Structured Concurrency With Group Tasks in Swift

This article is part of my Modern Concurrency in Swift Article Series.

This article was originally written creating examples using Xcode 13 beta 1. The article, code samples, and provided sample project have been updated for Xcode 13 beta 3.

Table of Contents
  1. Modern Concurrency in Swift: Introduction
  2. Understanding async/await in Swift
  3. Converting closure-based code into async/await in Swift
  4. Structured Concurrency in Swift: Using async let
  5. Structured Concurrency With Group Tasks in Swift
  6. Introduction to Unstructured Concurrency in Swift
  7. Unstructured Concurrency With Detached Tasks in Swift
  8. Understanding Actors in the New Concurrency Model in Swift

Understanding Structured Concurrency and async let is a pre-requisite to read this article. If you aren’t familiar with that concept, feel free to read the third part of this article series: Beginning Concurrency in Swift: Structured Concurrency and async-let.

Task Groups are the second form of structured concurrency in Swift. When we explored async let, we noticed one particular restriction: We cannot run a variable number of tasks at the same time, because when we try to do so, say in a loop, we need to await the results. This won’t allow us to, for example, download multiple pictures at once, because we are restricted to waiting on each download.

To perform a variable number of tasks, Swift gives us Task Groups.

Group Tasks

Group Tasks offer more flexibility than async let without giving up the simplicity of structured concurrency.

A Task Group is a form of structured concurrency designed to provide a dynamic amount of concurrency. With it, we can launch multiple tasks, launch them in a group, and have them execute all at the same time.

We have two ways to launch group tasks:

  • By calling withThrowingTaskGroup
  • By calling withTaskGroup

Like we have seen multiple times through this article series, you have a variant for tasks that may throw errors and one for tasks that won’t. Tasks added to a group cannot outlive the scope of the block in which the group is defined. When child tasks are added to a group, they begin executing immediately and in any order, so take care of designing your code in such a way that there’s no dependencies in your child tasks. When the group goes out of scope, the completion of all the tasks within it will be implicitly awaited.

Structured concurrency allow us to create async let tasks within groups, and the other way around too -, to launch group tasks within async let calls. The Task Tree we talked about in the previous article is built upon naturally.

If you try to modify a variable within a task group, like this:

func downloadMultipleImagesWithMetadata(images: Int...) async throws -> [DetailedImage]{
    var imagesMetadata: [DetailedImage] = []
    try await withThrowingTaskGroup(of: Void.self, body: { group in
        for image in images {
            group.async {
                async let image = downloadImageAndMetadata(imageNumber: image)
                imagesMetadata +=  [try await image]
            }
        }
    })
    return imagesMetadata
}

This code is a variant of the one written in Beginning Concurrency in Swift: Structured Concurrency and async-let. This example is based on the Explore structured concurrency in Swift WWDC2021 talk.

The compile will notice that imagesMetadata can potentially be accessed unsafely by multiple tasks at the same time. This would lead to data corruption as multiple variables try to write to it at the same time. Luckily, thanks to the fact the new concurrency APIs are deeply integrated into Swift itself, the compiler can do some checks statically and prevent you from introducing such data races.

If you try to compile that, the compiler will yield the following error:

Mutation of captured var ‘imagesMetadata’ in concurrently-executing code

So, how exactly can Swift perform these checks?

The @Sendable closure type

To introduce data race safety, Swift implements the concept of a @Sendable closure.

Whenever you create a Task, the body is a @Sendable closure, and this closure has the following properties:

  • Cannot capture mutable variables.
  • You should only capture value types, actors, classes, or other objects that implement their own synchronization. We will explore actors in a future article.

With this knowledge in mind, we can fix our Task Group above. When you create a Task Group with either withThrowingTaskGroup or withTaskGroup, the task group takes as a parameter the return type your concurrent tasks will create.

func downloadMultipleImagesWithMetadata(images: Int...) async throws -> [DetailedImage]{
    try await withThrowingTaskGroup(of: DetailedImage.self, body: { group in
        for image in images {
            group.async {
                async let image = downloadImageAndMetadata(imageNumber: image)
                return try await image
            }
        }
    })
}

The implementation of our method is not complete yet, but going step by step, it has received a few important modifications:

  • The of parameter of withThrowingTaskGroup now specifies that it takes DetailedImages.
  • Instead of appending to an array, group.async will now return an awaited DetailedImage on each run of the loop.

