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Automatic Reference Counting

Swift uses Automatic Reference Counting (ARC) to track and manage your app’s memory usage. In most cases, this means that memory management “just works” in Swift, and you do not need to think about memory management yourself. ARC automatically frees up the memory used by class instances when those instances are no longer needed.

However, in a few cases ARC requires more information about the relationships between parts of your code in order to manage memory for you. This chapter describes those situations and shows how you enable ARC to manage all of your app’s memory.

How ARC Works

Every time you create a new instance of a class, ARC allocates a chunk of memory to store information about that instance. This memory holds information about the type of the instance, together with the values of any stored properties associated with that instance.

Additionally, when an instance is no longer needed, ARC frees up the memory used by that instance so that the memory can be used for other purposes instead. This ensures that class instances do not take up space in memory when they are no longer needed.

However, if ARC were to deallocate an instance that was still in use, it would no longer be possible to access that instance’s properties, or call that instance’s methods. Indeed, if you tried to access the instance, your app would most likely crash.

To make sure that instances don’t disappear while they are still needed, ARC tracks how many properties, constants, and variables are currently referring to each class instance. ARC will not deallocate an instance as long as at least one active reference to that instance still exists.

To make this possible, whenever you assign a class instance to a property, constant, or variable, that property, constant, or variable makes a strong reference to the instance. The reference is called a “strong“ reference because it keeps a firm hold on that instance, and does not allow it to be deallocated for as long as that strong reference remains.

ARC in Action

Here’s an example of how Automatic Reference Counting works. This example starts with a simple class called Person, which defines a stored constant property called name:

  1. class Person {
  2. let name: String
  3. init(name: String) {
  4. self.name = name
  5. print("\(name) is being initialized")
  6. }
  7. deinit {
  8. print("\(name) is being deinitialized")
  9. }
  10. }

The Person class has an initializer that sets the instance’s name property and prints a message to indicate that initialization is underway. The Person class also has a deinitializer that prints a message when an instance of the class is deallocated.

The next code snippet defines three variables of type Person?, which are used to set up multiple references to a new Person instance in subsequent code snippets. Because these variables are of an optional type (Person?, not Person), they are automatically initialized with a value of nil, and do not currently reference a Person instance.

  1. var reference1: Person?
  2. var reference2: Person?
  3. var reference3: Person?

You can now create a new Person instance and assign it to one of these three variables:

  1. reference1 = Person(name: "John Appleseed")
  2. // prints "John Appleseed is being initialized"

Note that the message "John Appleseed is being initialized" is printed at the point that you call the Person class’s initializer. This confirms that initialization has taken place.

Because the new Person instance has been assigned to the reference1 variable, there is now a strong reference from reference1 to the new Person instance. Because there is at least one strong reference, ARC makes sure that this Person is kept in memory and is not deallocated.

If you assign the same Person instance to two more variables, two more strong references to that instance are established:

  1. reference2 = reference1
  2. reference3 = reference1

There are now three strong references to this single Person instance.

If you break two of these strong references (including the original reference) by assigning nil to two of the variables, a single strong reference remains, and the Person instance is not deallocated:

  1. reference1 = nil
  2. reference2 = nil

ARC does not deallocate the Person instance until the third and final strong reference is broken, at which point it is clear that you are no longer using the Person instance:

  1. reference3 = nil
  2. // prints "John Appleseed is being deinitialized"

Strong Reference Cycles Between Class Instances

In the examples above, ARC is able to track the number of references to the new Person instance you create and to deallocate that Person instance when it is no longer needed.

However, it is possible to write code in which an instance of a class never gets to a point where it has zero strong references. This can happen if two class instances hold a strong reference to each other, such that each instance keeps the other alive. This is known as a strong reference cycle.

You resolve strong reference cycles by defining some of the relationships between classes as weak or unowned references instead of as strong references. This process is described in Resolving Strong Reference Cycles Between Class Instances. However, before you learn how to resolve a strong reference cycle, it is useful to understand how such a cycle is caused.

