Fetch Requests

In this article

A way to get objects out of the store is to use an NSFetchRequest. Note, though, that one of the most common mistakes is to fetch data when you don’t need to. Make sure you read and understand Getting to Objects. Most of the time, traversing relationships is more efficient, and using an NSFetchRequest is often expensive.

There are usually two reasons to perform a fetch with an NSFetchRequest: (1) You need to search your entire object graph for objects that match specific predicates. Or (2), you want to display all your objects, e.g. in a table view. There’s a third, less-common scenario, where you’re traversing relationships but want to pre-fetch more efficiently. We’ll briefly dive into that, too. But let us first look at the main two reasons, which are more common and each have their own set of complexities.

The Basics

We won’t cover the basics here, since the Xcode Documentation on Core Data called Fetching Managed Objects covers a lot of ground already. We’ll dive right into some more specialized aspects.

Searching the Object Graph

In our sample with transportation data, we have 12,800 stops and almost 3,000,000 stop times that are interrelated. If we want to find stop times with a departure time between 8:00 and 8:30 for stops close to 52° 29’ 57.30" North, +13° 25’ 5.40" East, we don’t want to load all 12,800 stop objects and all three million stop time objects into the context and then loop through them. If we did, we’d have to spend a huge amount of time to simply load all objects into memory and then a fairly large amount of memory to hold all of these in memory. Instead what we want to do is have SQLite narrow down the set of objects that we’re pulling into memory.

Geo-Location Predicate

Let’s start out small and create a fetch request for stops close to 52° 29’ 57.30" North, +13° 25’ 5.40" East. First we create the fetch request:

NSFetchRequest *request = [NSFetchRequest fetchRequestWithEntityName:[Stop entityName]]

We’re using the +entityName method that we mention in Florian’s data model article. Next, we need to limit the results to just those close to our point.

We’ll simply use a (not quite) square region around our point of interest. The actual math is a bit complex, because the Earth happens to be somewhat similar to an ellipsoid. If we cheat a bit and assume the earth is spherical, we get away with this formula:

D = R * sqrt( (deltaLatitude * deltaLatitude) +
              (cos(meanLatitidue) * deltaLongitude) * (cos(meanLatitidue) * deltaLongitude))

We end up with something like this (all approximate):

static double const R = 6371009000; // Earth readius in meters
double deltaLatitude = D / R * 180 / M_PI;
double deltaLongitude = D / (R * cos(meanLatitidue)) * 180 / M_PI;

Our point of interest is:

CLLocation *pointOfInterest = [[CLLocation alloc] initWithLatitude:52.4992490 
                                                         longitude:13.4181670];

We want to search within ±263 feet (80 meters):

static double const D = 80. * 1.1;
double const R = 6371009.; // Earth readius in meters
double meanLatitidue = pointOfInterest.latitude * M_PI / 180.;
double deltaLatitude = D / R * 180. / M_PI;
double deltaLongitude = D / (R * cos(meanLatitidue)) * 180. / M_PI;
double minLatitude = pointOfInterest.latitude - deltaLatitude;
double maxLatitude = pointOfInterest.latitude + deltaLatitude;
double minLongitude = pointOfInterest.longitude - deltaLongitude;
double maxLongitude = pointOfInterest.longitude + deltaLongitude;

(This math is broken when we’re close to the 180° meridian. We’ll ignore that since our traffic data is for Berlin which is far, far away.)

request.result = [NSPredicate predicateWithFormat:
                  @"(%@ <= longitude) AND (longitude <= %@)"
                  @"AND (%@ <= latitude) AND (latitude <= %@)",
                  @(minLongitude), @(maxLongitude), @(minLatitude), @(maxLatitude)];

There’s no point in specifying a sort descriptor. Since we’re going to be doing a second in-memory pass over all objects, we will, however, ask Core Data to fill in all values for all returned objects:

request.returnsObjectsAsFaults = NO;

Without this, Core Data will fetch all values into the persistent store coordinator’s row cache, but it will not populate the actual objects. Often that makes sense, but since we’ll immediately be accessing all of the objects, we don’t want that behavior.

As a safe-guard, it’s good to add:

request.fetchLimit = 200;

We execute this fetch request:

NSError *error = nil;
NSArray *stops = [moc executeFetchRequest:request error:&error];
NSAssert(stops != nil, @"Failed to execute %@: %@", request, error);

The only (likely) reasons the fetch would fail is if the store went corrupt (file was deleted, etc.) or if there’s a syntax error in the fetch request. So it’s safe to use NSAssert() here.

