Core Data in Swift Tutorial (Part 1)

This post compatible with Xcode 6.3 Beta, Updated on February 16, 2015
Don’t have 6.3 yet? Make sure to download it here using your iOS Developer account.

Core Data is the de facto standard way to persist and manage data in both iPhone and Mac applications, and with Swift it’s a bit easier. So it’s only natural that we should take some time to learn about it when building apps. Eager to see what we’ll have created by the end of this tutorial? Take a look at the video, we’ll be creating this table view, populating it with data, adding the ability to delete records, add records, and sort/search records all backed by Core Data. This data is persistent and lasts even through a complete shut down of your phone.

The first thing to know about Core Data before diving in is that it is not a relational database, and although it uses SQLite as a backing engine, is not an ORM to a relational database either. The SQLite backend is more of an implementation detail, and in fact binary files or plists can be used instead.

The official Apple documentation describes Core Data like this:

“The Core Data framework provides generalized and automated solutions to common tasks associated with object life-cycle and object graph management, including persistence.”
[developer.apple.com]

Before we get too technical about what Core Data is, I think it’s useful to dive in and start playing with the API a bit.

Create a new Xcode 6 project using a single-view template, Swift as the language, and with Core Data enabled. I’ll call the project MyLog.


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Looking at the AppDelegate.swift file you’ll notice using this option has added quite a few functions. Most of these are setting up the Core Data stack. The defaults are fine for now. The primary object that needs to be used to work with Core Data is the managedObjectContext defined here.

If you used the Core Data template as shown above, this code will already be present.

lazy var managedObjectContext: NSManagedObjectContext? = {
    // Returns the managed object context for the application (which is already bound to the persistent store
    // coordinator for the application.) This property is optional since there are legitimate error
    // conditions that could cause the creation of the context to fail.
    let coordinator = self.persistentStoreCoordinator
    if coordinator == nil {
        return nil
    }
    var managedObjectContext = NSManagedObjectContext()
    managedObjectContext.persistentStoreCoordinator = coordinator
    return managedObjectContext
}()

All you really need to know about this, is that managedObjectContext is a lazy variable on AppDelegate that is at our disposable for use in performing Core Data calls. Knowing this we can access the managedObjectContext from our ViewController.swift file. For example in viewDidLoad() of ViewController.swift, we can use this code to print the managedObjectContext’s description to the console. (New lines are highlighted)

override func viewDidLoad() {
    super.viewDidLoad()
    // Do any additional setup after loading the view, typically from a nib.
    
    // Retreive the managedObjectContext from AppDelegate
    let managedObjectContext = (UIApplication.sharedApplication().delegate as! AppDelegate).managedObjectContext
    
    // Print it to the console
    println(managedObjectContext)
}

We’ll be accessing the managedObjectContext pretty frequently, so we should pull this out of the viewDidLoad() method and move it somewhere we can access it easily. How about if we just store it as an instance variable on the ViewController?

import UIKit

class ViewController: UIViewController {
    
    // Retreive the managedObjectContext from AppDelegate
    let managedObjectContext = (UIApplication.sharedApplication().delegate as! AppDelegate).managedObjectContext

    override func viewDidLoad() {
        super.viewDidLoad()
        // Do any additional setup after loading the view, typically from a nib.
        
        // Print it to the console
        println(managedObjectContext)
    }

    override func didReceiveMemoryWarning() {
        super.didReceiveMemoryWarning()
        // Dispose of any resources that can be recreated.
    }

}

The managedObjectContext variable is computed using the existing managedObjectContext in the application’s delegate. In viewdidLoad() we cause this variable to be computed by printing it to the console. If your application is set up right you should see something like this:

Optional(<NSManagedObjectContext: 0x7fe68b58c800>)

You’ll notice the Xcode template produced an additional file, MyLog.xcdatamodeld.

Opening up this file you can see the Core Data model editor.

Let’s add a new Core Data entity called LogItem. Our log app will show a list of LogItems, which have a bit of text in them.

Click the “Add Entity” button and then in the right-hand panel select the “Data Model Inspector”. From here we can rename the default name, Entity, to LogItem.

Next, at the bottom we can add our first attribute by pressing the “+ Atrribute” button at the bottom.

Name this attribute title, and give it a type of String. We’ll also add a second attribute of type String called itemText.

IMPORTANT!

From this point on, any changes you make to your Core Data model, such as adding a new Entity or Attribute will lead to an inconsistency in the model of the app in the iPhone Simulator. If this happens to you, you’ll get a really scary looking crash in your app as soon as it starts. You’ll also see something like this show up at the very bottom of your console, “reason=The model used to open the store is incompatible with the one used to create the store”.

If this happens to you there is a very easy fix:
In the iPhone Simulator, or on your device, just delete the app, and then perform a new Build & Run command in Xcode. This will erase all out of date versions of the model, and allow you to do a fresh run.

