Common Background Practices

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In this article

In this article we will describe best practices for doing common tasks in the background. We will look at how to use Core Data concurrently, how to draw concurrently, and how to do asynchronous networking. Finally, we’ll look at how to process large files asynchronously while keeping a low memory profile.

With asynchronous programming it is very easy to make mistakes. Therefore, all examples in this article will use a very simple approach. Using simple structures helps us to think through our code and to maintain an overview. If you end up with complicated nested callbacks, you should probably revise some of your design decisions.

Operation Queues vs. Grand Central Dispatch

Currently, there are two main modern concurrency APIs available on iOS and OS X: operation queues and Grand Central Dispatch (GCD). GCD is a low-level C API, whereas operation queues are implemented on top of GCD and provide an Objective-C API. For a more comprehensive overview of available concurrency APIs see the concurrency APIs and challenges article in this issue.

Operation queues offer some useful convenience features not easily reproducible with GCD. In practice, one of the most important ones is the possibility to cancel operations in the queue, as we will demonstrate below. Operation queues also make it a bit easier to manage dependencies between operations. On the flip side, GCD gives you more control and low-level functionality that is not available with operation queues. Please refer to the low level concurrency APIs article for more details.

Further reading:

Core Data in the Background

Update March 2015: This is based off of older recommendations in the now outdated Core Data Concurrency Guide.

Before doing anything concurrent with Core Data, it is important to get the basics right. We strongly recommend reading through Apple’s Concurrency with Core Data guide. This document lays down the ground rules, such as never passing managed objects between threads. This doesn’t just mean that you should never modify a managed object on another thread, but also that you should never read any properties from it. To pass around an object, pass its object ID and retrieve the object from the context associated to the other thread.

Doing concurrent programming with Core Data is simple when you stick to those rules and use the method described in this article.

The standard setup for Core Data in the Xcode templates is one persistent store coordinator with one managed object context that runs on the main thread. For many use cases, this is just fine. Creating some new objects and modifying existing objects is very cheap and can be done on the main thread without problems. However, if you want to do big chunks of work, then it makes sense to do this in a background context. A prime example for this is importing large data sets into Core Data.

Our approach is very simple, and well-covered in existing literature:

  1. We create a separate operation for the import work
  2. We create a managed object context with the same persistent store coordinator as the main managed object context
  3. Once the import context saves, we notify the main managed object context and merge the changes

In the example application, we will import a big set of transit data for the city of Berlin. During the import, we show a progress indicator, and we’d like to be able to cancel the current import if it’s taking too long. Also, we show a table view with all the data available so far, which automatically updates when new data comes in. The example data set is publicly available under the Creative Commons license, and you can download it here. It conforms to the General Transit Feed format, an open standard for transit data.

We create an ImportOperation as a subclass of NSOperation, which will handle the import. We override the main method, which is the method that will do all the work. Here we create a separate managed object context with the private queue concurrency type. This means that this context will manage its own queue, and all operations on it need to be performed using performBlock or performBlockAndWait. This is crucial to make sure that they will be executed on the right thread.

NSManagedObjectContext* context = [[NSManagedObjectContext alloc]
    initWithConcurrencyType:NSPrivateQueueConcurrencyType];
context.persistentStoreCoordinator = self.persistentStoreCoordinator;
context.undoManager = nil;
[self.context performBlockAndWait:^
{
    [self import];
}];

Note that we reuse the existing persistent store coordinator. In modern code, you should initialize managed object contexts with either the NSPrivateQueueConcurrencyType or the NSMainQueueConcurrencyType. The third concurrency type constant, NSConfinementConcurrencyType, is for legacy code, and our advice is to not use it anymore.

To do the import, we iterate over the lines in our file and create a managed object for each line that we can parse:

[lines enumerateObjectsUsingBlock:
  ^(NSString* line, NSUInteger idx, BOOL* shouldStop)
  {
      NSArray* components = [line csvComponents];
      if(components.count < 5) {
          NSLog(@"couldn't parse: %@", components);
          return;
      }
      [Stop importCSVComponents:components intoContext:context];
  }];

To start this operation, we perform the following code from our view controller:

ImportOperation* operation = [[ImportOperation alloc] 
     initWithStore:self.store fileName:fileName];
[self.operationQueue addOperation:operation];