We’ll now do the second pass over the in-memory data using Core Locations advance distance math:

NSPredicate *exactPredicate = [self exactLatitudeAndLongitudePredicateForCoordinate:self.location.coordinate];
stops = [stops filteredArrayUsingPredicate:exactPredicate];

and:

- (NSPredicate *)exactLatitudeAndLongitudePredicateForCoordinate:(CLLocationCoordinate2D)pointOfInterest;
{
    return [NSPredicate predicateWithBlock:^BOOL(Stop *evaluatedStop, NSDictionary *bindings) {
        CLLocation *evaluatedLocation = [[CLLocation alloc] initWithLatitude:evaluatedStop.latitude longitude:evaluatedStop.longitude];
        CLLocationDistance distance = [self.location distanceFromLocation:evaluatedLocation];
        return (distance < self.distance);
    }];
}

And we’re all set.

Geo-Location Performance

These fetches take around 360µs on average on a recent MacBook Pro with SSD. That is, you can do approximately 2,800 of these requests per second. On an iPhone 5 we’d be getting around 1.67ms on average, or some 600 requests per second.

If we add -com.apple.CoreData.SQLDebug 1 as launch arguments to the app, we get this output:

sql: SELECT 0, t0.Z_PK, t0.Z_OPT, t0.ZIDENTIFIER, t0.ZLATITUDE, t0.ZLONGITUDE, t0.ZNAME FROM ZSTOP t0 WHERE (? <=  t0.ZLONGITUDE AND  t0.ZLONGITUDE <= ? AND ? <=  t0.ZLATITUDE AND  t0.ZLATITUDE <= ?)  LIMIT 100
annotation: sql connection fetch time: 0.0008s
annotation: total fetch execution time: 0.0013s for 15 rows.

In addition to some statistics (for the store itself), this shows us the generated SQL for these fetches:

SELECT 0, t0.Z_PK, t0.Z_OPT, t0.ZIDENTIFIER, t0.ZLATITUDE, t0.ZLONGITUDE, t0.ZNAME FROM ZSTOP t0
WHERE (? <=  t0.ZLONGITUDE AND  t0.ZLONGITUDE <= ? AND ? <=  t0.ZLATITUDE AND  t0.ZLATITUDE <= ?)
LIMIT 200

which is what we’d expect. If we’d want to investigate the performance, we can use the SQL EXPLAIN command. For this, we’d open the database with the command line sqlite3 command like this:

% cd TrafficSearch
% sqlite3 transit-data.sqlite
SQLite version 3.7.13 2012-07-17 17:46:21
Enter ".help" for instructions
Enter SQL statements terminated with a ";"
sqlite> EXPLAIN QUERY PLAN SELECT 0, t0.Z_PK, t0.Z_OPT, t0.ZIDENTIFIER, t0.ZLATITUDE, t0.ZLONGITUDE, t0.ZNAME FROM ZSTOP t0
   ...> WHERE (13.30845219672199 <=  t0.ZLONGITUDE AND  t0.ZLONGITUDE <= 13.33441458422844 AND 52.42769566863058 <=  t0.ZLATITUDE AND  t0.ZLATITUDE <= 52.44352370653525)
   ...> LIMIT 100;
0|0|0|SEARCH TABLE ZSTOP AS t0 USING INDEX ZSTOP_ZLONGITUDE_INDEX (ZLONGITUDE>? AND ZLONGITUDE<?) (~6944 rows)

This tell us that SQLite was using the ZSTOP_ZLONGITUDE_INDEX for the (ZLONGITUDE>? AND ZLONGITUDE<?) condition. We could do better by using a compound index as described in the model article. Since we’d always search for a combination of longitude and latitude that is more efficient, and we can remove the individual indexes on longitude and latitude.

This would make the output look like this:

0|0|0|SEARCH TABLE ZSTOP AS t0 USING INDEX ZSTOP_ZLONGITUDE_ZLATITUDE (ZLONGITUDE>? AND ZLONGITUDE<?) (~6944 rows)

In our simple case, adding a compound index hardly affects performance.

As explained in the SQLite Documentation, the warning sign is a SCAN TABLE in the output. That basically means that SQLite needs to go through all entries to see which ones are matching. Unless you store just a few objects, you’d probably want an index.

Subqueries

Let’s say we only want those stops near us that are serviced within the next twenty minutes.

