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README.markdown

TICoreDataSync

Automatic synchronization for Core Data Apps, between any combination of Mac OS X and iOS: Mac to iPhone to iPad to iPod touch and back again

Original design and implementation by Tim Isted (@timisted) and Michael Fey (@MrRooni)

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License

TICoreDataSync is licensed under the MIT license.

Summary

TICoreDataSync is a collection of classes to enable synchronization via the Cloud (including Dropbox), or local wifi (coming soon), of Core Data-based applications (including document-based apps) between any number of clients running under Mac OS X or iOS. It's designed to be easy to extend if you need to synchronize via an option that isn't already supported.

Requirements

TICoreDataSync works under Mac OS X 10.5 or later (it may run under 10.4 with minimal tweaking, but hasn't been tested) and iOS 3.0+.

In order for synchronization to work, your model objects must inherit from TICDSSynchronizedManagedObject, and have one extra string attribute called ticdsSyncID, which is used to track an object across multiple clients. All model object changes that you wish to synchronize must take place inside a TICDSSynchronizedManagedObjectContext.

In practice, this means changing any NSManagedObject use in your .xcdatamodel to TICDSSynchronizedManagedObject, changing any custom NSManagedObject subclass to inherit from TICDSSynchronizedManagedObject, and creating a TICDSSynchronizedManagedObjectContext when you build your Core Data stack. Because TICoreDataSync includes its own .xcdatamodels, you won't be able to build your stack by merging all the models in the bundle, you'll need to specify your data model file directly.

Your application will need to keep track of one instance of TICDSApplicationSyncManager for the type of synchronization you wish to use in your application, and you must register this sync manager before you can perform any other tasks. If your application is non-document-based, you'll then need a single TICDSDocumentSyncManager instance to handle synchronization of your application's data. If you have a document-based app, you'll need one TICDSDocumentSyncManager per document. Again, a document sync manager must be registered before it can be used.

Documentation

Documentation for the framework can be found at:
http://timisted.github.com/TICoreDataSync

This includes a general overview of the framework, Mac and iOS tutorials, information about extending the framework, plus reference materials including a full Class Reference, and a set of diagrams illustrating the tasks performed by each underlying operation class.

Xcode Docset

The framework comes with an Xcode docset containing documentation for all TICoreDataSync classes and protocols. Each header file is marked up such that the docset can be generated by appledoc.

You can build it yourself if you have appledoc installed, by executing appledoc . in the root of the repository; this will also install the docset.

Either install the docset, or read the contents online:
http://timisted.github.com/TICoreDataSync/reference/html/

Note that the information at the top of the operations in the docset is out of date; refer to the class diagrams to find out exactly what happens.

Example Apps

The repository includes several Xcode projects demonstrating the framework in Mac and iOS applications. There are two primary applications, the non-document-based Notebook for iOS and Mac, and the document-based ShoppingList for Mac only.

The Guide to Example Apps explains how these work in more detail.

How it Works

When your primary managed object context (an instance of TICDSSynchronizedManagedObjectContext) saves, the framework jumps into action, performing the following tasks:

  1. Sync Change objects (TICDSSyncChange) are created for every change to any modified object: insertion, deletion, attribute changes and relationship changes. This is handled by the TICDSSynchronizedManagedObject class.

  2. These changes are saved in a private context/store and handled internally.

The document sync manager will ask whether you wish to initiate synchronization immediately after every save of the managed object context, or alternatively you can initiate synchronization manually.

The synchronization process includes the following:

  1. The Document Sync Manager creates a sync operation, which begins by downloading all sets of sync change that haven't yet been applied.

  2. The sync operation runs through each change set in date order, and applies its changes in a background managed object context (which has the same persistent store coordinator as your primary application MOC).

  3. If it runs into conflicts, it alerts your Sync Manager delegate (TICDSDocumentSyncManagerDelegate protocol), which is responsible for deciding whether the local change or the remote sync change take priority (see the Conflicts and Warnings section below).

  4. The background context is saved. The framework will alert you through a TICDSDocumentSyncManagerDelegate method, and pass you the NSManagedObjectContextDidSave notification object for you to merge changes.

  5. Once all the remote sync changes have been applied, the local set of sync changes are pushed.

  6. A file (named with the client device's UID) is saved into the RecentSyncs directory for the document to indicate when it last synchronized.

If left unchecked, the sync-related files will stay on the remote indefinitely. Your application should request that a document sync manager clean up after itself every so often, perhaps at registration, or once a day/week/etc. The vacuum process will check which client synchronized least recently (the oldest file in the RecentSyncs directory), and remove all of its own sync-related files older than this date -- each client device is responsible for vacuuming the files it created. Do not initiate a vacuum after every sync, or you'll run the risk of each client triggering the next to synchronize in an infinite loop.

Types of Sync Manager

You never instantiate one of the TICDSApplicationSyncManager or TICDSDocumentSyncManager directly, but instead use one of the subclasses specific to your required method of synchronization.