For importing in the background, that’s all you have to do. Now, we will add support for cancelation, and luckily, it’s as simple as adding one check inside the enumeration block:

if(self.isCancelled) {
    *shouldStop = YES;
    return;
}

Finally, to support progress indication, we create a progressCallback property on our operation. It is vital that we update our progress indicator on the main thread, otherwise UIKit will crash.

operation.progressCallback = ^(float progress) 
{
    [[NSOperationQueue mainQueue] addOperationWithBlock:^
    {
        self.progressIndicator.progress = progress;
    }];
};

To call the progress block, we add the following line in the enumeration block:

self.progressCallback(idx / (float) count);

However, if you run this code, you will see that everything slows down enormously. Also, it looks like the operation doesn’t cancel immediately. The reason for this is that the main operation queue fills up with blocks that want to update the progress indicator. A simple solution is to decrease the granularity of updates, i.e. we only call the progress callback for one percent of the lines imported:

NSInteger progressGranularity = lines.count / 100;

if (idx % progressGranularity == 0) {
    self.progressCallback(idx / (float) count);
}

Updating the Main Context

The table view in our app is backed by a fetched results controller on the main thread. During and after the import, we’d like to show the results of the import in our table view.

There is one missing piece to make this work; the data imported into the background context will not propagate to the main context unless we explicitly tell it to do so. We add the following line to the init method of the Store class where we set up the Core Data stack:

[[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] 
    addObserverForName:NSManagedObjectContextDidSaveNotification
                object:nil
                 queue:nil
            usingBlock:^(NSNotification* note)
{
    NSManagedObjectContext *moc = self.mainManagedObjectContext;
    if (note.object != moc)
        [moc performBlock:^(){
            [moc mergeChangesFromContextDidSaveNotification:note];
        }];
    }];
}];

Note that by calling performBlock: on the main managed object context, the block will be called on the main thread. If you now start the app, you will notice that the table view reloads its data at the end of the import. However, this blocks the user interface for a couple of seconds.

To fix this, we need to do something that we should have done anyway: save in batches. When doing large imports, you want to ensure that you save regularly, otherwise you might run out of memory, and performance generally will get worse. Furthermore, saving regularly spreads out the work on the main thread to update the table view over time.

How often you save is a matter of trial and error. Save too often, and you’ll spend too much time doing I/O. Save too little, and the app will become unresponsive. We set the batch size to 250 after trying out some different numbers. Now the import is smooth, updates the table view, and doesn’t block the main context for too long.

Other Considerations

In the import operation, we read the entire file into a string and then split that into lines. This will work for relatively small files, but for larger files, it makes sense to lazily read the file line by line. The last example in this article will do exactly that by using input streams. There’s also an excellent write-up on StackOverflow by Dave DeLong that shows how to do this.

Instead of importing a large data set into core data when the app first runs, you could also ship an sqlite file within your app bundle, or download it from a server, where you could even generate it dynamically. If your particular use case works with this solution, it will be a lot faster and save processing time on the device.

Finally, there is a lot of noise about child contexts these days. Our advice is not to use them for background operations. If you create a background context as a child of the main context, saving the background context will still block the main thread a lot. If you create the main context as a child of a background context, you actually don’t gain anything compared to a more traditional setup with two independent contexts, because you still have to merge the changes from the background to the main context manually.

The setup with one persistent store coordinator and two independent contexts is the proven way of doing core data in the background. Stick with it unless you have really good reasons not to.

Further reading:

UI Code in the Background

First of all: UIKit only works on the main thread. That said, there are some parts of UI code which are not directly related to UIKit and which can take a significant amount of time. These tasks can be moved to the background to not block the main thread for too long. But before you start moving parts of your UI code into background queues, it’s important to measure which part of your code really is the problem. This is vital, otherwise you might be optimizing the wrong thing.

If you have identified an expensive operation that you can isolate, put it in an operation queue:

__weak id weakSelf = self;
[self.operationQueue addOperationWithBlock:^{
    NSNumber* result = findLargestMersennePrime();
    [[NSOperationQueue mainQueue] addOperationWithBlock:^{
        MyClass* strongSelf = weakSelf;
        strongSelf.textLabel.text = [result stringValue];
    }];
}];

As you can see, this is not completely straightforward; we need to make a weak reference to self, otherwise we create a retain cycle (the block retains self, the private operation queue retains the block, and self retains the operation queue). Within the block we convert it back to a strong reference to make sure it doesn’t get deallocated while running the block.