We can create a predicate for the StopTimes entity like this:

NSPredicate *timePredicate = [NSPredicate predicateWithFormat:@"(%@ <= departureTime) && (departureTime <= %@)",
                              startDate, endDate];

But what if what we want is a predicate that we can use to filter Stop objects based on the relationship to StopTime objects, not StopTime objects themselves? We can do that with a SUBQUERY like this:

NSPredicate *predicate = [NSPredicate predicateWithFormat:
                          @"(SUBQUERY(stopTimes, $x, (%@ <= $x.departureTime) && ($x.departureTime <= %@)).@count != 0)",
                          startDate, endDate];

Note that this logic is slightly flawed if we’re close to midnight, since we ought to wrap by splitting the predicate up into two. But it’ll work for this example.

Subqueries are very powerful for limiting data across relationship. The Xcode documentation for -[NSExpression expressionForSubquery:usingIteratorVariable:predicate:] has more info.

We can combine two predicates simply using AND or &&, i.e.

[NSPredicate predicateWithFormat:@"(%@ <= departureTime) && (SUBQUERY(stopTimes ....

or in code using +[NSCompoundPredicate andPredicateWithSubpredicates:].

We end up with a predicate that looks like this:

(lldb) po predicate
(13.39657778010461 <= longitude AND longitude <= 13.42266155792719
    AND 52.63249629924865 <= latitude AND latitude <= 52.64832433715332)
    AND SUBQUERY(
        stopTimes, $x, CAST(-978250148.000000, "NSDate") <= $x.departureTime 
        AND $x.departureTime <= CAST(-978306000.000000, "NSDate")
    ).@count != 0

Subquery Performance

If we look at the generated SQL it looks like this:

sql: SELECT 0, t0.Z_PK, t0.Z_OPT, t0.ZIDENTIFIER, t0.ZLATITUDE, t0.ZLONGITUDE, t0.ZNAME FROM ZSTOP t0
     WHERE ((? <=  t0.ZLONGITUDE AND  t0.ZLONGITUDE <= ? AND ? <=  t0.ZLATITUDE AND  t0.ZLATITUDE <= ?)
            AND (SELECT COUNT(t1.Z_PK) FROM ZSTOPTIME t1 WHERE (t0.Z_PK = t1.ZSTOP AND ((? <=  t1.ZDEPARTURETIME AND  t1.ZDEPARTURETIME <= ?))) ) <> ?)
     LIMIT 200

This fetch request now takes around 12.3 ms to run on a recent MacBook Pro. On an iPhone 5, it’ll take about 110 ms. Note that we have three million stop times and almost 13,000 stops.

The query plan explanation looks like this:

sqlite> EXPLAIN QUERY PLAN SELECT 0, t0.Z_PK, t0.Z_OPT, t0.ZIDENTIFIER, t0.ZLATITUDE, t0.ZLONGITUDE, t0.ZNAME FROM ZSTOP t0
   ...> WHERE ((13.37190946378911 <=  t0.ZLONGITUDE AND  t0.ZLONGITUDE <= 13.3978625285315 AND 52.41186440524024 <=  t0.ZLATITUDE AND  t0.ZLATITUDE <= 52.42769244314491) AND
   ...> (SELECT COUNT(t1.Z_PK) FROM ZSTOPTIME t1 WHERE (t0.Z_PK = t1.ZSTOP AND ((-978291733.000000 <=  t1.ZDEPARTURETIME AND  t1.ZDEPARTURETIME <= -978290533.000000))) ) <> ?)
   ...> LIMIT 200;
0|0|0|SEARCH TABLE ZSTOP AS t0 USING INDEX ZSTOP_ZLONGITUDE_ZLATITUDE (ZLONGITUDE>? AND ZLONGITUDE<?) (~3472 rows)
0|0|0|EXECUTE CORRELATED SCALAR SUBQUERY 1
1|0|0|SEARCH TABLE ZSTOPTIME AS t1 USING INDEX ZSTOPTIME_ZSTOP_INDEX (ZSTOP=?) (~2 rows)

Note that it is important how we order the predicate. We want to put the longitude and latitude stuff first, since it’s cheap, and the subquery last, since it’s expensive.

Text Search

A common scenario is searching for text. In our case, let’s look at searching for Stop entities by their name.

Berlin has a stop called “U Görlitzer Bahnhof (Berlin)”. A naïve way to search for that would be:

NSString *searchString = @"U Görli";
predicate = [NSPredicate predicateWithFormat:@"name BEGINSWITH %@", searchString];

Things get even worse if you want to be able to do:

name BEGINSWITH[cd] 'u gorli'

i.e. do a case and / or diacritic insensitive lookup.

