Max Desiatov
Max DesiatovI'm Max Desiatov, a software consultant building mobile and backend apps. I curate @ServerSideSwift feed, and co-maintain WebAssembly support for Swift and a framework called Tokamak compatible with SwiftUI.

Introduction to structured concurrency in Swift: continuations, tasks, and cancellation

14 January, 2021

This article is a part of my series about concurrency and asynchronous programming in Swift. The articles are independent, but after reading this one you might want to check out the rest of the series:


IMPORTANT: This article is about an experimental feature, which is not available in a stable version of Swift as of January 2021. APIs and behaviors described in this article may change without notice as new development snapshots become available, but I will try to keep sample code updated as we get closer to general availability of structured concurrency in Swift.


There are many discussions of the imminent introduction of async/await to Swift. The authors of Swift concurrency proposals have done monumental work in preparing all of the related features. And there are many of them. Just have a look at the actual “dependency tree” of the proposals:

The dependency tree of 10 separate concurrency proposals in Swift with async/await as the root


Around the time async/await proposal was accepted, I saw people asking almost the same set of questions: how to convert legacy APIs to async? How an entrypoint to async code would look like? While examples of usage of async/await in UIKit apps were shared around, there were no good examples that utilized the structured concurrency proposal. I wanted to have a look at some minimal isolated code snippets that could help me answer these questions.

Setting up a SwiftPM project

Turns out, it’s relatively easy to set up a CLI project with SwiftPM that uses async/await. Please feel free to clone the final result from GitHub to follow along. The README.md file in the repository also contains important installation steps, as the standard toolchain supplied in the latest stable Xcode currently won’t work. You’ll have to install a development toolchain as described in the document to run this example code on your own machine. In the rest of the article I’m going to review this example project piece by piece.

Compiler flags

Notice how the target needs to be declared in Package.swift:

.target(
    name: "ConcurrencyExample",
    dependencies: [],
    swiftSettings: [
        .unsafeFlags(["-Xfrontend", "-enable-experimental-concurrency"]),
    ]
)

Until Swift concurrency features become stable and enabled by default you have to pass these flags when building. They are declared in the package manifest here so that you don’t have to pass them each time manually when building the project.

Imports

When using structured concurrency to expose legacy callback-based APIs as async functions, you currently have to import the _Concurrency module supplied with the latest Swift dev snapshots. The name of it starts with an underscore to highlight that the module is experimental and its API may change.

Reviewing the code

Continuations

While most of Apple’s APIs will be converted to async/await automatically, your own callback-based code can be converted using a few helper functions, such as withUnsafeContinuation and withUnsafeThrowingContinuation. They take a closure with a single continuation argument, and you’re supposed to call your callback-based code from this closure, capture the continuation, and call resume on it when you’re finished. Here’s how the declarations look for the non-throwing variant for more context:

struct UnsafeContinuation<T> {
  func resume(returning: T)
}

func withUnsafeContinuation<T>(
    operation: (UnsafeContinuation<T>) -> ()
) async -> T

One of the most simple but practical enough example of a non-throwing async call is sleep:

import _Concurrency
import Dispatch

func sleep(seconds: Int) async {
    await withUnsafeContinuation { c in
        DispatchQueue.global()
            .asyncAfter(deadline: .now() + .seconds(seconds)) {
                c.resume(returning: ())
            }
    }
}

And here’s a throwing variant:

struct UnsafeThrowingContinuation<T, E: Error> {
  func resume(returning: T)
  func resume(throwing: E)
}

func withUnsafeThrowingContinuation<T>(
    operation: (UnsafeThrowingContinuation<T, Error>) -> ()
) async throws -> T

Based on that we can convert URLSession.dataTask to a throwing async function:

import Foundation

struct UnknownError: Error {}

func download(_ url: String) async throws -> Data {
    print("fetching \(url)")
    return try await withUnsafeThrowingContinuation { c in
        let task = URLSession.shared.dataTask(with: URL(string: url)!) { data, _, error in
            switch (data, error) {
            case let (_, error?):
                return c.resume(throwing: error)
            case let (data?, _):
                return c.resume(returning: data)
            case (nil, nil):
                c.resume(throwing: UnknownError())
            }
        }
        task.resume()
    }
}

Here the continuation c argument of the closure passed to withUnsafeThrowingContinuation becomes your “callback”. You have to call resume on it exactly once with either a success value or an Error value. Multiple calls to resume on the same continuation are invalid, since async functions can’t throw or return more than once. If you don’t ever call resume on the continuation you’ll get a function that never returns or throws, which is just as wrong as throwing or returning more than once.

The entry point

As you probably noticed, in previous examples we got async functions, but how do you actually call them from non-async code? Currently, the runAsyncAndBlock function is an entry point you would use to interact with an async function from your blocking synchronous code:

runAsyncAndBlock {
    print("task started")
    let data = try! await download("https://httpbin.org/uuid")
    print(String(data: data, encoding: .utf8)!)
}
print("end of main")

Note that in the current toolchain (DEVELOPMENT-SNAPSHOT-2021-01-12-a at the moment of writing) runAsyncAndBlock does not take throwing closures as arguments, thus try! or do/catch blocks are required to call a throwing async function such as download.

