iPhone Applications Tune-Up: Design for Performance

9 min read

(For more resources on iPhone, see here.)

The design phase of development is typically where we take into account any element of an application that may have a significant impact on the overall architecture of the final product. Project structuring, required functions, preferred features, hardware specifications, interoperability, and logical limitations are all factors that should be considered within this phase.

Elements not regularly included during the design phase may include visuals, color schemes, intricate feature details, and other interchangeable aspects of the final product. When designing with performance in mind, you must take into account the desired characteristics and levels of performance you are looking to achieve in your application. Knowing precisely where your application’s performance needs are and focusing greater attention in those areas is the basic premise of the performance-tuning concept.

Identifying areas where performance tuning is necessary in many circumstances may be the most difficult part. Obvious areas like memory, database, and network communications may stand out and be somewhat simple to diagnose, however, less common user interface or architectural issues may require profiling and even user feedback for identification. For instance, a database-laden application would be expected to be as optimized as possible for efficient querying, while an application tailored towards video recording and playback may not necessarily require a focus on database efficiency. Similarly a project, which may end up with as little as a few thousand lines of source code may not require a great deal of project structuring and framework planning, while a much larger project will need more time dedicated to these areas.

Overloading your application and testing for weaknesses by pushing it beyond its capabilities can prove to be extremely valuable. As an example, databases and table views can be loaded with overly large datasets to identify missing keys or object misuse. The design phase may help you identify potential bottlenecks giving you an opportunity to alter the layout and design of your project before any development has taken place and it becomes too cumbersome to resolve in the midst of coding. Bottlenecks that are unavoidable can be highlighted as areas in your application, which you may want to spend more time squeezing efficiency from. Bottlenecks, which are identified early, stand a good chance of being resolved much easier than waiting until after an applications project is secured and in motion.

Preparing the project

To take full advantage of Xcode means to understand in depth the philosophy behind the Xcode user interface. Becoming proficient with Xcode will have a great impact on your effectiveness as a developer. Like any tool, knowing its capabilities as well as its limitations allows you to make smarter decisions, quicker.

A car is not designed from the interior to the exterior or from the roof to the tires; it is designed from the core outward. Any good vehicle gets its start from a well engineered, tested, and proven frame. The frame is the single key component to which all other components will be bolted and attached. A poor frame design will lead to various structural issues, which in turn lead to more granular problems as these components get further away from the frame.

An application project is quite similar, without a solid frame to build an application upon; the quality of the final product will surely be affected. Source code, files, and other resources become cluttered, which has the potential to create similarly damaging granular issues later on in the development lifecycle.

Just like one single automotive frame is not the answer for every vehicle on the road, developers are free to organize a project in the way that is most beneficial for the application as well as the workflow and preference of the developer.

Although refactoring has come a long way and making organizational project changes during the development phase can be done, it is highly recommended that project decisions be made early on to limit problems and keep productivity as high as possible. A large portion of project management as far as iOS applications are concerned are handled by and through Xcode, Apple’s standard integrated development environment.

Xcode is an extremely powerful and feature rich integrated development environment with dozens of configuration options that directly affect an individual project. Xcode is not limited to iOS development and is quite capable of creating virtually any type of application including applications for OS X, command-line utilities, libraries, frameworks, plugins, kernel extensions, and more. Xcode is regularly used as a development environment for varying compiled languages as well as nearly all mainstream scripting languages.

For those of you who keep regular tabs on Apple and Xcode, you are more than likely well aware of the release of Xcode 4 and may have actually followed it throughout the beta process as well. Xcode 4 is an entire rewrite of the popular development environment, making needed changes to a tool that was begging for upgrades. Xcode 4 follows the paradigm of single window applications, in which all development and testing is performed within the single Xcode 4 interface. Most notable is the integration of interface builder into the core Xcode 4 interface, which brings all of the functionality of these previously separate tools together, integrating them completely.

