Ios – Best architectural approaches for building iOS networking applications (REST clients)


I'm an iOS developer with some experience and this question is really interesting to me. I saw a lot of different resources and materials on this topic, but nevertheless I'm still confused. What is the best architecture for an iOS networked application? I mean basic abstract framework, patterns, which will fit every networking application whether it is a small app which only have a few server requests or a complex REST client. Apple recommends to use MVC as a basic architectural approach for all iOS applications, but neither MVC nor the more modern MVVM patterns explain where to put network logic code and how to organize it in general.

Do I need to develop something like MVCS(S for Service) and in this Service layer put all API requests and other networking logic, which in perspective may be really complex? After doing some research I found two basic approaches for this. Here it was recommended to create a separate class for every network request to web-service API (like LoginRequest class or PostCommentRequest class and so on) which all inherits from the base request abstract class AbstractBaseRequest and in addition to create some global network manager which encapsulates common networking code and other preferences (it may be AFNetworking customisation or RestKit tuning, if the we have complex object mappings and persistence, or even an own network communication implementation with standard API). But this approach seems an overhead for me. Another approach is to have some singleton API dispatcher or manager class as in the first approach, but not to create classes for every request and instead to encapsulate every request as an instance public method of this manager class like: fetchContacts, loginUser methods, etc. So, what is the best and correct way? Are there other interesting approaches I don't know yet?

And should I create another layer for all this networking stuff like Service, or NetworkProvider layer or whatever on top of my MVC architecture, or this layer should be integrated (injected) into existing MVC layers e.g. Model?

I know there exists beautiful approaches, or how then such mobile monsters like Facebook client or LinkedIn client deal with exponentially growing complexity of networking logic?

I know there are no exact and formal answer to the problem. The goal of this question is to collect the most interesting approaches from experienced iOS developers. The best suggested approach will be marked as accepted and awarded with a reputation bounty, others will be upvoted. It is mostly a theoretical and research question. I want to understand basic, abstract and correct architectural approach for networking applications in iOS. I hope for detailed explanation from experienced developers.

Best Solution

I want to understand basic, abstract and correct architectural approach for networking applications in iOS

There is no "the best", or "the most correct" approach for building an application architecture. It is a very creative job. You should always choose the most straightforward and extensible architecture, which will be clear for any developer, who begin to work on your project or for other developers in your team, but I agree, that there can be a "good" and a "bad" architecture.

You said:

collect the most interesting approaches from experienced iOS developers

I don't think that my approach is the most interesting or correct, but I've used it in several projects and satisfied with it. It is a hybrid approach of the ones you have mentioned above, and also with improvements from my own research efforts. I'm interesting in the problems of building approaches, which combine several well-known patterns and idioms. I think a lot of Fowler's enterprise patterns can be successfully applied to the mobile applications. Here is a list of the most interesting ones, which we can apply for creating an iOS application architecture (in my opinion): Service Layer, Unit Of Work, Remote Facade, Data Transfer Object, Gateway, Layer Supertype, Special Case, Domain Model. You should always correctly design a model layer and always don't forget about the persistence (it can significantly increase your app's performance). You can use Core Data for this. But you should not forget, that Core Data is not an ORM or a database, but an object graph manager with persistence as a good option of it. So, very often Core Data can be too heavy for your needs and you can look at new solutions such as Realm and Couchbase Lite, or build your own lightweight object mapping/persistence layer, based on raw SQLite or LevelDB. Also I advice you to familiarize yourself with the Domain Driven Design and CQRS.

At first, I think, we should create another layer for networking, because we don't want fat controllers or heavy, overwhelmed models. I don't believe in those fat model, skinny controller things. But I do believe in skinny everything approach, because no class should be fat, ever. All networking can be generally abstracted as business logic, consequently we should have another layer, where we can put it. Service Layer is what we need:

It encapsulates the application's business logic, controlling transactions and coordinating responses in the implementation of its operations.

In our MVC realm Service Layer is something like a mediator between domain model and controllers. There is a rather similar variation of this approach called MVCS where a Store is actually our Service layer. Store vends model instances and handles the networking, caching etc. I want to mention that you should not write all your networking and business logic in your service layer. This also can be considered as a bad design. For more info look at the Anemic and Rich domain models. Some service methods and business logic can be handled in the model, so it will be a "rich" (with behaviour) model.

I always extensively use two libraries: AFNetworking 2.0 and ReactiveCocoa. I think it is a must have for any modern application that interacts with the network and web-services or contains complex UI logic.


At first I create a general APIClient class, which is a subclass of AFHTTPSessionManager. This is a workhorse of all networking in the application: all service classes delegate actual REST requests to it. It contains all the customizations of HTTP client, which I need in the particular application: SSL pinning, error processing and creating straightforward NSError objects with detailed failure reasons and descriptions of all API and connection errors (in such case controller will be able to show correct messages for the user), setting request and response serializers, http headers and other network-related stuff. Then I logically divide all the API requests into subservices or, more correctly, microservices: UserSerivces, CommonServices, SecurityServices, FriendsServices and so on, accordingly to business logic they implement. Each of these microservices is a separate class. They, together, form a Service Layer. These classes contain methods for each API request, process domain models and always returns a RACSignal with the parsed response model or NSError to the caller.

I want to mention that if you have complex model serialisation logic - then create another layer for it: something like Data Mapper but more general e.g. JSON/XML -> Model mapper. If you have cache: then create it as a separate layer/service too (you shouldn't mix business logic with caching). Why? Because correct caching layer can be quite complex with its own gotchas. People implement complex logic to get valid, predictable caching like e.g. monoidal caching with projections based on profunctors. You can read about this beautiful library called Carlos to understand more. And don't forget that Core Data can really help you with all caching issues and will allow you to write less logic. Also, if you have some logic between NSManagedObjectContext and server requests models, you can use Repository pattern, which separates the logic that retrieves the data and maps it to the entity model from the business logic that acts on the model. So, I advice to use Repository pattern even when you have a Core Data based architecture. Repository can abstract things, like NSFetchRequest,NSEntityDescription, NSPredicate and so on to plain methods like get or put.

