Sunday, 10 July 2016

Protocol oriented loading of resources from a network service in Swift

Update 12-December-2016: TABResourceLoader was created using this pattern and is production ready.

TL;DR - Define the resources in your application by conforming to protocols that define where and how to get them using a generic service type. Finally make your operations conform to a protocol to use them to retrieve your resources
With the addition of protocol extensions in Swift 2.0 it's now possible to focus less on subclassing and define your interfaces with default implementations on a protocol extension. This concept is used extensibly in the approach I currently use to a load resources into an iOS app. The sample code on this post can be downloaded from Github.

Defining a Resource

A resource can be defined as something that you application will consume. For example, it could be a JSON or XML file, an image, a video, etc. In Swift this can be represented using a protocol with an associated type:
public protocol ResourceType {
  associatedtype Model
The Model would be the strong type used to represent that data in your code. Specifically, we can then define a JSON resource. It conforms ResourceType and contains two parsing functions, a way of retrieving the generic Model from a JSON dictionary and a way of parsing it from a JSON array.
public protocol JSONResourceType: ResourceType {
  func modelFrom(jsonDictionary jsonDictionary: [String : AnyObject]) -> Model?
  func modelFrom(jsonArray jsonArray: [AnyObject]) -> Model?
Naturally for most cases a resource will come from either a dictionary or an array so I use a protocol extension to add default implementations of this functions to return nil. When you create a new type that conforms to JSONResourceTypeyou should provide an implementation to either of these functions.
extension JSONResourceType {
  public func modelFrom(jsonDictionary jsonDictionary: [String : AnyObject]) -> Model? { return nil }
  public func modelFrom(jsonArray jsonArray: [AnyObject]) -> Model? { return nil }
The following step is to transform some NSData into either a JSON dictionary (i.e. [String: AnyObject]) or a JSON array (i.e. [AnyObject]). This is done using the commonly known NSJSONSerialization.JSONObjectWithData. As a side note, I prefer to use a Result type as the return type since this works very well for operations where the return type is different depending whether the function succeeds or fails:
public enum Result<T> {
  case Success(T)
  case Failure(ErrorType)
enum ParsingError: ErrorType {
  case InvalidJSONData
  case CannotParseJSONDictionary
  case CannotParseJSONArray
  case UnsupportedType
extension JSONResourceType {
  func resultFrom(data data: NSData) -> Result<Model> {
    guard let jsonObject = try? NSJSONSerialization.JSONObjectWithData(data, options: .MutableContainers) else {
      return .Failure(ParsingError.InvalidJSONData)
    if let jsonDictionary = jsonObject as? [String: AnyObject] {
      return resultFrom(jsonDictionary: jsonDictionary)
    if let jsonArray = jsonObject as? [AnyObject] {
      return resultFrom(jsonArray: jsonArray)
    // This is likely an impossible case since `JSONObjectWithData` likely only returns [String: AnyObject] or [AnyObject] but still needed to appease the compiler
    return .Failure(ParsingError.UnsupportedType)
  private func resultFrom(jsonDictionary jsonDictionary: [String: AnyObject]) -> Result<Model> {
    if let parsedResults = modelFrom(jsonDictionary: jsonDictionary) {
      return .Success(parsedResults)
    } else {
      return .Failure(ParsingError.CannotParseJSONDictionary)
  private func resultFrom(jsonArray jsonArray: [AnyObject]) -> Result<Model> {
    if let parsedResults = modelFrom(jsonArray: jsonArray) {
      return .Success(parsedResults)
    } else {
      return .Failure(ParsingError.CannotParseJSONArray)
At this point we can load any JSONResourceType from some NSData, so the next step is to get the data from somewhere. For the sake of keeping an already long post short, I'm only going to show how to retrieve it from a web service.
Before diving into the networking logic I'll introduce another protocol to define the necessary values to retrieve a JSONResourceType from the network. In most scenarios the following 4 parameters will be sufficient to download the resource.
public protocol NetworkResourceType {
  var url: NSURL { get }
  var HTTPMethod: String { get }
  var allHTTPHeaderFields: [String: String]? { get }
  var JSONBody: AnyObject? { get }
In a lot of cases only the URL is necessary to know where the JSON file is so we can add default values for the other three values:
public extension NetworkResourceType {
  var HTTPMethod: String { return "GET" }
  var allHTTPHeaderFields: [String: String]? { return nil }
  var JSONBody: AnyObject? { return nil }
The final step is to add the ability to generate a NSURLRequest from these parameters:
extension NetworkResourceType {
  func urlRequest() -> NSURLRequest {
    let request = NSMutableURLRequest(URL: url)
    request.allHTTPHeaderFields = allHTTPHeaderFields
    request.HTTPMethod = HTTPMethod
    if let body = JSONBody {
      request.HTTPBody = try? NSJSONSerialization.dataWithJSONObject(body, options: NSJSONWritingOptions.PrettyPrinted)
    return request
At this point we can define a NetworkJSONResource by combining NetworkResource and JSONResource:
public protocol NetworkJSONResourceType: NetworkResourceType, JSONResourceType {}
By conforming to NetworkJSONResourceType we know where the location of the JSON response is and how to map it into an app-specific data type.

