Validation User Guide

Building a good domain model requires more than just defining data structures. One of the commodities required for describing domain specifics is making sure that the data is correct. This guide will walk you though the API the Validation Library which helps achieving this goal.

All of the validation features described here are currently supported in the Java environment. Many are supported in Dart as well. For more info, see the description of individual features given in the sections below.


Spine uses Protobuf for defining data structures of the domain models. The constraints that define correctness of data are also defined at this level using custom Protobuf options offered by the Validation Library.

In order to use validation features, you don’t need to understand how custom options work. Those who are interested in the details of this advanced feature of Protobuf, please see the Protobuf Guide for details.

Here are simple steps in adding validation to the data model:

  1. The programmer adds validation constraints to the Protobuf types of the model.
  2. Spine Model Compiler generates the code which provides validation features.
  3. The programmer calls the validation API of these data types as their instances are created.

Java validation API

For Java, we generate additional code to the Protobuf message classes. In particular, the message builders get one extra method: vBuild() — short for “validate and build”. It acts just like build() but also throws a ValidationException if the message is not valid:

         .vBuild(); // ← Throws ValidationException. 

If the validation is not required, you may call build() or buildPartial() provided by Protobuf Java API.

The message class also gets an extra method — validate(). This method does not throw exceptions. Instead, it returns a list of ConstraintViolations:

MyMessage msg = MyMessage.newBuilder()
List<ConstraintViolation> violations = msg.validate(); 

If the message is valid, the list is empty. If one or more constraints are violated, all the violations will be present in the list.

Dart validation API

In Dart, we generate functions for validating messages separately from the message classes. Those functions can be accessed via the known types:

var msg = getMessage();
var validate = theKnownTypes.validatorFor(msg);
ValidationError error = validate(msg);

Similarly to validate() method in Java, the validation function does not throw exceptions. A list of ConstraintViolations can be obtained from the ValidationError.

Validation options overview

In most cases validation constraints are defined for Protobuf message fields such as if a field must be populated or it must be withing a range, or match a regular expression. Not so often it may be necessary to require a combination of fields. In this case, validation options are defined at the level of a corresponding message type.

Required fields

When modelling a domain, we often come up to certain data points which cannot be skipped. Those are represented by required fields of an entity state, a Command, an Event, etc.

Protobuf 2 used to have a native support for required fields. However, from the serialization perspective, that proved to be a design mistake. If a required field was missing, the message could not be serialized and sent over the wire. Also, it is often too easy to add a new required field, thereby breaking backwards-compatibility of the message type. In Protobuf 3 all the fields are optional.

In the Validation Library, we’ve revived the concept of required fields, but on a different level. The difference to the Protobuf 2 way is that out required fields do not affect the serialization of the message. If a required field is missing, it still can be serialized and passed over the wire. By separating validation from serialization, we allow users to choose to ignore validation errors and still transfer messages over the wire when needed.

How required fields work

Fields in Protobuf may have either a primitive type or a user-defined type. A user-defined type is a message or an enum and primitive types are numbers, string, and bytes. If a message or an enum field is not set, the default value is assigned automatically:

ZonedDateTime time = getZonedTime();
ZoneId timeZone = time.getZoneId();
assert timeZone.equals(ZoneId.getDefaultInstance());

However, due to limitations of the binary format, there is no way to tell if a numeric field is set to 0 or just not set:

LocalTime time = getTime();
int hours = time.getHours();
assert hours == 0;

This means that a numeric field cannot be required, as there is no way to check if it is set. All the other fields can be required. For message fields this means that the message must not be empty:

ZonedDateTime time = getZonedTime();
LocalDateTime dateTime = time.getDateTime();
assert !dateTime.equals(LocalDateTime.getDefaultInstance());

For enum fields, this means that the enum value must have a number other than 0 (since the enum value with number 0 is the default value of the field):

LocalDate date = getDate();
Month month = date.getMonth();
assert !month.equals(Month.MONTH_UNDEFINED);

For string and bytes fields this means that the sequence must not be empty:

PersonName name = getName();
String givenName = name.getGivenName();
assert !givenName.isEmpty();

For collection fields (i.e. repeated and map), a field is considered set if:

  1. The collection is not empty.
  2. At least one of the entries (values for maps) matches the rules described above.

Note that collections of numeric fields can be required. In those cases, only the rule 1. applies and the rule 2. is ignored.

