Concurrency in iOS: serial and concurrent queues in Grand Central Dispatch (GCD) with Swift 4

Today, I’ll show you how to use Swift 4 and the Grand Central Dispatch (GCD) application programming interface (API) to implement the execution of (multiple) tasks in the background, i.e., parallel/concurrent execution of tasks on a multicore CPU. I’ve built a sample app that gives you two options: 1) synchronous execution of tasks in the background and 2) asynchronous execution of tasks in the background. All my Swift 4 code from this article, part of an Xcode 9 project which builds a fully-functional working sample app, is available for download here. Join me in: reviewing concurrent programming concepts; reviewing my concurrent Swift 4 code; and, examining videos of my app in action, videos of console output from my app, and the console output text itself. I’ll even show you how to graphically visualize my app’s CPU and thread usage with Xcode’s Debug Navigator.

This is a look at the app — a snapshot — after all images have finished downloading asynchronously in the background:

Here’s a video of the app downloading images asynchronously in the background:

Press the play button if you missed the first showing

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Concurrency in iOS: Introduction to the abstract Operation class and using its BlockOperation subclass to run tasks in parallel

[Download the full Xcode 9 project, written in Swift 4, from GitHub.]

Swift tutorials by iosbrain.comI’m going to introduce you to iOS concurrency with simple Swift 4 code that uses an API based on the Operation abstract class. In more complex scenarios, you would subclass and customize Operation, but iOS provides the built-in BlockOperation subclass of Operation which we’ll use here. I’ll review the tenets of concurrency, emphasize why it is necessary in almost all apps, explain the basic infrastructure of Operation, compare it to Grand Central Dispatch (GCD), and then walk you through the Swift 4 code I wrote to implement concurrency in a real-live app based on BlockOperation. I’ll even show you how to graphically visualize your app’s CPU and thread usage with Xcode’s Debug Navigator. Here’s the app that we’ll build together:

Press the play button if you missed the first showing

We now live in the day and age of writing apps that can run on devices with CPUs that have multiple cores. We can go way beyond the notion of “multitasking” as a bunch of processes vying for a “timeslice” of the CPU. We can literally run processes simultaneously on different cores. As iOS developers, it is vitally important that we understand the concept of concurrency. Why?

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Make Swift 3 closures your friend

[Download Xcode project with all source code from GitHub to follow along.]

Today, we’ll finish our discussion of the benefits of using Objective-C blocks and Swift closures by writing code to define and use a closure in Swift 3. For the full background on this topic, please read my last post entitled “Make blocks (closures) your friend (Objective-C and Swift 3).” Let’s plunge into Swift 3:

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Concurrency in iOS: serial and concurrent queues in Grand Central Dispatch (GCD) with Swift 3

[Download the full Swift Xcode project from GitHub.]
[Download the full Objective-C Xcode project from GitHub.]


UPDATE: I’ve updated this article for Swift 4, learned a few new tricks, and taken advantage of the Swift 4 compiler’s “intelligence.” Please check out the new version as it’s more comprehensive and detailed, and my source code has been highlighted and commented to better help you understand the sometimes confusing concept of parallelism. There’s a brand new Xcode companion project, too.


Today, I’m going to start answering some of the concurrency questions I asked you to ponder in yesterday’s post entitled “Concurrency in iOS — Grand Central Dispatch (GCD) with Swift 3.” Specifically, I’m going to write some code in Swift 3 and Objective-C showing you the difference between serial and concurrent queues. But before coding we’ll talk about concurrency in general, the terminology used in discussing concurrency (threads, process, and tasks), the differences between the terms “concurrent” and “parallel,” the differences between serial and concurrent queues, the differences between synchronous and asynchronous methods/functions, and finally we’ll wrap up with some more definitions you need to know about.

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Concurrency in iOS – Grand Central Dispatch (GCD) with Swift 3

[Download the full Swift Xcode project from GitHub.]
[Download the full Objective-C Xcode project from GitHub.]

I use concurrency in most of my iOS apps, generally to keep the user interface responsive. For those of you new to iOS and/or new to computer science, “Concurrency is the notion of multiple things happening at the same time.” (We can discuss the old “What’s the difference between concurrency and parallelism?” question later.) I’m constantly being asked questions about how to implement concurrency in iOS and, most recently, I’ve received many questions about how to implement it in Swift 3. Here’s a video showing this post’s concurrent Swift code running — and notice that a UIProgressView is updating while images are downloading in the background; notice also that I’m continually pressing a button that increments an instance variable during background processing:

(Make sure you stay with me to complete this discussion of iOS concurrency in the next post. I’ll write some code in Swift 3 and Objective-C showing you the difference between serial and concurrent queues. Before coding we’ll talk about concurrency in general, the terminology used in discussing concurrency (threads, process, and tasks), the differences between the terms “concurrent” and “parallel,” the differences between serial and concurrent queues, the differences between synchronous and asynchronous methods/functions, and finally we’ll wrap up with some more definitions you need to know about.)

The questions about implementing GCD in Swift 3 have come from beginners to intermediate- to even advanced-level developers. For years, the most widely used iOS construct for concurrency — “starting tasks asynchronously” — has been Grand Central Dispatch (GCD). Most iOS old-timers like me have gotten used to GCD’s Objective-C language version of the “dispatch_async” function:

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