Downloading the resource from the network

Now that we know how a NetworkJSONResourceType looks it's time to download it! This is done using the NSURLSession.sharedSession. The first thing to do is to declare a protocol that defines how a resource service looks like. It has 2 functions, one for initialization and another for fetching the resource with a completion handler:
public protocol ResourceServiceType {
  associatedtype Resource: ResourceType
  func fetch(resource resource: Resource, completion: (Result<Resource.Model>) -> Void)
Then we can create a NetworkJSONService that conforms to this ResourceServiceType to download the resource. 
As an aside, before diving into the NetworkJSONService I define a URLSessionType protocol that wraps NSURLSession's dataTaskWithRequest method, so that I can then use dependency injection to test the service by passing in a URLSessionType type.
protocol URLSessionType {
  func perform(request request: NSURLRequest, completion: (NSData?, NSURLResponse?, NSError?) -> Void)

extension NSURLSession: URLSessionType {
  public func perform(request request: NSURLRequest, completion: (NSData?, NSURLResponse?, NSError?) -> Void) {
    dataTaskWithRequest(request, completionHandler: completion).resume()
The implementation of the NetworkJSONService service is very simple. In the fetch(resource:completion:)method from ResourceServiceType the URLSessionType performs a request and calls the completion handler with the Result. The handling of the response is done in the private resultFrom(resource data:URLResponse:error:) method. At this point the usual checking for errors is carried out (error checking could be more exhaustive). Finally the JSONResourceType method defined previously to convert the NSData onto the needed model is invoked.
enum NetworkJSONServiceError: ErrorType {
  case NetworkingError(error: NSError)
  case NoData

public struct NetworkJSONService<Resource: NetworkJSONResourceType> {
  private let session: URLSessionType
  init(session: URLSessionType) {
    self.session = session
  private func resultFrom(resource resource: Resource, data: NSData?, URLResponse: NSURLResponse?, error: NSError?) -> Result<Resource.Model> {
    if let error = error {
      return .Failure(NetworkJSONServiceError.NetworkingError(error: error))
    guard let data = data else {
      return .Failure(NetworkJSONServiceError.NoData)
    return resource.resultFrom(data: data)
// MARK: - ResourceServiceType
extension NetworkJSONService: ResourceServiceType {
  public init() {
    self.init(session: NSURLSession.sharedSession())
  public func fetch(resource resource: Resource, completion: (Result<Resource.Model>) -> Void) {
    let urlRequest = resource.urlRequest()
    session.perform(request: urlRequest) { (data, _, error) in
      completion(self.resultFrom(resource: resource, data: data, URLResponse: nil, error: error))
That's pretty much all that is needed to have a very flexible and testable networking stack where all the endpoints called are defined as resources.

Using an operation to retrieve the data from the network

If you use NSOperations, this pattern fits very well with them. If you don't know much about them I would highly encourage watching the Advanced Operations WWDC 2016 video and checking out the sample code.
From this point I'll assume that you have a basic understanding of how to use operations. The first thing to do is define two protocols, Cancellable to know whether the operation has been cancelled and Finishable to be called when the work in the operation has been completed. An NSOperation will conform to the first protocol, so no extra work is needed to conform to it, the second one is inspired by the Operation class in the Advanced Operations sample code where the subclass of the operation must call finish with some errors if any exist when the work is complete.
public protocol Cancellable: class {
  var cancelled: Bool { get }

public protocol Finishable: class {
  func finish(errors: [NSError])
The next protocol defines what a ResourceOperationType should do. This conforms to both Cancellable and Finishable, and it include an associated type that conforms to the ResourceType protocol defined previously. The other requirements are a method to fetch the associatedtype Resource using a ResourceServiceType and a method that will be called when the operation completes providing the Result of it.
public protocol ResourceOperationType: Cancellable, Finishable {
  associatedtype Resource: ResourceType
  func fetch<Service: ResourceServiceType where Service.Resource == Resource>(resource resource: Resource, usingService service: Service)
  func didFinishFetchingResource(result result: Result<Resource.Model>)
Noticeably, the ResourceOperationType protocol does not provide a definition of where the Resource needs to be retrieved from, it could come form somewhere in the disk, the cloud, etc. Only it defines that it can be retrieved using a ResourceServiceType. To avoid having to write the code that fetches the resource using a service on each operation a function can be implemented on an extension on ResourceOperationType to be called in the method where the operation does it's work. (For NSOperations this can be called on the main() function).
public extension ResourceOperationType {
  public func fetch<Service: ResourceServiceType where Service.Resource == Resource>(resource resource:Resource, usingService service: Service) {
    if cancelled { return }
    service.fetch(resource: resource) { [weak self] (result) in
      NSThread.executeOnMain { [weak self] in
        guard let strongSelf = self else { return }
        if strongSelf.cancelled { return }
        strongSelf.didFinishFetchingResource(result: result)
That's it! A few protocol definitions, some enums and one struct later we can create our operations that conform to ResourceOperationType and use a NetworkJSONService to download our JSON in a concurrent way.