Declaring required fields

In the basic scenario, a single required field is marked with the (required) option:

import "spine/options.proto";

// A phone number represented by a string of digits.
message PhoneNumber {
    string digits = 1 [(required) = true];

Here, the field PhoneNumber.digits is required. If the API user tries to validate an instance of PhoneNumber without this field, a ConstraintViolation is produced:

           .vBuild(); // ← Throws ValidationException.

There are more complex cases for required fields than just a single field. Consider a oneof field group, which always has to be set. Applying (required) to the fields does not make sense, since only one field in the group can be set at a time. Instead, Spine provides (is_required) option:

import "spine/options.proto";
import "spine/net/email_address.proto";
import "acme/auth.proto";

// The means to identify a user.
message UserIdentity {
    oneof auth_type {
        option (is_required) = true;
        email = 1;
        auth.GoogleId google = 2; 
        auth.TwitterId twitter = 3; 

In this case one of the fields,, and UserIdentity.twitter must be set.

(is_required) option is not yet supported in Dart.

In some other cases, a field may be either required or not, depending on the value of another field. Consider an example of an online store item:

import "spine/options.proto";
import "spine/core/user_id.proto";
import "google/protobuf/timestamp.proto";

// A product which can be purchased at the online store.
message Item {
    // ...

    google.protobuf.Timestamp when_opened_for_sale = 42;
    spine.core.UserId who_opened_for_sale = 43 [(goes).with = "when_opened_for_sale"];

The Item.who_opened_for_sale field only makes sense for the domain if the Item.when_opened_for_sale field is set. If who_opened_for_sale is set and when_opened_for_sale is not, a constraint violation is produced.

Finally, there are some cases, in which a pair of fields may be set at the same time, but at least one of them must be set. This and more complex cases are handled by the type-level (required_field) option:

import "spine/options.proto";

// A name of a person.
message PersonName {
    option (required_field) = "given_name|honorific_prefix & family_name";

    string honorific_prefix = 1;
    string given_name = 2;
    string middle_name = 3;
    string family_name = 4;
    string honorific_suffix = 5;

In case of PersonName, either given_name or both honorific_prefix and family_name must be set. All three can be set at the same time.

Missing fields

In case if a required field is missing, the validation error message will explicitly say so. However, if you need a specific error message for this field, you can provide it via the (if_missing) option:

import "spine/options.proto";

// A phone number represented by a string of digits.
message PhoneNumber {
    string digits = 1 [(required) = true,
                       (if_missing).msg_format = "Phone number must contain digits."];

Note that this option only applies to fields marked with (required) and not to the fields referenced via any other options.

If (goes) option is used, the error message can be customized with the (goes).msg_format parameter. Note that the message should contain two “%s” insertion points: first for the name of the field declaring the option and second for the name of the field targeted by the option.

When (required) is implicit

When defining the domain Commands, Events, or entity states, we have found to be convenient that the first field of the respective Message is the identifier. Therefore, by convention, Spine treats the first fields of such objects as their IDs:

import "spine/options.proto";
import "spine/core/user_id.proto";
import "spine/people/person_name.proto";

// The state of the User Aggregate.
message User {
    option (entity).kind = AGGREGATE;

    spine.core.UserId id = 2;
    spine.people.PersonName name = 1;
    // ...

In this case, the field is implicitly (required) = true. Note that the field number has nothing to do with this convention, only the field order. Thus, is not required.

For the next example, consider user_events.proto:

import "spine/options.proto";
import "spine/net/url.proto";
import "spine/core/user_id.proto";

// An event emitted when a user's profile picture is changed.
message ProfilePictureChanged { new_picture = 1 [(required) = false];
    spine.core.UserId user = 2;

In this case, the field is not required, since it’s not declared first in the field. The field ProfilePictureChanged.new_picture is not required because the convention is overridden with an explicit option.

Nested message validation

When a message is validated, only the “shallow” constraints are checked by default. This means that the message fields can be invalid and the container message is still considered valid.

