Introduction to Core Data: Your First Step to Persistent Data

Editor’s note: After we published the tutorial about saving data in plist file, some readers asked about Core Data and how we can use it to save persistent information. This week, we work with Ziad Tamim, an independent iOS developer, to give you an introduction of Core Data and work with you to build a sample app using Core Data.

This tutorial talks about persistence on iPhone (or other iOS devices). What I mean by persistence is to make data that’s in your apps stay around between application launches. Persistence lets users store persistent data and also retrieve it, so that users don’t have to reenter all their data each time they use their applications. There are multiple ways to store data in iOS devices but most of them aren’t good enough to store a complicated data. They are usually used to save settings or to preload some data such as “Property List” and “Archiving Objects”. So that’s why we’ll go through Core Data to see how you can utilize it to manage data in database.

The focus of the tutorial is to provide a practical introduction of Core Data framework. I expect you’ve already gone through our tutorials about Storyboard and UITableView. I will not give in-depth explanation about how to create view controller in Storyboard but you can always refer to the earlier tutorials to gain better understanding.

Core Data is not a Database

When we talk about persistent data, people probably think of database. If you are familiar with Oracle or MySQL, you know that relational database stores data in the form of table, row and column, and it usually facilitates access through what-so-called SQL query. However, don’t mix up Core Data with database. Though SQLite database is the default persistent store for Core Data on iPhone, Core Data is not a relational database. It is actually a framework that lets developers store (or retrieve) data in database in an object-oriented way. With Core Data, you can easily map the objects in your apps to the table records in the database without even knowing any SQL.

To illustrate the concept, let’s begin and create your first app using Core Data. This app is called My Store. It is a very simple app that stores all devices you have by collecting the name, version, company.

MyStore App using Core Data

MyStore App using Core Data

Creating a Sample App with Core Data

First let’s create a project with Core Data. Open Xcode and create a new Project, choose the template Empty Application as shown below.

Create a New Project with Empty Application Template

Create a New Project with Empty Application Template

At the next screen, enter MyStore as a name of the project, select iPhone in Devices family and don’t forget to select the options Use Storyboards, Use Core Data, Use Automatic Reference Counting. Press next and create.

MyStore Xcode Project Options

Set up Xcode Project Options – Remember to select Use Core Data

Core Data Stack

Before we start working on the project, you first have to understand the Core Data Stack:

Managed Object Model – It describes the schema that you use in the app. If you have a database background, think of this as the database schema. However, the schema is represented by a collection of objects (also known as entities). In Xcode, the Managed Object Model is defined in a file with the extension .xcdatamodeld. You can use the visual editor to define the entities and their attributes, as well as, relationships.

Persistent Store Coordinator – SQLite is the default persistent store in iOS. However, Core Data allows developers to setup multiple stores containing different entities. The Persistent Store Coordinator is the party responsible to manage different persistent object stores and save the objects to the stores. Forget about it you don’t understand what it is. You’ll not interact with Persistent Store Coordinator directly when using Core Data.

Managed Object Context – Think of it as a “scratch pad” containing objects that interacts with data in persistent store. Its job is to manage objects created and returned using Core Data. Among the components in the Core Data Stack, the Managed Object Context is the one you’ll work with for most of the time. In general, whenever you need to fetch and save objects in persistent store, the context is the first component you’ll talk to.

The below illustration can probably give you a better idea about the Core Data Stack:

Core Data Stack

Core Data Stack

Defining Managed Object Model

Let’s move on to build the app. The first step is to open the Data Model named MyStore.xcdatamodeld and define the object model. Here we’ll define a Device entity that will be used to store the device information to database. To create an entity, click the + button in the bottom-left of the editor view and name the entity as Device.

Managed Object Model - Add Entity

Add Device entity in the model

Once you create a new entity, you need to add attributes to it. Click on the + button in the attributes section to do that. Add three attributes including name, version and company. Set the type as String.

MyStore Add Entity

Add 3 Attributes (company, name and version) to the Device entity

Designing the User Interface

Note: While we encourage you to build the user interface, you can also skip the procedures and download the project template from here. The template already comes with the Storyboard and set up all the view controller classes for you. This gives you a good starting point to work on Core Data. If you use the template, you can skip this section and go directly to the “Diving Core Data” section.

The next thing we need to do is to create the Storyboard that defines the views of our app. Navigate to File > New > New File and choose Storyboard in the User Interface template. Click next and select the iPhone device family, click create.

Creating the Storyboard

Creating the Storyboard

Once created, make sure to set the “Storyboard” you’ve just created as the main storyboard in the project setting.

MyStore Set Main Storyboard

Set the Storyboard you just created as the Main Storyboard

Also don’t forget to delete all the generated code in the method -(BOOL)application:application didFinishLaunchingWithOptions:launchOptions inside the AppDelegate file. The method should be as simple as this:

Go to Storyboard and create the user interface like below:

MyStore - Storyboard

MyStore App – Storyboard

First, drag a Table View Controller and embed it in a Navigation Controller. Drag a button to the top-right part of navigation bar and set the identifier as “Add”. This will automatically change the button to a “+” button. Next, select the prototype cell and change its style to “Right Detail”.