Here’s an example of how a strong reference cycle can be created by accident. This example defines two classes called Person and Apartment, which model a block of apartments and its residents:

  1. class Person {
  2. let name: String
  3. init(name: String) { self.name = name }
  4. var apartment: Apartment?
  5. deinit { print("\(name) is being deinitialized") }
  6. }
  7. class Apartment {
  8. let unit: String
  9. init(unit: String) { self.unit = unit }
  10. var tenant: Person?
  11. deinit { print("Apartment \(unit) is being deinitialized") }
  12. }

Every Person instance has a name property of type String and an optional apartment property that is initially nil. The apartment property is optional, because a person may not always have an apartment.

Similarly, every Apartment instance has a unit property of type String and has an optional tenant property that is initially nil. The tenant property is optional because an apartment may not always have a tenant.

Both of these classes also define a deinitializer, which prints the fact that an instance of that class is being deinitialized. This enables you to see whether instances of Person and Apartment are being deallocated as expected.

This next code snippet defines two variables of optional type called john and unit4A, which will be set to a specific Apartment and Person instance below. Both of these variables have an initial value of nil, by virtue of being optional:

  1. var john: Person?
  2. var unit4A: Apartment?

You can now create a specific Person instance and Apartment instance and assign these new instances to the john and unit4A variables:

  1. john = Person(name: "John Appleseed")
  2. unit4A = Apartment(unit: "4A")

Here’s how the strong references look after creating and assigning these two instances. The john variable now has a strong reference to the new Person instance, and the unit4A variable has a strong reference to the new Apartment instance:

image: ../Art/referenceCycle01_2x.png

You can now link the two instances together so that the person has an apartment, and the apartment has a tenant. Note that an exclamation mark (!) is used to unwrap and access the instances stored inside the john and unit4A optional variables, so that the properties of those instances can be set:

  1. john!.apartment = unit4A
  2. unit4A!.tenant = john

Here’s how the strong references look after you link the two instances together:

image: ../Art/referenceCycle02_2x.png

Unfortunately, linking these two instances creates a strong reference cycle between them. The Person instance now has a strong reference to the Apartment instance, and the Apartment instance has a strong reference to the Person instance. Therefore, when you break the strong references held by the john and unit4A variables, the reference counts do not drop to zero, and the instances are not deallocated by ARC:

  1. john = nil
  2. unit4A = nil

Note that neither deinitializer was called when you set these two variables to nil. The strong reference cycle prevents the Person and Apartment instances from ever being deallocated, causing a memory leak in your app.

Here’s how the strong references look after you set the john and unit4A variables to nil:

image: ../Art/referenceCycle03_2x.png

The strong references between the Person instance and the Apartment instance remain and cannot be broken.

Resolving Strong Reference Cycles Between Class Instances

Swift provides two ways to resolve strong reference cycles when you work with properties of class type: weak references and unowned references.

Weak and unowned references enable one instance in a reference cycle to refer to the other instance without keeping a strong hold on it. The instances can then refer to each other without creating a strong reference cycle.

Use a weak reference whenever it is valid for that reference to become nil at some point during its lifetime. Conversely, use an unowned reference when you know that the reference will never be nil once it has been set during initialization.

Weak References

A weak reference is a reference that does not keep a strong hold on the instance it refers to, and so does not stop ARC from disposing of the referenced instance. This behavior prevents the reference from becoming part of a strong reference cycle. You indicate a weak reference by placing the weak keyword before a property or variable declaration.

Use a weak reference to avoid reference cycles whenever it is possible for that reference to have “no value” at some point in its life. If the reference will always have a value, use an unowned reference instead, as described in Unowned References. In the Apartment example above, it is appropriate for an apartment to be able to have “no tenant” at some point in its lifetime, and so a weak reference is an appropriate way to break the reference cycle in this case.