Essentially, we are “filling the group” with DetailedImages that we will eventually return - unless an error occurs. If an error occurs, the child tasks will be cancelled, and the tasks will need to be stopped. Recall from Beginning Concurrency in Swift: Structured Concurrency and async-let that you are responsible from keeping cancellation in mind when designing your code, but luckily it’s a one-line call in the case of structured concurrency.

Our group variable is of type ThrowingTaskGroup<DetailedImage, Error>. And surprise, this is a collection! You can iterate over it or apply some functional programming into them such as filter, map, and reduce.

func downloadMultipleImagesWithMetadata(images: Int...) async throws -> [DetailedImage]{
    var imagesMetadata: [DetailedImage] = []
    try await withThrowingTaskGroup(of: DetailedImage.self, body: { group in
        for image in images {
            group.async {
                async let image = downloadImageAndMetadata(imageNumber: image)
                return try await image
            }
        }
        for try await image in group {
            imagesMetadata += [image]
        }
    })
    return imagesMetadata
}

The for try await part may throw you off the loop (no pun intended). But alongside all the new concurrency APIs introduced in Swift 5.5, we have a new AsyncSequence type. This protocol is implemented by types that will receive values over time. In our downloadMultipleImagesWithMetadata function, we use group.async to launch a dynamic amount of DetailedImage downloads. As the downloads end, they will be delivered in our for in loop, one image at a time, making it safe to modify variables within it, and more.

Note that the await in the for loop behaves the same way as any other await call. Execution will suspend when reaching that point, and when a new image is delivered, execution will continue. This is important to keep in mind because if you have anything underneath the for-in loop, it will not be executed until all the elements in the group have been sent through it. If you want to download three images, the three images may download concurrently at the same time, but the for loop will only give you one at a time. If you download a considerable amount of images, they will all have to be downloaded before executing anything underneath for-in. This also means that shall an error be thrown, your for-in will stop executing (or it may not even execute if the first download fails).

We will explore AsyncSequence in depth in a future article.

When we are dealing with Task Groups, we actually have a bit more flexibility. We can for example launch a task asynchronously with a given priority:

group.async(priority: .userInitiated) {
//...
}

Where priority is of type Task.Priority, and you have more flexible control when dealing with cancellation, as it even has a asyncUnlessCancelled method that can optionally take in the priority as well.

group.asyncUnlessCancelled(priority: nil) {
   //...
}

Finally, you can also call cancellAll() in a group. Cancelation will propagate down the tree.

Note that there’s a tiny difference when compared to async let. When the group goes out of scope through a normal exit, cancelation of the tasks is not implicit. They will just be awaited instead. This is to give your other tasks time to finish and to express the Fork-Join Model, which is essentially “divide and conquer” - in our case, downloading multiple images in as many child tasks as possible.

Summary

In this article, you learned the other way to do structured concurrency in Swift by using Task Groups. Task groups allow us to execute dynamic concurrency, such as when needing to download a variable amount of images from a loop. We briefly mentioned AsyncSequence and how it’s used with Task Groups to deliver results over time.

As it is tradition with this series, here’s a small example project you can download. While the UI is the same one as the first few projects, you will have a compilable version of downloadMultipleImagesWithMetadata that you can play with and experiment.

With this article, we have finished exploring the two methods to do structured concurrency in Swift:

  • When you need basic concurrency support, use async let.
  • When you have a dynamic amount of concurrent tasks to perform, use a Task Group.

In the next article, we will begin exploring unstructured concurrency. It sounds intimidating, but Swift makes it possible to work with as easily as with structured concurrency.


If you find any inaccuracies (and that includes typos) or problems in this article please tweet at me (@AndyIbanezK) or send me an e-mail to website[at]andyibanez[dot]com.

Please do not e-mail to ask me to cross-promote your website or any other soliciting of that kind. AndyIbanez.com is a personal blog, and unless there's a chance to enter a sponsorship relationship with you, I may ignore your message.

Thank you for helping me improve the quality of my blog!