Why grokking flatMap is essential to effective Combine

It’s perhaps suicidal to talk about the Combine framework on the eve of WWDC2020, but I’m going to take a stab at it. Combine will no doubt change a lot on Monday, but I don’t expect the aspect I wish to discuss to change drastically.

I have worked a lot with asynchronous code over the years. When developing an app, you can usually get away with a bare minimum of it, perhaps just the code needed to query a web server. The rest, from disk store queries to UI updates, is generally synchronous.

But when you develop sync frameworks like Ensembles and LLVS, asynchronicity is everywhere. There is the obvious networking involved, such as querying CloudKit, but there are also long running consolidation tasks that cannot be executed synchronously on the main thread. Performing a “sync” operation in a framework like Ensembles can take a few seconds, but I even know extreme cases that can take hours. In a system like that, just about everything is asynchronous.

When you are developing in a codebase like that, it is of fundamental importance to begin with a strategy for handling asynchronicity. You can do a lot worse than good ol’ completion handlers, but they cop a bit of flack for the dreaded Pyramid of Doom. Don’t let that put you off: completion handlers are extremely easy to understand, because they offer a clear serial path through the code. And you can combat the ‘pyramid’ by using extra functions, or an asynchronous queueing approach, which is what I usually do.

Combine is Apple’s official approach to asynchronous programming. It is still too new for me to consider using in any of my existing products, but I have been working with it from time to time in smaller side projects, in order to learn the framework, and understand how to think in this new paradigm.

I won’t provide a complete introduction to Combine here. There are plenty of resources out there to get started. (Personally, I took a course with the great Daniel Steinberg to kick off my learning.) The nutshell intro is that Combine is a framework for building asynchronous pipelines. You have a number of tasks that need to be done asynchronously, often in order, and sometimes concurrently. Combine gives you tools to build a dynamic structure in memory that will ensure that these tasks execute in the required order, passing the results of one task on to the next, and also offering a means of propagating and handling errors. I like to think about it as building the same sort of operations and structures you have in standard serial Swift code, but dynamically with types. (I’m sure one day programming languages will evolve to do these same things, but for now it is all in the framework space.)

Standard introductions usually start with a URLSession fetching some data from a web service, which then channels the downloaded data into a map operator that transforms it into some model objects, with the pipeline terminating in a sink that presents the data in the UI. This is a completely logical way to get started, but it doesn’t offer much more than your standard completion handler.

I want to skip over that to a much more advanced aspect of pipeline building that took me a long time to really grok. But until you do grok it, you won’t be able to do much more with Combine than replace some of your completion blocks with slightly more elegant code.

The operator I want to discuss is flatMap. A lot of Swift developers still carry the scars of the early days of the language, and twitch at the sight of it. When we first started using flatMap, on arrays and other containers, it was wrongly named; it wasn’t a true flatMap in the functional sense, and that confused things greatly. It has since been renamed to compactMap, but the confusion reigns on. (If you want to know all about the theory behind flatMap, you can better ask Daniel Steinberg — functional programming is one of his passions.)

If you still carry these scars, and are assuming that flatMap will remove nil values from an array, let that go right now! And also, let go of the notion that it is related to map. Maybe that is true in some theoretical way, but if you start from that position, you will just end up confused. Combine’s map transforms the data values that get passed along the pipeline in the same way the map function transforms the elements in an array one at a time. flatMap is a completely different animal: The way I think about flatMap is that it squashes down the upstream part of the pipeline, replacing it with an entirely new upstream pipeline. In other words, flatMap flattens the pipeline itself — the publishers and operators that came before — into some other publisher.

“OK, …”, I hear you say, “… let’s assume I accept this. So what? Why does that matter?” It matters a whole lot. It is this quality that allows you to build powerful asynchronous Combine pipelines. Without it, you can only build static, unchanging pipelines, which only solve the simplest of problems. What flatMap introduces is the possibility of changing the pipeline on-the-fly. It provides a mechanism for branching. And I want to spend the rest of this post looking at a concrete example to demonstrate.

I first realized the importance of flatMap in Combine when I was working with CloudKit. I was writing code to setup a CKRecordZone. The goal was to come up with a fire-and-forget Combine pipeline to query the cloud to see if the zone already existed, and if not, create the zone. This sort of branching is extremely common in every piece of code we write, but how do you setup a Combine pipeline to handle the same branching?

First, let’s take a look at the zone setup function.

var zone: CKRecordZone?

func setupZone() -> AnyCancellable {
    retrieveZone()
        .retry(3)
        .map { CKRecordZone?.init($0) }
        .replaceError(with: nil) // We are giving up
        .receive(on: RunLoop.main)
        .assign(to: \.zone, on: self)
}

When you see code like this, you are seeing Combine at its best. It is simple to read, and yet there are some pretty powerful asynchronous operations going on behind the scenes.

