The iOS Environment

The iOS environment affects several aspects of how you design your app. Understanding some key aspects should help you when writing your code.

Specialized System Behaviors

The iOS system is based on the same technologies used by Mac OS X, namely the Mach kernel and BSD interfaces. Thus, iOS apps run in a UNIX-based system and have full support for threads, sockets, and many of the other technologies typically available at that level. However, there are places where the behavior of iOS differs from that of Mac OS X.

The Virtual Memory System

To manage program memory, iOS uses essentially the same virtual memory system found in Mac OS X. In iOS, each program still has its own virtual address space, but unlike Mac OS X, the amount of usable virtual memory is constrained by the amount of physical memory available. This is because iOS does not support paging to disk when memory gets full. Instead, the virtual memory system simply releases read-only memory pages, such as code pages, when it needs more space. Such pages can always be loaded back into memory later if they are needed again.

If memory continues to be constrained, the system may send low-memory notifications to any running apps, asking them to free up additional memory. All apps should respond to this notification and do their part to help relieve the memory pressure. For information on how to handle such notifications in your app, see “Observe Low-Memory Warnings.”

The Automatic Sleep Timer

One way iOS saves battery power is through the automatic sleep timer. When the system does not detect touch events for an extended period of time, it dims the screen initially and eventually turns it off altogether.

If you are creating an app that does not use touch inputs, such as a game that relies on the accelerometers, you can disable the automatic sleep timer to prevent the screen from dimming. You should use this timer sparingly and reenable it as soon as possible to conserve power. Only apps that display visual content and do not rely on touch inputs should ever disable the timer. Audio apps or apps that do not need to present visual content should not disable the timer.

The process for disabling the timer is described in “Turning Off Screen Locking.” For additional tips on how to save power in your app, see “Reduce Power Consumption.”

Multitasking Support

In iOS 4 and later, multitasking allows apps to run in the background even when they are not visible on the screen. Most background apps reside in memory but do not actually execute any code. These apps are suspended by the system shortly after entering the background to preserve battery life. Apps can ask the system for background execution time in a number of ways, though.

For an overview of multitasking and what you need to do to support it, see “Background Execution and Multitasking.”


The security infrastructure in iOS is there to protect your app’s data and the system as a whole. Security breaches can and will happen, so the first line of defense in iOS is to minimize the damage caused by such breaches by securing each app separately in its own sandbox. But iOS provides other technologies, such as encryption and certificate support, to help you protect your data at an even more fundamental level.

For an introduction to security and how it impacts the design of your app, see Security Overview.

The App Sandbox

For security reasons, iOS places each app (including its preferences and data) in a sandbox at install time. A sandbox is a set of fine-grained controls that limit the app’s access to files, preferences, network resources, hardware, and so on. As part of the sandboxing process, the system installs each app in its own sandbox directory, which acts as the home for the app and its data.

To help apps organize their data, each sandbox directory contains several well-known subdirectories for placing files. Figure A-1 shows the basic layout of a sandbox directory. For detailed information about the sandbox directory and what belongs in each of its subdirectories, see File System Programming Guide.

Figure A-1  Sandbox directories in iOS

Keychain Data

A keychain is a secure, encrypted container for passwords and other secrets. The keychain is intended for storing small amounts of sensitive data that are specific to your app. It is not intended as a general-purpose mechanism for encrypting and storing data.

Keychain data for an app is stored outside of the app’s sandbox. When the user backs up app data using iTunes, the keychain data is also backed up. Before iOS 4.0, keychain data could only be restored to the device from which the backup was made. In iOS 4.0 and later, a keychain item that is password protected can be restored to a different device only if its accessibility is not set to kSecAttrAccessibleAlwaysThisDeviceOnly or any other value that restricts it to the current device. Upgrading an app does not affect that app’s keychain data.

For more on the iOS keychain, see “Keychain Services Concepts” in Keychain Services Programming Guide.