About the URL Loading System

This guide describes the Foundation framework classes available for interacting with URLs and communicating with servers using standard Internet protocols. Together these classes are referred to as the URL loading system.

The URL loading system is a set of classes and protocols that allow your app to access content referenced by a URL. At the heart of this technology is the NSURL class, which lets your app manipulate URLs and the resources they refer to.

To support that class, the Foundation framework provides a rich collection of classes that let you load the contents of a URL, upload data to servers, manage cookie storage, control response caching, handle credential storage and authentication in app-specific ways, and write custom protocol extensions.

The URL loading system provides support for accessing resources using the following protocols:

It also transparently supports both proxy servers and SOCKS gateways using the user’s system preferences.

At a Glance

The URL loading system includes classes that load URLs along with a number of important helper classes that work with those URL loading classes to modify their behavior. The major helper classes fall into five categories: protocol support, authentication and credentials, cookie storage, configuration management, and cache management.

The URL loading system class hierarchy

URL Loading

The most commonly used classes in the URL loading system allow your app to retrieve the content of a URL from the source. You can retrieve that content using NSURLSession. The specific methods you use depend largely on whether you wish to fetch data to memory or download it to disk.

Fetching Content as Data (In Memory)

At a high level, there are two basic approaches to fetching URL data:

  • For simple requests, use the NSURLSession API to retrieve the contents from an NSURL object directly, either as an NSData object or as a file on disk.

  • For more complex requests—requests that upload data, for example—provide an NSURLRequest object (or its mutable subclass, NSMutableURLRequest) to NSURLSession.

Regardless of which approach you choose, your app can obtain the response data in two ways:

  • Provide a completion handler block. The URL loading class calls that block when it finishes receiving data from the server.

  • Provide a custom delegate. The URL loading class periodically calls your delegate methods as it receives the data from the originating source. Your app is responsible for accumulating that data, if needed.

In addition to the data itself, the URL loading class provides your delegate or completion handler block with a response object that encapsulates metadata associated with the request, such as the MIME type and content length.

Downloading Content as a File

At a high level, there are two basic approaches to downloading the contents of a URL to a file:

  • For simple requests, use the NSURLSession API to retrieve the contents from an NSURL object directly, either as an NSData object or as a file on disk.

  • For more complex requests—requests that upload data, for example—provide an NSURLRequest object (or its mutable subclass, NSMutableURLRequest) to NSURLSession.

Helper Classes

The URL loading classes use two helper classes that provide additional metadata—one for the request itself (NSURLRequest) and one for the server’s response (NSURLResponse).

URL Requests

An NSURLRequest object encapsulates a URL and any protocol-specific properties, in a protocol-independent manner.

Some protocols support protocol-specific properties. For example, the HTTP protocol adds methods to NSURLRequest that return the HTTP request body, headers, and transfer method. It also adds methods to NSMutableURLRequest to set those values.

The details of working with URL request objects are described throughout this book.

Response Metadata

The response from a server to a request can be viewed as two parts: metadata describing the contents and the content data itself. Metadata that is common to most protocols is encapsulated by the NSURLResponse class and consists of the MIME type, expected content length, text encoding (where applicable), and the URL that provided the response. Protocol-specific subclasses of NSURLResponse can provide additional metadata. For example, NSHTTPURLResponse stores the headers and the status code returned by the web server.

The details of working with URL response objects are described throughout this book.

Redirection and Other Request Changes

Some protocols, such as HTTP, provide a way for a server to tell your app that content has moved to a different URL. The URL loading classes can notify their delegates when this happens. If your app provides an appropriate delegate method, your app can then decide whether to follow the redirect, return the response body from the redirect, or return an error.

Authentication and Credentials

Some servers restrict access to certain content, requiring a user to authenticate by providing some sort of credentials—a client certificate, a user name and password, and so on—in order to gain access. In the case of a web server, restricted content is grouped into a realm that requires a single set of credentials. Credentials (certificates, specifically) are also used to determine trust in the other direction—to evaluate whether your app should trust the server.

The URL loading system provides classes that model credentials and protected areas as well as providing secure credential persistence. Your app can specify that these credentials persist for a single request, for the duration of an app’s launch, or permanently in the user’s keychain.

The NSURLCredential class encapsulates a credential consisting of authentication information (user name and password, for example) and persistence behavior. The NSURLProtectionSpace class represents an area that requires a specific credential. A protection space can be limited to a single URL, encompass a realm on a web server, or refer to a proxy.

An NSURLCredentialStorage object manages credential storage for a session and provides the mapping of an NSURLCredential object to the corresponding NSURLProtectionSpace object for which it provides authentication. A credential is only stored if authentication challenge is successful.

The NSURLAuthenticationChallenge class encapsulates the information required by an NSURLProtocol implementation to authenticate a request: a proposed credential, the protection space involved, the error or response that the protocol used to determine that authentication is required, and the number of authentication attempts that have been made. An NSURLAuthenticationChallenge instance also specifies the object that initiated the authentication. The initiating object, referred to as the sender, must conform to the NSURLAuthenticationChallengeSender protocol.

NSURLAuthenticationChallenge instances are used by NSURLProtocol subclasses to inform the URL loading system that authentication is required. They are also provided to the delegate methods of NSURLSession that facilitate customized authentication handling.

Cache Management

The URL loading system provides a composite on-disk and in-memory cache allowing an app to reduce its dependence on a network connection and provide faster turnaround for previously cached responses. The cache is stored on a per-app basis. The cache is queried by NSURLSession according to the cache policy specified by the initiating NSURLRequest and NSURLSessionConfiguration objects.

The NSURLCache class provides methods to configure the cache size and its location on disk. It also provides methods to manage the collection of NSCachedURLResponse objects that contain the cached responses.

An NSCachedURLResponse object encapsulates the NSURLResponse object and the URL content data. NSCachedURLResponse also provides a user info dictionary that your app can use to cache any custom data.

Not all protocol implementations support response caching. Currently only http and https requests are cached.

An NSURLSession object can control whether a response is cached and whether the response should be cached only in memory by implementing the URLSession:dataTask:willCacheResponse:completionHandler: delegate method.

Cookie Storage

Due to the stateless nature of the HTTP protocol, clients often use cookies to provide persistent storage of data across URL requests. The URL loading system provides interfaces to create and manage cookies, to send cookies as part of an HTTP request, and to receive cookies when interpreting a web server’s response.

OS X and iOS provide the NSHTTPCookieStorage class, which in turn provides the interface for managing a collection of NSHTTPCookie objects. In OS X, cookie storage is shared across all apps; in iOS, cookie storage is per-app.

Protocol Support

The URL loading system natively supports the http, https, file, ftp, and data protocols. However, the URL loading system also allows your app to register your own classes to support additional application-layer networking protocols. You can also add protocol-specific properties to URL request and URL response objects.

How to Use This Document

Start by reading Using NSURLSession for an overview of the URL Loading System. Then read Life Cycle of a URL Session to learn in detail how NSURLSession interacts with its delegates. Further information about other aspects of the URL Loading System are provided in the following chapters: