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iOS7 Day-by-Day :: Day 1 :: NSURLSession

Posted on 20 Sep 2013 Written by Sam Davies

This post is part of a daily series of posts introducing the most exciting new parts of iOS7 for developers – #iOS7DayByDay. To see the posts you’ve missed check out the introduction page, but have a read through the rest of this post first!

In the past networking for iOS was performed using NSURLConnection which used the global state to manage cookies and authentication. Therefore it was possible to have 2 different connections competing with each other for shared settings.NSURLSession sets out to solve this problem and a host of others as well.

The project which accompanies this guide includes the three different download scenarios discussed forthwith. This post won’t describe the entire project – just the salient parts associated with the new NSURLSession API.

The code for this blog post is available in the github repo which accompanies this series – atgithub.com/ShinobiControls/iOS7-day-by-day.

Simple download

NSURLSession represents the entire state associated with multiple connections, which was formerly a shared global state. Session objects are created with a factory method which takes a configuration object. There are 3 types of possible sessions:

  1. Default, in-process session
  2. Ephemeral (in-memory), in-process session
  3. Background session

For a simple download we’ll just use a default session:

NSURLSessionConfiguration *sessionConfig = [NSURLSessionConfiguration defaultSessionConfiguration];

Once a configuration object has been created there are properties on it which control the way it behaves. For example, it’s possible to set acceptable levels of TLS security, whether cookies are allowed and timeouts. Two of the more interesting properties areallowsCellularAccess and discretionary. The former specifies whether a device is permitted to run the networking session when only a cellular radio is available. Setting a session as discretionary enables the operating system to schedule the network access to sensible times – i.e. when a WiFi network is available, and when the device has good power. This is primarily of use for background sessions, and as such defaults to true for a background session.

Once we have a session configuration object we can create the session itself:

NSURLSession *inProcessSession;
inProcessSession = [NSURLSession sessionWithConfiguration:sessionConfig delegate:self delegateQueue:nil];

Note here that we’re also setting ourselves as a delegate. Delegate methods are used to notify us of the progress of data transfers and to request information when challenged for authentication. We’ll implement some appropriate methods soon.

Data transfers are encapsulated in tasks – of which there are three types:

  1. Data task (NSURLSessionDataTask)
  2. Upload task (NSURLSessionUploadTask)
  3. Download task (NSURLSessionDownloadTask)

In order to perform a transfer within the session we need to create a task. For a simple file download:

NSString *url = @"http://appropriate/url/here";
NSURLRequest *request = [NSURLRequest requestWithURL:[NSURL URLWithString:url]];

NSURLSessionDownloadTask *cancellableTask = [inProcessSession downloadTaskWithRequest:request];
[cancellableTask resume];

That’s all there is to it – the session will now asynchronously attempt to download the file at the specified URL.

In order to get hold of the requested file download we need to implement a delegate method:

- (void)URLSession:(NSURLSession *)session downloadTask:(NSURLSessionDownloadTask *)downloadTask didFinishDownloadingToURL:(NSURL *)location
    // We've successfully finished the download. Let's save the file
    NSFileManager *fileManager = [NSFileManager defaultManager];

    NSArray *URLs = [fileManager URLsForDirectory:NSDocumentDirectory inDomains:NSUserDomainMask];
    NSURL *documentsDirectory = URLs[0];

    NSURL *destinationPath = [documentsDirectory URLByAppendingPathComponent:[location lastPathComponent]];
    NSError *error;

    // Make sure we overwrite anything that's already there
    [fileManager removeItemAtURL:destinationPath error:NULL];
    BOOL success = [fileManager copyItemAtURL:location toURL:destinationPath error:&error];

    if (success)
        dispatch_async(dispatch_get_main_queue(), ^{
            UIImage *image = [UIImage imageWithContentsOfFile:[destinationPath path]];
            self.imageView.image = image;
            self.imageView.contentMode = UIViewContentModeScaleAspectFill;
            self.imageView.hidden = NO;
        NSLog(@"Couldn't copy the downloaded file");

    if(downloadTask == cancellableTask) {
        cancellableTask = nil;

This method is defined on NSURLSessionDownloadTaskDelegate. We get passed the temporary location of the downloaded file, so in this code we’re saving it off to the documents directory and then (since we have a picture) displaying it to the user.

The above delegate method only gets called if the download task succeeds. The following method is on NSURLSessionDelegateand gets called after every task finishes, irrespective of whether it completes successfully:

- (void)URLSession:(NSURLSession *)session
              task:(NSURLSessionTask *)task
didCompleteWithError:(NSError *)error
    dispatch_async(dispatch_get_main_queue(), ^{
        self.progressIndicator.hidden = YES;

If the error object is nil then the task completed without a problem. Otherwise it’s possible to query it to find out what the problem was. If a partial download has been completed then the error object contains a reference to an NSData object which can be used to resume the transfer at a later stage.

Tracking progress

You’ll have noticed that we hid a progress indicator as part of the task completion method at the end of the last section. Updating the progress of this progress bar couldn’t be easier. There is an additional delegate method which is called zero or more times during in the task’s lifetime:

- (void)URLSession:(NSURLSession *)session
      downloadTask:(NSURLSessionDownloadTask *)downloadTask
    double currentProgress = totalBytesWritten / (double)totalBytesExpectedToWrite;
    dispatch_async(dispatch_get_main_queue(), ^{
        self.progressIndicator.hidden = NO;
        self.progressIndicator.progress = currentProgress;

This is another method which is part of the NSURLSessionDownloadTaskDelegate, and we use it here to estimate the progress and update the progress indicator.

