Using FileWrappers as File Containers

Documents composed of a complex mix of text, binary blobs, and metadata often use a package format to store their data across multiple files and directories, as described in Document Packages. You use instances of the NSFileWrapper class, or file wrappers, to efficiently manage packages in your app.

File wrappers represent the nodes (files, symbolic links, and directories) in your package’s hierarchy, linked together in a structure that mirrors that of the underlying file system objects. Like the nodes themselves, file wrappers come in three varieties:

These file wrappers enable you to represent and manipulate the contents (and attributes) of your document package, with the following benefits:

Using File Wrappers in Cocoa Documents

Because the Cocoa document architecture automatically provides many capabilities (as described in Document-Based App Programming Guide for Mac) that integrate seamlessly with file wrappers, you often use file wrappers in the context of Cocoa documents. In this case, you typically interact with file wrappers at three specific times:

Managing a Document Package in Your Document Subclass

As a concrete example of how to use file wrappers to manage a document package with Cocoa documents, consider a simple document composed of a block of text and an image that the user can choose to hide or display. Rather than merging this heterogeneous data into a single file, you define a document package, which in this simple example is a directory containing three regular files:

  • A plain text file called Text.txt holds the text.

  • An image file called Image.png holds the image.

  • A plist file called MetaData.plist stores a Boolean indicating whether the image is hidden or displayed in the UI.

To begin your NSDocument subclass implementation, you first define the package file names and metadata dictionary keys:

// File names
static NSString* const ImageFileName    = @"Image.png";
static NSString* const TextFileName     = @"Text.txt";
static NSString* const MetaDataFileName = @"MetaData.plist";
// Metadata keys
static NSString* const MetaDataHiddenKey = @"HiddenKey";

Next, create a simple data model as a group of properties on your document, and keep a reference to the top-level document object:

@interface MyDocument : NSDocument
// Model
@property (copy) NSString* text;
@property (strong) NSImage* image;
@property (strong) NSMutableDictionary* metaDataDict;
// Top-level document wrapper
@property (strong) NSFileWrapper* docWrapper;

Traversing the File Wrapper Hierarchy When Opening a Document

When reading a document from disk, the system invokes your document’s readFromFileWrapper:ofType:error: method, providing as a first argument the file wrapper representing the document package. Begin this method by asking the top-level file wrapper for its own list of file wrappers:

- (BOOL)readFromFileWrapper:(NSFileWrapper *)fileWrapper
                     ofType:(NSString *)typeName
                      error:(NSError **)outError
    NSDictionary *fileWrappers = [fileWrapper fileWrappers];

The fileWrappers property, available only in directory file wrappers, contains a dictionary of other file wrappers, corresponding to the files (and directories) inside the top-level directory of the package.

In this simple example, the package contains exactly three regular files in a flat directory structure. For more complex documents, you might define an arbitrarily deep tree of directories, files, and symbolic links, which you traverse by recursively querying the fileWrappers property of the directory file wrappers at each level.

When you define a static package structure, and yours is the only code reading and writing it, you know each file wrapper’s type and treat it accordingly. In some cases, however, you may not know the wrapper types ahead of time. For example, if your document format allows for a dynamic tree of directories and files that your code discovers while reading the package, you can query each encountered file wrapper for its type using the methods regularFile, directory, and symbolicLink.

From the collection of file wrappers at a given level in the hierarchy, you next look for the expected component file wrappers. Continuing the example, first obtain the image file wrapper by using its name as a dictionary key. If the resulting wrapper is nil, the package has no image file (perhaps because the image was omitted when the document was last saved). In this case, the document’s image property remains nil, to indicate there is no image. If the wrapper is not nil, you read the data from the image file indicated by the file wrapper into the image property:

    // Get the image data
    NSFileWrapper *imageWrapper = fileWrappers[ImageFileName];
    if (imageWrapper != nil) {
        NSData *imageData = [imageWrapper regularFileContents];
        self.image = [[NSImage alloc] initWithData:imageData];

The image file wrapper, itself a regular file wrapper, provides the regularFileContents method that returns the file content as an NSData object. You know that this data represents an image because you defined the document package that way, so you use the data to initialize an NSImage object.