MyStore App - Table View Controller

Creating the Table View Controller

Drag a View Controller to the Storyboard and add a Navigation Bar to the top of the screen. Next, drag two buttons into the navigation bar. Name one as “Cancel” and the other one as “Save”. In the content view, add three text fields and name the placeholder attributes as “Name”, “Version” and “Company”.

This detail view will be shown when user taps the “+” button in the table view controller. So finally, press and hold the Control key, click the “+” button and drag towards the detail view controller. Select “Modal” as the Segue action to connect the table view controller and detail view controller.

MyStore App - Detail View Design

Designing the Detail View Controller

Creating View Controller Classes

Create a new class by right-clicking on the MyStore folder > New File > Objective-C class, and name the class as DeviceViewController. Make it as a subclass of UITableViewController. Navigate to the Storyboard, select the Table View Controller and associate it with the DeviceViewController class.

MyStore - Assign DeviceViewController Class

Set the Custom Class as DeviceViewController

Once done, do the same steps to create a new class named DeviceDetailViewControllerUIViewController. Again, go to Storyboard and set the custom class of the detail view controller as the “DeviceDetailViewController”.

Lastly, wire up the UITextFields to the DeviceDetailViewController header file and create two action methods for the save and cancel buttons respectively.

MyStore - Wire up Text Field

Creating IBOutlet and Action Methods

Your code should like this:

Diving into Core Data

With the user interface, it’s time to go into the details of Core Data. Apparently, there are a couple of areas we have to implement:

  1. Save device information in the Detail View Controller
  2. Fetch device information from persistent store (i.e. SQLite database) and populate the data into Table View Controller

We’ll look into the implementation one by one.

Saving Device Information

First, we need to implement the DeviceDetailViewController to let user add the devices to the database. Open up the DeviceDetailViewController.m file and add the following code after @implementation DeviceDetailViewController:

Recalled that we’ve selected the Core Data option when creating the project, Xcode automatically defines a managed object context in AppDelegate. This method allows us to retrieve the managed object context from the AppDelegate. Later we’ll use the context to save the device data.

Next, we’ll implement the “save” and “cancel”, add the necessary code to look like this:

When user taps the “Cancel” button, we expect the app to close the detail view controller. Line 2 of the above code invokes the dismissViewControllerAnimated method to dismiss the current view controller with animation.

For the “save” method, we first grab the managed object context. Every object that Core Data stores is inherited from NSManagedObject. So we first create a new instance of NSManagedObject for the “Device” entity that we’ve defined in the object model. NSEntityDescription class provides a method named “insertNewObjectForEntityForName” for developer to create a managed object. Once you created the managed object (i.e. newDevice), you can set the attributes (name, version, company) using the user input. Lastly, we call up the “save:” method of the context to save the object into database.

You can now hit the Run button to try out your app. Tap the “+” button to bring up the Detail View and save a new device. However, the new device is not yet displayed in the table. Let’s move on to see how you can fetch the device information from database.

Fetching Device Information

Open DeviceViewController.m, add a “devices” property to it so we can save all the devices received.

Again, add the following code after “@implementation DeviceViewController” for grabbing the managed object context:

Next, add a viewDidAppear method:

Like what we’ve done in the Detail View Controller, we first grab the managed object context. To fetch device information from database, the code above creates a new instance of NSFetchRequest and set the entity Device and invokes “executeFetchRequest” method to retrieve all the devices from the database. If you are familiar with relational databases, this instance works like the SELECT clause.

Note: If you’re new to viewDidAppear method, it is a method that will be called automatically every time a view is displayed. It’s unlike the viewDidLoad method that is invoked once when the controller is loaded.

Populating Device Information into Table View

As we would like to display these data into the table view we need to implement the data source of it, to do that add the below code:

If you have used UITableViewController before, the code above is the simple way to display data into the table view. If you check the code you will notice the NSMangedObject is pretty much like NSDictionary. It gathers all the attributes of the entity (i.e. Device) and you can simply use the “valueForKey” method to grab the attribute value.

Note: If you’re new to UITableView, you can check out the earlier tutorials about UITableView.

That’s it. Let’s try to run the app and test it. If everything is okay, your app should like this. Try to add some devices and the device information should be populated automatically in the table view.

MyStore App using Core Data

MyStore App using Core Data

What’s Coming Next

It’s a lengthy tutorial but we try to elaborate the implementation as detail as possible so everyone can follow. As you can see, with Core Data, you don’t have to care about SQL to save and retrieve data from database. Everything is done behind the scene. This tutorial kicks off the first part of Core Data series. Later we’ll talk more about object relationship.

Lastly, let me end the tutorial with an exercise. Try to complete the app by adding the functions that let user update and delete an existing device by selecting a row in the table view.

Hope you enjoy the tutorial and feel to leave us comment.

Update: Check out part 2 of the Core Data tutorial series!

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