Memory Management Policy

The basic model used for memory management in a reference-counted environment is provided by a combination of methods defined in the NSObject  protocol and a standard method naming convention. The NSObject class also defines a method, dealloc, that is invoked automatically when an object is deallocated. This article describes all the basic rules you need to know to manage memory correctly in a Cocoa program, and provides some examples of correct usage.

Basic Memory Management Rules

The memory management model is based on object ownership. Any object may have one or more owners. As long as an object has at least one owner, it continues to exist. If an object has no owners, the runtime system destroys it automatically. To make sure it is clear when you own an object and when you do not, Cocoa sets the following policy:

A Simple Example

To illustrate the policy, consider the following code fragment:

{
    Person *aPerson = [[Person alloc] init];
    // ...
    NSString *name = aPerson.fullName;
    // ...
    [aPerson release];
}

The Person object is created using the alloc method, so it is subsequently sent a release message when it is no longer needed. The person’s name is not retrieved using any of the owning methods, so it is not sent a release message. Notice, though, that the example uses release rather than autorelease.

Use autorelease to Send a Deferred release

You use autorelease when you need to send a deferred release message—typically when returning an object from a method. For example, you could implement the fullName method like this:

- (NSString *)fullName {
    NSString *string = [[[NSString alloc] initWithFormat:@"%@ %@",
                                          self.firstName, self.lastName] autorelease];
    return string;
}

You own the string returned by alloc. To abide by the memory management rules, you must relinquish ownership of the string before you lose the reference to it. If you use release, however, the string will be deallocated before it is returned (and the method would return an invalid object). Using autorelease, you signify that you want to relinquish ownership, but you allow the caller of the method to use the returned string before it is deallocated.

You could also implement the fullName method like this:

- (NSString *)fullName {
    NSString *string = [NSString stringWithFormat:@"%@ %@",
                                 self.firstName, self.lastName];
    return string;
}

Following the basic rules, you don’t own the string returned by stringWithFormat:, so you can safely return the string from the method.

By way of contrast, the following implementation is wrong:

- (NSString *)fullName {
    NSString *string = [[NSString alloc] initWithFormat:@"%@ %@",
                                         self.firstName, self.lastName];
    return string;
}

According to the naming convention, there is nothing to denote that the caller of the fullName method owns the returned string. The caller therefore has no reason to release the returned string, and it will thus be leaked.

You Don’t Own Objects Returned by Reference

Some methods in Cocoa specify that an object is returned by reference (that is, they take an argument of type ClassName ** or id *). A common pattern is to use an NSError object that contains information about an error if one occurs, as illustrated by initWithContentsOfURL:options:error: (NSData) and initWithContentsOfFile:encoding:error: (NSString).

In these cases, the same rules apply as have already been described. When you invoke any of these methods, you do not create the NSError object, so you do not own it. There is therefore no need to release it, as illustrated in this example:

NSString *fileName = <#Get a file name#>;
NSError *error;
NSString *string = [[NSString alloc] initWithContentsOfFile:fileName
                        encoding:NSUTF8StringEncoding error:&error];
if (string == nil) {
    // Deal with error...
}
// ...
[string release];

Implement dealloc to Relinquish Ownership of Objects

The NSObject class defines a method, dealloc, that is invoked automatically when an object has no owners and its memory is reclaimed—in Cocoa terminology it is “freed” or “deallocated.”. The role of the dealloc method is to free the object's own memory, and to dispose of any resources it holds, including ownership of any object instance variables.

The following example illustrates how you might implement a dealloc method for a Person class:

@interface Person : NSObject
@property (retain) NSString *firstName;
@property (retain) NSString *lastName;
@property (assign, readonly) NSString *fullName;
@end
 
@implementation Person
// ...
- (void)dealloc
    [_firstName release];
    [_lastName release];
    [super dealloc];
}
@end

Core Foundation Uses Similar but Different Rules

There are similar memory management rules for Core Foundation objects (see Memory Management Programming Guide for Core Foundation). The naming conventions for Cocoa and Core Foundation, however, are different. In particular, Core Foundation’s Create Rule (see “The Create Rule” in Memory Management Programming Guide for Core Foundation) does not apply to methods that return Objective-C objects. For example, in the following code fragment, you are not responsible for relinquishing ownership of myInstance:

MyClass *myInstance = [MyClass createInstance];