Skip to content

Lately, we've been shipping more in GitHub for Mac than ever before. Now that username autocompletion and Notification Center support are out the door, we're releasing the two frameworks that helped make it happen.

This post talks about Mantle, our framework that makes it dead simple to create a flexible and easy-to-use model layer in Cocoa or Cocoa Touch. In our next blog post, we'll talk about Rebel, our framework for improving AppKit.

First, let's explore why you would even want such a framework. What's wrong with the way model objects are usually written in Objective-C?

The Typical Model Object

Let's use the GitHub API for demonstration. How would one typically represent a GitHub issue in Objective-C?

typedef enum : NSUInteger {
    GHIssueStateOpen,
    GHIssueStateClosed
} GHIssueState;

@interface GHIssue : NSObject <NSCoding, NSCopying>

@property (nonatomic, copy, readonly) NSURL *URL;
@property (nonatomic, copy, readonly) NSURL *HTMLURL;
@property (nonatomic, copy, readonly) NSNumber *number;
@property (nonatomic, assign, readonly) GHIssueState state;
@property (nonatomic, copy, readonly) NSString *reporterLogin;
@property (nonatomic, copy, readonly) NSString *assigneeLogin;
@property (nonatomic, copy, readonly) NSDate *updatedAt;

@property (nonatomic, copy) NSString *title;
@property (nonatomic, copy) NSString *body;

- (id)initWithDictionary:(NSDictionary *)dictionary;

@end
@implementation GHIssue

+ (NSDateFormatter *)dateFormatter {
    NSDateFormatter *dateFormatter = [[NSDateFormatter alloc] init];
    dateFormatter.locale = [[NSLocale alloc] initWithLocaleIdentifier:@"en_US_POSIX"];
    dateFormatter.dateFormat = @"yyyy-MM-dd'T'HH:mm:ss'Z'";
    return dateFormatter;
}

- (id)initWithDictionary:(NSDictionary *)dictionary {
    self = [self init];
    if (self == nil) return nil;

    _URL = [NSURL URLWithString:dictionary[@"url"]];
    _HTMLURL = [NSURL URLWithString:dictionary[@"html_url"]];
    _number = dictionary[@"number"];

    if ([dictionary[@"state"] isEqualToString:@"open"]) {
        _state = GHIssueStateOpen;
    } else if ([dictionary[@"state"] isEqualToString:@"closed"]) {
        _state = GHIssueStateClosed;
    }

    _title = [dictionary[@"title"] copy];
    _body = [dictionary[@"body"] copy];
    _reporterLogin = [dictionary[@"user"][@"login"] copy];
    _assigneeLogin = [dictionary[@"assignee"][@"login"] copy];

    _updatedAt = [self.class.dateFormatter dateFromString:dictionary[@"updated_at"]];

    return self;
}

- (id)initWithCoder:(NSCoder *)coder {
    self = [self init];
    if (self == nil) return nil;

    _URL = [coder decodeObjectForKey:@"URL"];
    _HTMLURL = [coder decodeObjectForKey:@"HTMLURL"];
    _number = [coder decodeObjectForKey:@"number"];
    _state = [coder decodeUnsignedIntegerForKey:@"state"];
    _title = [coder decodeObjectForKey:@"title"];
    _body = [coder decodeObjectForKey:@"body"];
    _reporterLogin = [coder decodeObjectForKey:@"reporterLogin"];
    _assigneeLogin = [coder decodeObjectForKey:@"assigneeLogin"];
    _updatedAt = [coder decodeObjectForKey:@"updatedAt"];

    return self;
}

- (void)encodeWithCoder:(NSCoder *)coder {
    if (self.URL != nil) [coder encodeObject:self.URL forKey:@"URL"];
    if (self.HTMLURL != nil) [coder encodeObject:self.HTMLURL forKey:@"HTMLURL"];
    if (self.number != nil) [coder encodeObject:self.number forKey:@"number"];
    if (self.title != nil) [coder encodeObject:self.title forKey:@"title"];
    if (self.body != nil) [coder encodeObject:self.body forKey:@"body"];
    if (self.reporterLogin != nil) [coder encodeObject:self.reporterLogin forKey:@"reporterLogin"];
    if (self.assigneeLogin != nil) [coder encodeObject:self.assigneeLogin forKey:@"assigneeLogin"];
    if (self.updatedAt != nil) [coder encodeObject:self.updatedAt forKey:@"updatedAt"];

    [coder encodeUnsignedInteger:self.state forKey:@"state"];
}

- (id)copyWithZone:(NSZone *)zone {
    GHIssue *issue = [[self.class allocWithZone:zone] init];
    issue->_URL = self.URL;
    issue->_HTMLURL = self.HTMLURL;
    issue->_number = self.number;
    issue->_state = self.state;
    issue->_reporterLogin = self.reporterLogin;
    issue->_assigneeLogin = self.assigneeLogin;
    issue->_updatedAt = self.updatedAt;

    issue.title = self.title;
    issue.body = self.body;
}

- (NSUInteger)hash {
    return self.number.hash;
}

- (BOOL)isEqual:(GHIssue *)issue {
    if (![issue isKindOfClass:GHIssue.class]) return NO;

    return [self.number isEqual:issue.number] && [self.title isEqual:issue.title] && [self.body isEqual:issue.body];
}

@end

Whew, that's a lot of boilerplate for something so simple! And, even then, there are some problems that this example doesn't address:

  • If the url or html_url field is missing, +[NSURL URLWithString:] will throw an exception.
  • There's no way to update a GHIssue with new data from the server.
  • There's no way to turn a GHIssue back into JSON.
  • GHIssueState shouldn't be encoded as-is. If the enum changes in the future, existing archives might break.
  • If the interface of GHIssue changes down the road, existing archives might break.

