Core Data and Concurrency

Author: Bart Jacobs

Up to now, we've used a single managed object context, which we created in the CoreDataManager class. This works fine, but there will be times when one managed object context won't suffice.

What happens if you access the same managed object context from different threads? What do you expect happens? What happens if you pass a managed object from a background thread to the main thread? Let's start with the basics.

Concurrency Basics

Before we explore solutions for using Core Data in multithreaded applications, we need to know how Core Data behaves on multiple threads. The documentation is very clear about this. Core Data expects to be run on a single thread. Even though that thread doesn't have to be the main thread, Core Data was not designed to be accessed from different threads.

Core Data expects to be run on a single thread.

The Core Data team at Apple is not naive, though. It knows that a persistence framework needs to be accessible from multiple threads. A single thread, the main thread, may be fine for many applications. More complex applications need a robust, multithreaded persistence framework.

Before I show you how Core Data can be used across multiple threads, I lay out the basic rules for accessing Core Data in a multithreaded application.

Managed Objects

NSManagedObject instances should never be passed from one thread to another. If you need to pass a managed object from one thread to another, you use a managed object's objectID property.

The objectID property is of type NSManagedObjectID and uniquely identifies a record in the persistent store. A managed object context knows what to do when you hand it an NSManagedObjectID instance. There are three methods you need to know about:

  • object(with:)
  • existingObject(with:)
  • registeredObject(for:)

The first method, object(with:), returns a managed object that corresponds to the NSManagedObjectID instance. If the managed object context doesn't have a managed object for that object identifier, it asks the persistent store coordinator. This method always returns a managed object.

Know that object(with:) throws an exception if no record can be found for the object identifier it receives. For example, if the application deleted the record corresponding with the object identifier, Core Data is unable to hand your application the corresponding record. The result is an exception.

The existingObject(with:) method behaves in a similar fashion. The main difference is that the method throws an error if it cannot fetch the managed object corresponding to the object identifier.

The third method, registeredObject(for:), only returns a managed object if the record you're asking for is already registered with the managed object context. In other words, the return value is of type NSManagedObject?. The managed object context doesn't fetch the corresponding record from the persistent store if it cannot find it.

The object identifier of a record is similar, but not identical, to the primary key of a database record. It uniquely identifies the record and enables your application to fetch a particular record regardless of what thread the operation is performed on.

let objectID = managedObject.objectID

DispatchQueue.main.async {
    let managedObject = managedObjectContext?.object(with: objectID)

In the example, we ask a managed object context for the managed object that corresponds with objectID, an NSManagedObjectID instance. The managed object context first looks if a managed object with a corresponding object identifier is registered in the managed object context. If there isn't, the managed object is fetched or returned as a fault.

It's important to understand that a managed object context always expects to find a record if you give it an NSManagedObjectID instance. That is why object(with:) returns an object of type NSManagedObject, not NSManagedObject?.

Managed Object Context

Creating an NSManagedObjectContext instance is a cheap operation. You should never share managed object contexts between threads. This is a hard rule you shouldn't break. The NSManagedObjectContext class isn't thread safe. Plain and simple.

You should never share managed object contexts between threads. This is a hard rule you shouldn't break.

Persistent Store Coordinator

Even though the NSPersistentStoreCoordinator class isn't thread safe either, the class knows how to lock itself if multiple managed object contexts request access, even if these managed object contexts live and operate on different threads.

It's fine to use one persistent store coordinator, which is accessed by multiple managed object contexts from different threads. This makes Core Data concurrency a little bit easier ... a little bit.

Read this article on Cocoacasts.


Core Data and Concurrency

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