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Dan Tanner

Spring Rites

A caution against annotation-based web frameworks #

Context #

My current job is to help developers write better software at a large retail company. There's a few thousand of them, so there are a lot of opinions and techniques used. Most of the business application software is written on the JVM, and I spend a lot of my time on documentation and reference material for best practices on how to build high quality software within our ecosystem. "High quality" meaning performant, maintainable, secure, efficient, concise, etc...

I currently recommend building new projects on the JVM using a "vanilla" Kotlin approach. By vanilla, I mean don't use annotation-based application frameworks like Spring or Micronaut. This concept of not using an application framework for a Java project is foreign and unpopular to some people. Usually foreign to people unfamiliar with development in other languages, and unpopular typically with people that have only ever used an application framework.

What makes my job more difficult is that I'm going against the grain of popularity. Applications built using Spring are the most popular stack at my company (over half). So in conversations with people about this choice, I'm usually in the situation of defending my viewpoint for this "new" technique of not using a framework, and trying to convince people to move from a technique they're used and know works, to a new technique they usually have limited experience with.

In this article, I'm not going to defend my viewpoint. I'm going to attack the viewpoint that using an annotation-based framework like Spring Boot or Micronaut makes sense in 2024. Sure, it "works", and that's the most common defense I see in forums. Carburetors also still work, but you don't see them in modern engines.

The theme of my criticisms throughout this article are generally this:

  1. Using annotations for complex features are inherently more difficult to test, maintain, and extend compared to its vanilla Kotlin counterpart.
  2. Large application frameworks like Spring are now the cumbersome things they originally displaced.
  3. Annotations make it harder to reason about your code.

Original problems solved by the Spring Framework #

Remember that Spring was created as a lighter weight alternative to the bloated, immature application servers at the time. Think Entity Beans, vendor-driven application servers, and other garbage that got in the way. This was before technology like Ruby on Rails, Django, JSON, Redis, Elasticsearch, NGINX, AWS, GCP, SSDs, and so many other things that have evolved our options.

Here's the original category of features the Spring Framework advertised and delivered on in 2003:

These were new, real problems back then.

Not today though. These features are either irrelevant today, or are actually made worse by using Spring Boot.

"Helps me configure my application" #

tl;dr; Use hoplite to load your configuration into type-safe data classes. For example, this code will load configuration from various sources in order, populating an arbitrary data class that you define:

import com.sksamuel.hoplite.ConfigLoaderBuilder

class App {
  private val config = ConfigLoaderBuilder.default()
    .addFileSource("/etc/myapp/dev.conf", optional = true)

  private val db = Db(config.db)
  // etc...

Where your Config class might look like this:

data class Config(
  val http: HttpConfig,
  val metrics: MetricsPublisher.Config,
  val db: DbConfig,

data class HttpConfig(
  val server: HttpServerConfig,
  val client: ClientConfig,

// etc

There are a bunch more features you can use, but here's an example of a startup log using hoplite:

Property sources (highest to lowest priority):
  - Env Var Overrides
  - System Properties
  - /Users/dan/.userconfig.<ext>
  - $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/hoplite.<ext>
  - classpath:/local.conf
  - classpath:/default.conf
Used keys: 4
| Key                               | Source                  |
| db.databaseName                   | classpath:/default.conf |
| db.password                       | classpath:/default.conf |
| http.client.item.cache.cacheSize  | classpath:/default.conf |
Unused keys: 1
| Key                      | Source                  |
|        | classpath:/default.conf |
--End Hoplite Config Report--

This is out of the box functionality, and it was about 30 lines of code to configure.

Instead, what do you get with Spring?

Quick, tell me what each of these annotations mean and how they should be used when you need to configure a custom bean for your application:

Did you know the correct answer, which is that you need to combine those annotations in pairs like so?:

@ConfigurationProperties(prefix = "someprefix")
data class MetricsConfig(
  val config: MetricsPublisher.Config,

class Configuration(
  val metricsConfig: MetricsConfig,

Just kidding - the correct answer is a different order of the annotations!

How would you know though? And how long would it take for someone new to find the correct answer?

"Reduces application server vendor lock-in" #

If you're referring to the ability to choose the underlying server engine, this is a common feature for all major HTTP server libraries today. e.g. Ktor, http4k. (http4k even lets you use a Ktor engine, even though they're competitors!)

The real lock-in is the application server or library interface. For example, you can't switch from Spring to Micronaut without a rewrite of your HTTP handling code. To this point, Spring is just another vendor.

