A synchronization framework for Core Data.
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Core Data Ensembles

Author: Drew McCormack
Created: 29th September, 2013
Last Updated: 24th September, 2014

Ensembles 2 is now available for purchase at ensembles.io. It has performance improvements, extra backends (eg CloudKit), and other features. This version of Ensembles continues to be maintained and supported.

Ensembles extends Apple's Core Data framework to add peer-to-peer synchronization for Mac OS and iOS. Multiple SQLite persistent stores can be coupled together via a file synchronization platform like iCloud or Dropbox. The framework can be readily extended to support any service capable of moving files between devices, including custom servers.

Downloading Ensembles

To clone Ensembles to your local drive, use the command

git clone https://github.com/drewmccormack/ensembles.git

Ensembles makes use of Git submodules. To retrieve these, change to the ensembles root directory

cd ensembles

and issue this command

git submodule update --init

Incorporating Ensembles in an iOS Project

To add Ensembles to your App's Xcode Project with CocoaPods...

  1. Add the following to your Podfile

     platform :ios, '7.0'
     pod "Ensembles", "~> 1.0"

To manually add Ensembles to your App's Xcode Project...

  1. In Finder, drag the Ensembles iOS.xcodeproj project from the Framework directory into your Xcode project.

  2. Select your App's project root in the source list on the left, and then select the App's target.

  3. In the General tab, click the + button in the Linked Frameworks and Libraries section.

  4. Choose the libensembles.a library and add it.

  5. Select the Build Settings tab. Locate the Other Linker Flags setting, and add the flag -ObjC.

  6. Select the Build Phases tab. Open Target Dependencies, and click the + button.

  7. Locate the Ensembles Resources iOS product, and add that as a dependency.

  8. Open the Ensembles iOS.xcodeproj project in the source list, and open the Products group.

  9. Drag the Ensembles.bundle product into the Copy Bundle Resources build phase of your app.

  10. Add the following import in your precompiled header file, or in any files using Ensembles.

    #import <Ensembles/Ensembles.h>

Incorporating Ensembles in an OS X Project

To add Ensembles to your App's Xcode Project with CocoaPods...

  1. Add the following to your Podfile

     platform :osx, '10.9'
     pod "Ensembles", "~> 1.0"

To manually add Ensembles to your App's Xcode Project...

  1. In Finder, drag the Ensembles Mac.xcodeproj project from the Framework directory into your Xcode project.
  2. Select your App's project root in the source list on the left, and then select the App's target.
  3. In the General tab, click the + button in the Linked Frameworks and Libraries section.
  4. Choose Ensembles.framework and add it.
  5. Create a new build phase to copy frameworks into your app bundle (if you don’t already have one). To do this...
  • Select the project root in the source list, then select your app’s target.
  • Open the Build Phases tab.
  • Click the + button at the top of the list.
  • Choose New Copy Files Build Phase from the popup menu.
  • Disclose the contents of the new Copy Files phase, and choose Frameworks from the Destination popup button.
  • Click the + button at the bottom of the Copy Files phase section, choose Ensembles.framework, and click Add.
  1. Locate the Runpath Search Path build setting, and add @loader_path/../Frameworks.

  2. Add the following import in your precompiled header file, or in any files using Ensembles.

     #import <Ensembles/Ensembles.h>

Including Optional Cloud Services

By default, Ensembles only includes support for iCloud. To use other cloud services, such as Dropbox, you may need to add a few steps to the procedure above.

If you are using Cocoapods, add the optional subspec to the Podfile. For example, to include Dropbox, include

	pod "Ensembles/Dropbox", "~> 1.0"

If you are installing Ensembles manually, rather than with Cocoapods, you need to locate the source files and frameworks relevant to the service you want to support. You can find frameworks in the Vendor folder, and source files in Framework/Extensions.

By way of example, if you want to support Dropbox, you need to add the DropboxSDK Xcode project as a dependency, link to the appropriate product library, and include the files CDEDropboxCloudFileSystem.h and CDEDropboxCloudFileSystem.m in your project.

Idiomatic App

Idiomatic is a relatively simple example app which incorporates Ensembles and works with iCloud or Dropbox to sync across devices. The app allows you to record your ideas, include a photo, and add tags to group them. The Core Data model of the app has three entities, including a many-to-many relationship.

The Idiomatic project is a good way to get acquainted with Ensembles, and how it is integrated in a Core Data app. Idiomatic can be downloaded from the App Store if you want to see how it works. If you want to build and run it yourself, you need to follow a few preparatory steps.

  1. Select the Idiomatic Project in the source list of the Xcode project, and then select the Idiomatic target.
  2. Select the Capabilities section, turn on the iCloud switch.
  3. Build and install on devices and simulators that are logged into the same iCloud account.

Add notes, and tag them as desired. The app will sync when it becomes active, but you can force a sync by tapping the button under the Groups table.

Dropbox sync should work via The Mental Faculty account, but if you want to use your own developer account, you need to do the following:

  1. Sign up for a Dropbox developer account at developer.dropbox.com

  2. In the App Console, click the Create app button.

  3. Choose the Dropbox API app type.

  4. Choose to store 'Files and Datastores'

  5. Choose 'Yes — My app only needs access to files it creates'

  6. Name the app (eg Idiomatic)

  7. Click on Create app

  8. At the top of the IDMSyncManager class, locate this code, and replace the values with the strings you just created on the Dropbox site.