In order to enable message field checks, use (validate) option:

import "spine/options.proto";
import "spine/people/person_name.proto";

// The state of the User Aggregate.
message User {
    // ...
    spine.people.PersonName name = 2 [(validate) = true];

When an instance of User is validated, constraints of will also be checked. If any violations are found, they will be packed into a single violation of the User message.

// Honorific prefix not set and `name` is not valid.
PersonName name = PersonName
        .build(); // Build without validation.
User user = User
        .vBuild(); // ← Throws ValidationException.

When applied to a repeated or a map field, each item (value of a map) is validated.

(validate) option is not yet supported in Dart.

Invalid fields

If a specific error message is required for an invalid field, the (if_invalid) option should be used:

import "spine/options.proto";
import "spine/people/person_name.proto";

// The state of the User Aggregate.
message User {
    // ...
    spine.people.PersonName name = 2 [(validate) = true,
                                      (if_invalid).msg_format = "User name is invalid."];

Number bounds

For numeric fields, Spine defines a few options to limit the range of expected values.


(min) and (max) are twin options which define the lower and higher bounds for a numeric fields. The value is specified as a string. Note that the string must be parsable into the field’s number format (e.g. a int32 field cannot have a "2.5" bound).

By default, the bounds are inclusive. Use the exclusive property to make a bound exclusive.


import "spine/options.proto";

// A distance between two points of a map with a millimeter precision.
message Distance {

    uint64 meters = 1;
    uint32 millimeters = 2 [(max) = { value: "1000" exclusive: true }];


The (range) option is a shortcut for a combination of (min) and (max). A range specifies both boundaries for a numeric field. (range) is a string option. The (range) notation allow declaring inclusive and exclusive boundaries. A round bracket (“(” or “)”) denotes an exclusive boundary and a square bracket (“[” or “]”) denotes an inclusive one.


import "spine/options.proto";

// A time without a time-zone.
// It is a description of a time, not an instant on a time-line.
message LocalTime {
    int32 hours = 1 [(range) = "[0..23]"];
    int32 minutes = 2 [(range) = "[0 .. 60)"];
    float seconds 3 [(range) = "[0 .. 60.0)"];

In the example above, the LocalTime.hours field can span between 0 and 23, the LocalTime.minutes field can span between 0 and 59, and the LocalTime.seconds field can span between 0.0 and 60.0, but can never reach 60. Exclusive boundaries are especially powerful for fractional numbers, since, mathematically, there is no hard upper limit which a field value can reach.

Usage of the double dot separator (“..”) between the bounds is mandatory.

In some languages, Protobuf unsigned integers are represented by signed language primitives. For example, in Java, a uint64 is represented with a long. If a value of a field in Java will overflow into long negatives, it will be considered a negative by the validation library. Keep that in mind when defining lower bounds.

Regular expressions

For string fields, the library provides the (pattern) option. Users can define a regular expression to match the field values. Also, some common pattern modifiers are available:

  • dot_all (a.k.a. “single line”) — enables the dot (.) symbol to match all the characters, including line breaks;
  • case_insensitive — allows to ignore the case of the matched symbols;
  • multiline — enables the ^ (caret) and $ (dollar) signs to match a start and an end of a line instead of a start and an end of the whole expression;
  • unicode — enables matching the whole UTF-8 sequences;
  • partial_match — allows the matched strings to contain a full match to the pattern and some other characters as well. By default, a string only matches a pattern if it is a full match, i.e. there are no unaccounted for leading and/or trailing characters.


import "spine/options.proto";

// A link to an HTTP(S) resource.
message HyperReference {
    string url = 1 [(pattern) = { 
            regex: "https?://.+\\..+" 
            modifier: {
                case_insensitive: true

It is recommended to use simple patterns due to performance considerations. For example, fully fledged URL and email patterns are famously too long to be used in most cases. Treat (pattern) checks as if they were yet another code with regex matching in it.