The framework includes a set of file-manager-based sync classes, used to synchronize with anything that can be accessed using NSFileManager, including a desktop Dropbox or iDisk. Although these classes are effectively accessing a "local" volume, they never have Core Data talk directly to the files stored "remotely."

No matter what the type of sync, the framework downloads files to a local helper file directory (location is customizable through delegate callbacks) before working on them, then uploads them to the remote. No file is ever edited directly on the remote store.

Encryption

Because the framework only works with files locally rather than accessing them remotely, the framework includes optional encryption. All you need to do is provide a password in response to the two encryption-related TICDSApplicationSyncManagerDelegate methods.

If encryption is enabled, every file used by the framework is encrypted, with the exception of the AppliedSyncChangeSets files, as these only contain UUID strings and dates.

Conflicts and Warnings

The synchronization process is a "rolling sync." Each client is responsible for fixing conflicts between the sync changes already pushed by previous clients, and the sync changes it wants to push.

At present, the only conflict that you will have the option to fix is if the same object has the same attribute modified both locally and remotely, but with different attribute values (if the changed values are the same, the "conflict" is fixed automatically). You'll be alerted through a TICDSDocumentSyncManagerDelegate method; you must decide whether the local or remote change takes priority, and then call the document sync manager back so it can continue the sync.

If the following problems occur during synchronization, you'll be given an array of warnings at the end of the process to alert you:

  • An object has been changed locally, but deleted by a previous remote client sync -- the object will be deleted.

  • An object has been deleted locally, but has changes from a previous client sync that haven't yet been applied locally -- the object will be deleted.

At this time, the framework does not offer the ability to fix either of these types of conflict, instead just providing post-sync warnings. This may change in a future version of the framework, but will require some thought. Consider a data model with lots of inter-related objects -- depending on cascade rules, if a conflict is detected where an object has been changed remotely but deleted locally, not only would the object need to be "undeleted" locally, all of its relationships would need to be traversed to undo cascade deletions. Similarly, if an object is changed locally that has already been deleted by other clients, the framework would need to generate insertion sync changes not only for the object itself, but for all its related "cascade" objects, and the related objects of the related objects, and so on.

Underlying Operations

There are currently elevent primary types of operation spawned by the Sync Manager:

Each of these is a generic class, designed to be overridden to add the upload/download behavior necessary to the type of sync you wish to use. If you use a TICDSFileManagerBasedDocumentSyncManager, for example, it will spawn its own TICDSFileManagerBasedXXXOperation objects and configure them correctly.

All operations are (to use Apple's terminology) concurrent operations, and can run either on the main thread for use with e.g. asynchronous URL up/downloads (any non-transfer-related work is still carried out in the background), or entirely in the background for e.g. file-manager-based transfers.

For information about the tasks performed by each operation, take a look at the operation diagrams.

Expansion

It's possible to create your own set of classes for any particular Cloud-based sync option. You'll need to subclass the Application and Document Sync Managers, as well as each of the necessary operations. Your TICDSApplicationSyncManager and TICDSDocumentSyncManager subclasses, and each of the operation subclasses, must override certain methods to perform the relevant task -- see the Guide to Extending the Framework for more information.

Remote File Structure

TICoreDataSync uses quite a few files for synchronization, and stores these at the remote location using the hierarchy described in the Remote File Hierarchy document.

To Do

At present, TICoreDataSync only supports file-manager-based sync, or iOS DropboxSDK sync. WebDAV and local wifi sync options will be added soon.

There is currently no automated functionality to remove the entire sync data directory from a remote service, nor is it yet possible to remove a client's files from synchronizing an entire application. These tasks will be added soon.

Recent Changes

  • 2012-Apr-26

    Mostly due to MrRooni's recalcitrance to keeping the documentation in line with the current state of development, the docs may lag behind the implementation in certain cases. If you find this to be the case please file issues against it, or better yet correct it yourself.

  • 2011-Jul-31

    The document sync manager now keeps check of an integrity key. These keys are kept in user defaults for each document synchronized. At registration, the integrity key is checked against the one at the remote; if it doesn't match, the delegate is warned to re-download the store, and any local sync-related files are automatically cleared out by the doc sync manager.

    Note that any existing remote data will need to be removed.

  • 2011-Jul-21

    Both application and document sync managers offer the ability to delay the registration process. In a dodgy network environment, such as an iOS device, you may wish just to configure an app and doc sync manager so that changes are tracked and the user can use the app. Once they ask to sync, check whether you've registered, and if not, register at that time before performing the sync.

    See the TICDSApplicationSyncManager and TICDSDocumentSyncManager references for more information.

  • 2011-Jun-06

    It's now possible to delete a client's data from synchronizing with a document - see TICDSDocumentClientDeletionOperation, and the document sync manager deleteDocumentSynchronizationDataForClientWithIdentifier: method.

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