just_persist_banner

In this blog post we introduce a solution to deal with data persistence. We developed it for the Just Eat iOS app and we call it JustPersist. It’s available open source on Github at github.com/justeat/JustPersist.

JustPersist aims to be the easiest and safest way to do persistence on iOS with Core Data support out of the box. It also allows you to migrate to any new persistence framework with minimal effort.

The main author behind JustPersist and its design is Keith Moon. Major kudos to Keith for the excellent execution in Swift!

Overview

At Just Eat, we persist a variety of data in the iOS app. In 2014 we decided to use MagicalRecord as a wrapper on top of Core Data but over time the numerous problems and fundamental thread-safety issues, arose. In 2017, MagicalRecord is not supported anymore and new solutions look more appealing. We decided to adopt Skopelos: a much younger and lightweight Core Data stack, with a simpler design, developed by Alberto De Bortoli, one of our engineers. The design of the persistence layer interface gets inspiration from Skopelos as well, and we invite the reader to take a look at its documentation.

The main problem in adopting a new persistence solution is migrating to it. It is rarely easy, especially if the legacy codebase doesn’t hide the adopted framework (in our case MagicalRecord) but rather spread it around in view controllers, managers, helper classes, categories and sometimes views. Ultimately, in the case of Core Data, there is a single persistent store and this is enough to make impossible to move access across “one at a time”. There can only be one active persistence solution at a time.

We believe this is a very common problem, especially in the mobile world. We created JustPersist for this precise reason and to ease the migration process.

At the end of the day, JustPersist is two things:

  • a persistence layer with a clear and simple interface for transactional readings and writings (Skopelos-style)
  • a solution to migrate from one persistence layer to another with (we believe) the minimum possible effort

JustPersist aims to be the easiest and safest way to do persistence on iOS. It supports Core Data out of the box and can be extended to transparently support other frameworks. Since moving from MagicalRecord to Skopelos, we provide available wrappers for these two frameworks.

The tone of JustPersist is very much Core Data-oriented but it enables you to migrate to any other persistence framework if a custom data store (wrapper) is implemented (in-memory, key-value store, even Realm if you are brave enough).

JustPersist is available through CocoaPods. To install it, simply add the following line to your Podfile:

Using only pod JustPersist will add the core pod with no subspecs and you’ll have to implement your own wrapper to use the it. If you intend to extend JustPersist to support other frameworks, we suggest creating a subspec.

Usage of the persistence layer

To perform operation you need a data store, which you can setup like this (or see “common way of setting up a data store”):

Before using the data store for the first time, you must call setup() on it, and possibly tearDown() when you are completely done with it.

We suggest setting up the stack at app startup time, in the applicationDidFinishLaunchingWithOptions method in the AppDelegate and to tear it down at the end of the life cycle of your entire app, when resetting the state of the app (if you provide support to do so) or in the tearDown method of your unit tests suite.

To hide the underlying persistence framework used, JustPersist provides things that conform to DataStoreItem and MutableDataStoreItem, rather than the CoreData specific NSManagedObject. These protocols provide access to properties using objectForKey and setObject:forKey: methods.

In the case of Core Data, JustPersist provides an extension to NSManagedObject to make it conforming to MutableDataStoreItem.

Readings and writings

The separation between readings and writings is the foundation of JustPersist.
Reading are always synchronous by design:

While writings can be both synchronous or asynchronous:

The accessor provided by the blocks can be a read one (DataStoreReadAccessor) or a read/write one (DataStoreReadWriteAccessor). Read accessors allow you to do read operations such as:

While the read/write ones allow you to perform a complete set of CRUD operations:

To perform an operation you might need a DataStoreRequest which can be customized with itemType, an NSPredicate, an array of NSSortDescriptor, offset and limit. Think of it as the corresponding Core Data’s NSFetchRequest.

Here are some complete examples:

In write blocks there is no need to make any call to a save method. Since it would be the obvious thing to do at the end of a transactional block, JustPersist does it for you. Read blocks are not meant to modify the store and you wouldn’t even have the API available to do so (unless DataStoreItem objects are casted to NSManagedObject in the case of CoreData to allow the setting of properties), therefore a save will not be performed under the hood.

