Beginning iCloud in iOS 5 Tutorial Part 1

Update 10/24/12: If you’d like a new version of this tutorial fully updated for iOS 6 and Xcode 4.5, check out iOS 5 by Tutorials Second Edition! Note from Ray: This is the ninth iOS 5 tutorial in the iOS 5 Feast! This tutorial is a free preview chapter from our new book iOS 5 […] By Ray Wenderlich.

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Update 10/24/12: If you’d like a new version of this tutorial fully updated for iOS 6 and Xcode 4.5, check out iOS 5 by Tutorials Second Edition!

Note from Ray: This is the ninth iOS 5 tutorial in the iOS 5 Feast! This tutorial is a free preview chapter from our new book iOS 5 By Tutorials. Enjoy!

This is a post by iOS Tutorial Team member Cesare Rocchi, a UX designer and developer specializing in web and mobile applications.

We all have “stuff” we use on our iPhones and iPads regularly like documents, pictures, videos, emails, calendars, music, and address books. But how many times have you tried to quickly open a document and realized “argh, I have it saved onto another device”?

Well, with the new iCloud feature in iOS 5, that is problem of the past!

iCloud is a service that helps you synchronize your data across devices. It is a set of central servers which store your documents, and make the latest version available to every device/app compatible with iCloud (iPhone, iPod, iPad, Mac, or even PC).

In this tutorial, we’ll investigate iCloud by implementing a set of simple applications which interact with cloud servers to read, write and edit documents. In the process, you’ll learn about the new UIDocument class, querying iCloud for files, autosaving, and much more!

Note to get the most out of this tutorial, you will need two physical iOS devices running iOS 5 for testing, such as an iPhone and an iPad. The simulator does not currently have iCloud support.

Under the Hood

Before we begin, let’s talk about how iCloud works.

In iOS each application has its data stored in a local directory, and each app can only access data in its own directory. This prevents apps from reading or modifying data from other apps (although there are some alternate methods of transferring data between apps built into the OS).

iCloud allows you to upload your local data to central servers on the net, and receive updates from other devices. The replication of content across different devices is achieved by means of a continuous background process (daemon) which detects changes to a resource (document) and uploads them to the central storage.

This works real-time and enables another interesting feature: notifications. For example, whenever there is a conflict about a document, the application can be aware of that and you can implement a resolution policy.

If you ever tried to create something like this with your own apps, you know there are several major challenges implementing this:

  • Conflict resolution. What happens if you modify a document on your iPhone, and modify the same document on your iPad at the same time? You somehow have to reconcile these changes. iCloud allows you to break your documents into chunks to prevent many merge conflicts from being a problem (because if you change chunk A on device 1, and chunk B on device 2, since chunk A and B are different you can just combine them). For cases when it truly is a problem, it allows you as a developer fine-grained control over how to handle the problem (and you can always ask the user what they would like to do).
  • Background management. iOS apps only have limited access to running tasks in the background, but keeping your documents up-to-date is something you want to always be doing. The good news is since iCloud synchronization is running in a background daemon, it’s always active!
  • Network bandwidth costs. Continuously pushing documents between devices can take a lot of network bandwidth. As mentioned above, iCloud helps reduce the costs by breaking each document into chunks. When you first create a document, every chunk is copied to the cloud. When subsequent changes are detected only the chunks affected are uploaded to the cloud, to minimize the usage of bandwidth and processing. A further optimization is based on a peer-to-peer solution. That happens when two devices are connected to the same iCloud account and the same wireless network. In this case data take a shortcut and move directly between devices.

The mechanisms described so far are enabled by a smart management of metadata like file name, size, modification date, version etc. This metadata is pushed to the cloud, and iCloud uses this information to determine what needs to be pulled down to each device.

Note that devices pull data from the cloud when “appropriate”. The meaning of this depends on the OS and platform. For example an iPhone has much less power and “battery dependency” than an iMac plugged into a wall. In this case iOS might decide to notify just the presence of a new file, without downloading it, whereas Mac OS X might start the download immediately after the notification.

The important aspect is that an app is always aware of the existence of a new file, or changes to an already existing file, and through an API the developer is free to implement the synchronization policy. In essence the API allows an app to know the “situation” on iCloud even if the files are not yet local, leaving the developer free to choose whether (and when) to download an updated version.

Configuring iCloud in iOS 5

The first time you install iOS 5, you’ll be asked to configure an iCloud account by providing or creating an Apple ID. Configuration steps will also allow you to set which services you want to synchronize (calendar, contacts, etc.). Those configurations are also available under Settings\iCloud on your device.

Before you proceed any further with this tutorial, make sure that you have iOS 5 installed on two test devices, and that iCloud is working properly on both devices.

One easy way to test this is to add a test entry into your calendar, and verify that it synchronizes properly between your various devices. You can also use to see what’s in your calendar.

Once you’re sure iCloud is working OK on your device, let’s try it out in an app of our own creation!


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