"Helps me manage my large monolithic app" #

I went from using Inversion of Control frameworks, to Guice as a lighter alternative, to what I do which is just new up each singleton in the application class. It's not problematic, and it's much easier to reason about. Maybe someday we'll all be using context receivers, but for now direct dependency injection from the main class is the simplest solution that works for me.

It's pretty similar to this recent post on how one person writes HTTP services in Go, which uses test-friendly techniques like functions as arguments to services.

That said, who's building large monolithic apps these days? The current standard for most web apps is smaller, more granular apps, which means less dependencies. Most applications I write these days have a 100 line long App class that loads the configuration, creates the services and routes, and starts the services from a main method. It's simply not a real problem any longer for most situations.

"Reduces dependency management issues" #

Raise your hand if you or someone you know has a Spring application stuck using old versions because they don't have the time to migrate it to the latest version.

Keep your hand raised if you've been flagged by security for running with a high severity vulnerability in your app, but can't easily fix the issue because the vulnerable version is a required dependency of your application framework.

Want to know who almost never have that problem? People that don't use an application framework, and just use libraries.

The best way to do it today is Gradle catalogs + some automated dependency update tool like renovate or dependabot. For example, I use renovate at work, and my configuration looks like this:

  "$schema": "",
  "extends": [
  "schedule": [
    "every weekday",
    "every weekend"
  "timezone": "America/Chicago",
  "semanticCommits": "enabled",
  "dependencyDashboard": true,
  "dependencyDashboardAutoclose": false,
  "dependencyDashboardApproval": false

Each week I get an automated PR for each app that bumps all the minor versions in one PR, and creates a separate PR for any major (potentially breaking) dependency updates.

Know what I'm not doing? I'm not reading the Spring Boot migration guide.

And more on dependency management and you know how many lines of third-party code is running in production for your little Spring Boot app?

In an A/B comparison between a Spring Boot reference application and its identically-featured vanilla Kotlin equivalent, the Spring Boot application had an average of 162 runtime dependencies (JARs) vs 61 for vanilla Kotlin. That's a 162% increase in runtime dependencies, and represented about 2 million lines of running code for Spring Boot vs about 800k for the Kotlin equivalent. That's a lot of potentially vulnerable code that you don't have control over.

"Provides a productive MVC pattern" #

Using http4k as an example of how easy it is today with modern libraries:

fun main() {
  val app = { request: Request -> Response(OK).body("Hello, ${request.query("name")}!") }
  val server = app.asServer(Undertow(9000)).start()

The app function can even be unit tested without starting a server!

"Helps me package my application more easily" #

Another thing that is trivial these days using the gradle application plugin.

Here's an example of my gradle file that configures the application plugin, which will create an executable directory structure for my application:

plugins {

application {
  applicationName = "app"

Then run ./gradlew distTar as part of the CI build process. This process is identical for any application built these days regardless of whether you're using an application framework or not.

"Helps me unit test my code more easily" #

Spring originally made testing easier, but the shift to annotations has essentially eliminated the ability to unit test code.

The reason is that you can't unit test a class with annotations like @GET or @Transactional in it.

Everything's an integration test when you need to spin up the framework context, which is slower and more complex than unit testing.

In the same A/B comparison of identically featured applications built using Spring Boot and vanilla Kotlin, the mean test execution time was over 185% slower for Spring Boot versus vanilla Kotlin. (16 seconds for vanilla Kotlin, 46 seconds for Spring Boot on an M1 Max MacBook Pro)

Starting from scratch #

Picture this scenario: You're a good, experienced programmer in other languages, but you're new to the JVM, and you've been tasked to determine the stack for a new JVM application.

This application will serve up API requests using Undertow, make HTTP client calls using OkHttp, and consume messages using Apache Kafka. It will use these libraries regardless of whether you use Spring or not.

Would you rather learn how to use Kafka directly, or would you rather learn how to use Kafka through Spring's abstraction?

If you're not already familiar with the contents of those two links, please just click into those and briefly scan them. The tl;dr; is that Kafka is a very powerful and useful messaging tool, but there are a lot of dials you need to adjust to use it correctly.

Using the default Kafka @KafkaListener annotation and wondering why your consumer performance is over an order of magnitude slower than a plain consumer? Oh - it was committing offsets on every message? Aw shucks, guess you picked the wrong message listener interface out of the eight possible methods.

And lost some messages because your consumer was set to autocommit? Unfortunately you now have to not only read the Kafka docs, but also read how that relates to Spring's abstraction over it.

This pattern is true for every library used in the application. You don't have less to understand - you have more to understand!

