans Validation / Hibernate Validator tandem for performing effective domain model validation in the real world.

Defining a Basic Domain Model

As usual, a nice way to show how to utilize Java Beans Validation for validating a domain model is with a concrete example. Considering that the standard implements an annotation-based validation schema, the classes that are part of the domain model must always be constrained with annotations.

In this case, for clarity’s sake, the domain model I want to validate will be composed of only one naive, anemic class, which will be the blueprint for user objects:

public class User {

    private int id;

    @NotEmpty(message = "Name is mandatory")
    @Size(min = 2, max = 32,
            message = "Name must be between 2 and 32 characters long")
    private String name;

    @NotEmpty(message = "Email is mandatory")
    @Email(message = "Email must be a well-formed address")
    private String email;

    @NotEmpty(message = "Biography is mandatory")
    @Size(min = 10, max = 140,
            message = "Biography must be between 10 and 140 characters long")
    private String biography;

    public User(String name, String email, String biography) {
        this.name = name;
        this.email = email;
        this.biography = biography;
    }

    // Setters and Getters for name, email and biography

}

There is nothing worth discussing except for the constraints declared on top of each field. For instance, the @NotEmpty(message = "Name is mandatory") annotation states that the name field must be, yes, a non-empty string. Even though it’s pretty self-explanatory, the message attribute is used for defining the message that will be displayed if the constrained field raises a violation when being validated. Even better it’s possible to customize many constraints with parameters in order to express more refined criteria. Consider the @Size(min = 2, max = 32, message = "...") annotation. It expresses, well, exactly what the message says. Not rocket science, right?

The specification provides a few more, handy annotations. For the full list, feel free to check them here.

Microscope Hibernate Validation

Validating Constraints

At this point, we’ve managed to define a constrained model class by using Java Beans Validation, which is all well and fine. But you might be wondering what are the practical benefits of doing this? The laconic answer is: none – so far. The class is ready to be validated, sure, but the missing piece here is having a mechanism, capable of scanning the annotations, checking the values assigned to the constrained fields, and returning the validation errors (or in JSR 303 terminology, the constraint violations). And that’s exactly how Hibernate Validator works under the hood.

But let’s be frank: The above explanation would be just technical gibberish if we don’t see at least a contrived example that shows how to use Hibernate Validator for validating the User class:

Validator validator = Validation.buildDefaultValidatorFactory().getValidator();
User user = new User("John Doe", "no-mail", "");
validator
    .validate(user).stream()
    .forEach(violation -> System.out.println(violation.getMessage()));

That was really easy, wasn’t it? The snippet first grabs an instance of Hibernate Validator through the static buildDefaultValidatorFactory() and getValidator() methods that are part of the Bean Validation API, and uses the validate() method for validating a potentially invalid user object. In this case, the constraint violations are displayed in the console by using streams and lambdas altogether. It’s possible, however, to get the same result by using a standard for loop rather than the newer forEach.

Encapsulating Validation Logic in a Service Component

Of course, it’s ridiculously simple (and very, very tempting, to be frank) to start dropping Validator instances here and there, and validate the constrained classes in multiple places, even in the wrong ones! But that would be a flagrant violation of the DRY Principle (aka a WET solution) that would lead to duplicated code across several layers. Yes, definitely bad design.

Instead, it’d be a lot more effective to encapsulate Hibernate Validator inside the boundaries of a decoupled service component, which could be potentially reused everywhere. In a nutshell, all that we need to do for wrapping it behind the fences of such a service component is a simple contract, defined through an interface, and a broadly generic implementation:

public interface EntityValidator<T> {

   Set<ConstraintViolation<T>> validate(T t);

}

public class BaseEntityValidator<T> implements EntityValidator<T> {

   protected final Validator validator;

   public BaseEntityValidator(Validator validator) {
       this.validator = validator;
   }

   public Set<ConstraintViolation<T>> validate(T t) {
       return validator.validate(t);
   }
}

By using plain delegation, we’ve created a working validation module, which takes a JSR 303-compliant implementation in the constructor, and uses its validate() method for validating a given object of type T. The only detail worth pointing here is that the method in question returns a set containing the corresponding constraint violation objects, after the object has been properly validated.

At first glance, the BaseEntityValidator class looks quite simple. But this is just a misleading impression, trust me. The class not only takes advantage of interface-based polymorphism (aka subtype polymorphism), it also acts as an adapter to the validator itself, hence making it possible to selectively expose the validator’s native methods to client code and even add domain-specific ones.

If you’re wondering how to use the BaseEntityValidator class to validate a user object, here’s how the process should be performed:

// ideally the validator is injected but in this case we’ll create it explicitly
EntityValidator<User> userValidator =  new BaseEntityValidator<>(
        Validation.buildDefaultValidatorFactory().getValidator());
User user = new User("John Doe", "no-email", "");
validator
    .validate(user).stream()
    .forEach(violation -> System.out.println(violation.getMessage()));

Additionally, there’s plenty of room for using the class in different contexts and scenarios. For instance, we could develop a basic web application, similar to the one I built in the Servlet API tutorial, and validate user data submitted through an HTML form in an effective and performant manner. As building such web application is definitively out of this post’s scope, the task will be left as homework for you, in case that you want to start pulling the reins of Hibernate Validator in the Web terrain.