Similarly, read the text file wrapper into its model object. For this element, supply a default, empty string if no wrapper is found:

    NSFileWrapper *textWrapper = fileWrappers[TextFileName];
    if (textWrapper == nil) {
        self.text = @“”;   // Default to empty text
    } else {
        NSData *textData = [textWrapper regularFileContents];
        self.text = [[NSString alloc] initWithData:textData

Finally, read the metadata. In this case, create an NSError instance when no wrapper is found to represent a corrupt document package, and store its address in the read method’s outError pointer, if one is provided:

    NSFileWrapper *metaDataWrapper = fileWrappers[MetaDataFileName];
    if (metaDataWrapper == nil) {
        if (outError) {
            *outError = <# Corrupt Package Error #>;
        return NO;      // Read failed
    } else {
        NSData *metaData = [metaDataWrapper regularFileContents];
        self.metaDataDict = [NSPropertyListSerialization
        if (self.metaDataDict == nil) {
            return NO;  // Read failed

At the end of the read operation, keep a reference to the top-level file wrapper in your document (for use later when making model changes and saving the document), and report success by returning YES:

    self.docWrapper = fileWrapper;
    return YES;  // Read succeeded
} // end of readFromFileWrapper

Invalidating File Wrappers When the Model Changes

Whenever the user makes a change to the document, one or more file wrappers within the hierarchy may become invalid. Continuing with the example above, because this sample app allows the user to add, replace, or delete an image, its document subclass exposes a method to set the image (possibly to a nil value). After updating the model, this method additionally searches for the image’s file wrapper. If the file wrapper exists, the method invalidates it by removing it from the document using the removeFileWrapper: method of the NSFileWrapper class:

- (void)updateImageModel:(NSImage *)image
    // Update the model
    self.image = image;
    // Invalidate the image file wrapper, if it exists
    NSFileWrapper *imageWrapper = self.docWrapper.fileWrappers[ImageFileName];
    if (imageWrapper != nil) {
        [self.docWrapper removeFileWrapper:imageWrapper];

Because the corresponding file on disk is no longer valid, you discard the file wrapper from the hierarchy. As you’ll see shortly, on the next save, the document creates a new file wrapper (and corresponding file) by using the latest version of the model data to overwrite the old one.

Similarly, provide model update methods for the text and the metadata:

- (void)updateTextModel:(NSString *)text
    // Update the model
    self.text = text;
    // Invalidate the text file wrapper, if it exists
    NSFileWrapper *textWrapper = self.docWrapper.fileWrappers[TextFileName];
    if (textWrapper != nil) {
       [self.docWrapper removeFileWrapper:textWrapper];
- (void)updateHidden:(BOOL)hidden
    // Update the model
    [self.metaDataDict setValue:@(hidden) forKey:MetaDataHiddenKey];
    // Invalidate the metadata file wrapper, if it exists
    NSFileWrapper *metaWrapper = self.docWrapper.fileWrappers[MetaDataFileName];
    if (metaWrapper != nil) {
        [self.docWrapper removeFileWrapper:metaWrapper];

Notice that a given model update affects only the relevant file wrapper, which helps minimize disk access. For example, a typical usage scenario for this document type might be that, after opening the document, the user repeatedly updates the text, but infrequently changes the image. As a result, while the text file wrapper is removed, the image file wrapper (and the underlying file) remains intact and unchanged across numerous save operations, making it unnecessary to repeatedly update that data on disk.

Populating Missing File Wrappers During a Save

When the user saves a document, or during an autosave operation, the system calls your document’s fileWrapperOfType:error: method, looking for the document’s file wrapper to write to disk. Begin by checking to see if the wrapper already exists in your document’s properties. If not, create it:

- (NSFileWrapper *)fileWrapperOfType:(NSString *)typeName error:(NSError **)outError
    NSError* error = nil; // Set later, if appropriate
    if (self.docWrapper == nil) {
        self.docWrapper = [[NSFileWrapper alloc]

When you initialize a document wrapper, you specify its type (regular, directory, or symbolic link). In this case, the wrapper represents a document package, which is a directory, and so you use the initDirectoryWithFileWrappers: initialization method. The collection of file wrappers that this directory contains starts empty, to be filled in shortly. Next, obtain any file wrappers already contained in the document wrapper by looking at the document wrapper’s fileWrappers property:

    NSDictionary *fileWrappers = self.docWrapper.fileWrappers;

If you just created the document wrapper, it is of course empty, but for an existing document wrapper that you stored at the end of the open operation, it contains any file wrappers not invalidated by model updates since then, or since the last save operation.

