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Posted at 2011-07-08 16:11 | RSS feed (Full text feed) | Blog Index
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Tags: cocoa fridayqna letsbuild notifications
Friday Q&A 2011-07-08: Let's Build NSNotificationCenter
by Mike Ash  

Notifications in Cocoa are extremely useful and are pervasive in Cocoa programming. Unfortunately, a lot of Cocoa programmers see the notification system as something of a black box: a notification is posted, Stuff Happens, and somehow the observer gets notified. Fortunately, the Stuff that Happens is actually pretty simple, and to explore it, I'm going to reimplement an NSNotificationCenter workalike from scratch to illustrate how it all works, a topic suggested by Dylan Copeland.

The code that I built is available as a complete unit on github at https://github.com/mikeash/MANotificationCenter. While I don't believe it's useful for practical work (you might as well just use NSNotificationCenter), it can be interesting to look at it in its entirety.

The goal is to essentially reimplement NSNotificationCenter as a class which I'll call MANotificationCenter, but to make things a little bit easier, I decided to cut down the API a bit. NSNotificationCenter started out with an API for observing based on an observer/selector pair, then in 10.6 added a second method for using a block as an observer instead. Since blocks are ultimately much more natural for this sort of work, my version of the API just has a blocks-based method:

    - (id)addObserverForName: (NSString *)name object: (id)object block: (void (^)(NSNotification *note))block;

Like with NSNotificationCenter, this method returns an opaque object which the caller is expected to use to remove the observer:

    - (void)removeObserver: (id)observer;

The older object/selector API can be implemented in terms of this one, so we don't lose any functionality by only offering this. The basic idea of how things work under the hood is also essentially the same, the only difference is whether you call a block or send a selector to an object when it comes time to notify observers.

Finally we need to be able to post a notification:

    - (void)postNotification: (NSNotification *)note;

NSNotificationCenter has other posting methods which take objects and names directly, but those simply construct the NSNotification object and then call through to this, so again, we lose nothing by not having the other methods. They are really just one-line wrappers around this one.

And that's it for the API. It's pretty simple. It's interesting to note that NSNotificationCenter isn't all that much more complicated. It only has seven instance methods, and two of them are just convenience wrappers.

Before we get to actual code, let's talk some theory.

A notification is defined by the object that posts the notification, the notification's name, and arbitrary user info that's attached to the notification. The object and name are used to determine which observers need to be notified.

That last part is the key. In essence, the notification center maps object, name pairs to observers. In this case, since MANotificationCenter is blocks-based, it will map those pairs to observer blocks. Multiple observer can be registered on a single object, name pair, so they need to map to a collection that will hold multiple observer blocks.

In Cocoa terms, when we say "map", this usually means a dictionary. Unfortunately, using pairs as dictionary keys is a little inconvenient, because NSDictionary only takes a single object as the key. To mitigate this, we'll create a separate "key" class which holds the pair and can be a single object for the dictionary key. For the collection of observer blocks, we don't care about order, so we can just use an NSMutableSet.

This class will therefore have a master NSMutableDictionary which maps keys to NSMutableSet instances which then contain the individual observer blocks. And that's really all there is to it.

The Key Class
The key class is pretty simple, but it's worth discussing just how it works so everybody is on the same page. It's just a small class which holds a name and an object and implements equality, hashing, and copying appropriately. One small detail, the object reference needs to be a weak reference, as the notification system isn't supposed to retain the objects it manages (which frequently deregister themselves in response to being deallocated, so that would be problematic).

On a side note, I frequently warn of the dangers of plain weak references, and recommend using a zeroing weak reference class like my own MAZeroingWeakRef instead. However, in the interest of brevity and clarity, I'm going to use plain, dangerous, regular weak references in this code.

The interface for this class is simple: two instance variables, and one public class method to make instances:

    @interface _MANotificationCenterDictionaryKey : NSObject
        NSString *_name;
        id _object;

    + (_MANotificationCenterDictionaryKey *)keyForName: (NSString *)name object: (id)obj;


That public method just does the typical dance of alloc, init, autorelease, using a private init method:

    + (_MANotificationCenterDictionaryKey *)keyForName: (NSString *)name object: (id)obj
        return [[[self alloc] _initWithName: name object: obj] autorelease];

The init and dealloc methods are likewise simple, just setting and cleaning up the instance variables:

    - (id)_initWithName: (NSString *)name object: (id)obj
        if((self = [self init]))
            _name = [name copy];
            _object = obj;
        return self;

    - (void)dealloc
        [_name release];
        [super dealloc];

Next comes equality. I want this class to be able to handle nil for either the name or the object (or both), as this will come in handy later when implementing nil catchall observers, where an observer can register for a nil name to mean "all notifications from the given object", register for a nil object to mean "all notifications with a given name", and register with nil for both to catch all notifications sent through the system. However, notification names need to be compared with isEqual:, which doesn't play nice with nil. To make this simpler, I created a really quick equality-checking helper which correctly handles nil and only uses isEqual: when both objects exist:

    static BOOL Equal(id a, id b)
        if(!a && !b)
            return YES;
        else if(!a || !b)
            return NO;
            return [a isEqual: b];

