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The Observer Pattern in Spring

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10 Mar 2013

Observers in Spring

To the man-in-the-street, who, I’m sorry to say,
Is a keen observer of life,
The word “Intellectual” suggests straight away
A man who’s untrue to his wife.

– W.H. Auden

The Observer pattern is a very basic one out of the GoF bible which is unbelivably easy to implement and still quote powerful so use. Here I present my take on it using the Spring observer pattern which I found quite helpful in designing extension points for my software.

Core classes

Pushing back the little NIH devil whispering in my ears, I started by reusing the standard building blocks for the Observer pattern: java.util.Observable and java.util.Observer. The Observable class provides the logic to handle a registry of Observers, and to propagate updates (I prefer to think more of in terms of events) to all of the registered Observers.

In the context of a Spring container, there will be beans to configure and hook together, and it’s key to this exercise to find a flexible and handy way to connect things together.

Automatic registration

Supporting code for this blog post can be found on GitHub.

When developing a Spring application you’re always instantiating your classes as singletons within the Spring container. Annotations or XML configurations will take care of initialize instances of your classes, wiring them together in a connected graph of objects with loose dependencies on the specific concrete classes you adopt in your code.

As you will always have to declare beans, it would be nice to let Spring wire obects for you in an Observer fashion, with a minimal coding effort required. The most minimalistic approach I could think of is to just require developers to declare their observer beans, and put in place enough machinery to automatically hook them to an Observable provided by the application. In this example I create a ObserverBeanPostProcessor and a SpringObserver tagging interface to identify which beans are actually declaring valid Observers, and register them automatically.

To complete the picture, the SpringObservable interface declares which Observer class it’s able to notify, thus leveraging the tagging interface and letting the ObserverBeanPostProcessor know which beans to filter and registser.

This enables a software component to provide the desired SpringObservable and the ObserverBeanPostProcessor beans, where consumers of such API will be only required to instantiate their Observer beans.

Note that Observers can be themselves Observables, so that you can easily construct chains of beans in which events will be propagated. As long as you ensure not to form any cyclic graph, of course.


In object oriented languages such as Java, patterns are a powerful tool to apply. The Observer is a neat strategy for cascading changes on objects, or just to propagate events through a series of processors. All in a clean, loosly coupled fashion.

The code here is just a proof of concept, not a library which is intended for production use. The concepts and the implementation are easy enough to be applied in your Spring application without any need for depending on this code.

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