Drawing in the Background

If your measurements show that drawRect: is your performance bottleneck, you can move this drawing code to the background. Before you do that though, check if there are other ways to achieve the same effect, e.g. by using core animation layers or pre-rendered images instead of plain Core Graphics drawing. See this post by Florian for graphic performance measurements on current devices, or this comment by Andy Matuschak, a UIKit engineer, to get a good feel for all the subtleties involved.

If you do decide that your best option is to execute the drawing code in the background, the solution is quite simple. Take the code in your drawRect: method and put it in an operation. Then replace the original view with an image view that gets updated once the operation has completed. In your drawing method, use UIGraphicsBeginImageContextWithOptions instead of UIGraphicsGetCurrentContext:

UIGraphicsBeginImageContextWithOptions(size, NO, 0);
// drawing code here
UIImage *i = UIGraphicsGetImageFromCurrentImageContext();
UIGraphicsEndImageContext();
return i;

By passing in 0 as the third parameter, the scale of the device’s main screen will be automatically filled in, and the image will look great on both retina and non-retina devices.

If you do custom drawing in table view or collection view cells, it makes sense to put all that into operation subclasses. You can add them to a background operation queue, and cancel them when the user scrolls cells out of bounds from the didEndDisplayingCell delegate method. All of this is explained in detail in WWDC 2012 Session 211 – Building Concurrent User Interfaces on iOS.

Instead of scheduling the drawing code in the background yourself, you should also experiment with the drawsAsynchronously property of CALayer. However, make sure to measure the effect of this. Sometimes it speeds things up, and sometimes it’s counterproductive.

Asynchronous Networking

All your networking should be done asynchronously. However, with Grand Central Dispatch, you sometimes see code like this:

// Warning: please don't use this code.
dispatch_async(backgroundQueue, ^{
   NSData* contents = [NSData dataWithContentsOfURL:url]
   dispatch_async(dispatch_get_main_queue(), ^{
      // do something with the data.
   });
});

This might look quite smart, but there is a big problem with this code: there is no way to cancel this synchronous network call. It will block the thread until it’s done. In case the operation times out, this might take a very long time (e.g. dataWithContentsOfURL has a timeout of 30 seconds).

If the queue is a serial queue, then it will be blocked for the whole time. If the queue is concurrent, then GCD has to spin up a new thread in order to make up for the thread which you are blocking. Both cases are not good. It’s best to avoid blocking altogether.

To improve upon this situation, we will use the asynchronous methods of NSURLConnection and wrap everything up in an operation. This way we get the full power and convenience of operation queues; we can easily control the number of concurrent operations, add dependencies, and cancel operations.

However, there is something to watch out for when doing this: URL connections deliver their events in a run loop. It is easiest to just use the main run loop for this, as the data delivery doesn’t take much time. Then we can dispatch the processing of the incoming data onto a background thread.

Another possibility is the approach that libraries like AFNetworking take: create a separate thread, set up a run loop on this thread, and schedule the url connection there. But you probably wouldn’t want to do this yourself.

To kick off the URL connection, we override the start method in our custom operation subclass:

- (void)start
{
    NSURLRequest* request = [NSURLRequest requestWithURL:self.url];
    self.isExecuting = YES;
    self.isFinished = NO;
    [[NSOperationQueue mainQueue] addOperationWithBlock:^
    {
        self.connection = [NSURLConnection connectionWithRequest:request
                                                        delegate:self];
    }];
}

Since we overrode the start method, we now must manage the operation’s state properties, isExecuting and isFinished, ourselves. To cancel an operation, we need to cancel the connection and then set the right flags so the operation queue knows the operation is done.

- (void)cancel
{
    [super cancel];
    [self.connection cancel];
    self.isFinished = YES;
    self.isExecuting = NO;
}

When the connection finishes loading, it sends a delegate callback:

- (void)connectionDidFinishLoading:(NSURLConnection *)connection 
{
    self.data = self.buffer;
    self.buffer = nil;
    self.isExecuting = NO;
    self.isFinished = YES;
}

And that’s all there is to it. Check the example project on GitHub for the full source code. To conclude, we would like to recommend either taking your time to do this right, or to use a library like AFNetworking. They provide handy utilities like a category on UIImageView that asynchronously loads an image from a URL. Using this in your table view code will automatically take care of canceling image loading operations.

