Understanding the Basics of Concurrency in iOS

Explore the fundamentals of iOS concurrency, covering threads, main thread importance, and challenges like race conditions and deadlocks.

12/21/20233 min read

Introduction to Concurrency

In the realm of iOS development, concurrency is the ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time, making efficient use of the CPU and improving the responsiveness of applications. With the increasing complexity of modern apps and the need for performing tasks like data fetching, image processing, and database management, concurrency becomes a vital concept.

Concurrency allows for tasks to be executed in parallel, either actually (on multi-core processors) or seemingly (through rapid task switching), enhancing the app's performance and responsiveness.

Threads vs. Processes in iOS

To understand concurrency, it's essential to differentiate between threads and processes:

- Processes: A process is an instance of a running app. Each process provides the resources needed to execute a program. In iOS, each app runs in its own isolated process, ensuring that apps do not interfere with each other, enhancing security and stability.

- Threads: A thread is a path of execution within a process. Each process starts with a single thread, known as the main thread. iOS allows processes to spawn additional threads. Threads within the same process share resources and memory space, making communication between them more efficient than between different processes.

The Main Thread and UI Updates

In iOS apps, the main thread is particularly significant because it is responsible for handling all UI updates. This includes drawing views, responding to user interactions, and updating the display. If the main thread is blocked or overloaded with lengthy tasks, the app’s UI becomes unresponsive. This leads to a poor user experience, as users expect smooth interactions and immediate feedback.

The golden rule in iOS development is never to block the main thread. Long-running tasks, such as network requests, file reading/writing, or heavy computations, should be offloaded to background threads.

Challenges of Concurrency in iOS

Concurrency, while powerful, comes with its set of challenges. Understanding these challenges is crucial for any iOS developer. Let's dive into each of them with examples.

1. Race Conditions

- Definition: A race condition occurs when the outcome of a process is unexpectedly affected by the timing or sequence of other uncontrollable events. In iOS, this typically happens when multiple threads access and modify the same resource without proper synchronization.

- Example: Imagine an iOS app that keeps track of a high score in a game. If two threads try to update the high score at the same time, you might end up with an incorrect score. For instance, if the high score is 100 and two threads try to update it to 110 and 120 simultaneously, one update might overwrite the other, leading to an incorrect final score.

2. Deadlocks

- Definition: A deadlock occurs when two or more threads are each waiting for the other to release a resource, creating a cycle of dependencies that prevents further progress.

- Example: Consider an app that has two resources, A and B. Thread 1 locks resource A and, in order to proceed, needs to lock resource B. Meanwhile, Thread 2 locks resource B and needs resource A to proceed. Neither thread can continue because each is holding a resource the other needs, leading to a deadlock.

3. Resource Contention

- Definition: This happens when multiple threads are trying to use the same limited resource, like CPU or memory, leading to performance bottlenecks.

- Example: If an app launches multiple threads for image processing tasks, all of them might compete for CPU time. This contention can slow down the processing speed, as the CPU can only handle a certain number of tasks simultaneously. Users might experience this as a slowdown in app performance or a delay in processing the images.

4. Priority Inversion

- Definition: Priority inversion happens when a lower-priority task holds a resource needed by a higher-priority task.

- Example: In an iOS app, assume a low-priority background thread is performing a lengthy data write operation. A high-priority thread, perhaps responsible for updating the UI, needs to read data but is blocked because the low-priority thread holds the lock on the data resource. The UI becomes unresponsive or sluggish, despite the high priority of the UI thread, because it's waiting on a lower-priority operation to complete.

Managing Concurrency Challenges

To handle these challenges, iOS developers employ various techniques:

- Mutexes and Locks: For managing access to shared resources and preventing race conditions.

- Dispatch Queues: Using Grand Central Dispatch (GCD) to manage concurrent tasks in an orderly manner.

- NSOperationQueues: Providing a high-level abstraction for concurrent operations, allowing dependency management and avoiding deadlocks.

- Priority Queues: To handle priority inversion by ensuring higher priority tasks are completed first.


Concurrency in iOS offers powerful capabilities but requires careful handling to avoid common pitfalls like race conditions, deadlocks, resource contention, and priority inversion. By understanding these challenges and applying best practices, developers can create efficient, responsive, and stable iOS applications. In our next articles, we'll explore specific concurrency tools provided by iOS and how to use them effectively to overcome these challenges.

Next, we'll explore solving iOS concurrency challenges with tools like GCD and NSOperation, focusing on efficiency and best practices.