Sunday, March 20, 2011

Managing Property files with spring

There are few subtle complexities to managing properties in an enterprise Java Spring application, and if we are able to give fore-thought to it in design, one can yield big savings in terms of time, confusion, bugs, and gray hair down the road. 

So what we mean by properties ? Please refer here for this.

Fortunately for us, the Spring framework, with the PropertyPlaceholderConfigurer and PropertyOverrideConfigurer, provides the features and hooks we need to manage these cases (with the exception “dynamic” properties).

Please see PropertyPlaceholderConfigurer here. We can also set properties in a property file without even using placeholders in xml file with PropertyOverrideConfigurer.


Given the different possible types of properties, and Spring’s property framework, here are a few tips for managing them:
1) Consider using a JVM System property that sets the environment of the machine (e.g. “my.env=TEST”), telling the configurer which property file to use. For example:

<context:property-placeholder location="classpath:db-${my.env}.properties"/>

If the “my.env” property was set to “TEST”, then obviously the PropertyPlacementConfigurer would look for a file called “”. For Tomcat, this property can be set in the admin console or defined in a startup script (e.g. “-Dmy.env=TEST”) - neither of which is very elegant. Alternatively, it is possible to use JNDI with Tomcat, defining “my.env” in the server.xml and the context.xml of the web app. (Note, there are of course many other ways to solve this environment-specific problem, but this is an easy and relatively straight-forward one.)

2) It may be necessary to set the ignoreUnresolvablePlaceholders to true for any PropertyPlaceholderConfigurer, which will ensure that a configurer won’t fail if it can’t find a property. Why would this be a good thing? Oftentimes, one context file will import other context files, and each may have their own configurer. If ignoreUnresolvablePlaceholders is set to false (the default), then one configure would fail if it couldn’t find the property, even if another configurer down-stream could find it (see good explanation here). Beware, however, since this will suppress warnings for legitimate missing properties, making for some tough-to-debug configuration problems.

3) To encrypt properties, subclass the PropertyPlacementConfigurer and override the convertPropertyValue() method. For example:

protected String convertPropertyValue(String strVal) {
  //if strVal starts with “!!” then return EncryptUtil.decrypt(strVal)
  // else return strVal

4) Consider using the systemPropertiesMode property of the configurer to override properties defined in property files with System properties. For one-off environment specific properties this can be a helpful solution, however, for defining many properties, this configuration can be cumbersone.

5) For properties that need to be managed outside of the WAR, consider using a System property to define where the file is located. For example, the property ${ext.prop.dir} could define some default directory on the file system where external property files are kept:

<context:property-placeholder location="file:///${ext.prop.dir}"/>

This entails, however, that this property is set for any process that leverages the Spring container (e.g. add the param to the Run Configuration for integration/unit tests, etc.), otherwise the file would not be found. This can be a pain. To circumvent, the configurer can be overridden – changing the behavior such that it looks to the external directory only if the System property is set, otherwise it pulls from the classpath.

6) Beware of redundancy of environment-specific properties. For example, if the solution is to have one property file for each environment (e.g. “”, “”, etc.), then maintaining these properties can be a bit of a nightmare - if a property “foo” is added, then it would have to be added to the property file for each environment (e.g. DEV, TEST, PROD, etc.). The PropertyOverrideConfigurer is appropriate to eliminate this redundancy, setting the default value in the application context itself, but then the overriding value in a separate file. It’s important, however, to document this well, since it can look a bit “magical” to an unsuspecting maintenance developer who sees one value specified in the context file, but another used at runtime.


Managing properties for an enterprise application is a little trickier than one might expect. With Spring’s property configurers, however, the toughest part is just knowing what you need - the rest comes out of the box, or with some minor extensions.

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