Abstraction-Level vs. Meta-Level

As per wikipedia, a model is a pattern, plan, representation (especially in miniature), or description designed to show the main object or workings of an object, system, or concept. In the case of software engineering, models are used to represent specific aspects of the software system, such as static structures, communication paths, algorithms, etc.

Models can be created along two axis:

Abstraction level

An abstraction level is a way of hiding the implementation of a particular set of functionality. Both representations are however two descriptions of the same reality. The representation can vary in their level of detail or in their expressiveness. Example

C code – assembler code.
Both representation describe a sequence of operation in an imperative way, but C is much more expressive than assembler.

Java code – sequence diagram.
Both representations describe the run-time behavior of the system. The sequence diagram does however frequently omit details of the call flow.


A meta-level (and meta-model) is way to highlight the properties – the nature – of a particular set of elements. A meta-model describes then the constraints or the semantics to any set of such elements.

Object – class.
In OO technologies, object and classes belong to two different meta-level. The class is a representation of the structure (constraints) that any of the instance will fulfill.

An XML file can be validated against a DTD, which is not a representation of the particular file, but of the structure (constraints) that the file must fulfill.

Tower of models

Models themselves can be refined towards either higher abstraction level or meta-levels.

Component diagram – class diagram – Java code.
All three artifacts are representations of the same reality at various level of refinement and reasoning.

XML – Schema – Meta schema.
In this case, each model is meta description of the underlying one. XML Schema themselves must conform to the schema http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema.

As with the XML example, the tower of meta-model generally ends up in model specified in itself. That is, a recursion is introduced to stop the tower of meta-model from growing infinitely.
The term “modeling” refers commonly to “raising the abstraction level”; the term “meta-modelling” is used otherwise. Different tools/technologies don’t necessary represent different meta-levels. Inversly, one technology may be used to address different meta-level.
With respect to OO technologies, several UML diagrams and notations work at different meta-level. Object diagram and sequence diagrams describe the interaction between specific instances of objects. Class diagram specifies constraints (such as cardinality) or semantical relationship between objects (such as aggregation). Stereotypes can then be used to specifies constraints (such as “singleton”) or semantics (such as “entity”) to the class itself. For instance, an “entity” stereotype could be defined to flag all classes with an attribute “primary key” of type integer.
Level \ Technology


L0 Object  Object diagram,  Sequence diagram
L1 Class Class diagram
L2 Stereotype

Examples where meta-models are useful

Having three meta-level provides one extra level of indirection that can be very practical in some cases:


XML transformation

OO refactoring

Annotation processing

L0 – information Data Object Class annotation (e.g. @Entity)
L1 – model Schema Class Annotation processor (e.g. JPA)
L2 – meta-model Meta schema Metaclass Classloader

Here are three common examples which actually leverage the strength of meta-model.

XML transformation

The success of XML is related to the existence of a meta-model which makes it a semi-structured format. Structured data are interpretable only by their host application which is the only one to know the model. Unstructured data (plain text, image, etc.) have not model and are not interpretable at all. Semi-structured data have a model which is itself understandable by any other application which knows the meta-model. Due to this extra-level, reusable parser, validator, encryptor or even arbitrary transformer (think XSLT) could be created. The schema could also be extended without necessary breaking backward compatibility (think XPath).

OO refactoring

Refactoring rules is a typical example of the usage of the OO meta-model: refactoring rules are proved to preserve the validity of the model against the meta-model, and are reusable for any model.

Annotation processing

Annotation processing is yet another example where a meta-model is used under the hood. Just like the class-loader knows how to load a class because of the meta-model of any class, it is also able to load the corresponding annotations. This reliefs the application from storing application-specific semantics in separate files (think deployment descriptor). The application (annotation processor) can then query the annotation at run-time to refine the behavior of the system. The annotations enrich classes with additional constraints and behaviour in a resuable way: the same annotation processor can be used for arbitrary class sets.

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