Tags: programming, java

Controlling header formatting in JAX-RS applications

I’m been implementing an Enrollment over Secure Transport (EST) service in Dogtag PKI. During testing, I found that a notable client implementation parses the response Content-Type header in the following way:

if (!strncmp(
    "application/pkcs7-mime; smime-type=certs-only",
  ) {

The Dogtag EST service is a Jakarta RESTful Web Services (JAX-RS) application. It produces a Content-Type header value different from what the client expects (note the lack of whitespace):


As a consequence, the EST client fails to process the response. This is certainly a defect in the EST client implementation. But EST is used by many embedded or hard to update network devices. Or updates might not be available (now, ever?)

So, I needed to find a way to override the header default header formatting. This blog post describes my solution.

Specifying the Content-Type header §

The JAX-RS @Produces annotation specifies the Content-Type header value for a particular resource:

@Produces("application/pkcs7-mime; smime-type=certs-only")
public Response simpleenroll(byte[] data) {

Note that the string value is not used verbatim. Instead, it is parsed into a MediaType value and stored as such in the response headers (a MultivaluedMap<String, Object>).

When serialising the Response, header values are stringified via types that implement the RuntimeDelegate.HeaderDelegate<T> interface, where T is the real type of the header value Object. To serialise a MediaType header value, the JAX-RS machinery uses a instance of a a class that implements RuntimeDelegate.HeaderDelegate<MediaType>.

HeaderDelegate implementations are not part of the JAX-RS API. They are provided by the JAX-RS implementation. In Dogtag PKI, that’s RESTEasy. The class in question is:

public class MediaTypeHeaderDelegate
  implements RuntimeDelegate.HeaderDelegate<MediaType> {

The toString(MediaType type) method provided by this class prints the value without a space character between the subtype and the parameters. For the example resource above, it produces the string:


This is a legal production in the HTTP grammar, according to RFC 7230 and RFC 7231:

media-type = type "/" subtype *( OWS ";" OWS parameter )
OWS = *( SP / HTAB )

However, we already saw that at least one EST client is unable to process this value, because it expects a space character before the parameters:

application/pkcs7-mime; smime-type=certs-only

This is also a legal production. But the client is using strncmp to look for this exact string, instead of properly parsing the value. If we can’t fix the client behaviour, we have to find a workaround on the server to produce the exact string the client expects.

Idea 1: custom HeaderDelegate §

My first idea was to override the HeaderDelegate<MediaType> with our own implementation. I couldn’t find a general way to do that via the JAX-RS API. It does seem that you can do it using RESTEasy classes directly:

  1. Implement the custom HeaderDelegate<MediaType>. To avoid unnecessary work you could extend RESTEasy’s MediaTypeHeaderDelegate and override just the toString(MediaType) method.
  2. Obtain ResteasyProviderFactory.getInstance(). Invoke .addHeaderDelegate(MediaType.class, customInst) to replace the HeaderDelegate<MediaType>.

This approach has several disadvantages:

For these reasons I rejected the first idea and sought an approach that avoids these disadvantages.

Idea 2: response filter §

My next idea was to use a response filter to reformat the Content-Type response header. The Servlet API defines the ContainerResponseFilter interface:

public interface ContainerResponseFilter {
  void filter(
      ContainerRequestContext requestContext,
      ContainerResponseContext responseContext)
    throws IOException

The application applies each registered filter to each response, before serialising and sending the response. At the time response filters are applied, the Content-Type header value is a MediaType. It has not yet been converted to a String.

A response filter can add, remove, or replace response headers. Recall that headers are stored in a MultivaluedMap<String, Object>. This means that we can replace a MediaType value (whose serialisation is determined by the HeaderDelegate) with a String value (which will be written as is).

The .equals equality test for MediaType properly compares the properties of the instance without regard to string representation. As it should. This enables a succinct implementation where we:

  1. Decalre verbatim String header values we want to see in the response.
  2. Parse those strings into MediaType values.
  3. Match the Content-Type value in the response against parsed values.
  4. Replace matched header values with the corresponding verbatim String.

The implementation is straightforward:

public class ReformatContentTypeResponseFilter
    implements ContainerResponseFilter {

  private static String[] verbatim = {
    "application/pkcs7-mime; smime-type=certs-only"

  private static HashMap<MediaType, String> substitutions =
    new HashMap<>();

  static {
    for (String s : verbatim)
      substitutions.put(MediaType.valueOf(s), s);

  public void filter(
      ContainerRequestContext requestContext,
      ContainerResponseContext responseContext) {
    MultivaluedMap<String, Object> headers =
    Object v = headers.getFirst(HttpHeaders.CONTENT_TYPE);
    if (v != null && v instanceof MediaType
        && substitutions.containsKey(v)) {
        HttpHeaders.CONTENT_TYPE, substitutions.get(v));


There is currently only one header value whose formatting I need to precisely control. If we discover more, we only need to add the desired string serialisation to the verbatim array.

We must consider the possible scenario of different clients with different quirks. In that case, we could maintain separate substitutions maps for each known problematic client. We would use the User-Agent header, or other request characteristics, to identify the client and select the corresponding substitution map (if any). Hopefully this situation does not arise. But if it does, the increase in complexity of the solution is tolerable.

This solution works well and avoids the disadvantages of my first idea:

Conclusion §

It’s unfortunate that this workaround was even necessary. But given that it was, I’m happy with the solution. It is simple and portable across Servlet and JAX-RS implementations.

The same approach could be used for controlling formatting of any header value types, not just Content-Type / MediaType. I hope that sharing this solution will help people who encounter similar problems. At the very least, I hope that because of this post you learned something about Servlet and JAX-RS response header processing.

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