Things are not that simple, though. Unicode is very complicated and there are quite a few gotchas. First and foremost ís that many characters can be represented in multiple ways. Both U+00F6 and U+006F U+0308 represent “ö.” And concepts such as uppercase / lowercase are very complicated once you’re outside the ASCII code points.

SQLite will do the heavy lifting for you, but it comes at a price. It may seem straightforward, but it’s really not. What we want to do for string searches is to have a normalized version of the field that you can search on. We’ll remove diacritics and make the string lowercase and then put that into anormalizedName field. We’ll then do the same to our search string. SQLite then won’t have to consider diacritics and case, and the search will effectively still be case and diacritics insensitive. But we have to do the heavy lifting up front.

Searching with BEGINSWITH[cd] takes around 7.6 ms on a recent MacBook Pro with the sample strings in our sample code (130 searches / second). On an iPhone 5 those numbers are 47 ms per search and 21 searches per second.

To make a string lowercase and remove diacritics, we can use CFStringTransform():

@implementation NSString (SearchNormalization)

- (NSString *)normalizedSearchString;
{
    // C.f. <http://userguide.icu-project.org/transforms>
    NSString *mutableName = [self mutableCopy];
    CFStringTransform((__bridge CFMutableStringRef) mutableName, NULL, 
                      (__bridge CFStringRef)@"NFD; [:Nonspacing Mark:] Remove; Lower(); NFC", NO);
    return mutableName;
}

@end

We’ll update the Stop class to automatically update the normalizedName:

@interface Stop (CoreDataForward)

@property (nonatomic, strong) NSString *primitiveName;
@property (nonatomic, strong) NSString *primitiveNormalizedName;

@end


@implementation Stop

@dynamic name;
- (void)setName:(NSString *)name;
{
    [self willAccessValueForKey:@"name"];
    [self willAccessValueForKey:@"normalizedName"];
    self.primitiveName = name;
    self.primitiveNormalizedName = [name normalizedSearchString];
    [self didAccessValueForKey:@"normalizedName"];
    [self didAccessValueForKey:@"name"];
}

// ...

@end

With this, we can search with BEGINSWITH instead of BEGINSWITH[cd]:

predicate = [NSPredicate predicateWithFormat:@"normalizedName BEGINSWITH %@", [searchString normalizedSearchString]];

Searching with BEGINSWITH takes around 6.2 ms on a recent MacBook Pro with the sample strings in our sample code (160 searches / second). On an iPhone 5 it takes 40ms corresponding to 25 searches / second.

Free Text Search

Our search still only works if the beginning of the string matches the search string. The way to fix that is to create another Entity that we search on. Let’s call this Entity SearchTerm, and give it a single attribute normalizedWord and a relationship to a Stop. For each Stop we would then normalize the name and split it into words, e.g.:

    "Gedenkstätte Dt. Widerstand (Berlin)"
->  "gedenkstatte dt. widerstand (berlin)"
->  "gedenkstatte", "dt", "widerstand", "berlin"

For each word, we create a SearchTerm and a relationship from the Stop to all its SearchTerm objects. When the user enters a string, we search on the SearchTerm objects’ normalizedWord with:

predicate = [NSPredicate predicateWithFormat:@"normalizedWord BEGINSWITH %@", [searchString normalizedSearchString]]

This can also be done in a subquery directly on the Stop objects.

Fetching All Objects

If we don’t set a predicate on our fetch request, we’ll retrieve all objects for the given Entity. If we did that for the StopTimes entity, we’ll be pulling in three million objects. That would be slow, and use up a lot of memory. Sometimes, however, we need to get all objects. The common example is that we want to show all objects inside a table view.

What we would do in this case, is to set a batch size:

request.fetchBatchSize = 50;

When we run -[NSManagedObjectContext executeFetchRequest:error:] with a batch size set, we still get an array back. We can ask it for its count (which will be close to three million for the StopTime entity), but Core Data will only populate it with objects as we iterate through the array. And Core Data will get rid of objects again, as they’re no longer accessed. Simply put, the array has batches of size 50 (in this case). Core Data will pull in 50 objects at a time. Once more than a certain number of these batches are around, Core Data will release the oldest batch. That way you can loop through all objects in such an array, without having to have all three million objects in memory at the same time.

On iOS, when you use an NSFetchedResultsController and you have a lot of objects, make sure that the fetchBatchSize is set on your fetch request. You’ll have to experiment with what size works well for you. Twice the amount of objects that you’ll be displaying at any given point in time is a good starting point.