Why Not Use Core Data?

Core Data solves certain problems very well. If you need to execute complex queries across your data, handle a huge object graph with lots of relationships, or support undo and redo, Core Data is an excellent fit.

It does, however, come with some pain points:

  • Concurrency is a huge headache. It's particularly difficult to pass managed objects between threads. The NSManagedObjectContextConcurrencyTypes introduced in OS X 10.7 and iOS 5 don't really address this problem. Instead, object IDs have to be passed around and translated back and forth, which is highly inconvenient.
  • There's still a lot of boilerplate. Managed objects reduce some of the boilerplate seen above, but Core Data has plenty of its own. Correctly setting up a Core Data stack (with a persistent store and persistent store coordinator) and executing fetches can take many lines of code.
  • It's hard to get right. Even experienced developers can make mistakes when using Core Data, and the framework is not forgiving.

If you're just trying to access some JSON objects, Core Data can be a lot of work for little gain.

MTLModel

Enter MTLModel. This is what GHIssue looks like inheriting from MTLModel:

typedef enum : NSUInteger {
    GHIssueStateOpen,
    GHIssueStateClosed
} GHIssueState;

@interface GHIssue : MTLModel

@property (nonatomic, copy, readonly) NSURL *URL;
@property (nonatomic, copy, readonly) NSURL *HTMLURL;
@property (nonatomic, copy, readonly) NSNumber *number;
@property (nonatomic, assign, readonly) GHIssueState state;
@property (nonatomic, copy, readonly) NSString *reporterLogin;
@property (nonatomic, copy, readonly) NSString *assigneeLogin;
@property (nonatomic, copy, readonly) NSDate *updatedAt;

@property (nonatomic, copy) NSString *title;
@property (nonatomic, copy) NSString *body;

@end
@implementation GHIssue

+ (NSDateFormatter *)dateFormatter {
    NSDateFormatter *dateFormatter = [[NSDateFormatter alloc] init];
    dateFormatter.locale = [[NSLocale alloc] initWithLocaleIdentifier:@"en_US_POSIX"];
    dateFormatter.dateFormat = @"yyyy-MM-dd'T'HH:mm:ss'Z'";
    return dateFormatter;
}

+ (NSDictionary *)externalRepresentationKeyPathsByPropertyKey {
    return [super.externalRepresentationKeyPathsByPropertyKey mtl_dictionaryByAddingEntriesFromDictionary:@{
        @"URL": @"url",
        @"HTMLURL": @"html_url",
        @"reporterLogin": @"user.login",
        @"assigneeLogin": @"assignee.login",
        @"updatedAt": @"updated_at"
    }];
}

+ (NSValueTransformer *)URLTransformer {
    return [NSValueTransformer valueTransformerForName:MTLURLValueTransformerName];
}

+ (NSValueTransformer *)HTMLURLTransformer {
    return [NSValueTransformer valueTransformerForName:MTLURLValueTransformerName];
}

+ (NSValueTransformer *)stateTransformer {
    NSDictionary *states = @{
        @"open": @(GHIssueStateOpen),
        @"closed": @(GHIssueStateClosed)
    };

    return [MTLValueTransformer reversibleTransformerWithForwardBlock:^(NSString *str) {
        return states[str];
    } reverseBlock:^(NSNumber *state) {
        return [states allKeysForObject:state].lastObject;
    }];
}

+ (NSValueTransformer *)updatedAtTransformer {
    return [MTLValueTransformer reversibleTransformerWithForwardBlock:^(NSString *str) {
        return [self.dateFormatter dateFromString:str];
    } reverseBlock:^(NSDate *date) {
        return [self.dateFormatter stringFromDate:date];
    }];
}

@end

Notably absent from this version are implementations of <NSCoding>, <NSCopying>, -isEqual:, and -hash. By inspecting the @property declarations you have in your subclass, MTLModel can provide default implementations for all these methods.

The problems with the original example all happen to be fixed as well:

  • If the url or html_url field is missing, +[NSURL URLWithString:] will throw an exception.

The URL transformer we used (included in Mantle) returns nil if given a nil string.

  • There's no way to update a GHIssue with new data from the server.

MTLModel has an extensible -mergeValuesForKeysFromModel: method, which makes it easy to specify how new model data should be integrated.

  • There's no way to turn a GHIssue back into JSON.
  • GHIssueState shouldn't be encoded as-is. If the enum changes in the future, existing archives might break.

Both of these issues are solved by using reversible transformers. -[GHIssue externalRepresentation] will return a JSON dictionary, which is also what gets encoded in -encodeWithCoder:. No saving fragile enum values!

  • If the interface of GHIssue changes down the road, existing archives might break.

MTLModel automatically saves the version of the model object that was used for archival. When unarchiving, +migrateExternalRepresentation:fromVersion: will be invoked if migration is needed, giving you a convenient hook to upgrade old data.

Other Extensions

Mantle also comes with miscellaneous cross-platform extensions meant to make your life easier, including:

There will assuredly be more, as we run into other common pain points!

Getting Involved

Mantle is still new and moving fast, so we may make breaking changes from time-to-time, but it has excellent unit test coverage and is already being used in GitHub for Mac's production code.

We heartily encourage you to check it out and file any issues that you find. If you'd like to contribute code, take a look at the README.

Enjoy!

Have feedback on this post? Let @github know on Twitter.

Need help or found a bug? Contact us.

Something went wrong with that request. Please try again.