With that helper in place, the implementation of isEqual: is simple and follows the standard pattern of checking the class of the other object and then comparing instance variables:

    - (BOOL)isEqual: (id)other
        if(![other isKindOfClass: [_MANotificationCenterDictionaryKey class]])
            return NO;

        _MANotificationCenterDictionaryKey *otherKey = other;
        return Equal(_name, otherKey->_name) && _object == otherKey->_object;

The implementation of hash just gets the hashes of the two instance variables and squishes them together:

    - (NSUInteger)hash
        return [_name hash] ^ (uintptr_t)_object;

Finally, to be a dictionary key, we need copyWithZone:. Since this class is immutable, that method can just retain self and return it:

    - (id)copyWithZone: (NSZone *)zone
        return [self retain];

That takes care of keys. On to the notification center itself.

Notification Center Implementation
The init and dealloc implementations are short. There's an NSMutableDictionary *_map instance variable, and they just set it up and tear it down:

    - (id)init
        if((self = [super init]))
            _map = [[NSMutableDictionary alloc] init];
        return self;

    - (void)dealloc
        [_map release];
        [super dealloc];

Next up is the implementation of -addObserverForName:object:block:, which is where most of the work takes place. The first thing it needs to do is grab a key object so it can use that to work with the observers dictionary:

    - (id)addObserverForName: (NSString *)name object: (id)object block: (void (^)(NSNotification *note))block
        _MANotificationCenterDictionaryKey *key = [_MANotificationCenterDictionaryKey keyForName: name object: object];

Next, it needs to grab the NSMutableSet of observers for that key. This is a straightforward objectForKey: lookup, except for the fact that the observers set might not exist yet. If that's the case, we create it on demand and put it into the observers dictionary:

        NSMutableSet *observerBlocks = [_map objectForKey: key];
            observerBlocks = [NSMutableSet set];
            [_map setObject: observerBlocks forKey: key];

Next, shove the observation block into the set. Since an NSMutableSet will only retain its objects, and blocks must be copied if they're kept around, we'll copy it ourselves before handing it off to the set:

        void (^copiedBlock)(NSNotification *note);
        copiedBlock = [block copy];

        [observerBlocks addObject: copiedBlock];

        [copiedBlock release];

That's just about it. Everything is now in place in the observers dictionary for -postNotification: to do its job. There's just one piece missing in this method: the return value. This method is supposed to return some sort of object which, when passed to -removeObserver:, causes the observation entry to be removed.

This object would generally encapsulate everything needed to find the entry again and remove it. In this particular case, it would need to hold the key and the copied block. These two objects could be stored in some sort of Cocoa collection like an NSArray or an NSDictionary, but that causes a lot of unpleasant boxing and unboxing activity as you construct the objects and extract the values from them. They could be stored in a custom class, but it's irritating to build a whole extra custom class just for this tiny use case.

After some thought, I decided to return a block. All of the information needed to remove the observation entry is available in the current scope, and so can be captured by the block. As a bonus, we can capture the existing observerBlocks variable so that the set doesn't have to be looked up a second time. -removeObserver: can then just call this block, and everything is happy. I decided to go with this, and I think it turned out pretty well.

The removal block first just pulls the block out of the observers set:

        void (^removalBlock)(void) = ^{
            [observerBlocks removeObject: copiedBlock];

Next, if the observers set is empty, it removes that entry from the observers dictionary entirely. This keeps empty NSMutableSet instances from building up in the dictionary after objects are destroyed:

            if([observerBlocks count] == 0)
                [_map removeObjectForKey: key];

That's it for the removal block. All that's left is to return it to the caller, and we're done:

        return [[removalBlock copy] autorelease];

With this implementation, the -removeObserver: method becomes really short. It just converts the object into the proper block type and then calls it:

    - (void)removeObserver: (id)observer
        void (^removalBlock)(void) = observer;

Next up is a helper method which actually handles the sending of a notification. This is separate from -postNotification: so that we can properly handle nil catch-all observations. More on that in a moment. This method takes a notification, a name, and an object (yes, those are stored in the notification, but again, this helps with catch-all handling), looks up the set of observers in the master dictionary, and then calls all of the corresponding blocks:

    - (void)_postNotification: (NSNotification *)note name: (NSString *)name object: (id)object
        _MANotificationCenterDictionaryKey *key = [_MANotificationCenterDictionaryKey keyForName: name object: object];
        NSSet *observerBlocks = [_map objectForKey: key];
        for(void (^block)(NSNotification *) in observerBlocks)

Finally we have -postNotification:. A simple implementation would be call the above method, passing [note name] and [note object] as the last two parameters. However, to handle catch-all observers, we'll actually call the above method four times in a row. The first time, it's called with the name and object. The second time it's called with only the name, and a nil object. This notifies catch-all observers registered for the name. Next, it's called with a nil name and the notification's object, which notifies catch-all observers on the object. Finally, it's called with nil for both parameters, which notifies universal catch-all observers.