Canceling a download

Once an NSURLConnection had been sent off it was impossible to cancel it. This is different with an easy ability to cancel the anNSURLSessionTask:

- (IBAction)cancelCancellable:(id)sender {
    if(cancellableTask) {
        [cancellableTask cancel];
        cancellableTask = nil;

It’s as easy as that! It’s worth noting that once a task has been canceled the URLSession:task:didCompleteWithError: delegate method will be called to enable you to update the UI appropriately. It’s quite possible that after canceling a task theURLSession:downloadTask:didWriteData:BytesWritten:totalBytesExpectedToWrite: method might be called again, however, the didComplete method will definitely be last.

Resumable download

It’s also possible to resume a download pretty easily. There is an alternative cancel method which provides an NSData object which can be used to create a new task to continue the transfer at a later stage. If the server supports resuming downloads then the data object will include the bytes already downloaded:

- (IBAction)cancelCancellable:(id)sender {
    if(self.resumableTask) {
        [self.resumableTask cancelByProducingResumeData:^(NSData *resumeData) {
            partialDownload = resumeData;
            self.resumableTask = nil;

Here we’ve popped the resume data into an ivar which we can later use to resume the download.

When creating the download task, rather than supplying a request you can provide a resume data object:

if(!self.resumableTask) {       
    if(partialDownload) {
        self.resumableTask = [inProcessSession downloadTaskWithResumeData:partialDownload];
    } else {
        NSString *url = @"http://url/for/image";
        NSURLRequest *request = [NSURLRequest requestWithURL:[NSURL URLWithString:url]];
        self.resumableTask = [inProcessSession downloadTaskWithRequest:request];
[self.resumableTask resume]; }

If we’ve got a partialDownload object then we create the task using that, otherwise we create the task as we did before.

The only other thing to remember here is that we need to set partialDownload = nil; when the process ends.

Background download

The other major feature that NSURLSession introduces is the ability to continue data transfers even when your app isn’t running. In order to do this we configure a session to be a background session:

- (NSURLSession *)backgroundSession
    static NSURLSession *backgroundSession = nil;
    static dispatch_once_t onceToken;
    dispatch_once(&onceToken, ^{
        NSURLSessionConfiguration *config = [NSURLSessionConfiguration backgroundSessionConfiguration:@"com.shinobicontrols.BackgroundDownload.BackgroundSession"];
        backgroundSession = [NSURLSession sessionWithConfiguration:config delegate:self delegateQueue:nil];
    return backgroundSession;

It’s important to note that we can only create one session with a given background token, hence the dispatch once block. The purpose of the token is to allow us to collect the session once our app is restarted. Creating a background session starts up a background transfer daemon which will manage the data transfer for us. This will continue to run even when the app has been suspended or terminated.

Starting a background download task is exactly the same as we did before – all of the ‘background’ functionality is managed by theNSURLSession we have just created:

NSString *url = @"http://url/for/picture";
NSURLRequest *request = [NSURLRequest requestWithURL:[NSURL URLWithString:url]];
self.backgroundTask = [self.backgroundSession downloadTaskWithRequest:request];
[self.backgrounTask resume];

Now, even when you press the home button to leave the app, the download will continue in the background (subject to the configuration options mentioned at the start).

When the download is completed then iOS will restart your app to let it know – and to pass it the payload. To do this it calls the following method on your app delegate:

- (void)application:(UIApplication *)application
handleEventsForBackgroundURLSession:(NSString *)identifier
                  completionHandler:(void (^)())completionHandler
    self.backgroundURLSessionCompletionHandler = completionHandler;

Here we get passed a completion handler, which once we’ve accepted the downloaded data and updated our UI appropriately, we should call. Here we’re saving off the completion handler (remembering that blocks have to be copied), and letting the loading of the view controller manage the data handling. When the view controller is loaded it creates the background session (which sets the delegate) and therefore the same delegate methods we were using before are called.

- (void)URLSession:(NSURLSession *)session
      downloadTask:(NSURLSessionDownloadTask *)downloadTask
      didFinishDownloadingToURL:(NSURL *)location
    // Save the file off as before, and set it as an image view

    if (session == self.backgroundSession) {
        self.backgroundTask = nil;
        // Get hold of the app delegate
        SCAppDelegate *appDelegate = (SCAppDelegate *)[[UIApplication sharedApplication] delegate];
        if(appDelegate.backgroundURLSessionCompletionHandler) {
            // Need to copy the completion handler
            void (^handler)() = appDelegate.backgroundURLSessionCompletionHandler;
            appDelegate.backgroundURLSessionCompletionHandler = nil;

There are a few things to note here:

  • We can’t compare downloadTask to self.backgroundTask. This is because we can’t guarantee that self.backgroundTaskhas been populated since this could be a new launch of the app. Comparing the session is valid though.
  • Here we grab hold of the app delegate. There are other ways of passing the completion handler to the right place.
  • Once we’ve finished saving the file and displaying it we make sure that if we have a completion handler, we remove it, and then invoke it. This tells the operating system that we’ve finished handling the new download.


NSURLSession provides a lot of new invaluable features for dealing with networking in iOS (and OSX 10.9) and replaces the old way of doing things. It’s worth getting to grips with it and using it for all apps that can be targetted at the new operating systems.

Don’t forget that you can get the code for this project on github at github.com/ShinobiControls/iOS7-day-by-day. If you have any feedback/comments then feel free to use the comments box below, or hit me up on twitter – @iwantmyrealname.


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