Now that we have our first Entity created, we want to also be able to directly access this entity as a class in our code. Xcode provides an automated tool to do this. In the menubar select Editor->Create NSManagedObject Subclass…

In the first prompt, check the MyLog model and press next. Then, check the LogItem entity, and press next again.
A file save window should appear with an option to specify the language as Swift, select this. Finally hit Create, and you should now see a LogItem.swift file added. It’s contents should be something very close to this:

import Foundation
import CoreData

class LogItem: NSManagedObject {
    @NSManaged var title: String
    @NSManaged var itemText: String
}

This class is generated from the xcdatamodeld file. The entity we created is represented by the similarly named class LogItem, and the attributes are turned in to variables using the @NSManaged identifier, which gives the variables special treatment allowing them to operate with Core Data. For most intents and purposes though, you can just think of these as instance variables.

Because of the way Swift modules work, we need to make one modification to the core data model. In the field “Class” under the data model inspector for our entity, LogItem, we need to specify the project name as a prefix to the class name. So instead of just specifying “LogItem” as the class, it needs to say “MyLog.LogItem”, assuming your app is called “MyLog”.

In our ViewController.swift file in the viewDidLoad method, let’s instantiate some instances of LogItem. There are many ways to do this, but the least verbose is to use the insertNewObjectForEntityForName method of NSEntityDescription.

override func viewDidLoad() {
    super.viewDidLoad()

    let newItem = NSEntityDescription.insertNewObjectForEntityForName("LogItem", inManagedObjectContext: self.managedObjectContext!) as! LogItem
}

Here we insert a new object in to the core data stack through the managedObjectContext that the template function added to AppDelegate for us. This method returns an NSManagedObject which is a generic type of Core Data object that responds to methods like valueForKey. If you don’t quite understand what that means, don’t worry too much about it, it’s not going to prevent you from being able to use Core Data. Let’s keep moving.

With an NSManagedObject version of newItem, we could say newItem.valueForKey(“title”) to get the title. But this is not the best approach because it leaves too much opportunity to mis-type an attribute name, or get the wrong object type unexpectedly and have hard crashes trying to access these attributes.

So, in our case, we instead cast the NSManagedObject that insertNewObjectForEntityForName returns, to our generated class LogItem.

What this means, simply put, is that we can set the title and itemText like this:

override func viewDidLoad() {
    super.viewDidLoad()
    // Do any additional setup after loading the view, typically from a nib.
    
    let newItem = NSEntityDescription.insertNewObjectForEntityForName("LogItem", inManagedObjectContext: self.managedObjectContext!) as! LogItem

    newItem.title = "Wrote Core Data Tutorial"
    newItem.itemText = "Wrote and post a tutorial on the basics of Core Data to blog."
}

If we had not generated our LogItem.swift file earlier, the type LogItem would not be defined and we would be limited to working only with NSManagedObject types. This is a really nasty way to work with the Core Data API as it relies heavily on determining object classes, entities, state, and more at runtime based on string comparisons, yuck!

Now that we’ve created a new item, and set both it’s title and text, we can query it elsewhere in our app and get the object back. Let’s override the viewDidAppear() method and implement a way to look at our items info. We’ll perform a Core Data fetch (which is like a query if you have worked with SQL before), then we will present the contents of the row we retrieved in a new alert window.

override func viewDidAppear(animated: Bool) {
    super.viewDidAppear(animated)
    
    // Create a new fetch request using the LogItem entity
    let fetchRequest = NSFetchRequest(entityName: "LogItem")
    
    // Execute the fetch request, and cast the results to an array of LogItem objects
    if let fetchResults = managedObjectContext!.executeFetchRequest(fetchRequest, error: nil) as? [LogItem] {
        
        // Create an Alert, and set it's message to whatever the itemText is
        let alert = UIAlertController(title: fetchResults[0].title,
            message: fetchResults[0].itemText,
            preferredStyle: .Alert)
        
        // Display the alert
        self.presentViewController(alert,
            animated: true,
            completion: nil)
    }
}

First, we create a new NSFetchRequest instance using the entity LogItem.
Next, we create a fetchResults variable by using the executeFetchRequest method of managedObjectContext. The only thing we have specified in our fetchRequest is the entity, so this particular fetch just returns every record. If you are familiar with SQL, a fetch request with no predicate on the LogItem entity is something like “SELECT * FROM LogItem”.
Next we create a UIAlertController instance to present a message to the screen, and set it’s title and message properties to the title and itemText properties of the first LogItem in our fetch results (which is an array of LogItem objects).

Run the app and you should see the item presented to the screen. You’ve now stored and retrieved data from Core Data. This is the first step in to building apps with persistent storage.

In part 2, we’ll talk about working with multiple records and using NSPredicate to perform filtered requests.

The full source code to this part is available here on Github.

If you found this post useful, check out my other tutorials, and take a look at my Swift eBook, which is now available for early access.

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