Skip to content
Go to file

Latest commit


Git stats


Failed to load latest commit information.
Latest commit message
Commit time

Ditching CoreData

side-stage talk given at UIKonf 2014
Steven Kabbes @kabb
Engineer @ Mailbox + Dropbox

About me

  • at Mailbox for about 2.5 years
  • Worked on Mailbox infra, mostly the core email sync algorithms until Mailbox launch
    • Mapping IMAP to a sane protocol
    • Layering features on top of IMAP (threading, conversation parsing, delta diff, checkpoint imap sync)
  • then moved to non-UI mobile (libmailbox)

Mailbox 2.0

  • paving the way for more platforms, making longer term bets to be able to quickly build Mac Desktop, Android & other platforms
  • migrate tens of thousands of LOC to C++
    • websockets -> C++
    • NSUserDefaults -> levelDB + json11 + C++
    • CoreData -> SQLite + C++

Rewrite CoreData... seriously?

Its very important to understand why we decided to migrate from CoreData. CoreData is fast enough and CoreData is powerful enough, but we needed android, mac desktop, and we will need windows desktop. The immediate choice in front of us was to either rewrite Mailbox in Java or C++.

Why not?

  • SQLite is written in C
    • API is much more difficult than CoreData (but query API is powerful, SQL)
    • you need to build your own abstractions on top
    • OR find a good (and thin!) sqlite wrapper
  • C++ is complex / difficult
  • NDK build system is hard / confusing
    • it is, but we were lucky enough to find the Google's meta-build system, gyp which can generate xcode projects, android makefiles, unix makefiles, and even visual studio projects from a JSON description
  • the Java Native Interface (JNI) is terrible to work with
    • this is a property of Java, not Android. Google has the ability to fix this specifically for android
    • I believe the community will build tooling to mitigate this

Can such a small team rewrite CoreData?

That is not what we tried to do, we didn't aim to rewrite CoreData (would be fun though). We didn't try to even rewrite just the parts Mailbox uses. We thought back to our initial goal (ship Mailbox on Android) and we only needed one thing persistence and query layer in c++.

SQLite pretty much already meets this description, but we also needed NSManagedObjectContextObjectsDidChangeNotification to maintain the delightful animation and fast processing that has been defining for the Mailbox product. Armed with SQLite we only needed to work on delta changes, our c++ ObjectsChangedNotification


3 major concepts

  • Query: (roughly NSFetchRequest), running query over and over produces different DataViews
  • DataView: a sorted list of stuff. roughly a result set of a SQL query
  • ChangeSet: what was added, what was deleted, what was moved, what was updated

how concepts relate

  1. Query yields DataView₁
  2. (time passes, something changes)
  3. Query yields DataView₂
  4. Diff(DataView₁, DataView₂) yields ChangeSet₁₂
  5. DataView₁ + ChangeSet₁₂ yields DataView₂

Steps 1 and 3 are essentialy just running a SQLite query. Step 5 is already defined by UITableView & NSTableView (beginUpdates, ..., endUpdates). So we need to design an algorithm for 4.

an aside on DB replication

An interesting way to think about this problem is to imagine that UITableView is a replica of your data in SQLite that you want to remain consistent. Also, just like a database system we want to be able to do this as efficiently as possible. Deriving this ChangeSet enables efficient updates (with animation) to UITableView.

diffing 2 DataView's

What is the minimal amount of changes between these 2 DataView's?

diff example 1

  1. Delete Clear
  2. Move

What about this one?

diff example 2

  1. Delete Clear
  2. Delete Mailbox

Think about this, how would you express this to UITableView?

  1. [Delete(1), Delete(1)]
  2. [Delete(1), Delete(2)]

Turns out, NSTableView wants option 1, UITableView wants option 2. NSTableView wants a consistent view of data after each update. We struggled with this problem for a bit, the easy solution was to just write 2 separate sets of code for each, but that defeats the purpose of a shared library :(

However, if you apply the updates in the correct order, you don't need to do index shuffling...

[Delete(2), Delete(1)] works for both!

  1. Deletes in descending order
  2. Inserts in ascending order

accidental nice things

After we built this, and looked back on the solution - we ended up accidentally accomplishing things we didn't mean to.

  • data locality
  • perf improvements (not at first though, we stupidly ported over some optimizations that made CoreData faster, but SQLite slower)
  • ability to trivially move from sqlite (we separated ChangeSet calculation from Query completely)

questions? file an issue!


UIKonf 2014 side-stage talk walking through the process of migrating from CoreData to SQLite



No releases published


No packages published
You can’t perform that action at this time.