Because weak references are allowed to have “no value”, you must declare every weak reference as having an optional type. Optional types are the preferred way to represent the possibility for “no value” in Swift.

Because a weak reference does not keep a strong hold on the instance it refers to, it is possible for that instance to be deallocated while the weak reference is still referring to it. Therefore, ARC automatically sets a weak reference to nil when the instance that it refers to is deallocated. You can check for the existence of a value in the weak reference, just like any other optional value, and you will never end up with a reference to an invalid instance that no longer exists.

The example below is identical to the Person and Apartment example from above, with one important difference. This time around, the Apartment type’s tenant property is declared as a weak reference:

  1. class Person {
  2. let name: String
  3. init(name: String) { self.name = name }
  4. var apartment: Apartment?
  5. deinit { print("\(name) is being deinitialized") }
  6. }
  7. class Apartment {
  8. let unit: String
  9. init(unit: String) { self.unit = unit }
  10. weak var tenant: Person?
  11. deinit { print("Apartment \(unit) is being deinitialized") }
  12. }

The strong references from the two variables (john and unit4A) and the links between the two instances are created as before:

  1. var john: Person?
  2. var unit4A: Apartment?
  3. john = Person(name: "John Appleseed")
  4. unit4A = Apartment(unit: "4A")
  5. john!.apartment = unit4A
  6. unit4A!.tenant = john

Here’s how the references look now that you’ve linked the two instances together:

image: ../Art/weakReference01_2x.png

The Person instance still has a strong reference to the Apartment instance, but the Apartment instance now has a weak reference to the Person instance. This means that when you break the strong reference held by the john variables, there are no more strong references to the Person instance:

image: ../Art/weakReference02_2x.png

Because there are no more strong references to the Person instance, it is deallocated:

  1. john = nil
  2. // prints "John Appleseed is being deinitialized"

The only remaining strong reference to the Apartment instance is from the unit4A variable. If you break that strong reference, there are no more strong references to the Apartment instance:

image: ../Art/weakReference03_2x.png

Because there are no more strong references to the Apartment instance, it too is deallocated:

  1. unit4A = nil
  2. // prints "Apartment 4A is being deinitialized"

The final two code snippets above show that the deinitializers for the Person instance and Apartment instance print their “deinitialized” messages after the john and unit4A variables are set to nil. This proves that the reference cycle has been broken.

Unowned References

Like weak references, an unowned reference does not keep a strong hold on the instance it refers to. Unlike a weak reference, however, an unowned reference is assumed to always have a value. Because of this, an unowned reference is always defined as a non-optional type. You indicate an unowned reference by placing the unowned keyword before a property or variable declaration.

Because an unowned reference is non-optional, you don’t need to unwrap the unowned reference each time it is used. An unowned reference can always be accessed directly. However, ARC cannot set the reference to nil when the instance it refers to is deallocated, because variables of a non-optional type cannot be set to nil.

The following example defines two classes, Customer and CreditCard, which model a bank customer and a possible credit card for that customer. These two classes each store an instance of the other class as a property. This relationship has the potential to create a strong reference cycle.

The relationship between Customer and CreditCard is slightly different from the relationship between Apartment and Person seen in the weak reference example above. In this data model, a customer may or may not have a credit card, but a credit card will always be associated with a customer. To represent this, the Customer class has an optional card property, but the CreditCard class has a non-optional customer property.

Furthermore, a new CreditCard instance can only be created by passing a number value and a customer instance to a custom CreditCard initializer. This ensures that a CreditCard instance always has a customer instance associated with it when the CreditCard instance is created.

Because a credit card will always have a customer, you define its customer property as an unowned reference, to avoid a strong reference cycle:

  1. class Customer {
  2. let name: String
  3. var card: CreditCard?
  4. init(name: String) {
  5. self.name = name
  6. }
  7. deinit { print("\(name) is being deinitialized") }
  8. }
  9. class CreditCard {
  10. let number: UInt64
  11. unowned let customer: Customer
  12. init(number: UInt64, customer: Customer) {
  13. self.number = number
  14. self.customer = customer
  15. }
  16. deinit { print("Card #\(number) is being deinitialized") }
  17. }

This next code snippet defines an optional Customer variable called john, which will be used to store a reference to a specific customer. This variable has an initial value of nil, by virtue of being optional:

  1. var john: Customer?

