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Understanding Spring MVC Model and Session Attributes

by | Oct 19, 2013

As a Java Web application developer, you quickly learn about the request (HttpServletRequest) and session (HttpSession) scopes.  Understanding these scopes and how to work data and objects in and out of these scopes is critical to designing and building Web applications in Java.  [For a quick tutorial on request and session scopes, here is a post in StackOverflow that can help.]

Spring MVC Scopes

When I started writing Web applications in Spring MVC, I found the Spring model and session attributes to be a bit of a mystery – especially as they relate to the HTTP request and session scopes and their attributes that I knew well.  Was a Spring model element going to be found in my session or request?  If so, how could I control this?  In this post, I hope to demystify how Spring MVC’s model and session work.

Spring’s @ModelAttribute

There are several ways to add data or objects to Spring’s model.  Data or objects are typically added to Spring’s model via an annotated method in the controller.  In the example below, @ModelAttribute is used to add an instance of MyCommandBean to the model under the key of “myRequestObject”.

On an incoming request, any methods annotated with @ModelAttribute are called before any controller handler method (like requestHandlingMethod in the example above).  These methods add data to a java.util.Map that is added to the Spring model before the execution of the handler method.  This can be demonstrated by a simple experiment.  I created two JSP pages:  index.jsp and nextpage.jsp.  A link on index.jsp page is used to send a request into the application triggering the requestHandlingMethod() of MyController.  Per the code above, the requestHandlingMethod() returns “nextpage” as the logical name of the next view which is resolved to nextpage.jsp in this case.


When this little Web site is executed in this fashion, the System.out.println’s of the controller, show how the @ModelAttribute method is executed before the handler method.  It also shows that the MyCommandBean was created and added to Spring’s model and was available in the handler method.

Now, the question is “where is Spring model data stored?”  Is it stored in the standard Java request scope?  The answer is – yes… eventually.  As you can tell from the output above, MyCommandBean is in the model, but not yet in the request object when the handler method executes.  Indeed, Spring does not add the model data to the request as an attribute until after the execution of the handler method and before presentation of the next view (in this case the nextpage.jsp).


This can also be demonstrated by printing out the attribute data stored in the HttpServletRequest in both index.jsp and nextpage.jsp.  I arranged for both of these pages to use a JSP scriptlet (shown below) to display the HttpServletRequest attributes.

When the application comes up and index.jsp is displayed, you can see that there are no attributes in request scope.

Request Attributes Before

In this case, when the “do something” link is clicked it causes the MyController’s handler method to execute, which in turn causes the nextpage.jsp to be displayed.  Given the same JSP scriptlet is on the nextpage.jsp, it too renders what is in the request scope.  Lo and behold, when nextpage.jsp renders, it shows the model MyCommandBean created in the controller has been added to the HttpServletRequest scope!  The Spring model attribute key of “myRequestObject” has even been copied and used as the request attribute’s key.

requestattributesafterSo Spring model data created prior to (or during) the handler method execution has been copied to the HttpServletRequest before the next view is rendered.

Reason Behind Spring Model Versus Request

You may wonder why Spring uses model attributes.  Why not just add data directly to the request object?  I found the answer to this question in Rod Johnson et. al’s book Professional Java Development with the Spring Framework.  This book is a little dated with regard to the Spring API (written to Spring 2.0), but I have always found the text provide a little more explanation of what’s going on under the covers of the Spring engine.  Here is the quote from that text regarding model elements:

“…adding elements directly to the HttpServletRequest (as request attributes) would seem to serve the same purpose.  The reason to do this is obvious when taking a look at one of the requirements we have set for the MVC framework:  It should be as view-agnostic as possible, which means we’d like to be able to incorporate view technologies not bound to the HttpServletRequest as well.” (page 429-430)

Spring’s @SessionAttributes

So now you know how Spring’s model data is managed and how it relates to regular Http request attribute data.  What about Spring’s session data?

Spring’s @SessionAttributes is used on a controller to designate which model attributes should be stored in the session.  Actually, to be precise, the Spring documentation states that the @SessionAttributes annotation “list the names of model attributes which should be transparently stored in the session or some conversational storage.”  Again, the “some conversational storage” suggests how Spring MVC tries to remain technology agnostic it is design.

In actually, what @SessionAttributes allows you to do is tell Spring which of your model attributes will also be copied to HttpSession before rendering the view.  Again, this can be demonstrated with a little code.

In my index.jsp and nextpage.jsp, I added an additional JSP scriptlet to show the HttpSession attributes.

I annotated MyController with @SessionAttributes to put the same model attribute (myRequestObject) in Spring session.

I also added code to the handler method of my controller to show what attributes are in HttpSession (just as it shows what attributes are in HttpServletRequest).

So now, we should be able to see what is in the session object before, during, and after Spring MVC has handled one HTTP request when annotated with @SessionAttributes.  The results are shown below.  First, as the index.jsp page is displayed (before the request is sent and handled by Spring MVC), we see that there is no attribute data in either the HttpServletRequest or HttpSession.
Request and Session attributes before request
During the execution of the handler method (requestHandlingMethod), you see MyCommandBean has been added to the Spring model attributes, but it is not yet in the HttpServletRequest or HttpSession scope.
During handler method executionBut after the handler method has executed and when the nextpage.jsp is rendered, you can see that the model attribute data (MyCommandBean) has indeed been copied as an attribute (with the same attribute key) to both HttpServletRequest and HttpSession. HttpSession and HttpServletRequest attributes after handler method completes

Controlling Session Attributes

So now you have an appreciation of how Spring model and session attribute data are added to HttpServletRequest and HttpSession. But now you may be concerned with how to manage that data in Spring session. Spring provides a means to remove Spring session attributes, and thereby also remove it from HttpSession (without having to kill the entire HttpSession). Simply add a Spring SessionStatus object as a parameter to a controller handler method. In this method, use the SessionStatus object to end the Spring session.

Wrap Up

So hopefully, this post has helped you understand Spring model and session attributes.  Its not magic, its just a matter of understanding how HttpSession and HttpServletRequest are used to store Spring model and session attributes.  I have placed the code demonstrated here on the Intertech Web site.  If you are interested in using it to explore and understand Spring model and session, feel free to download it from here.

If you are interested in learning Spring or any Java topic further, think about signing up for a class at Intertech today.  Learn more and sign up here.

Intertech also provides consulting for Java and Spring Framework. See what we can do for you!

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