Common way of setting up a data store

We recommend to use dependency injection to pass the data store around but sometimes it might be hard. If you wish to access your data store via a singleton, here is how your app could create a shared instance for the DataStoreClient (e.g. DataStoreClient.swift) using Skopelos.

For unit tests, you might want to use the inMemoryShared for better performance.

Child data store

A child data store is useful in situations where you might have the need to rollback all the changes performed in a specific section of the app or in a part of the user journey. Think of it as a scratch/disposable context in the Core Data stack by Marcus Zarra.

At Just Eat we use a child data store for the addition of complex products to the basket. The user might make many updates to the product and it is easier to perform the final save operation when the user confirms the addition rather than dealing with multiple CRUD operations on the main data store.

A child data store behaves just like a normal data store, with the only exception that, to save the changes back to the main data store, developers must explicitly merge the data stores. Here is a complete example:

Thread-safety notes

Read and sync write blocks are always performed on the main thread, no matter which thread calls them.
Async write blocks are always performed on a background thread.

Sync writings return only when the changes are persisted (in the case of Core Data, usually to the NSManagedObjectContext with main concurrency type).

Async writings return immediately and leave the job of saving to the source of truth to JustPersist (whether it be the context or a persistent store). They are eventual consistent, meaning that the next reading could potentially not have the data available.

Forcing a transactional programming model for readings and writings helps developers to avoid thread-safety issues which in Core Data can be caught setting the -com.apple.CoreData.ConcurrencyDebug 1 flag in your scheme (which we recommend enabling).

How to migrate to a different persistence layer

Examples in this sections are in Objective-C as 1. they deal with the legacy code for the nature of the example and 2. to show that JustPersist works just fine with Objective-C too.

Here we’ll outline the steps we made to migrate away from MagicalRecord to Skopelos using JustPersist. We believe that a lot of apps still use MagicalRecord, so this may apply to your case too. If your need is to move from and to other 2 frameworks, you need to implement the corresponding data stores to wrap them.

You should start by implementing your DataStoreClient (you could follow the steps in “common way of setting up a data store” and allocating the data store for the current persistence layer used by your app in the sqliteStack method and possibly in the inMemoryStack one too. In our case, since we want to move away from MagicalRecord, the data store used would be MagicalRecordDataStore.

Standard CRUD interactions with MagicalRecord are like so:

All of them should be converted one by one to JustPersist:

You should make sure you don’t perform any UI work within the blocks even if the read and writeSync ones are executed on the main thread. Actually, you should aim for doing only the necessary work related to interact with the persistence layer, which often might be copying values out of objects to have them accessible outside the block (in Objective-C via the __block keyword). Developers should not hold references to model objects to pass them around threads (transactional blocks help ensure such rule).

By having moved all the direct interactions from MagicalRecord to JustPersist, you should be now able to remove all the various @import MagicalRecord and #import <MagicalRecord/MagicalRecord.h> from the entire codebase.

Once At this point, your DataStoreClient can be modified to allocate the target data store in the sqliteStack and inMemoryStack methods. In our case, the SkopelosDataStore.

Conclusion

JustPersist aims to be the easiest and safest way to do persistence on iOS. It supports Core Data out of the box and can be extended to transparently support other frameworks.

You can use JustPersist to migrate from one persistence layer to another with minimal effort. Since we moved from MagicalRecord to Skopelos, we provide available wrappers for these two frameworks.

At its core, JustPersist is a persistence layer with a clear and simple interface to do transactional readings and writings, taking inspirations from Skopelos where readings and writings are separated by design.

We hope this library will ease the process of setting up a persistence stack, avoiding the common headache of Core Data and potential threading pitfalls.

About the authors

Alberto De Bortoli is the Principal iOS Engineer at Just Eat.
Keith Moon is a Senior iOS Engineer in the Payments team at Just Eat.