Creating Custom Validation Constraints and Validators

At this point, it should be clear that Hibernate Validator is a hard-to-beat contender when it comes to validating domain objects in a straightforward fashion. But there’s more yet: Even when JSR 303 ships by default with a robust set of constraint violations, which will cover the most typical validation requirements of daily developers like you and me, it’s worth mentioning that its core functionality can be easily extended by means of custom validation constraints and validators.

In fact, creating a custom validation constraint and a matching custom validator is a no-brainer process that boils down to following these steps:

  1. Defining an annotation interface, which must specify the target(s) of the validation constraint, for how long the annotation information will be available to the compiler (aka the Retention Policy), and finally the custom validation class associated with the constraint.
  2. Creating the custom validation class itself.

As usual, a hands-on example is the best way to grasp the underlying logic of this process. So, let’s say we want to apply a custom email validation constraint to the User class, instead of using the default one included with JSR 303. In that case, first we need to define the corresponding annotation interface, as follows:

@Target({ElementType.METHOD, ElementType.FIELD})
@Retention(RetentionPolicy.RUNTIME)
@Constraint(validatedBy = EmailValidator.class)
public @interface ValidEmail {

    String message()  default "Email must be a well-formed address";

    Class<?>[] groups() default {};

    Class<? extends Payload>[] payload() default{};
}

As shown above, the ValidEmail annotation tells the compiler that the constraint violation should be retained until runtime (@Retention(RetentionPolicy.RUNTIME)) and be applicable to both methods and fields (@Target({ElementType.METHOD, ElementType.FIELD}). It’s clear to see here that the @Constraint annotation binds the custom constraint to a custom EmailValidator class, which we will look at after examining the annotation’s methods.

Lastly, the message() method defines, of course, the message that must be displayed if the constraint is violated.

Additionally, the groups() method allows to specify which constraints should be validated when the validator is called, in a per-group basis. By default, all the constraints are checked within the default group, meaning that each constraint will be validated regardless of the target object’s lifecycle phase. It’s possible, however, to set up different groups in the form of simple interfaces, and specify which constraints must be validated according to a particular lifecycle phase. For brevity’s sake, the above example uses the default group.

Finally, the payload() method can be used for attaching payload objects, which hold additional information about the constraints, and can be fetched when validating the target object.

Now let’s turn to the EmailValidator class, which implements the actual verification. Here’s how a naive implementation might look:

public class EmailValidator implements ConstraintValidator<ValidEmail, String> {

    private static final Pattern VALID_EMAIL_PATTERN = Pattern.compile(
            "^[A-Z0-9._%+-]+@[A-Z0-9.-]+\\.[A-Z]{2,6}$",
            Pattern.CASE_INSENSITIVE);

    @Override
    public void initialize(ValidEmail constraintAnnotation) {
        // can be used to set the instance up for validation
    }

    @Override
    public boolean isValid(
            String email, ConstraintValidatorContext constraintValidatorContext) {
        Matcher matcher = VALID_EMAIL_PATTERN.matcher(email);
        return matcher.find();
    }

}

There are only a couple of details worth highlighting here: The first one is that the custom validators must implement the native ConstraintValidator interface and specify as type parameters the type of the custom constraint (here ValidEmail) and the type being constrained (String). The second detail is the isValid() method itself, which validates the supplied email address.

Last but not least, the declaration of the email field within the User class must be refactored, that way it can bind the custom validation constraint to the customEmailValidator class, as follows:

@ValidEmail
private String email;

Finally, validating a user object looks exactly the same as when using the default email validator.

That was pretty easy to understand, right? Of course, I’m not saying that you’ll always need to mess up your life by creating custom constraints and validators, as this would downgrade the functionality of Java Beans Validation to nearly zero. Nevertheless, from a design point of view it is useful to know that the standard offers a decent level of customization.

Conclusions

At this point, you’ve learned the basics of how to use Java Beans Validation and Hibernate Validator side by side, in order to validate your domain objects in a straightforward way. In addition, you saw that’s really easy to extend the specification’s core functionality with custom constraints and custom validators, in those use cases where the default ones just won’t fit your personal needs. Moreover, keep in mind that JSR 303 is work in progress moving at a pretty fast pace (in fact the release of Java Beans Validation 2.0 is just around the corner), so make sure to stay up to date with the latest news.

So, is that all we need to know when it comes to exploiting the functionality that the standard brings to the table? Well, from a starting point it is, indeed. As with many other language-related features, though, it’s not a panacea for healing all the potential validation ills your code can suffer from, so using it in a proper and conscious way is, as usual, up to us.

Quite possibly, the biggest benefit of using the specification lies on the fact that it allows to easily implement highly-decoupled validation components, which can be reused literally everywhere. If that sole argument isn’t compelling enough to get you started using Java Beans Validation right away, certainly nothing will be. So, what are you waiting for?

Sponsors