We will look at retrieveZone in a minute. For now just accept that it returns a publisher which provides a record zone, or gives an error.

func retrieveZone() -> AnyPublisher<CKRecordZone, Swift.Error>

In setupZone, we take the publisher returned by retrieveZone, and add a retry in case an error occurred during the retrieval. It will retry the retrieval three times, before giving up. When it does give up, the replaceError will come into play, setting the result to nil. The retrieve simply makes sure we are on the main thread, and the final assign sets a property to the zone value that resulted (…or nil if an error arose).

You may be wondering about the map. I had to think twice about it myself when I saw it again. It’s there because we are eventually assigning to an optional CKRecordZone property; to make all the types in the pipeline match up, we have to the convert the non-optional CKRecordZone that retrieveZone gives us, into an optional. We can do that with a map. It’s a bit silly, but hey, that’s strict static typing for you (…and that is a whole other discussion).

To use the setupZone function, we simply call it to build the pipeline, and retain the result in a property. (One of the most common mistakes you will make when first using Combine is to forget to retain the pipeline, in which case it gets cancelled immediately.)

var setupZoneSubscription: AnyCancellable?

init() {
    setupZoneSubscription = setupZone()
}

So far, so good, but what about retrieveZone, and weren’t we going to talk about flatMap? The moment of truth has arrived.

retrieveZone begins by wrapping a CloudKit zone fetch in a future.

func retrieveZone() -> AnyPublisher<CKRecordZone, Swift.Error> {
    let fetchZone = Future<CKRecordZone?, Swift.Error> { 
        [unowned self] promise in
        self.cloudKitDatabase.fetch(withRecordZoneID: self.zoneId) { 
            zone, error in
            if let error = error {
                promise(.failure(error))
            } else {
                promise(.success(zone))
            }
        }
    }

If you are wrapping older asynchronous APIs for use in Combine, you will nearly always reach for Future. It is basically the Combine equivalent of a completion handler. The future has a result type, in this case CKRecordZone?, and an error type. The block where the CloudKit fetch takes place is passed a promise; when the asynchronous task is complete, the promise is called, passing in either a .failure result, or a .success result, with the corresponding associated value.

If the fetchZone future indicates there is no zone in CloudKit, we want to create one. For that we need another future, again wrapping around a CloudKit operation.

    let createZone = Future<CKRecordZone, Swift.Error> { 
        [unowned self] promise in
        let newZone = CKRecordZone(zoneID: self.zoneId)
        let operation =
            CKModifyRecordZonesOperation(recordZonesToSave: [newZone], 
                recordZoneIDsToDelete: nil)
        operation.modifyRecordZonesCompletionBlock = { 
            savedZones, _, error in
            if let error = error {
                promise(.failure(error))
            } else {
                promise(.success(savedZones!.first!))
            }
        }
        self.cloudKitDatabase.add(operation)
    }

This future returns a non-optional CKRecordZone. The CKModifyRecordZonesOperation will either succeed, leading to a CKRecordZone, or it will fail, and give an error. (The fetchZone future used an optional, because it was valid for it to return a nil value, indicating the zone was not found.)

Now we are ready to put it all together, and more importantly, see how flatMap allows us to adapt dynamically as the pipeline executes.

    return fetchZone
        .flatMap { existingZone in
            if let existingZone = existingZone {
                return Result<CKRecordZone, Swift.Error>
                           .Publisher(.success(existingZone))
                           .eraseToAnyPublisher()
            } else {
                return createZone.eraseToAnyPublisher()
            }
        }.eraseToAnyPublisher()
}

Our returned pipeline begins with the fetchZone. A flatMap intercepts the result, and we add our branching code. If the zone is non-nil, we just put it straight into a Result publisher with a success value and the associated zone. If, on the other hand, the zone from fetchZone was nil, we return the createZone future we built above. Whichever publisher is returned from flatMap will replace whatever came earlier, in this case, the fetchZone.

Of course, you aren’t restricted to just simple if-else statements in a flatMap. You can do whatever you like in there. But whatever it is that you do, you have to end up returning a publisher with the correct result type and error type. That is really the only restriction: the publisher returned can be anything you like, but every return must have matching types.

Hopefully this has delivered an ah-ha moment for you. If you are very new to Combine, it may be a bridge too far, but keep it in the back of your head, because you will need it at some point. The first time you come across some Combine code where you wish you could branch when the pipeline is halfway though executing, think about this post, and most of all, think about flatMap.

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