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The Swift Array Design

Author:Dave Abrahams
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  1. Performance equivalent to C arrays for subscript get/set of non-class element types is the most important performance goal.
  2. It should be possible to receive an NSArray from Cocoa, represent it as an Array<AnyObject>, and pass it right back to Cocoa as an NSArray in O(1) and with no memory allocations.
  3. Arrays should be usable as stacks, so we want amortized O(1) append and O(1) popBack. Together with goal #1, this implies a std::vector-like layout, with a reserved tail memory capacity that can exceed the number of actual stored elements.

To achieve goals 1 and 2 together, we use static knowledge of the element type: when it is statically known that the element type is not a class, code and checks accounting for the possibility of wrapping an NSArray are eliminated. An Array of Swift value types always uses the most efficient possible representation, identical to that of ContiguousArray.


Swift provides three generic array types, all of which have amortized O(1) growth. In this document, statements about ArrayType apply to all three of the components.

  • ContiguousArray<Element> is the fastest and simplest of the three--use this when you need "C array" performance. The elements of a ContiguousArray are always stored contiguously in memory.

  • Array<Element> is like ContiguousArray<Element>, but optimized for efficient conversions from Cocoa and back--when Element can be a class type, Array<Element> can be backed by the (potentially non-contiguous) storage of an arbitrary NSArray rather than by a Swift ContiguousArray. Array<Element> also supports up- and downcasts between arrays of related class types. When Element is known to be a non-class type, the performance of Array<Element> is identical to that of ContiguousArray<Element>.

  • ArraySlice<Element> is a subrange of some Array<Element> or ContiguousArray<Element>; it's the result of using slice notation, e.g. a[7...21] on any Swift array a. A slice always has contiguous storage and "C array" performance. Slicing an ArrayType is O(1) unless the source is an Array<Element> backed by an NSArray that doesn't supply contiguous storage.

    ArraySlice is recommended for transient computations but not for long-term storage. Since it references a sub-range of some shared backing buffer, a ArraySlice may artificially prolong the lifetime of elements outside the ArraySlice itself.


Mutation Semantics

The ArrayTypes have full value semantics via copy-on-write (COW):

var a = [1, 2, 3]
let b = a
a[1] = 42
print(b[1]) // prints "2"

Bridging Rules and Terminology for all Types

  • Every class type or @objc existential (such as AnyObject) is bridged to Objective-C and bridged back to Swift via the identity transformation, i.e. it is bridged verbatim.

  • A type T that is not bridged verbatim can conform to BridgedToObjectiveC, which specifies its conversions to and from ObjectiveC:

    protocol _BridgedToObjectiveC {
      typealias _ObjectiveCType: AnyObject
      func _bridgeToObjectiveC() -> _ObjectiveCType
      class func _forceBridgeFromObjectiveC(_: _ObjectiveCType) -> Self


    Classes and @objc existentials shall not conform to _BridgedToObjectiveC, a restriction that's not currently enforceable at compile-time.

  • Some generic types (ArrayType<T> in particular) bridge to Objective-C only if their element types bridge. These types conform to _ConditionallyBridgedToObjectiveC:

    protocol _ConditionallyBridgedToObjectiveC : _BridgedToObjectiveC {
      class func _isBridgedToObjectiveC() -> Bool
      class func _conditionallyBridgeFromObjectiveC(_: _ObjectiveCType) -> Self?

    Bridging from, or bridging back to, a type T conforming to _ConditionallyBridgedToObjectiveC when T._isBridgedToObjectiveC() is false is a user programming error that may be diagnosed at runtime. _conditionallyBridgeFromObjectiveC can be used to attempt to bridge back, and return nil if the entire object cannot be bridged.