     NSString * const IDMDropboxAppKey = @"xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx";
     NSString * const IDMDropboxAppSecret = @"xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx";
  9. Select the Idiomatic project in Xcode, and then the Idiomatic iOS target.

  10. Select the Info tab.

  11. Open the URL Types section, and change the URL Schemes entry to

    db-<Your Dropbox App Key>

Idiomatic includes one more sync service: IdioSync. This is a custom service based on a Node.js server, and Amazon S3 storage. The source code for the server is provided to those purchasing a Priority Support Package at ensembles.io.

Getting to Know Ensembles

Before using Ensembles in any file, you should import the framework header, either in your precompiled header file, or in individual source code files.

#import <Ensembles/Ensembles.h>

The most important class in the Ensembles framework is CDEPersistentStoreEnsemble. You create one instance of this class for each NSPersistentStore that you want to sync. This class monitors saves to your SQLite store, and merges in changes from other devices as they arrive.

You typically initialize a CDEPersistentStoreEnsemble around the same point in your code that your Core Data stack is initialized. It is important that the ensemble is initialized before data is saved.

There is one other family of classes that you need to be familiar with. These are classes that conform to the CDECloudFileSystem protocol. Any class conforming to this protocol can serve as the file syncing backend of an ensemble, allowing data to be transferred between devices. You can use one of the existing classes (eg CDEICloudFileSystem), or develop your own.

The initialization of an ensemble is typically only a few lines long.

// Setup Ensemble
cloudFileSystem = [[CDEICloudFileSystem alloc] 
ensemble = [[CDEPersistentStoreEnsemble alloc] initWithEnsembleIdentifier:@"MainStore" 
ensemble.delegate = self;

After the cloud file system is initialized, it is passed to the CDEPersistentStoreEnsemble initializer, together with the URL of a file containing the NSManagedObjectModel, and the path to the NSPersistentStore. An ensemble identifier is used to match stores across devices. It is important that this be the same for each store in the ensemble.

Once a CDEPersistentStoreEnsemble has been initialized, it can be leeched. This step typically only needs to take place once, to setup the ensemble and perform an initial import of data in the local persistent store. Once an ensemble has been leeched, it remains leeched even after a relaunch. The ensemble only gets deleeched if you explicitly request it, or if a serious problem arises in the cloud file system, such as an account switch.

You can query an ensemble for whether it is already leeched using the isLeeched property, and initiate the leeching process with leechPersistentStoreWithCompletion:. (Attempting to leech an ensemble that is already leeched will cause an error.)

if (!ensemble.isLeeched) {
    [ensemble leechPersistentStoreWithCompletion:^(NSError *error) {
        if (error) NSLog(@"Could not leech to ensemble: %@", error);

Because many tasks in Ensembles can involve networking or long operations, most methods are asynchronous and include a block callback which is called on completion of the task with an error parameter. If the error is nil, the task completed successfully. Methods should only be initiated on the main thread, and completion callbacks are sent to the main queue.

With the ensemble leeched, sync operations can be initiated using the mergeWithCompletion: method.

[ensemble mergeWithCompletion:^(NSError *error) {
    if (error) NSLog(@"Error merging: %@", error);

A merge involves retrieving new changes for other devices from the cloud file system, integrating them in a background NSManagedObjectContext, merging with new local changes, and saving the result to the NSPersistentStore.

When a merge occurs, it is important to merge the changes into your main NSManagedObjectContext. You can do this in the persistentStoreEnsemble:didSaveMergeChangesWithNotification: delegate method.

- (void)persistentStoreEnsemble:(CDEPersistentStoreEnsemble *)ensemble didSaveMergeChangesWithNotification:(NSNotification *)notification
    [managedObjectContext performBlock:^{
        [managedObjectContext mergeChangesFromContextDidSaveNotification:notification];

Note that this is invoked on the thread of the background context used for merging the changes. You need to make sure the mergeChangesFromContextDidSaveNotification: method is invoked on the thread corresponding to the main context.

There is one other delegate method that you will probably want to implement, in order to provide global identifiers for managed objects.

- (NSArray *)persistentStoreEnsemble:(CDEPersistentStoreEnsemble *)ensemble 
	globalIdentifiersForManagedObjects:(NSArray *)objects
    return [objects valueForKeyPath:@"uniqueIdentifier"];

This method is also invoked on a background thread. Care should be taken to only access the objects passed on this thread.

It is not compulsory to provide global identifiers, but if you do, the framework will automatically ensure that no objects get duplicated due to multiple imports on different devices. If you don't provide global identifiers, the framework has no way to identify a new object, and will assign it a new unique identifier.

If you do decide to provide global identifiers, it is up to you how you generate them, and where you store them. A common choice is to add an extra attribute to entities in your data model, and set that to a uuid on insertion into the store.

Unit Tests

Unit tests are included for the Ensembles framework on each platform. To run the tests, open the Xcode workspace, choose the Ensembles Mac or Ensembles iOS target in the toolbar at the top, and select the menu item Product > Test.