Here's what the method looks like:

    - (void)postNotification: (NSNotification *)note
        NSString *name = [note name];
        id object = [note object];

        [self _postNotification: note name: name object: object];
        [self _postNotification: note name: name object: nil];
        [self _postNotification: note name: nil object: object];
        [self _postNotification: note name: nil object: nil];

By making -addObserverForName:object:block: accept nil, little else needs to be done to implement the catch-all behavior. A nil object or name is treated much like any other name, except that all notifications are sent to nil as well as the specific objects they're targeted for.

A Few Caveats
Since this code is intended mainly for educational purposes, it doesn't quite have everything that a real, practical implementation would have.

First, it doesn't have a way to get a singleton instance. That is really useful for notifications, because the entire point of notifications is often to have objects communicate when they don't otherwise know very much about each other, and having to pass around notification center instances would kind of defeat the point. This is, of course, pretty simple to add.

Second, it's not thread safe. Adding and removing observers mutates shared data structures which would need to be protected by a lock. Making it thread safe could get complicated, since the simplest implementation would hold the lock while posting notifications, but notification observers might then try to come back and twiddle with the notification center, leading to a deadlock. A better approach might be to use a dispatch queue, so that all mutations can be enqueued and executed later if the notification center is busy.

Last, it's also not reentrant. If a notification observer manipulates the notification center, it could end up mutating the observerBlocks set that the center is currently iterating over, causing a mutation exception to be thrown. It could even cause the set to be deallocated entirely, resulting in a crash. Some sort of queue to hold modifications, whether a dispatch queue or something else, would solve this. Another option, albeit slower, would be to simply copy observerBlocks before iterating over it, so that modifications can't touch the iterated copy.

Having a working implementation of something like NSNotificationCenter lets us get a better idea of just what's going on inside. Most importantly, it makes it clear that there's no magic going on inside. Notifications aren't some special language feature that's hard to understand, it's actually just a simple dispatch mechanism where a basic implementation can fit in around a hundred lines of code.

A common question about notifications is just when and where they run. Many people see the word "notification" and start thinking in terms of complicated cross-thread communication or delayed delivery mechanisms. However, we can see that this simply isn't how things work. When -postNotification: is called, the various observers are called one by one right in the method, and it doesn't return until they're all done. (Note: this does not apply to the NSNotificationCenter method which takes a block and an NSOperationQueue. When a queue is provided for that method, the observation block runs asynchronously.)

That wraps things up for this week. Come back soon for another edifying Friday Q&A about daring and unusual topics. As always, those topics come from reader suggestions, so if you have a topic that you would like to see covered here, please send it in.

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.


Allan at 2011-07-08 19:34:22:
I think it would be worth adding to the caveats section that block based notification handling is tricky from a memory management point of view. If a block observing a notification references an object, then the object is retained by the block, and the block is retained by the notification center. Many times, the logical place to unsubscribe from a notification is in the dealloc method of an object, but that won't work if a notification observing block retains the object that would unregister during deallocation. When creating notification observing blocks, its often a good practice to make sure you're using a __block typed pointer to self instead of self itself.

Colin at 2011-07-08 20:41:42:
In the implementation of

- (id)_initWithName: (NSString *)name object: (id)obj



is there a reason for writing

if((self = [self init]))

instead of

if((self = [super init]))


mikeash at 2011-07-08 21:01:33:
Allan: Or use a zeroing weak reference! Yes, notifications and blocks get kind of irritating when not using garbage collection.

Colin: Just a habit not to use super unless it's necessary. Since init isn't overridden, it's not necessary here.

Colin at 2011-07-08 21:52:14:
I know it's just an academic case, but if you'd subclass _MANotificationCenterDictionaryKey overriding init and calling _initWithName:object:from there this could lead to endless recursion, couldn't it?

Another remark: Isn't the else if(!a || !b) branch of the Equal function redundant?

mikeash at 2011-07-09 00:14:10:
You're right that that scenario would lead to endless recursion. I'll defer to an old article of mine for further info:


That probably says that you're right and I'm wrong here.

Regarding if(!a || !b), it's not redundant. Technically it doesn't need to check a, as the isEqual: check will return NO if a is nil, although a separate check is slightly faster (and more explicit) for that case. The real importance is for b, as the result of sending nil to isEqual: is not, as far as I know, well defined and could potentially throw an exception or crash.

Steven at 2011-07-11 04:17:34:
As a topic for next time, how might one implement mocks/stubs in ObjC like RSpec has?

Daniel at 2011-09-24 09:52:15:
Yet again, another great Q&A!

I especially liked returning the removalBlock as the token from addObserverForName:… — very simple and elegant solution!

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