    Implementation Note

    There are various ways to move this detection to compile-time

  • For a type T that is not bridged verbatim,

    • if T conforms to BridgedToObjectiveC and either

      • T does not conform to _ConditionallyBridgedToObjectiveC
      • or, T._isBridgedToObjectiveC()

      then a value x of type T is bridged as T._ObjectiveCType via x._bridgeToObjectiveC(), and an object y of T._ObjectiveCType is bridged back to T via T._forceBridgeFromObjectiveC(y)

    • Otherwise, T does not bridge to Objective-C

Array Type Conversions

From here on, this document deals only with Array itself, and not Slice or ContiguousArray, which support a subset of Array's conversions. Future revisions will add descriptions of Slice and ContiguousArray conversions.

Kinds of Conversions

In these definitions, Base is AnyObject or a trivial subtype thereof, Derived is a trivial subtype of Base, and X conforms to _BridgedToObjectiveC:

  • Trivial bridging implicitly converts [Base] to NSArray in O(1). This is simply a matter of returning the Array's internal buffer, which is-a NSArray.
  • Trivial bridging back implicitly converts NSArray to [AnyObject] in O(1) plus the cost of calling copy() on the NSArray. [1]

  • Implicit conversions between Array types

    • Implicit upcasting implicitly converts [Derived] to [Base] in O(1).
    • Implicit bridging implicitly converts [X] to [X._ObjectiveCType] in O(N).


    Either type of implicit conversion may be combined with trivial bridging in an implicit conversion to NSArray.

  • Checked conversions convert [T] to [U]? in O(N) via a as [U].

    • Checked downcasting converts [Base] to [Derived]?.
    • Checked bridging back converts [T] to [X]? where X._ObjectiveCType is T or a trivial subtype thereof.
  • Forced conversions convert [AnyObject] or NSArray to [T] implicitly, in bridging thunks between Swift and Objective-C.

    For example, when a user writes a Swift method taking [NSView], it is exposed to Objective-C as a method taking NSArray, which is force-converted to [NSView] when called from Objective-C.

    • Forced downcasting converts [AnyObject] to [Derived] in O(1)
    • Forced bridging back converts [AnyObject] to [X] in O(N).

    A forced conversion where any element fails to convert is considered a user programming error that may trap. In the case of forced downcasts, the trap may be deferred to the point where an offending element is accessed.


Both checked and forced downcasts may be combined with trivial bridging back in conversions from NSArray.

Maintaining Type-Safety

Both upcasts and forced downcasts raise type-safety issues.


TODO: this section is outdated.

When up-casting an [Derived] to [Base], a buffer of Derived object can simply be unsafeBitCast'ed to a buffer of elements of type Base--as long as the resulting buffer is never mutated. For example, we cannot allow a Base element to be inserted in the buffer, because the buffer's destructor will destroy the elements with the (incorrect) static presumption that they have Derived type.

Furthermore, we can't (logically) copy the buffer just prior to mutation, since the [Base] may be copied prior to mutation, and our shared subscript assignment semantics imply that all copies must observe its subscript assignments.

Therefore, converting [T] to [U] is akin to resizing: the new Array becomes logically independent. To avoid an immediate O(N) conversion cost, and preserve shared subscript assignment semantics, we use a layer of indirection in the data structure. Further, when T is a subclass of U, the intermediate object is marked to prevent in-place mutation of the buffer; it will be copied upon its first mutation:


Deferred Checking for Forced Downcasts

In forced downcasts, if any element fails to have dynamic type Derived, it is considered a programming error that may cause a trap. Sometimes we can do this check in O(1) because the source holds a known buffer type. Rather than incur O(N) checking for the other cases, the new intermediate object is marked for deferred checking, and all element accesses through that object are dynamically typechecked, with a trap upon failure (except in -Ounchecked builds).

When the resulting array is later up-cast (other than to a type that can be validated in O(1) by checking the type of the underlying buffer), the result is also marked for deferred checking.

[1]This copy() may amount to a retain if the NSArray is already known to be immutable. We could eventually optimize out the copy if we can detect that the NSArray is uniquely referenced. Our current unique-reference detection applies only to Swift objects, though.
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