Documenting your REST API with Spring Rest Docs

5 minute read

The first impression counts. When you’re developing an API of any kind, chances are that the first impression is gained from a look into the API docs. If that first impression fails to convince, developers will go on looking for another API they can use instead.

Why not Swagger?

Looking for a tool to document a RESTful API, the first tool you probably come across is Swagger. Among other things, Swagger provides tooling for a lot of different programming languages and frameworks and allows automated creation of an API documentation and even of a web frontend that can interact with your API. Also, Swagger is well established as a tool supporting the development of RESTful APIs.

But at least if you’re familiar to Java, there’s a compelling reason to use Spring Rest Docs instead of or at least additionally to Swagger: Spring Rest Docs integrates directly into your integration tests. Tests will fail if you forget to document a field that you have just added to your API or if you removed a field that is still part your API docs. This way, your documentation is always up-to-date with your implementation.

This article explains the basics of Spring Rest Docs along the lines of some code examples. If you want to see it in action, you may want to check out the coderadar project on github.

Snippet-Generating Integration Tests

The following code snippet shows a simple integration test of a Spring MVC controller that exposes a REST API to create a project resource.

public void createProjectSuccessfully() throws Exception {
    ProjectResource projectResource = ...

Let’s have a look at the details: mvc() is a helper method that creates a MockMvc object that we use to submit a POST request to the URL /projects. The result of the request is passed into the document() method to automatically create documentation for the request. The document() method is statically imported from the class MockMvcRestDocumentation to keep the code readable.

The MockMvc object returned by the method mvc() is initialized with a JUnitRestDocumentation object, as shown in the next code snippet. This way, the MockMvc object is instrumented to create Asciidoctor snippets into the folder build/generated-snippets.

public JUnitRestDocumentation restDocumentation = new JUnitRestDocumentation("build/generated-snippets");

protected MockMvc mvc() {
    return MockMvcBuilders.webAppContextSetup(applicationContext)

When the test is executed, Spring Rest Docs will now generate snippets into the snippets folder that contain an example request and an example response. The following snippets would be generated into the folder build/generated-snippets/projects/create.


POST /projects HTTP/1.1
Content-Type: application/json
Host: localhost:8080
Content-Length: 129

  "name" : "name",
  "vcsType" : "GIT",
  "vcsUrl" : "http://valid.url",
  "vcsUser" : "user",
  "vcsPassword" : "pass"


HTTP/1.1 201 Created
Content-Type: application/hal+json;charset=UTF-8
Content-Length: 485

  "name" : "name",
  "vcsType" : "GIT",
  "vcsUrl" : "http://valid.url",
  "vcsUser" : "user",
  "vcsPassword" : "pass",
  "_links" : {
    "self" : {
      "href" : "http://localhost:8080/projects/1"
    "files" : {
      "href" : "http://localhost:8080/projects/1/files"
    "analyzers" : {
      "href" : "http://localhost:8080/projects/1/analyzers"
    "strategy" : {
      "href" : "http://localhost:8080/projects/1/strategy"

These examples already go a long way to documenting your REST API. Examples are the best way for developers to get to know your API. The snippets automatically generated from your test don’t help when they rot in your snippets folder, though, so we have to expose them by including them into a central documentation of some sorts.

Creating API Docs with Asciidoctor

With the snippets at hand, we can now create our API documentation. The snippets are in Asciidoctor format by default. Asciidoctor is a markup language similiar to Markdown, but much more powerful. You can now simply create an Asciidoctor document with your favorite text editor. That document will provide the stage for including the snippets. An example document would look like this:

v{version}, Tom Hombergs, {date}
:doctype: book
:icons: font
:source-highlighter: highlightjs
:highlightjs-theme: github
:toc: left
:toclevels: 3

== Introduction
... some warm introductory words... .

== Creating a Project

=== Example Request

=== Example Response

The document above includes the example HTTP request and response snippets that are generated by the integration test above. While it could yet be fleshed out with a little more text, the documentation above is already worth its weight in gold (imagine each byte weighing a pound or so…). Even if you change your implementation, you will not have to touch your documentation, since the example snippets will be generated fresh with each build and thus be up-to-date at all times! You still have to include the generation of your snippets into your build though, which we will have a look at in the next section

Integrating Documentation into your Build

The integration tests should run with each build. Thus, our documentation snippets are generated with each build. The missing step now is to generate human-readable documentation from your asciidoctor document.

This can be done using the Asciidoctor Gradle Plugin when you’re using Gradle as your build tool or the Asciidoctor Maven Plugin when you’re using Maven. The following examples are based on Gradle.

In your build.gradle, you will first have to define a dependency to the plugin:

buildscript {
    repositories {
        maven {
            url ""

    dependencies {
        classpath "org.asciidoctor:asciidoctor-gradle-plugin:1.5.3"

Next, you create a task that calls the plugin to parse your asciidoctor document and transforms it into a human-readable HTML document. Note, that in the following example, the asciidoctor document must be located in the folder src/main/asciidoc and that the resulting HTML document is created at build/docs/html5/<name_of_your_asciidoc>.html.

ext {
    snippetsDir = file("build/generated-snippets")

asciidoctor {
    attributes "snippets": snippetsDir,
            "version": version,
            "date": new SimpleDateFormat("yyyy-MM-dd").format(new Date()),
            "stylesheet": "themes/riak.css"
    inputs.dir snippetsDir
    dependsOn test
    sourceDir "src/main/asciidoc"
    outputDir "build/docs"

Next, we include the asciidoctor task to be run when we execute the build task, so that it is automatically run with each build.

build.dependsOn asciidoctor


Done! We just created an automated documentation that is updated with each run of our build. Let’s sum up a few facts:

  • Documentation of REST endpoints that are covered with a documenting integration test is automatically updated with each build and thus stays up-to-date to your implementation
  • Documentation of new REST endpoints is only added once you have created a documenting integration test for the endpoint
  • You should have 100% test coverage of REST endpoints and thus 100% of your REST endpoints documented (this does not necessarily mean 100% line coverage!)
  • You have to do a little manual documentation to create the frame that includes the automatically generated snippets
  • You have your documentation right within your IDE and thus always at hand to change it if necessary

There’s more you can do with Spring Rest Docs, which will be covered in future posts:

  • document the fields of a request or response
  • document field type constraints
  • document hypermedia (HATEOAS) links

If you want to see these features in a live example, have a look at the coderadar REST API or at the coderadar sources at github. If you want to dive deeper into the features of Spring Rest Docs have a look at the good reference documentation.

Any questions? Drop a comment!

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