Further reading:

Advanced: File I/O in the Background

In our core data background example, we read the entire file that is to be imported into memory. This works for smaller files, but for larger files this is not feasible, because memory is limited on iOS devices. To resolve this problem, we will build a class that does two things: it reads a file line by line without having the entire file in memory, and process the file on a background queue so the app stays responsive.

For this purpose we use NSInputStream, which will let us do asynchronous processing of a file. As the documentation says: If you always read or write a file’s contents from start to finish, streams provide a simple interface for doing so asynchronously..

Whether you use streams or not, the general pattern for reading a file line-by-line is as follows:

  1. Have an intermediate buffer that you append to while not finding a newline
  2. Read a chunk from the stream
  3. For each newline found in the chunk, take the intermediate buffer, append data from the stream up to (and including) the newline, and output that
  4. Append the remaining bytes to the intermediate buffer
  5. Go back to 2 until the stream closes

To put this into practice, we created a sample application with a Reader class that does just this. The interface is very simple:

@interface Reader : NSObject
- (void)enumerateLines:(void (^)(NSString*))block
            completion:(void (^)())completion;
- (id)initWithFileAtPath:(NSString*)path;
@end

Note that this is not a subclass of NSOperation. Like URL connections, input streams deliver their events using a run loop. Therefore, we will use the main run loop again for event delivery, and then dispatch the processing of the data onto a background operation queue.

- (void)enumerateLines:(void (^)(NSString*))block
            completion:(void (^)())completion
{
    if (self.queue == nil) {
        self.queue = [[NSOperationQueue alloc] init];
        self.queue.maxConcurrentOperationCount = 1;
    }
    self.callback = block;
    self.completion = completion;
    self.inputStream = [NSInputStream inputStreamWithURL:self.fileURL];
    self.inputStream.delegate = self;
    [self.inputStream scheduleInRunLoop:[NSRunLoop currentRunLoop]
                                forMode:NSDefaultRunLoopMode];
    [self.inputStream open];
}

Now the input stream will send us delegate messages (on the main thread), and we do the processing on the operation queue by adding a block operation:

- (void)stream:(NSStream*)stream handleEvent:(NSStreamEvent)eventCode
{
    switch (eventCode) {
        ...
        case NSStreamEventHasBytesAvailable: {
            NSMutableData *buffer = [NSMutableData dataWithLength:4 * 1024];
            NSUInteger length = [self.inputStream read:[buffer mutableBytes] 
                                             maxLength:[buffer length]];
            if (0 < length) {
                [buffer setLength:length];
                __weak id weakSelf = self;
                [self.queue addOperationWithBlock:^{
                    [weakSelf processDataChunk:buffer];
                }];
            }
            break;
        }
        ...
    }
}

Processing a data chunk looks at the current buffered data and appends the newly streamed chunk. It then breaks that into components, separated by newlines, and emits each line. The remainder gets stored again:

- (void)processDataChunk:(NSMutableData *)buffer;
{
    if (self.remainder != nil) {
        [self.remainder appendData:buffer];
    } else {
        self.remainder = buffer;
    }
    [self.remainder obj_enumerateComponentsSeparatedBy:self.delimiter
                                            usingBlock:^(NSData* component, BOOL last) {
        if (!last) {
            [self emitLineWithData:component];
        } else if (0 < [component length]) {
            self.remainder = [component mutableCopy];
        } else {
            self.remainder = nil;
        }
    }];
}

If you run the sample app, you will see that the app stays very responsive, and the memory stays very low (in our test runs, the heap size stayed under 800 KB, regardless of the file size). For processing large files chunk by chunk, this technique is probably what you want.

Further reading:

Conclusion

In the examples above we demonstrated how to perform common tasks asynchronously in the background. In all of these solutions, we tried to keep our code simple, because it’s very easy to make mistakes with concurrent programming without noticing.

Oftentimes you might get away with just doing your work on the main thread, and when you can, it’ll make your life a lot easier. But if you find performance bottlenecks, put these tasks into the background using the simplest approach possible.

The pattern we showed in the examples above is a safe choice for other tasks as well. Receive events or data on the main queue, then use a background operation queue to perform the actual work before getting back onto the main queue to deliver the results.