Temporal constraints

Spine provides an option for validating time-bearing types. Those are:

  • google.protobuf.Timestamp;
  • spine.time.YearMonth;
  • spine.time.LocalDate;
  • spine.time.LocalDateTime;
  • spine.time.OffsetDateTime;
  • spine.time.ZonedDateTime;
  • any user-defined type which implements the Temporal interface (io.spine.time.Temporal for Java).

Using the option (when), you may declare that the timestamp should lie in past or in future.

import "spine/time_options.proto";
import "spine/time/time.proto";

// A command to place an order.
message PlaceOrder {
    // ...

    spine.time.ZonedDateTime when_placed = 12 [(when).in = PAST];
    spine.time.ZonedDateTime when_expires = 13 [(when).in = FUTURE];

Note that the value is checked in relation to the current server time. In most cases, this should not be an issue. However, be aware that using FUTURE in Events and entity states may cause validation errors when the future comes. Since entity states are validated upon each state change, and historical events can be replayed, avoid declaring parts of those domain objects to be in future. Commands, on the other hand, are not replayed or stored automatically. Thus, It is safe to use FUTURE in Commands.

Distinct collections

Often, a repeated field logically represents a set rather than a list. Protobuf does not have a native support for sets. Moreover, it is often an invalid operation to add a duplicate element to a set. For such cases, Spine provides the (distinct) option, which constrains a repeated or a map field to only contain non-duplicating elements (values in case of maps).


import "spine/options.proto";
import "spine/net/email_address.proto";

// The state of the User Aggregate.
message User {
    // ...

    repeated recovery_emails = 42 [(distinct) = true];

Non-mutable fields

Some messages persist in your system through a stretch of time. The value represented by such a message may change. However, some fields must not change ever. For checking that, Spine allows marking fields as (set_once). The option allows changing a value of a field only if the current value is the default value. Changing a field from a non-default value to anything else will cause a violation.

In Java, you can validate messages against a set_once constraint via the Validate.checkValidChange() method. For example:

MyMessage old = getMessage();
MyMessage changed = doSomeStuff(old);
Validate.checkValidChange(old, changed);

Validate.checkValidChange() throws a ValidationException if the constraint is violated.

In Dart, there is no support for this feature.

Many fields of an entity are immutable. They may be set one in the life of the entity and then should never be changed. The (set_once) constraint is checked automatically for entity states upon each change.


import "spine/options.proto";
import "google/protobuf/timestamp.proto";

// The state of the Order Aggregate.
message Order {
    option (entity).kind = AGGREGATE;

    // ...
    google.protobuf.Timestamp when_deleted = 314 [(set_once) = true];

Once the Order.when_deleted field is filled, it can never change.

External constraints

Sometimes, you need to impose extra validation rules on types you do not control. Consider the example of an image URL which should always have the ftp protocol. In Spine, a Url is a tiny type for representing URL strings:


// ...

// A Universal Resource Locator.
message Url {

    // The value of the URL.
    string spec = 3 [(required) = true];

    reserved 1, 2;

Now, we will use this type in our domain definition:

import "spine/net/url.proto";

// The state of the User Aggregate.
message User {
    // ... profile_picture = 42;

How do we add validation to the Url so that only the User.profile_picture is affected? Just for this purpose, Spine provides the mechanism of external constraints — validation constraints defined outside the message.

To declare an external constraint, use the (constraint_for) option:

import "spine/options.proto";

// The external constraint definition for `User.profile_picture`.
message UserPictureConstraint {
    option (constraint_for) = "org.example.user.User.profile_picture";

    string spec = 3 [
            (required) = true,
            (pattern).regex = "ftp://.+",
            (pattern).msg_format = "Profile picture should be available via FTP (regex: %s)."

The definition of User itself need not change.

Note that the fields of an external constraint declaration should replicate the fields of the target type. In our example, the Url type. If the Url type had many fields, only those which need any validation should be declared. However, note that if the Url type declares any validation on its own, all of it is discarded and only the “substitute” rules from the UserPictureConstraint are used.

External constraints are not yet supported in Dart.

Mind performance considerations when declaring external constraints. It is expected that the number of such constrains in the whole project is not large, significantly smaller than the number of normal constraints. This mechanism is not designed to override validation rules of an entire library of Protobuf definitions, merely a small amount of local patches.