Thomas Visser Colorless green ideas sleep Swiftly

Asynchronous values as first-class citizens in Swift

Update (December 6, 2015): Swift is now Open Source. I wrote a follow up post.

Wouldn’t it be great if Swift made some common tasks in modern app development easier? Things like networking and other asynchronous operations, user interface and interaction definitions and working with JSON. Swift hasn’t necessarily made these things easier, compared to Objective-C.

Luckily, Swift is powerful enough to allow third-party developers to create frameworks that make the aforementioned tasks easier in a way that integrates nicely with the language and the standard library. Some examples: Carthography, Few, Argo and ReactiveCocoa.

In this post, I’ll take a look at asynchronous operations. I specifically like a particular approach towards this: Futures. I like them so much that I’ve written my own implementation (BrightFutures) and recently gave a talk on the subject at SwiftSummit. At the conference, I was also on a panel that discussed the impending open sourcing of Swift. This post combines those two topics into a story that begins with how third party libraries are already improving asynchronous programming and what more they can do without needing changes in the language. The second part of the post is on how I imagine built-in support for asynchronous values using Futures could look like.

A Third-party Future

I’m going to assume a basic understanding of what Futures are, but I’ll provide the following short explanation, courtesy of the Scala documentation:

A Future is a placeholder object for a value that may not yet exist. Generally, the value of the Future is supplied concurrently and can subsequently be used. Composing concurrent tasks in this way tends to result in faster, asynchronous, non-blocking parallel code.

Consider the following example:

let image = fetchImageBaseUrlForItem(item).map  { baseUrl in
    return url + "?w=1920&h=1080"
}.flatMap { url in
    return session.fetchImage(url)
}.map { img in
    return img.imageFlippedForRightToLeftLayoutDirection()
// image is a Future<UIImage, E>

You’ve probably written quite a lot of code that does something similar to this: retrieve an url to an image from the network, add dimensions to the image url, fetch the image and flip it for RTL languages. fetchImageBasedUrlForItem returns a Future<String,E>, a future string, a placeholder for a value that we’re waiting for to arrive over the network. Meanwhile we can describe the operations that will happen as soon as the value comes in. The chain of operations as a whole returns a Future that represents the result of the final step.

This is the kind of code you can write today with the help of BrightFutures. While it is an improvement over the vanilla solution (i.e. completion handlers, which tend to lead to code that looks like a pyramid), it also adds some noise. All changes are wrapped in map closures.

We can do a bit better, even without having to change Swift itself. We can define an alternate version of the append operator (+) that works on a Future string and a regular string and returns a Future string:

func +<E>(lhs: Future<String, E>, rhs: String) -> Future<String, E> {
    return { l in
        return l + rhs

This would allow us to write the following:

let url = fetchImageBaseUrlForItem(item) + "?w=1920&h=1080"
// url is a Future<String, E>

This removes all visual overhead that comes with Futures and leaves us with a seemingly boring concatenation of two regular strings. The good kind of boring.

The example above continues by fetching an image that is located at the url that we’ve just built. I’m using fetchImage(_:) which takes a URL string returns a Future image found at that url. It’s a wrapper around the dataTaskWithURL(_:_:) in an extension on NSURLSession and looks something like this. To be able to write this part as cleanly as the concatenation, we need a version of fetchImage(_:) that takes a Future string a parameter. We can add this to session by creating an extension on NSURLSession:

extension NSURLSession {
    func fetchImage<E>(url: Future<String, E>) -> Future<UIImage, E> {
        return url.flatMap { str in
            return self.fetchImage(str)

Next up is the flipping of the image. Here the asynchronous value, the image, is the target of the function call. But since we’re dealing with a Future image, instead of a regular image, we need to redefine imageFlippedForRightToLeftLayoutDirection() on Future images:

extension Future where Value: UIImage {
    func imageFlippedForRightToLeftLayoutDirection() -> Future<UIImage, E> {
        return map { img in
            return img.imageFlippedForRightToLeftLayoutDirection()

We can now rewrite the example that looks really clean:

let url = fetchImageBaseUrlForItem(item) + "?w=1920&h=1080"
let image = session.fetchImage(url)
// image is a Future<UIImage, E>

While it would be possible to programmatically generate Future-compatible versions of all built-in operators and functions, I think we could go a lot further if the language would have support for asynchronous values.