You can now create a Customer instance, and use it to initialize and assign a new CreditCard instance as that customer’s card property:

  1. john = Customer(name: "John Appleseed")
  2. john!.card = CreditCard(number: 1234_5678_9012_3456, customer: john!)

Here’s how the references look, now that you’ve linked the two instances:

image: ../Art/unownedReference01_2x.png

The Customer instance now has a strong reference to the CreditCard instance, and the CreditCard instance has an unowned reference to the Customer instance.

Because of the unowned customer reference, when you break the strong reference held by the john variable, there are no more strong references to the Customer instance:

image: ../Art/unownedReference02_2x.png

Because there are no more strong references to the Customer instance, it is deallocated. After this happens, there are no more strong references to the CreditCard instance, and it too is deallocated:

  1. john = nil
  2. // prints "John Appleseed is being deinitialized"
  3. // prints "Card #1234567890123456 is being deinitialized"

The final code snippet above shows that the deinitializers for the Customer instance and CreditCard instance both print their “deinitialized” messages after the john variable is set to nil.

Unowned References and Implicitly Unwrapped Optional Properties

The examples for weak and unowned references above cover two of the more common scenarios in which it is necessary to break a strong reference cycle.

The Person and Apartment example shows a situation where two properties, both of which are allowed to be nil, have the potential to cause a strong reference cycle. This scenario is best resolved with a weak reference.

The Customer and CreditCard example shows a situation where one property that is allowed to be nil and another property that cannot be nil have the potential to cause a strong reference cycle. This scenario is best resolved with an unowned reference.

However, there is a third scenario, in which both properties should always have a value, and neither property should ever be nil once initialization is complete. In this scenario, it is useful to combine an unowned property on one class with an implicitly unwrapped optional property on the other class.

This enables both properties to be accessed directly (without optional unwrapping) once initialization is complete, while still avoiding a reference cycle. This section shows you how to set up such a relationship.

The example below defines two classes, Country and City, each of which stores an instance of the other class as a property. In this data model, every country must always have a capital city, and every city must always belong to a country. To represent this, the Country class has a capitalCity property, and the City class has a country property:

  1. class Country {
  2. let name: String
  3. var capitalCity: City!
  4. init(name: String, capitalName: String) {
  5. self.name = name
  6. self.capitalCity = City(name: capitalName, country: self)
  7. }
  8. }
  9. class City {
  10. let name: String
  11. unowned let country: Country
  12. init(name: String, country: Country) {
  13. self.name = name
  14. self.country = country
  15. }
  16. }

To set up the interdependency between the two classes, the initializer for City takes a Country instance, and stores this instance in its country property.

The initializer for City is called from within the initializer for Country. However, the initializer for Country cannot pass self to the City initializer until a new Country instance is fully initialized, as described in Two-Phase Initialization.

To cope with this requirement, you declare the capitalCity property of Country as an implicitly unwrapped optional property, indicated by the exclamation mark at the end of its type annotation (City!). This means that the capitalCity property has a default value of nil, like any other optional, but can be accessed without the need to unwrap its value as described in Implicitly Unwrapped Optionals.

Because capitalCity has a default nil value, a new Country instance is considered fully initialized as soon as the Country instance sets its name property within its initializer. This means that the Country initializer can start to reference and pass around the implicit self property as soon as the name property is set. The Country initializer can therefore pass self as one of the parameters for the City initializer when the Country initializer is setting its own capitalCity property.

