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Framework Overview

This document contains a high-level description of the different components within the ReactiveCocoa framework, and an attempt to explain how they work together and divide responsibilities. This is meant to be a starting point for learning about new modules and finding more specific documentation.

For examples and help understanding how to use RAC, see the README or the Design Guidelines.


An event, represented by the Event type, is the formalized representation of the fact that something has happened. In ReactiveCocoa, events are the centerpiece of communication. An event might represent the press of a button, a piece of information received from an API, the occurrence of an error, or the completion of a long-running operation. In any case, something generates the events and sends them over a signal to any number of observers.

Event is an enumerated type representing either a value or one of three terminal events:

  • The Next event provides a new value from the source.
  • The Error event indicates that an error occurred before the signal could finish. Events are parameterized by an ErrorType, which determines the kind of error that’s permitted to appear in the event. If an error is not permitted, the event can use type NoError to prevent any from being provided.
  • The Completed event indicates that the signal finished successfully, and that no more values will be sent by the source.
  • The Interrupted event indicates that the signal has terminated due to cancellation, meaning that the operation was neither successful nor unsuccessful.


A signal, represented by the Signal type, is any series of events over time that can be observed.

Signals are generally used to represent event streams that are already “in progress”, like notifications, user input, etc. As work is performed or data is received, events are sent on the signal, which pushes them out to any observers. All observers see the events at the same time.

Users must observe a signal in order to access its events. Observing a signal does not trigger any side effects. In other words, signals are entirely producer-driven and push-based, and consumers (observers) cannot have any effect on their lifetime. While observing a signal, the user can only evaluate the events in the same order as they are sent on the signal. There is no random access to values of a signal.

Signals can be manipulated by applying primitives to them. Typical primitives to manipulate a single signal like filter, map and reduce are available, as well as primitives to manipulate multiple signals at once (zip). Primitives operate only on the Next events of a signal. The |> operator is used to apply primitives to a signal. It can also be used to compose basic primitives into more complex ones.

The lifetime of a signal consists of any number of Next events, followed by one terminating event, which may be any one of Error, Completed, or Interrupted (but not a combination). Terminating events are not included in the signal’s values—they must be handled specially.


A pipe, created by Signal.pipe(), is a signal that can be manually controlled.

The method returns a signal and an observer. The signal can be controlled by sending events to the observer. This can be extremely useful for bridging non-RAC code into the world of signals.

For example, instead of handling application logic in block callbacks, the blocks can simply send events to the observer instead. Meanwhile, the signal can be returned, hiding the implementation detail of the callbacks.

Signal Producers

A signal producer, represented by the SignalProducer type, creates signals and performs side effects.

They can be used to represent operations or tasks, like network requests, where each invocation of start() will create a new underlying operation, and allow the caller to observe the result(s). The startWithSignal() variant gives access to the produced signal, allowing it to be observed multiple times if desired.

Because of the behavior of start(), each signal created from the same producer may see a different ordering or version of events, or the stream might even be completely different! Unlike a plain signal, no work is started (and thus no events are generated) until an observer is attached, and the work is restarted anew for each additional observer.

Starting a signal producer returns a disposable that can be used to interrupt/cancel the work associated with the produced signal.

Just like signals, signal producers can also be manipulated via primitives like map, filter, etc. Every signal primitive can be “lifted” to operate upon signal producers instead, using the lift method, or implicitly through the |> operator. Furthermore, there are additional primitives that control when and how work is started—for example, times.


A buffer, created by SignalProducer.buffer(), is a (optionally bounded) queue for events that replays those events when new signals are created from the producer.

Similar to a pipe, the method returns an observer. Events sent to this observer will be added to the queue. If the buffer is already at capacity when a new value arrives, the earliest (oldest) value will be dropped to make room for it.


An observer is anything that is waiting or capable of waiting for events from a signal. Within RAC, an observer is represented as a SinkType that accepts Event values.

Observers can be implicitly created by using the callback-based versions of the Signal.observe or SignalProducer.start methods.


An action, represented by the Action type, will do some work when executed with an input. While executing, zero or more output values and/or an error may be generated.

Actions are useful for performing side-effecting work upon user interaction, like when a button is clicked. Actions can also be automatically disabled based on a property, and this disabled state can be represented in a UI by disabling any controls associated with the action.

For interaction with NSControl or UIControl, RAC provides the CocoaAction type for bridging actions to Objective-C.


A property, represented by the PropertyType protocol, stores a value and notifies observers about future changes to that value.

The current value of a property can be obtained from the value getter. The producer getter returns a signal producer that will send the property’s current value, followed by all changes over time.

The <~ operator can be used to bind properties in different ways. Note that in all cases, the target has to be a MutablePropertyType.

  • property <~ signal binds a signal to the property, updating the property’s value to the latest value sent by the signal.
  • property <~ producer starts the given signal producer, and binds the property’s value to the latest value sent on the started signal.
  • property <~ otherProperty binds one property to another, so that the destination property’s value is updated whenever the source property is updated.

The DynamicProperty type can be used to bridge to Objective-C APIs that require Key-Value Coding (KVC) or Key-Value Observing (KVO), like NSOperation. Note that most AppKit and UIKit properties do not support KVO, so their changes should be observed through other mechanisms. MutableProperty should be preferred over dynamic properties whenever possible!


A disposable, represented by the Disposable protocol, is a a mechanism for memory management and cancellation.

When starting a signal producer, a disposable will be returned. This disposable can be used by the caller to cancel the work that has been started (e.g. background processing, network requests, etc.), clean up all temporary resources, then send a final Interrupted event upon the particular signal that was created.

Observing a signal may also return a disposable. Disposing it will prevent the observer from receiving any future events from that signal, but it will not have any effect on the signal itself.

For more information about cancellation, see the RAC Design Guidelines.


A scheduler, represented by the SchedulerType protocol, is a serial execution queue to perform work or deliver results upon.

Signals and signal producers can be ordered to deliver events on a specific scheduler. Signal producers can additionally be ordered to start their work on a specific scheduler.

Schedulers are similar to Grand Central Dispatch queues, but schedulers support cancellation (via disposables), and always execute serially. With the exception of the ImmediateScheduler, schedulers do not offer synchronous execution. This helps avoid deadlocks, and encourages the use of signal and signal producer primitives instead of blocking work.

Schedulers are also somewhat similar to NSOperationQueue, but schedulers do not allow tasks to be reordered or depend on one another.

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