For the remainder of this post, I’d like to think about what built-in support for asynchronous values would look like. Needless to say, anything beyond this point is merely a thought experiment, a mental preparation for a pull request that I’d love to file once Swift is open sourced. It’s Swift fan fiction.

In a Swift version far far away…

It seems to me that in order to have Futures as first-class asynchronous values in Swift nothing really revolutionary is needed. Parts of it are alreay there; the syntactic sugar of Optionals and the way NSError inout parameters lead to throwing functions have paved the way.

There’s the Optional enum, but you hardly ever use it directly. At the same time, almost all functionality of the optional type would work without language support. I really like this approach and would love to see a powerful Future type in the standard library that is boosted by special treatment by the compiler.

Let’s imagine what this would look like.

Firstly we need a way to mark a type as asynchronous, similar to how we use the question mark a type optional. Let’s use the async keyword and allow it to be put in front of a type. If it is used in the return type of a function, the function becomes an asynchronous operation. Any functions called on an async type also become asynchronous operations.

In the context of the example that we’ve been using so far, let’s look at how fetchImage(_:) can be implemented:

extension NSURLSession {
    func fetchImage(url: String) -> async UIImage {
        let data, response = dataTaskWithURL(url)
        return UIImage(data: data)

The compiler would be able to automatically generate a dataTaskWithURL(_:) that returns an (async NSData, async NSURLResponse) tuple because it could automatically wrap the method with the same name that takes a completionHandler parameter, similar to how NSError inout parameters are converted to throwing functions.

By passing the async data into the UIImage initialiser, the initialiser becomes asynchronous as well. This could happen automatically as you pass asynchronous values to methods that expect their synchronous counterparts.

Another source for asynchronous values is a threading/scheduling mechanism like Grand Central Dispatch. Consider the following example of an asynchronous function that takes an image and performs the expensive blur operation on the global queue:

func blurImage(image: UIImage, radius: Int) -> async UIImage {

    var blurredImage: async UIImage
    dispatch_async(globalQueue) {
        blurredImage = // expensive blur operation

    return blurredImage

We’re defining an asynchronous value in the function scope, before dispatching to the global queue. While the image is being blurred, the async UIImage is returned to the caller. When the blur operation is done, the image is set and becomes available through the returned async value.

To substantiate my argument that this approach is at least somewhat feasible, let’s have a look at how similar this looks to code that uses Futures (and Promises, which produce Futures).

func blurImage(image: UIImage, radius: Int) -> Future<UIImage, E> {

    var blurredImage = Promise<UIImage, E>()

    dispatch_async(globalQueue) {
        blurredImage.complete(/** blurred image **/)

    return blurredImage.future

For a lot of functions, operators included, the compiler could just generate asynchronous variants on the fly. For other situations, e.g. when there’s IO involved, there should be a way to turn an asynchronous type into their synchronous counterparts:

let asyncImage = session.fetchImage(url)

when let image = asyncImage else {
    throw ImageLoadingFailed()

imageView.image = image

The when let statement pauses the execution of the current scope until the asynchronous image has been downloaded. If the operation failed, the else clause is executed. If successful, the execution will continue with a regular UIImage value in image. While the execution is paused, control is returned to the previous frame on the stack. The return type of the scope that contains the when let statement has to be marked async. If it does not have a return type, it has to be marked as async Void.

To check if an asynchronous value has already been resolved, optionalesque syntax could be used: if let image = asyncImage { ... }, asyncImage?.size as well as force unwrapping an asynchronous value using an exclamation mark, risking a runtime exception if the value is not yet there.

The prospect of an open(er) Swift with the (faint) possibility of being able to file a pull request for this really excites me. Of course, there’s a long way to go from a blog post to an actual working language feature. It will be so much harder and so much more nuanced than what I’ve described so far. It’s been an amusing thought experiment though and I’d love to learn what it would take to make this reality.

Thanks to @nielsify and @larslockefeer for providing feedback on a draft of this post.