All of this means that you can create the Country and City instances in a single statement, without creating a strong reference cycle, and the capitalCity property can be accessed directly, without needing to use an exclamation mark to unwrap its optional value:

  1. var country = Country(name: "Canada", capitalName: "Ottawa")
  2. print("\(country.name)'s capital city is called \(country.capitalCity.name)")
  3. // prints "Canada's capital city is called Ottawa"

In the example above, the use of an implicitly unwrapped optional means that all of the two-phase class initializer requirements are satisfied. The capitalCity property can be used and accessed like a non-optional value once initialization is complete, while still avoiding a strong reference cycle.

Strong Reference Cycles for Closures

You saw above how a strong reference cycle can be created when two class instance properties hold a strong reference to each other. You also saw how to use weak and unowned references to break these strong reference cycles.

A strong reference cycle can also occur if you assign a closure to a property of a class instance, and the body of that closure captures the instance. This capture might occur because the closure’s body accesses a property of the instance, such as self.someProperty, or because the closure calls a method on the instance, such as self.someMethod(). In either case, these accesses cause the closure to “capture” self, creating a strong reference cycle.

This strong reference cycle occurs because closures, like classes, are reference types. When you assign a closure to a property, you are assigning a reference to that closure. In essence, it’s the same problem as above—two strong references are keeping each other alive. However, rather than two class instances, this time it’s a class instance and a closure that are keeping each other alive.

Swift provides an elegant solution to this problem, known as a closure capture list. However, before you learn how to break a strong reference cycle with a closure capture list, it is useful to understand how such a cycle can be caused.

The example below shows how you can create a strong reference cycle when using a closure that references self. This example defines a class called HTMLElement, which provides a simple model for an individual element within an HTML document:

  1. class HTMLElement {
  2. let name: String
  3. let text: String?
  4. lazy var asHTML: Void -> String = {
  5. if let text = self.text {
  6. return "<\(self.name)>\(text)</\(self.name)>"
  7. } else {
  8. return "<\(self.name) />"
  9. }
  10. }
  11. init(name: String, text: String? = nil) {
  12. self.name = name
  13. self.text = text
  14. }
  15. deinit {
  16. print("\(name) is being deinitialized")
  17. }
  18. }

The HTMLElement class defines a name property, which indicates the name of the element, such as "h1" for a heading element, "p" for a paragraph element, or "br" for a line break element. HTMLElement also defines an optional text property, which you can set to a string that represents the text to be rendered within that HTML element.

In addition to these two simple properties, the HTMLElement class defines a lazy property called asHTML. This property references a closure that combines name and text into an HTML string fragment. The asHTML property is of type () -> String, or “a function that takes no parameters, and returns a String value”.

By default, the asHTML property is assigned a closure that returns a string representation of an HTML tag. This tag contains the optional text value if it exists, or no text content if text does not exist. For a paragraph element, the closure would return "<p>some text</p>" or "<p />", depending on whether the text property equals "some text" or nil.

The asHTML property is named and used somewhat like an instance method. However, because asHTML is a closure property rather than an instance method, you can replace the default value of the asHTML property with a custom closure, if you want to change the HTML rendering for a particular HTML element.

For example, the asHTML property could be set to a closure that defaults to some text if the text property is nil, in order to prevent the representation from returning an empty HTML tag:

  1. let heading = HTMLElement(name: "h1")
  2. let defaultText = "some default text"
  3. heading.asHTML = {
  4. return "<\(heading.name)>\(heading.text ?? defaultText)</\(heading.name)>"
  5. }
  6. print(heading.asHTML())
  7. // prints "<h1>some default text</h1>"

The HTMLElement class provides a single initializer, which takes a name argument and (if desired) a text argument to initialize a new element. The class also defines a deinitializer, which prints a message to show when an HTMLElement instance is deallocated.