For each file wrapper that you expect to find in this document, but that are not present, create them from model data, beginning with the image wrapper. If it does not exist in the collection, but if there is an image stored in the model, create an NSData object containing the image content. Then create the file wrapper using the initRegularFileWithContents: method with that data to create a regular file wrapper. Name the wrapper, and add it to the document wrapper collection.

    if ((fileWrappers[ImageFileName] == nil) && (self.image != nil)) {
        // Get the image as data as PNG
        NSData *imageData = [NSBitmapImageRep
                  representationOfImageRepsInArray:[self.image representations]
        // Convert to PNG, if necessary
        if (imageData == nil) {
            imageData = [self.image TIFFRepresentation];
            NSBitmapImageRep *imageRep = [[NSBitmapImageRep alloc]
            imageData = [imageRep representationUsingType:NSPNGFileType
        // Create, name, and add the file wrapper
        NSFileWrapper *imageFileWrapper = [[NSFileWrapper alloc]
        [imageFileWrapper setPreferredFilename:ImageFileName];
        [self.docWrapper addFileWrapper:imageFileWrapper];

Notice that when no image exists in the model, the document does not create an image wrapper, and the file is omitted from the package. As described earlier, the read operation accommodates this condition.

Now add the text file wrapper, if missing. In this case, make use of the convenience method addRegularFileWithContents:preferredFilename: to create, name, and add the regular file wrapper in one call:

    if (fileWrappers[TextFileName] == nil) {
        NSData *textData = [self.text dataUsingEncoding:NSUTF8StringEncoding];
        [self.docWrapper addRegularFileWithContents:textData

Then add the metadata wrapper, but again, only if it is missing. This is another regular file wrapper, but in this case it is populated with the serialized property list data:

    if (fileWrappers[MetaDataFileName] == nil) {
        NSError *plistError = nil;
        NSData *propertyListData = [NSPropertyListSerialization
        if (propertyListData == nil || plistError != nil) {
            error = <# an NSError #>;
        } else {
            [self.docWrapper addRegularFileWithContents:propertyListData

Finally, return the complete document wrapper to be written recursively to disk by the system, unless there was an error. In that case, return nil, and set outError accodingly:

    if (error) {
        if (outError) {
            *outError = error;
        return nil;
    } else {
        return self.docWrapper;
} // end of fileWrapperOfType

Using File Wrappers Directly

When opening a package in a document-based app, the system prompts the user for a file system object of the appropriate document type using an Open panel, initializes a top-level file wrapper with it, and delivers it to your app. Similarly, when saving a new package, the system prompts the user for a location in the file system using a Save panel, and writes your file wrapper to disk. You get all of this functionality (plus file coordination, undo support, and other features) for free.

However, in some cases, you don’t need the full Cocoa document architecture. Rather than managing many individual user documents, your app might instead keep a package in its Application Support directory, hidden from the user, to hold a single app-wide library that represents a collection of some type. Examples of this kind of app might be a mail reader or a photo organizer. You can still benefit from using file wrappers in a case like this. You just have to do a little more work yourself.

Reading a File Wrapper

When you open a package directly, you create a wrapper and initialize it using the initWithURL:options:error: method, which automatically assigns the correct type (regular file, symbolic link, or directory) based upon the object found in the file system. In this case, your app supplies an NSURL object that represents the file’s location. Use the NSFileWrapperReadingImmediate option to ensure that any issues are detected and reported right away. Otherwise, because read operations are done lazily, the error from a read may not appear until writing time.

    NSError *error;
    NSURL *fileURL = <# a URL #>;
    NSFileWrapper *docWrapper = [[NSFileWrapper alloc] initWithURL:fileURL
    if (docWrapper == nil) {
        // Handle the read error
    } else {
       // Read package components

If the package is private to your app, you might rely on it having the expected structure, in which case you read its components into your data model as in the document-based example. However, if the package is from an unreliable source, you might want to verify that the top-level file wrapper is in fact a directory, using the directory property (or the convenience method isDirectory), and that it has the proper structure. The following code shows how to read a package more suspiciously in a case where it should contain exactly one text file:

    // Read package components (suspiciously)
    if (![docWrapper isDirectory]) {
        // Handle not-a-package error
    } else {
        NSDictionary* fileWrappers = [docWrapper fileWrappers];
        NSFileWrapper* textWrapper = fileWrappers[TextFileName];
        if (([fileWrappers count] != 1) || (textWrapper == nil) || ![textWrapper isRegularFile])
            // Handle corrupt-package error
        } else {
            NSData *textData = [textWrapper regularFileContents];
            self.text = [[NSString alloc] initWithData:textData

Writing a File Wrapper

When you write a file wrapper to disk directly, you use the writeToURL:options:originalContentsURL:error: method. This method recursively writes the directory wrapper and all its sub-wrappers to the file system at the location specified by the url parameter. To create a new copy of a document on disk (for example, to implement a Save As operation), you set the originalContentsURL parameter to nil. You also test the return value for success, handling any error on failure.

    BOOL success = [self.docWrapper writeToURL:url
    if (!success) {
        // Inspect the error

When you overwrite a file package with new content, performing a save-in-place, you optimize the operation by setting the originalContentsURL parameter to be the same as the url, and including both the NSFileWrapperWritingAtomic and NSFileWrapperWritingWithNameUpdating options:

    BOOL success = [self.docWrapper writeToURL:url
                                       options:NSFileWrapperWritingAtomic |
    if (!success) {
        // Inspect the error

When you use NSFileWrapperWritingAtomic, NSFileWrapper ensures that the document is written out entirely or not at all. It does this by creating a new version in a temporary location, and then replacing the original in a single step at the end. When you specify an originalContentsURL parameter, while creating the temporary copy, NSFileWrapper compares the attributes of each regular file subitem in the document wrapper to the attributes of the items on disk at the location given by originalContentsURL. NSFileWrapper writes out new content when necessary, but makes a hard link in the file system to the corresponding original content if possible, thus reducing the amount of work required for items that have not changed. Finally, the NSFileWrapperWritingWithNameUpdating option ensures that filenames of subitems are kept up to date in the document wrapper, so that subsequent save-in-place operations reliably carry out the same optimization.

After you read or store a file wrapper, use the matchesContentsOfURL: method when you need to determine whether file system representation has changed, based on the file attributes stored the last time the file was read or written. If the file wrapper’s modification time or access permissions are different from those of the file on disk, this method returns NO. You can then use readFromURL:options:error: to reread the file from disk, or take some other action appropriate for your app.

File Coordination

Document-based apps use file coordination automatically, and your app does not need to do anything special to adopt it. If your app is not document-based, reading and writing packages directly, but does so only inside its own Application Support, Cache, or temporary directories, file coordination is typically unnecessary.

On the other hand, if your app manages file wrappers directly, and does so in a user accessible area of the file system, you use file coordination. This means that:

  • The object managing your document wrapper adopts the NSFilePresenter protocol, making it a file presenter. By implementing the protocol, your file presenter indicates the URL of the package that it is interested in managing, and responds appropriately to messages regarding actions taken by other entities on the contents of the package.

  • When you initialize your file presenter, you register it with the system, using class methods of NSFileCoordinator.

  • You inform the system of your intention to read, write, or move the document you are managing, and only peform these operations with the help of an NSFileCoordinator object that you create.

  • Just before you deallocate your file presenter, you unregister it, again using class methods of NSFileCoordinator.

For more details on file coordintation, read The Role of File Coordinators and Presenters.

Accessing File Wrapper Identities

The examples throughout this chapter rely on using the preferred file name as both a key to look up the file wrapper in the fileWrappers dictionary of the parent file wrapper, and the name of the file in the file system. In many situations, this is sufficient.

However, strictly speaking, a file wrapper held in a directory file wrapper has three different identifiers:

Transmitting File Wrappers

In addition to storing a file wrapper to disk, you can also transmit it to another process using the pasteboard. To do this, you use the serializedRepresentation method to get an NSData object containing the file wrapper’s contents in the NSFileContentsPboardType format:

NSData *serializedWrapper = [fileWrapper serializedRepresentation];

The recipient of the representation then reconstitutes the file wrapper using the initWithSerializedRepresentation: method:

NSFileWrapper *fileWrapper = [[NSFileWrapper] alloc]

Defining Your File Wrapper as a Document Package

By default, the system does not recognize document packages as a single entity, instead treating them as regular directories. To overcome this, you export a properly formatted UTI for your document. This ensures that your file wrapper is treated as a single package. For more information, see Bundle Programming Guide.