A concrete example

After writing a lot of code and explaining the various patterns of this architecture it's time to share a concrete example to see how this works in the real world. Let's say we are downloading a list of cities from some web service where the JSON response looks like this:
  "cities": [{
    "name": "Paris"
  }, {
    "name": "London"
The model in our application can be represented by the following struct:
struct City {
  let name: String
The parsing can be done in an extension where the City can be initialised from a JSON dictionary. (Note there are simpler ways to write the parsing logic, check out JSONUtilities for an example)
extension City {
  init?(jsonDictionary: [String : AnyObject]) {
    guard let parsedName = jsonDictionary["name"] as? String else {
      return nil
    name = parsedName
After creating the model we need to create the CitiesResource where we define how to decode the 'cities' key into an array of JSON dictionary cities.
// This base endpoint would probably be defined somewhere globally
let baseURL = NSURL(string: "http://localhost:8000/")!

struct CitiesResource: NetworkJSONResourceType {
  typealias Model = [City]
  let url: NSURL
  init(continent: String) {
    url = baseURL.URLByAppendingPathComponent("\(continent).json")
  //MARK: JSONResource
  func modelFrom(jsonDictionary jsonDictionary: [String: AnyObject]) -> [City]? {
    guard let
      citiesJSONArray: [[String: AnyObject]] = jsonDictionary["cities"] as? [[String: AnyObject]]
      else {
        return []
    return citiesJSONArray.flatMap(City.init)
Once all the information is defined about how to parse the cities endpoint into an array of cities (i.e. [City]) it's time to download them. To do this I have BaseOperation which is a subclass of NSOperation where I have all the finished, executing and canceled KVO boilerplate (see the implementation on Github). Nothing fancy, the only thing needed to know is that the work is carried out on the execute() function. Again I highly encourage to watch the Advanced Operations WWDC video as this BaseOperation can be replaced by the Operation Apple provides in the sample code. 
The operation is initialised with a continent (maybe something that the user selected from a table) to be able to create the CitiesResource. To notify about the completion of the operation I use a completion handler containing the generic operation and result. 
final class ResourceOperation<ResourceService: ResourceServiceType>: BaseOperation, ResourceOperationType {
  typealias Resource = ResourceService.Resource
  typealias DidFinishFetchingResourceCallback = (ResourceOperation<ResourceService>, Result<Resource.Model>) -> Void

  private let resource: Resource
  private let service: ResourceService  
  private let didFinishFetchingResourceCallback: DidFinishFetchingResourceCallback
  init(resource: ResourceService.Resource, service: ResourceService = ResourceService(), didFinishFetchingResourceCallback: DidFinishFetchingResourceCallback) {
    self.resource = resource
    self.service = service
    self.didFinishFetchingResourceCallback = didFinishFetchingResourceCallback
  override func execute() {
    fetch(resource: resource, usingService: service)
  func didFinishFetchingResource(result result: Result<Resource.Model>) {
    didFinishFetchingResourceCallback(self, result)
The definition of the operation for the CitiesResource that uses a NetworkJSONService can be declared in a typealias
typealias CitiesNetworkResourceOperation = ResourceOperation<NetworkJSONService<CitiesResource>>
At this point the networking stack is complete and can be used wherever it makes sense in your application. For the sake of simplicity we'll put in a view controller following the commonly used MVC pattern (i.e. Massive View Controller):
class ViewController: UIViewController {

  private let operationQueue = NSOperationQueue()

  override func viewDidLoad() {
    let americaResource = CitiesResource(continent: "america")
    let citiesNetworkResourceOperation = CitiesNetworkResourceOperation(resource: americaResource) { [weak self] operation, result in
      if operation.cancelled { return }
      // Handle result if operation not cancelled


There is very little repetition in the components built with this architecture. It's very easy to test, everything in this post apart from the ViewController can be easily unit tested (mainly through dependency injection). The components are small and easy to reason about, meaning onboarding of new developers is simpler. The ownership of each object is simple, so once the operation is torn down, the whole stack is removed from memory. Finally, adding this pattern to a current architecture is straight forward because each resource has it's own networking stack independent of the others.
To see how this pattern can be use to load a JSON file from disk see the Github repository where the code for LoadItcan be found.

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