Cocoa Threading

Everyone has their own vision of how things should work. As you gain more experience in your craft, you become more grizzled. Well learned. After some time, you earn the privledge of passing this experinece on. Oscar Wilde said it best:

Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.

Multi-threading in software engineering has been around for a long time. Many mistakes have been made, thankfully. From those mistakes, experience was born. Most of the engineering books talk about the essentials, and the dangers that must be respected and adhered to. But while they talk about the pitfalls of what could happen, none of them really give you great guidelines. I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve worked with people who should not have made some of the mistakes I’ve witnessed.

Are they bad engineers?

Was there a fundamental misunderstanding about multi-threading?

But there are some fantastic guidelines that aren’t well-established. It seems like Brent Simmons and I agree on a lot of the same principles. He’s written a great blog post about Cocoa Threading that every Cocoa developer should read and understand. He refers to his post as his, “barely-organized thoughts on threading and Cocoa applications” but it covers the points in a concise manner.

Thread Communication Exclusively on the Main Thread

First up is his philosophy on all communication between threads taking place on the main thread. He extends this to notifications as well. I’ll add one more to that list which is KVO notifications. This is essential because UIKit and Core Data don’t like operating on secondary threads. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen

NSAssert( [NSThread isMainThread], @"This needs to run in the main thread" );

 go off because I received a notification or call from a secondary thread.

Communication between systems always happens on the main thread. (A system is one or more objects that work together.) In most cases, communication between objects in the same system happens on the main thread too.

If an object does something in the background, that is that object’s business and nobody else’s.

This extends to notifications: from background threads, I always make sure notifications get posted on the main thread. This way every notification observer can always assume that it’s getting called on the main thread.

Regarding KVO, Brent has this to say:

KVO is a trickier thing. Here’s how I handle that: anything happening in a background thread is not observable (by convention). Whatever is going on is private. When it’s time to set public stuff, stuff that could be observed, those things are set on the main thread.

Threading Methods

There’s almost as many different ways to spin off a thread as there are people in the United States. Brent and I also agree on which methods we use:

I’m very deliberate about my threading. I like Grand Central Dispatch, but for my purposes NSOperationQueue works best. The formal, easily-monitored approach of NSOperationQueue works best here. I definitely recommend against anything but GCD and NSOperationQueue — anything else (NSThread’s detach method, etc.) is too random. (Yes, we used it for years, but we have better stuff now.) (In fact, I almost never even use NSInvocationOperation — I much prefer the structure and defined stop/start of NSOperation.)

I use an NSOperation subclass that takes a target and selector in its init method. When it’s finished, it calls the target and selector on the main thread. This way the caller only ever sees the main thread — it creates the operation on the main thread, then gets called back on the main thread. The fact that the operation happens in the background is unknown to the caller: the caller just knows that it’s async, and doesn’t know anything else.

I almost exclusively use NSOperation subclasses with NSOperationQueue in my applications for the same reasons that Brent outlines. You can create multiple NSOperationQueue’s if you need different operating parameters (for example, one queue that is sequential, another queue that can operate concurrently). Making dependencies between various NSOperation’s is as simple as making an addDependency call. Plus, they can have dependencies across different NSOperationQueue’s.


NSCache seems to have suffered from poor marketing. It’s a little gem that very few people seem to know about. I’ll bet most of you have written your own class that performs much of the same functionality. I’ll take the very-well tested and used NSCache, which is also thread-safe, any day.

Locking sucks. If you have to do it, you have to do it. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed — failure would be not-locking when you really do need a lock.

There are a couple other things you can do which make sense.

  1. Use performSelectorOnMainThread to set some data that would otherwise require locking. (This is not a trick to use willy-nilly, though — typically it comes at the very end of an operation, not sprinkled throughout.)
  2. Use NSCache — it’s thread-safe.

I highly recommend you read Brent’s full article, “Some Notes on Threading” over at his site.

About the author

Terry Blanchard

I'm the Vice President of Engineering at Readdle, ex-Apple, design evangelist, drummer, and gadget junkie extraordinaire.

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