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Apple's Core Data greatest feature: brainwashing

Core Data, pretty on the outside, but painful once you use it

Now that another project is ending for me, it's always a good idea to review the good and bad things, a postmortem. This time, thanks to Sir Arthur's Legacy from Crazy Hipster Land (you know who you are!) I got to deal with Apple's Core Data yet another time, for a project which didn't really need it. Thanks to Apple being idiots, it's never possible to hard link any kind of their documentation with confidence because it seems to move every year with each new SDK update, so I have now the following documentation link in case you don't know what Core Data is, but who knows for how long it will last. Your best chance is to Google "Apple's Core Data".

Now, just like any tool, framework, library, etc, you can use stuff just for the sake of it even if you don't need it. And sometimes the use can be justified through external reasons, like using a lesser programming language because it is easier to find programmers for your team. But regardless of justification, Core Data has always made me feel nervous since the first time I read about it and used it, and now I think I have a clear understanding of why I've always had such feelings. There are many ways to blame or rant about Core Data, but I'll be talking about what is wrong from an architectural point of view, which as far as I know is something that is overlooked. Hence the brainwashing feature, since most of the people using Core Data (or similar frameworks) would nail you to a cross if they saw you committing the same crimes in your own code. But Apple is different.

Kaleidoscopic fragments of solutions

One of the most basic concepts programmers use is the abstraction: we have vertical and horizontal abstractions. Vertical abstractions are typically those that simplify interaction, reducing the number of API entry points or adding convenience functionality on top of another. We even categorize whole programming languages relative to each other based on the complexity and height of the abstractions they allow programmers to interact with. Once upon a time the C programming language was considered a higher level programming language compared to assembler, but now C is usually considered a low level programming language compared to those like Python or Scala.

Horizontal abstractions are those that compartmentalize and split components, they usually impose a generic interface. Instead of writing two components together, tightly coupled, one depending on the other, they can be coupled loosely through an interface, a horizontal abstraction of each other. It is a horizontal abstraction because we still talk at the same level as we were previous to the abstraction. The utility of such abstractions is that we can now exchange one part at each end of the interface without the other knowing there was a change at all.

There are certainly many ways of split or design an app, but the most basic, simple and effective pattern I've used is to split all applications into three layers: the user interface, the business logic, and the storage. In fact, best way to write a user interface is to write it like you were writing it for a daemon program. A daemon does not require an explicit user interface, it is just a program which runs without user interaction, and hence does not need a user interface. But most of them have one, they can have a command line interface, a telnet interface, or a graphical interface. Think of web servers like daemons, most of the time accessing their storage in order to serve web pages, and web browsers like user interface against them.

The separation is a little bit blurry since the web server tells the user interface what to display, but this kind of abstraction still serves our purpose, the user interface is separate from the business logic implemented by the daemon, and certainly ignorant of whatever storage is being used. More importantly, well designed web servers/daemons/web apps, are also independent of their storage choice, because they use another abstraction, both vertical and horizontal: SQL. The SQL language removes developers from the minute details of how to store a string or an integer, but more importantly it allows us to change the storage database for an application with minimal or no explicit changes to it other than some configuration settings (as long as we are not using some proprietary or vendor specific extension which locked us in). This is highlighted when the web server app is not even running on the same machine as the database. We reach thus the highest degree of compartmentalization: user interface connected through HTTP+HTML to the business logic, and the business logic connected through SQL/NoSQL to the storage, each layer in a separate machine, each allowing replacement as long as the horizontally abstracted interface is respected.

It came from the horizontal dimension!

We can classify Core Data as a higher level abstraction over some of the features it provides, like serialization (you don't need to write explicit serialization code in most cases) or undo (you don't have to implement the undo manager yourself). But unfortunately Core Data also provides a poor and dangerous horizontal abstraction for storage. In general all abstractions are both vertical and horizontal at the same time, each axis being stronger or weaker than the other depending on the original design purpose. Sometimes, originally designed vertical abstractions become horizontal (the case for emulators or virtual machines). Core Data itself doesn't necessarily break horizontal abstraction… but most users do it for convenience. In fact, if you don't do it, you are loosing big time on most of the higher level abstractions it provides.

The problem is that Core Data imposes it's own threading restrictions on what you can do with your objects, and this breaks encapsulation (on top of being generally a hazard). For starters, Core Data objects are associated to a context, and there is a context per thread/queue. This means that if you take an object from a thread and pass it to another, you may get errors like these. The implications mean, as you can see in the accepted answer, that once you start using Core Data, you shouldn't use threading primitives like dispatch_async() and should instead replace them with [NSManagedObjectContext performBlock:] calls. So were did your encapsulation go? If we want to use a library which works on some kind of objects, unaware of Core Data, and it does some threading stuff… are you screwed or not? Possibly your best bet is to serialize everything and forget about threading, or risk runtime problems. Core Data forces you to handle your data model (presumably the most important thing in your app, since the business logic operates on it) in a very specific way, and this silent requirement is propagated elsewhere.

Core Data, because you love back hugs

Recently Google published the room persistence library for Android apps after many years of leaving developers to write their own SQL code. Through annotations extra code is generated which deals with the lower level details, but the user is still in control of what happens where. The library doesn't change how you deal with threads because it doesn't try being your kitchen sink. More specifically, read the last section Addendum: No object references between entities where it shows another hidden problem with threading and lazy loading:

[…] ORMs usually leave this decision to developers so that they can do whatever is best for their app's use cases. Unfortunately, developers usually end up sharing the model between their app and the UI. As the UI changes over time, problems occur that are difficult to anticipate and debug.

