We now discuss how Spoon deals with the processing of annotations. Java annotations enable developers to embed metadata in their programs. Although by themselves annotations have no explicit semantics, they can be used by frameworks as markers for altering the behavior of the programs that they annotate. This interpretation of annotations can result, for example, on the configuration of services provided by a middleware platform or on the alteration of the program source code.

Annotation processing is the process by which a pre-processor modifies an annotated program as directed by its annotations during a pre-compilation phase. The Java compiler offers the possibility of compile-time processing of annotations via the API provided under the javax.annotation.processing package. Classes implementing the javax.annotation.processing.Process interface are used by the Java compiler to process annotations present in a client program. The client code is modeled by the classes of the javax.lang.model package (although Java 8 has introduced finer-grained annotations, but not on any arbitrary code elements). It is partially modeled: only types, methods, fields and parameter declarations can carry annotations. Furthermore, the model does not allow the developer to modify the client code, it only allows adding new classes.

The Spoon annotation processor overcomes those two limitations: it can handle annotations on any arbitrary code elements (including within method bodies), and it supports the modification of the existing code.

Annotation Processing with Spoon

Spoon provides developers with a way to specify the analyses and transformations associated with annotations. Annotations are metadata on code that start with @ in Java. For example, let us consider the example of a design-by-contract annotation. The annotation @NotNull, when placed on arguments of a method, will ensure that the argument is not null when the method is executed. The code below shows both the definition of the NotNull annotation type, and an example of its use.

public @interface NotNull{}

class Person{
    public void marry(@NotNull Person so){
            // Marrying logic...

The NotNull annotation type definition carries two meta-annotations (annotations on annotation definitions) stating which source code elements can be annotated (line 1), and that the annotation is intended for compile-time processing (line 2). The NotNull annotation is used on the argument of the marry method of the class Person. Without annotation processing, if the method marry is invoked with a null reference, a NullPointerException would be thrown by the Java virtual machine when invoking the method isMarried in line 7.

The implementation of such an annotation would not be straightforward using Java's processing API since it would not allow us to just insert the NULL check in the body of the annotated method.

The Annotation Processor Interface

In Spoon, the full code model can be used for compile-time annotation processing. To this end, Spoon provides a special kind of processor called AnnotationProcessor whose interface is:

public interface AnnotationProcessor<A extends Annotation, E extends CtElement> extends Processor<E> {
    void process(A annotation, E element);
    boolean inferConsumedAnnotationType();
    Set<Class<? extends A>> getProcessedAnnotationTypes();
    Set<Class<? extends A>> getConsumedAnnotationTypes();
    boolean shoudBeConsumed(CtAnnotation<? extends Annotation> annotation);

Annotation processors extend normal processors by stating the annotation type those elements must carry (type parameter A), in addition of stating the kind of source code element they process (type parameter E). The process method (line 4) receives as arguments both the CtElement and the annotation it carries. The remaining four methods (getProcessedAnnotationTypes, getConsumedAnnotationTypes, inferConsumedAnnotationTypes and shoudBeConsumed) configure the visiting of the AST during annotation processing. The Spoon annotation processing runtime is able to infer the type of annotation a processor handles from its type parameter A. This restricts each processor to handle a single annotation. To avoid this restriction, a developer can override the inferConsumedAnnotationType() method to return false. When doing this, Spoon queries the getProcessedAnnotationTypes() method to find out which annotations are handled by the processor. Finally, the getConsumedAnnotationTypes() returns the set of processed annotations that are to be consumed by the annotation processor. Consumed annotations are not available in later processing rounds. Similar to standard processors, Spoon provides a default abstract implementation for annotation processors: AbstractAnnotationProcessor. It provides facilities for maintaining the list of consumed and processed annotation types, allowing the developer to concentrate on the implementation of the annotation processing logic.

Going back to our @NotNull example, we implement a Spoon annotation processor that processes and consumes NotNull annotated method parameters, and modifies the source code of the method by inserting an assert statement that checks that the argument is not null.

class NotNullProcessor extends AbstractAnnotationProcessor<NotNull, CtParameter> {
    public void process(NotNull anno, CtParameter param){
        CtMethod<?> method = param.getParent(CtMethod.class);
        CtBlock<?> body = method.getBlock();
        CtAssert<?> assertion = constructAssertion(param.getSimpleName());

The NotNullProcessor leverages the default implementation provided by the AbstractAnnotationProcessor and binds the type variables representing the annotation to be processed and the annotated code elements to NotNull and CtParameter respectively. The actual processing of the annotation is implemented in the process(NotNull,CtParameter) method (lines 10-13). Annotated code is transformed by navigating the AST up from the annotated parameter to the owner method, and then down to the method's body code block (lines 10 and 12). The construction of the assert statement is delegated to a helper method constructAssertion(String), taking as argument the name of the parameter to check. This helper method constructs an instance of CtAssert (by either programmatically constructing the desired boolean expression. Having obtained the desired assert statement, it is injected at the beginning of the body of the method.

More complex annotation processing scenarios can be tackled with Spoon. For example, when using the NotNull annotation, the developer is still responsible for manually inspecting which method parameters to place the annotation on. A common processing pattern is then to use regular Spoon processors to auto-annotate the application's source code. Such a processor, in our running example, can traverse the body of a method, looking for expressions that send messages to a parameter. Each of these expressions has as hypothesis that the parameter's value is not null, and thus should result in the parameter being annotated with NotNull.

With this processing pattern, the programmer can use an annotation processor in two ways: either by explicitly and manually annotating the base program, or by using a processor that analyzes and annotates the program for triggering annotation processors in an automatic and implicit way. This design decouples the program analysis from the program transformation logics, and leaves room for manual configuration.