Xcode’s abilities far surpass the needs that developing an iOS application requires and it is again very important to understand the development environment in great detail in order to maximize its benefits. One particularly useful project configuration option is the ability to treat compiler warnings as errors. Warnings are the compilers way of telling the developer that something is happening that it may not understand or that it’s just not bad enough to prevent an application from running, but still noteworthy to inform the developer.

Good programming practice suggests, every developer strive to produce warning free code. Warning free code is simply healthy code and the practice of resolving warnings as early as possible is a habit that will ultimately help in producing code that performs well.

Within the Build Settings for a specific target, we can enable the Treat Warnings as Errors option to nudge us in the proper direction for maintaining healthy code. Although this feature can have a slight impact on development and testing time, it comes highly recommended and should be considered for developers interested in high quality and well performing code.

In addition to helping create higher quality code, it’s a forced education that may be priceless for career programmers and weekend code warriors alike. It is shown in the following screenshot:

Project organization

Every feature, function, and activity that is performed within Xcode revolves around the project. Much like any other project concept we have been exposed to, Xcode uses projects to organize files, resources, and properties for the ultimate purpose of creating applications and products.

For most intents and purposes, the default project settings of Xcode will be sufficient enough for the average developer to create a multitude of applications with relatively little issue. However, we are interested not in achieving averages but in tuning, optimizing, and grabbing every bit of performance possible. We’re also interested in streamlining the development process as much as we can. This is precisely why a better than average understanding of the development environment we will be working in is critical.

Obviously, the majority of an application project is going to be made up of its classes, libraries, and other source code specific components. Organization of source code is a core principle for any project that is more than a handful of classes and libraries. Once a project begins to mature into dozens or hundreds of files, the importance of well-organized code becomes more apparent. Inevitably, without some type of organizational form, source code, and general project resources become unruly and difficult to find. We’ve all experienced giant monolithic source code and project structures with resources wildly strewn about without order. Personally, I find this level of chaos revolting and believe order and organization to be a few of the many characteristics of quality.

Project structure

Xcode’s project source code structure is an open canvas, one that doesn’t force a developer to use any particular method for organizing code. Unlike various programming environments, Xcode provides the freedom for a developer to build in virtually any way they like.

While this level of freedom allows a developer to use the project structure that best fits their style and experience, it leaves plenty of room for mess and confusion if not entirely setting them up for failure. The solution to this problem is to have a well organized and thought out plan of action for how a project and its resources will be laid out.

Remember that not a single project structure will work, nor should it work for every proposed project, however, knowing what options are available and the positive and negative effects they might have is quite important. To understand the basic principles of how to organize an Xcode project, we must first understand how a default Xcode project is structured.

Remember that not a single project structure will work, nor should it work for every proposed project, however, knowing what options are available and the positive and negative effects they might have is quite important. To understand the basic principles of how to organize an Xcode project, we must first understand how a default Xcode project is structured.

Following is a screenshot of a new default Xcode project in which the structure in the left-panel appears to be well organized:

Contrast the logical organization of the Xcode interface with the project’s underlying file structure and the grouping principle becomes clearer. Xcode stores the logical reference of the project’s underlying file structure and uses groups to help developers visualize order within the development environment. In other words, what you see within Xcode is not what is actually happening on disk. The structure within Xcode is comprised of references to the disks, files, and directories. This additional layer of abstraction allows developers to group or relocate project’s resources within Xcode for easier management, but not effect the actual disk structure of the project as shown in the following screenshot:

At first glance, the underlying structure looks rather clean and simplistic, but imagine this directory in a few days, weeks, or even months time with dozens of more classes and resources.

Now, one might argue that as long as the logical representation of the project is clear and concise that the underlying file architecture is unimportant. While this might be true for smaller and less complicated application projects, as a project grows in size there are many factors to consider other than how data is represented within a development environment.

Consider the impact that a flat storage architecture might have throughout the life of an Xcode project. The free naming of classes and other resources may be significantly limited as all files are stored within the same base folder.

Additionally, browsing source code within a source code repository like GitHub and Google Code may become difficult and tedious.

Choosing exactly how a project is laid out and how its components will be organized is akin to selecting the right vehicle frame for which our project will be based from.

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