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Posted at 2010-04-09 11:17 | RSS feed (Full text feed) | Blog Index
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Friday Q&A 2010-04-09: Comparison of Objective-C Enumeration Techniques
by Mike Ash  

Welcome back to another edition of Friday Q&A. Preston Sumner has suggested that I talk about different ways of enumerating over collections in Cocoa, and how to implement Fast Enumeration. This will be a two part series: this week I will look at the different enumeration techniques and their pros and cons, and then next week I will take you through implementing Fast Enumeration on a custom object.

A Baseline
To establishe a baseline for comparison, consider iterating over a C array of Objective-C objects:

    id *array = ...;
    NSUInteger length = ...;
    for(NSUInteger i = 0; i < length; i++)
        // do something with array[i]
The syntax is decent, but not great. It's somewhat redundant and a bit error prone.

For single-threaded code, this is about as fast as you're going to get for object enumeration. You have a small amount of overhead from the loop, and it's pretty much the minimum possible. (If you really want to get radical, you can try manually unrolling the loop, but that begins to get crazy, and could actually hurt performance.)

Of course, this sort of object enumeration is not usually practical in Cocoa apps. It's rare that we encounter a C array of objects. Much more common is an object that implements a collection.

In times past, the standard way of enumerating over a collection in Cocoa was to use NSEnumerator:

    NSEnumerator *enumerator = [collection objectEnumerator];
    id obj;
    while((obj = [enumerator nextObject]))
        // do something with obj
This is extremely verbose and annoying to write. It also has a fair amount of overhead compared to the baseline. First, it has to allocate a whole new object just to manage enumeration. Then, each iteration involves sending a message to the enumerator. The overhead here, while relatively small compared to most activities that would happen inside the loop, is much larger than the baseline.

For those who preferred something more traditional, or who disliked creating a whole new object just for enumeration, another way to enumerate over an array was to simply call objectAtIndex: on it repeatedly:

    NSUInteger length = [array count];
    for(NSUInteger i = 0; i < length; i++)
        id obj = [array objectAtIndex: i];
        // do something with obj
This still requires a message send per iteration, but avoids creating the NSEnumerator object so it can be a bit of a win, depending on just how fast objectAtIndex: is for that particular array. (The performance characteristics of objectAtIndex: compared to objectEnumerator aren't always completely obvious, especially on very large arrays, due to how NSArray is implemented internally.)

A big disadvantage, besides being verbose and error-prone, is that it simply doesn't work for enumerating NSSet or NSDictionary. Conversely, a big advantage is that, with careful management of the loop index, it's safe to mutate the array inside the loop, something that's not true of any other enumeration technique (unless you do something like enumerate over a copy instead).

In 10.5, Apple finally solved this problem. They solved the verbosity problem by introducing the for/in syntax. And they solved the speed problem by building for/in on top of a protocol called NSFastEnumeration.

    for(id obj in collection)
        // do something with obj
NSFastEnumeration works by fetching objects in bulk whenever possible. The compiler generates code that calls the collection and asks the collection to return as many objects as possible. For collections that store objects contiguously, the collection is able to return an interior pointer directly to those objects. If every object in the array is contiguous, the loop turns into something very much like the baseline, and with the same overall performance. If there are multiple contiguous object stores, NSFastEnumeration allows the collection to return interior pointers one after another, allowing for a quick loop implementation over each store, and requiring an Objective-C message only for getting the next interior pointer. For collections without contiguous storage, NSFastEnumeration allows the collection to copy objects out to temporary storage in bulk, reaping many of the same benefits. For collections where none of this works, NSFastEnumeration still allows a collection to efficiently return objects one by one.

Nice syntax, good performance, it's a great combination.

Blocks-Based Enumeration
With 10.6, Apple introduced blocks into Objective-C, and also introduced blocks-based enumeration. Blocks are a natural fit for creating new control constructs like enumeration, and Apple added blocks-based enumeration methods to their collections as well:

    [array enumerateObjectsUsingBlock: ^(id obj, NSUInteger index, BOOL *stop) {
        // do something with obj
For simple enumeration, the block syntax doesn't really offer any advantage over fast enumeration and the for/in syntax. The syntax is a bit clumsier, and iteration is a bit slower. The code has to call your block for every object. This overhead is less than that of a message send, as in the NSEnumerator case, but is more than the simple C for loop of NSFastEnumeration. There are two places where the block syntax is useful.

First is when you need something more than simple enumeration. Apple gives two enumeration options, to enumerate concurrently and to enumerate in reverse. Neither is directly supported by for/in syntax. Concurrent enumeration is very difficult to do any other way, so if your enumeration can take advantage of multithreading, this is extremely useful. Reverse enumeration can be done by sending reverseObjectEnumerator to an array and then using that as the target of a for/in, but this still has the overhead of creating an NSEnumerator and indirecting through it for enumeration, so the blocks-based method is probably a win.