After all these actions in the Service layer, caller (view controller) can do some complex asynchronous stuff with the response: signal manipulations, chaining, mapping, etc. with the help of ReactiveCocoa primitives , or just subscribe to it and show results in the view. I inject with the Dependency Injection in all these service classes my APIClient, which will translate a particular service call into corresponding GET, POST, PUT, DELETE, etc. request to the REST endpoint. In this case APIClient is passed implicitly to all controllers, you can make this explicit with a parametrised over APIClient service classes. This can make sense if you want to use different customisations of the APIClient for particular service classes, but if you ,for some reasons, don't want extra copies or you are sure that you always will use one particular instance (without customisations) of the APIClient - make it a singleton, but DON'T, please DON'T make service classes as singletons.

Then each view controller again with the DI injects the service class it needs, calls appropriate service methods and composes their results with the UI logic. For dependency injection I like to use BloodMagic or a more powerful framework Typhoon. I never use singletons, God APIManagerWhatever class or other wrong stuff. Because if you call your class WhateverManager, this indicates than you don't know its purpose and it is a bad design choice. Singletons is also an anti-pattern, and in most cases (except rare ones) is a wrong solution. Singleton should be considered only if all three of the following criteria are satisfied:

  1. Ownership of the single instance cannot be reasonably assigned;
  2. Lazy initialization is desirable;
  3. Global access is not otherwise provided for.

In our case ownership of the single instance is not an issue and also we don't need global access after we divided our god manager into services, because now only one or several dedicated controllers need a particular service (e.g. UserProfile controller needs UserServices and so on).

We should always respect S principle in SOLID and use separation of concerns, so don't put all your service methods and networks calls in one class, because it's crazy, especially if you develop a large enterprise application. That's why we should consider dependency injection and services approach. I consider this approach as modern and post-OO. In this case we split our application into two parts: control logic (controllers and events) and parameters.

One kind of parameters would be ordinary “data” parameters. That’s what we pass around functions, manipulate, modify, persist, etc. These are entities, aggregates, collections, case classes. The other kind would be “service” parameters. These are classes which encapsulate business logic, allow communicating with external systems, provide data access.

Here is a general workflow of my architecture by example. Let's suppose we have a FriendsViewController, which displays list of user's friends and we have an option to remove from friends. I create a method in my FriendsServices class called:

- (RACSignal *)removeFriend:(Friend * const)friend

where Friend is a model/domain object (or it can be just a User object if they have similar attributes). Underhood this method parses Friend to NSDictionary of JSON parameters friend_id, name, surname, friend_request_id and so on. I always use Mantle library for this kind of boilerplate and for my model layer (parsing back and forward, managing nested object hierarchies in JSON and so on). After parsing it calls APIClient DELETE method to make an actual REST request and returns Response in RACSignal to the caller (FriendsViewController in our case) to display appropriate message for the user or whatever.

If our application is a very big one, we have to separate our logic even clearer. E.g. it is not *always* good to mix `Repository` or model logic with `Service` one. When I described my approach I had said that `removeFriend` method should be in the `Service` layer, but if we will be more pedantic we can notice that it better belongs to `Repository`. Let's remember what Repository is. Eric Evans gave it a precise description in his book [DDD]:

A Repository represents all objects of a certain type as a conceptual set. It acts like a collection, except with more elaborate querying capability.

So, a Repository is essentially a facade that uses Collection style semantics (Add, Update, Remove) to supply access to data/objects. That's why when you have something like: getFriendsList, getUserGroups, removeFriend you can place it in the Repository, because collection-like semantics is pretty clear here. And code like:

- (RACSignal *)approveFriendRequest:(FriendRequest * const)request;

is definitely a business logic, because it is beyond basic CRUD operations and connect two domain objects (Friend and Request), that's why it should be placed in the Service layer. Also I want to notice: don't create unnecessary abstractions. Use all these approaches wisely. Because if you will overwhelm your application with abstractions, this will increase its accidental complexity, and complexity causes more problems in software systems than anything else

I describe you an "old" Objective-C example but this approach can be very easy adapted for Swift language with a lot more improvements, because it has more useful features and functional sugar. I highly recommend to use this library: Moya. It allows you to create a more elegant APIClient layer (our workhorse as you remember). Now our APIClient provider will be a value type (enum) with extensions conforming to protocols and leveraging destructuring pattern matching. Swift enums + pattern matching allows us to create algebraic data types as in classic functional programming. Our microservices will use this improved APIClient provider as in usual Objective-C approach. For model layer instead of Mantle you can use ObjectMapper library or I like to use more elegant and functional Argo library.

So, I described my general architectural approach, which can be adapted for any application, I think. There can be a lot more improvements, of course. I advice you to learn functional programming, because you can benefit from it a lot, but don't go too far with it too. Eliminating excessive, shared, global mutable state, creating an immutable domain model or creating pure functions without external side-effects is, generally, a good practice, and new Swift language encourages this. But always remember, that overloading your code with heavy pure functional patterns, category-theoretical approaches is a bad idea, because other developers will read and support your code, and they can be frustrated or scary of the prismatic profunctors and such kind of stuff in your immutable model. The same thing with the ReactiveCocoa: don't RACify your code too much, because it can become unreadable really fast, especially for newbies. Use it when it can really simplify your goals and logic.

So, read a lot, mix, experiment, and try to pick up the best from different architectural approaches. It is the best advice I can give you.