Monthly Archives: January 2011


Passing around a NSManagedObjectContext on iOS

by Marcus Zarra

**This article is reprinted from the MDN**

The documentation on Core Data for the iPhone has lead to some confusion about how best to use Core Data on a Cocoa Touch device. One particular section seems to be the most confusing, specifically:

> A view controller typically shouldn’t retrieve the context from a global object such as the application delegate. This tends to make the application architecture rigid. Neither should a view controller typically create a context for its own use. This may mean that operations performed using the controller’s context aren’t registered with other contexts, so different view controllers will have different perspectives on the data.

> When you create a view controller, you pass it a context. You pass an existing context, or (in a situation where you want the new controller to manage a discrete set of edits) a new context that you create for it. It’s typically the responsibility of the application delegate to create a context to pass to the first view controller that’s displayed.

The idea behind this section is the issue of rigidity. Ideally, each view controller should be an island on its own. It should not rely on its parent, nor should it rely on the Application Delegate. Once a view controller is pushed onto the screen it should ideally be its own master.

## Why Rigidity is bad

It is fairly common when designing a Cocoa Touch application to “hard code” everything. Take the following navigation controller design:

![Navigation Controller Design]( “Standard Navigation Controller Design”)

When this design, it is common to code each view controller and make it “aware” of its parent. In that design, it would be common to see view controller B call methods or call back (to its delegate) view controller A. While there is nothing technically wrong with this design, it is very rigid. It is nearly impossible to either move view controller B to another location in the stack or to reuse view controller B somewhere else. This is the trap that the documentation is trying to help new developers avoid.

## Solution One

Again using a standard/normal navigation controller design, it is expected that the detail flows from left to right. The left most (or root) view controller contains the most vague information and the right most (or deepest) view controller contains the greatest detail.

![UIFetchedResultsController]( “UIFetchedResultsController”)

In this case then the best solution is to use a UIFetchedResultsController. This controller can be considered a thin layer between the view controllers and the Core Data bits. The advantage is that the UIFetchedResultsController is designed to work with tables. The other advantage is that your least detailed view (the root most likely) can listen as the delegate of the UIFetchedResultsController for changes and update itself.

In this design, however, instead of passing around a context, you would hand off just the entity that the child view controller needs to know about. The Core Data Recipes example provided by Apple illustrates this design quite well.

How does this break rigidity? Each view controller, from the root on down, only knows what is passed into it. The root gets the UIFetchedResultsController passed into it. The child views only get the items it cares about passed into it. None of them care what their parent view controller is. There is no call back to a parent.

## Solution two

What happens when we don’t have a typical navigation controller design? Perhaps a child view can pop up a modal view that displays different information. Perhaps a child view, for whatever reason needs to access information that cannot be directly passed into it every time.

In these cases there are a few different options.

### View already has a NSManagedObject

Following our example above, lets say that view controller C needs to create a new object. Perhaps it is a detail view of a recipe and the user wants to add a new recipe type (perhaps she is a vegan and just discovered there is no vegan type in the list). In this case we have passed in an entity (the recipe) but not a reference to the NSManagedObjectContext. Fortunately this solution is easy to fix. The NSManagedObject retains a reference to its NSManagedObjectContext internally and we can access it. Therefore we can easily retrieve the NSManagedObjectContext from the NSManagedObject and create the new Type entity and pass it to the modal child or whatever our design calls for.

This again avoids rigidity because the view controller that represents the entity does not need to call up to a parent object or the UIApplication delegate. It is self contained and only manages view controllers that are down stream from it.

### View does not have a NSManagedObject

In this situation things are *slightly* more complicated. In this case we want to create a @property for the NSManagedObjectContext and require that our creator set the property.

@interface MyViewController : ViewController
NSManagedObjectContext *moc;

@property (nonatomic, retain) NSManagedObjectContext *moc;


Again, the view controller is an island of its own because it does not care where that NSManagedObjectContext came from. All it knows is that it is required for the view to function. It does not care of it is a new NSManagedObjectContext specifically created for its use (perhaps for a cancelable edit tree) or if it is the same NSManagedObjectContext that has been passed around since the launch of the application. All it knows is that it has the elements it needs to perform its function.

By making the NSManagedObjectContext a settable property we can also transplant the view easily. If, at some point in the project lifecycle, we decide that it makes more sense to have the following design:

![Modal View Controller]( “Modal View Controller”)

Taking from Apple’s Recipes Application, perhaps we decide that moving from the table view directly to the image of the recipe is more pleasing to the users and that when they want to see how to make it they can “flip” the image over and see the detail.

Making this change with each view controller being an island is quite simple. We just rearrange the views without having to worry too much about breaking the application.

## Solution three

Up until now we have been looking at just a navigation controller design. But what about tab bars? In the situation of a tab bar we again want to avoid rigidity because it is even more common that tabs will get moved around.

The solution to this is to again use a @property for the NSManagedObjectContext and require that the creator set this property before the view is displayed on screen. If you are creating the tabs in code this is trivial because you are already calling init on the view controller and you can add one more line of code after the init to set the property.

If the user interface is being developed mostly in Interface Builder it is slightly more tricky. Personally I am not a fan of creating navigation controllers or tab bar controllers in Interface Builder. However if that is the design then I would recommend referencing the view controllers as properties and passing along the context upon initialization of the application. It may be possible to do this entirely in Interface Builder but I am not comfortable enough to recommend that as a solution.

## Conclusion

The overall idea behind this article is to keep each view controller separate from anything up stream or in a different silo. This will make the design far more flexible in the long run. Any time that you feel the “need” to pass in a parent view controller to a child view controller, reconsider the design. Consider using a @protocol delegate design or NSNotification calls instead. Keep each view controller as its own private island.