Second is when you're enumerating over a dictionary and need both keys and objects. The for/in syntax can only give you one object at a time. This means that you have to enumerate over keys, then ask the dictionary for objects as a separate step:

    for(id key in dictionary)
        id obj = [dictionary objectForKey: key];
        // do something with key and obj
Not only is this much more verbose than a normal for/in, it's also much slower. The extra message send and dictionary lookup will kill the nice performance characteristics of NSFastEnumeration.

NSDictionary provides a blocks-based enumeration method that passes both key and object directly to the block:

    [dictionary enumerateKeysAndObjectsUsingBlock: ^(id key, id obj, BOOL *stop) {
        // do something with key and obj
This is somewhat nicer to write, and can be much faster. The dictionary is able to directly iterate over key/object pairs in its internal data structure, skipping the extra message send and key lookup required by the for/in loop.

With any code, you should always prefer the technique which is easiest to maintain and read unless you know for sure that there's a speed problem which would benefit from a more difficult approach. This is especially true with collection enumeration, where the work that you do inside the loop is virtually certain to dwarf the work that's done by the loop itself.

Fortunately, Apple has made it so that we don't have to make any tradeoffs in most cases. The for/in syntax is simultaneously the nicest and fastest code for enumerating over a collection in the majority of cases. For the rare cases where it's not the best, 10.6 provides blocks-based enumeration constructs which fill in the holes. You should pretty much never write an NSEnumerator loop unless you have to support 10.4. Manually fetching objects using objectAtIndex: can be handy if you need to mutate the array while enumerating, but besides that has no advantage over for/in.

That's it for this week. Come back next week, when I'll talk about how to build your own implementation of the NSFastEnumeration protocol. Until then, keep sending me your ideas for topics to talk about. Friday Q&A is driven by reader submissions, so if you have a topic you'd like to see discussed here, send it in! Next week is already booked, but after that, the future is wide open.

Did you enjoy this article? I'm selling whole books full of them! Volumes II and III are now out! They're available as ePub, PDF, print, and on iBooks and Kindle. Click here for more information.


I've attended some Cocoa lecture held by Apple themselves (they were "touring" all over Europe) and we've been told *not* to use NSEnumerator in regular cases as it copies (!) the whole object (e.g. NSArray) - this can be useful in multithreaded environment, however, in most cases it's just ridiculous to copy the whole array just to go through it. I haven't digged into it if it's true or not - as I didn't like using the NSEnumerator anyway, I didn't really care. Just thought I'd share it here as some people might find this useful.

Another reason to use NSEnumerator is that you can call nextObject at any time within the loop to "skip over" the next item in the collection. The for/in syntax does not easily have a way to do that.
RE: No -nextObject for for/in, I just use continue, which skips to the next loop iteration.
If you want to iterate over NSDictionary keys and values without requiring 10.6, you could take advantage of toll-free bridging and use CFDictionaryApplyFunction.
Readers who find this subject interesting might also find Apple's MacRuby project worth a look. MacRuby offers Ruby's very compact and consistent enumeration techniques tightly integrated with the Cocoa environment.
Any idea why I get an "assignment of read-only variable 'field'" compiler error with block-based enumeration in:

NSDictionary *myList = [MyDataGrabber activeList];
fields = [NSMutableDictionary dictionaryWithCapacity: [myList count]];
MyField *field;
[myList enumerateKeysAndObjectsUsingBlock: ^(id myID, id myData, BOOL *stop) {
    field = [[MyField alloc] initWith: self fieldID: myID andFieldData: myData];
    [fields setObject: field forKey: myID];
    [field release];

(Note that fields is an ivar for the object this code is in a method for)

If I get rid of the "MyField *field" declaration before the enumeration and put the "MyField *" in front of the use of "field" within the enumeration the compiler error goes away!

In other words, this compiles without an error:

NSDictionary *myList = [MyDataGrabber activeList];
fields = [NSMutableDictionary dictionaryWithCapacity: [myList count]];
[myList enumerateKeysAndObjectsUsingBlock: ^(id myID, id myData, BOOL *stop) {
    MyField *field = [[MyField alloc] initWith: self fieldID: myID andFieldData: myData];
    [fields setObject: field forKey: myID];
    [field release];
By default, when a block captures a variable from the enclosing scope, it captures it via a const copy. Thus you can't modify it from within the block. Either declare the variable in the block, as you have done, or tell the compiler to perform a mutable capture by reference by adding the __block qualifier to your declaration.

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