For example, take a UI that loads a list of Book objects, with each book having an Author object. You might initially design your queries to use lazy loading such that instances of Book use a getAuthor() method to return the author. The first invocation of the getAuthor() call queries the database. Some time later, you realize that you need to display the author name in your app's UI, as well. You can add the method call easily enough, as shown in the following code snippet:


However, this seemingly innocent change causes the Author table to be queried on the main thread […].

Lazy loading of properties is another much advertised feature of Core Data, but as you can see, such misfeatures can be problematic if one doesn't double check every model property access, because costly IO operations are now implicit and could happen any time without you being able to foresee them.

The obvious solution to this problem is to contain Core Data to its storage layer in your app, and create two objects: one for your model, one for Core Data, and convert one to the other and vice versa at the boundary. That's why Google's text says: "Unfortunately, developers usually end up sharing the model between their app and the UI". Nobody using Core Data does this kind of split.

The invisible red thread of bloat

On top of affecting the encapsulation of your storage and model layers, using Core Data in mobile environments tends to bloat your code base because mobile often require less features than apps found in a desktop environment (Core Data's original environment). Things like (extracted from the documentation):

None of these features have been even a requirement in the mobile apps I've been developing so far, most of them being essentially native versions of websites with offline features. So whenever I encountered Core Data in a project, it was merely being used as an interface against SQLite, treated as a raw database. Quoting again from the documentation, just above that long list of features:

Core Data typically decreases by 50 to 70 percent the amount of code you write to support the model layer. This is primarily due to the following built-in features that you do not have to implement, test, or optimize:

As such, given that most mobile uses of Core Data are not using those features, we should start asking ourselves if the overhead is worth it. And if that 50 to 70 percent happens only if we are trying to use those features. For comparison, in this project all the model layer was in Core Data, but most of the objects weren't even serialized to disk, and per design shouldn't be, since they represented transient data. However, once you start with Core Data, it tentacle rapes your brain, propagating its corruption everywhere. So I decided to look at the model objects and realised that one point at the object tree represented the boundary between things we want to serialize vs things we don't want to serialize.

$ git show --stat e2183d36fe07ac8ef60c75c29785ee89328616bb
 42 files changed, 243 insertions(+), 659 deletions(-)

There you have a change which transforms 12 objects using Core Data into 6 using it and 6 being plain old classes. No functionality was changed, since those objects weren't using any Core Data feature at all. That's 416 lines of less bloat. And if you take a look at typical Core Data libraries (why should a library or framework claiming to reduce your line count require extra additional code to be manageable?) it's the kind of bloat which can be avoided through code generation, but for some reason Apple engineers decided to leave that issue in your hands. This is another important point that seems to be forgotten in the reasoning of most Core Data advocates for mobile, it doesn't actually save you much if you only use it for basic persistence, like caching network results. In my experience, projects which used Core Data had the same amount of work/time spent in the storage layer as those using SQLite plus some basic Objective-C wrapper. Core Data never saved me any work and forced me to step into minefield of thread issues.


My point of view on Core Data for mobile is that it doesn't make much sense, it's not worth the trouble. But it keeps attracting new developers, unaware of its constraints or its hidden maintenance costs (hence my title of brainwashing). Maybe if your mobile app is as feature full as a desktop app involving content creation (undo), lots of data (lazy loading), and online storage (iCloud integration) then Core Data makes sense. But it is awkward at best for most apps which are just some news kind of RSS reader, diet/weight/exercise trackers, games, small utilities, etc. Apple ported Core Data from desktop to mobile because it made sense for those who already invested lot of work on it on the desktop and wanted to share that work. The appeal is not there if you start a project from scratch and don't share code with a desktop application, or have no desktop presence at all. My recommendation is that you should think twice if using Core Data is good for your future sanity (or mine, since I end up grabbing so many Core Data projects with problems).

Recently the Realm mobile database has been getting a lot of hype, and its features look very tempting. Unfortunately it follows the same thread model as Core Data, restricting your thread usage and forcing to pass identifiers back and forth between threads to read/write to your model objects (or are they storage layer objects?). At least it is cross platform, having implementations for iOS, Android, and even Microsoft Windows or server back ends, so you get a better deal out of it if you know what you are trading your sanity for (dependence on a third party, possibly forever; do you remember Parse?).

In my opinion the best library I've seen so far is SQLDelight for Android, which instead of trying to hide SQL as much as possible, makes it a first class citizen: you write SQL queries in .sq files which on top of being integrated with the IDE (validation, completion, and so forth) generate the mundane code required to deal with serialization, but without imposing any model. In fact, the library is strong on interfaces, which your objects need to implement. Those interfaces are the horizontal abstraction which guarantees that you are the owner of any thread issues that crop up. So should you, for whatever reason, replace SQLDelight in the future, or rather the code it produces, you can freely do so maintaining the existing interface, without having to change the way your business logic or user interface layers work.

Core data, I'm not convinced, I still prefer to use a framework with hidden problems, which breaks the storage encapsulation layer than writing a few lines of serialization code
$ nim c -r threaded_hello.nim
eHlol !orlwd

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Published on: 28/05/2017 09:45. Last update: 05/12/2018 23:42. rss feed
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