This also assumes Spring gives you the necessary control over the tool you need, which isn't always the case.

Does that sound appealing?

Why are people still using Spring? #

Because Spring makes it easy to start a project, and most people advocating Spring don't realize that what they consider a sunk cost is really a significant fixed cost.

On starting projects quickly #

Tools like the Spring Initializr and Micronaut Launch make it easier to start a project. This is a real benefit. But just about everyone else makes starting a project easier now too. e.g. the Ktor Project Generator and http4k's toolbox.

To Spring's credit, the documentation is very thorough and generally better than most other projects. This gets you going. When things get tough, and you need to step through code to see what's really going on, this is where annotations work against you. You end up poring over heaps of documentation and obtuse stack traces spending hours or days trying to figure out what's wrong with the system.

On people and the sunk cost fallacy #

People use annotation-based frameworks because they work. Many projects have been built using them, and people are hesitant to change from what they know works.

As an example of what not to do, consider the frontend development landscape over the last decade. The amount of churn and short-lived fads is embarrassing, even for our immature industry. And that debate is far from settled yet.

Some JVM developers in the backend community have settled though. I'm one of the first people to say things like "let's make a choice to use boring technology X for Y years", but the time to continue using annotation-based frameworks like Spring Boot has passed.

For those that have given the vanilla Kotlin approach a try, the response has been overwhelmingly positive in my observations. They typically become strong advocates of it once they've spent a couple of weeks with it.

The reason people using a vanilla Kotlin approach are often joyful is because they've stopped paying the framework tax. People that have only used heavy frameworks don't know that these constant burdens can be lifted:

On Micronaut #

A relatively small percentage of people are tired of Spring and have embraced Micronaut.

Micronaut in my opinion is just a slightly less-bad version of Spring Boot though, and solves the wrong problems.

Advertised Feature My viewpoint
Polyglot Framework This should be listed as a limitation, not an advertised feature. If you don't use an annotation-based inversion of control framework, you can use whatever language you want without limitation.
Natively cloud-native
Distributed tracing? Use OpenTelemetry. Cloud runtimes? Use docker or any of the available hosting services. Discovery services? Use your infrastructure's routing features natively.
Fast data-access config Use hoplite, the repository pattern, and your data access library directly.
Smooth learning curve The guide alone is over 25,000 lines for your smooth reading pleasure. Do you consider learning about Bean qualifiers and Scopes on meta annotations to be essential complexity?
Fast, easy unit testing Just like Spring Boot.
Aspect-oriented API You're gonna have to debug your application when things go wrong, yes? Are you comfortable with stack traces coming from this? There are words like "simply" and "trivial" in there that are simply not.
Seamless API Visibility Generated swagger specs is a nice feature and not enough people do that IMO. It's available in lightweight tools though.
AOT Compilation Micronaut's startup time and memory footprint is much smaller than Spring's, but so is not using a framework at all. Also, most people don't care about a 10 second server startup time unless you're writing functions as a service. And if memory consumption is a barrier, you probably aren't using Java.

Micronaut suffers from most of the same problems Spring Boot has, but is less popular, and isn't a very compelling reason for those using Spring to switch to it in my opinion.

On the future of the JVM #

Java is still widely used, but it's on the decline. Competition comes from languages like Python, Go, C#, and JavaScript. Especially Python being more approachable than any other mainstream language.

These languages don't use annotation-based inversion of control frameworks, and programmers of those languages aren't asking for it. They view annotations as an annoying obstacle that gets in the way of onboarding and productivity. I've polled them in their communities; this is the #1 reason they're repelled by Java.

And this bums me out. I've spent over half of my 27-year career writing for the JVM, and I don't want to code in Java either. But Kotlin is great. It's my favorite language on the JVM above Java, Groovy, Scala, and Clojure. Kotlin is better in many ways than any other language for typical use cases of server applications. It still carries some of the baggage of Java's history, but it's a really good language.

I've taught a Python programmer Kotlin and watched them grow to really like it. That doesn't happen with annotation-based frameworks; it's the opposite in my experience, and I think the continued use of annotation-based frameworks will continue the decline of Java.

Also consider how tools like ChatGPT and Copilot will affect the situation.

Especially for newer programmers, these tools generate code the person doesn't fully understand. Languages like Python and Go have been built with an eye toward approachability, so will be readable in more situations compared to languages with a richer syntax like Java. But have Copilot emit a barrage of annotations? Good luck with that. These developers will suffer, and so will your project.

It doesn't have to be like that though. Use Kotlin, ditch the annotation framework, and use a simpler method.