Here’s how you use the HTMLElement class to create and print a new instance:

  1. var paragraph: HTMLElement? = HTMLElement(name: "p", text: "hello, world")
  2. print(paragraph!.asHTML())
  3. // prints "<p>hello, world</p>"

Unfortunately, the HTMLElement class, as written above, creates a strong reference cycle between an HTMLElement instance and the closure used for its default asHTML value. Here’s how the cycle looks:

image: ../Art/closureReferenceCycle01_2x.png

The instance’s asHTML property holds a strong reference to its closure. However, because the closure refers to self within its body (as a way to reference self.name and self.text), the closure captures self, which means that it holds a strong reference back to the HTMLElement instance. A strong reference cycle is created between the two. (For more information about capturing values in a closure, see Capturing Values.)

If you set the paragraph variable to nil and break its strong reference to the HTMLElement instance, neither the HTMLElement instance nor its closure are deallocated, because of the strong reference cycle:

  1. paragraph = nil

Note that the message in the HTMLElement deinitializer is not printed, which shows that the HTMLElement instance is not deallocated.

Resolving Strong Reference Cycles for Closures

You resolve a strong reference cycle between a closure and a class instance by defining a capture list as part of the closure’s definition. A capture list defines the rules to use when capturing one or more reference types within the closure’s body. As with strong reference cycles between two class instances, you declare each captured reference to be a weak or unowned reference rather than a strong reference. The appropriate choice of weak or unowned depends on the relationships between the different parts of your code.

Defining a Capture List

Each item in a capture list is a pairing of the weak or unowned keyword with a reference to a class instance (such as self) or a variable initialized with some value (such as delegate = self.delegate!). These pairings are written within a pair of square braces, separated by commas.

Place the capture list before a closure’s parameter list and return type if they are provided:

  1. lazy var someClosure: (Int, String) -> String = {
  2. [unowned self, weak delegate = self.delegate!] (index: Int, stringToProcess: String) -> String in
  3. // closure body goes here
  4. }

If a closure does not specify a parameter list or return type because they can be inferred from context, place the capture list at the very start of the closure, followed by the in keyword:

  1. lazy var someClosure: Void -> String = {
  2. [unowned self, weak delegate = self.delegate!] in
  3. // closure body goes here
  4. }

Weak and Unowned References

Define a capture in a closure as an unowned reference when the closure and the instance it captures will always refer to each other, and will always be deallocated at the same time.

Conversely, define a capture as a weak reference when the captured reference may become nil at some point in the future. Weak references are always of an optional type, and automatically become nil when the instance they reference is deallocated. This enables you to check for their existence within the closure’s body.

An unowned reference is the appropriate capture method to use to resolve the strong reference cycle in the HTMLElement example from earlier. Here’s how you write the HTMLElement class to avoid the cycle:

  1. class HTMLElement {
  2. let name: String
  3. let text: String?
  4. lazy var asHTML: Void -> String = {
  5. [unowned self] in
  6. if let text = self.text {
  7. return "<\(self.name)>\(text)</\(self.name)>"
  8. } else {
  9. return "<\(self.name) />"
  10. }
  11. }
  12. init(name: String, text: String? = nil) {
  13. self.name = name
  14. self.text = text
  15. }
  16. deinit {
  17. print("\(name) is being deinitialized")
  18. }
  19. }

This implementation of HTMLElement is identical to the previous implementation, apart from the addition of a capture list within the asHTML closure. In this case, the capture list is [unowned self], which means “capture self as an unowned reference rather than a strong reference”.

You can create and print an HTMLElement instance as before:

  1. var paragraph: HTMLElement? = HTMLElement(name: "p", text: "hello, world")
  2. print(paragraph!.asHTML())
  3. // prints "<p>hello, world</p>"

Here’s how the references look with the capture list in place:

image: ../Art/closureReferenceCycle02_2x.png

This time, the capture of self by the closure is an unowned reference, and does not keep a strong hold on the HTMLElement instance it has captured. If you set the strong reference from the paragraph variable to nil, the HTMLElement instance is deallocated, as can be seen from the printing of its deinitializer message in the example below:

  1. paragraph = nil
  2. // prints "p is being deinitialized"