The print statements here are added so that you can observe the execution sequence and to make sure that your async code is actually called.

Remember that you should not use runAsyncAndBlock in your GUI code running on the main thread, as it will block the event loop from processing any input from your user. This will result in your app being frozen until the async closure body has finished. In a CLI app that doesn’t expect any input this is fine though. In GUI apps you’d either have to call runAsyncAndBlock on a background thread that can be blocked, or use async handlers or actors to host your async code. Given that proposals for async handlers and actors aren’t available yet, we’re leaving those advanced topics out, and focus on a simple command-line app here.

Launching concurrent tasks with “async let”

Let’s say you need to fetch UUIDs for multiple entities, but you can only get a single one through an asynchronous call. In some naive implementation you would await for async calls repeatedly one by one until you fetch all of the data. This is highly inefficient if these calls are independent and can all run simultaneously without disrupting each other.

You can launch multiple async tasks concurrently with async let declarations. Then if you need to wait for all of them to complete, just use a single await marker on both of the values that were declared with async let:

func childTasks() async throws -> String {
    print("\(#function) started")

    async let uuid1 = download("https://httpbin.org/uuid")
    async let uuid2 = download("https://httpbin.org/uuid")

    return try await """
    ids fetched concurrently:
    uuid1: \(String(data: uuid1, encoding: .utf8)!)
    uuid2: \(String(data: uuid2, encoding: .utf8)!)
    """
}

Here two separate uuid1 and uuid2 tasks are launched concurrently, and they don’t block each other. The try await markers before print mean that print won’t evaluate before both of the tasks have completed. Compare this with the old Dispatch approach, where instead of async let you’d have to set up a DispatchGroup instance, which is much more cumbersome to work with.

Cancellation

Tasks launched with async let are called “child tasks”, and this is important when you think about cancellation. async let forms an implicit task hierarchy which reflects call stacks of async functions. In the code above await childTasks() launches one parent task, which then spawns two more child tasks for download calls. When a parent task is cancelled, its child tasks are cancelled too.

The most critical thing to highlight is that cancellation with Swift’s structured concurrency is cooperative, i.e. tasks need to “cooperate” in an explicit way to get cancelled as early as possible. This is done with checkCancellation() and isCancelled() static functions declared on the Task type from the _Concurrency module:

extension Task {
  /// Returns `true` if the task is cancelled, and should stop executing.
  ///
  /// This function returns instantly and will never suspend.
  static func isCancelled() async -> Bool

  /// The default cancellation thrown when a task is cancelled.
  ///
  /// This error is also thrown automatically by `Task.checkCancellation()`,
  /// if the current task has been cancelled.
  struct CancellationError: Error {
    // no extra information, cancellation is intended to be light-weight
    init() {}
  }

  /// Check if the task is cancelled and throw
  /// a `CancellationError` if it was.
  ///
  /// This function returns instantly and will never suspend.
  static func checkCancellation() async throws
}

Why do you need to call these functions instead of the concurrency runtime just cancelling tasks automatically? The runtime doesn’t know what your task is doing, it may need to save and close a file handle, save the state of an expensive computation, or do whatever cleanup is needed. Cancelling tasks preemptively would lead to much more complexity, while forcing tasks to account for possible cancellation at any arbitrary line of code.

A try await Task.checkCancellation() call executed within a task will throw Task.CancellationError if this task was previously cancelled, meaning that everything that follows it in the same function scope won’t be executed. If you actually have to do any meaningful cleanup, add a defer block or use a non-throwing isCancelled() boolean check to manage this in even more explicit way.

Task handles

How would you actually cancel a task? Remember we mentioned that async let creates an implicit hierarchy of child tasks. There’s a way to manage it explicitly with detached tasks to which you get a handle value as soon as you launch them. Such task has no implicit scope and is not included in any task hierarchy, so you have to manage it yourself. How does the Task.Handle type look like that we’re operating on here?

extension Task {
  struct Handle<Success, Failure: Error>: Equatable, Hashable {
    /// Retrieve the result produced the task, if is the normal return value, or
    /// throws the error that completed the task with a thrown error.
    func get() async throws -> Success
  }
}

extension Task.Handle where Failure == Never {
  /// Retrieve the result produced by a task that is known to never throw.
  func get() async -> Success
}

Importantly, task handles allow you to cancel a corresponding task:

extension Task.Handle {
  /// Cancel the task referenced by this handle.
  func cancel()
  
  /// Determine whether the task was cancelled.
  var isCancelled: Bool { get }
}

And to launch one and get a handle you should use Task.runDetached:

extension Task {
  /// Create a new, detached task that produces a value of type `T`.
  @discardableResult
  static func runDetached<T>(
    priority: Priority = .default,
    operation: @escaping () async -> T
  ) -> Handle<T>

  /// Create a new, detached task that produces a value of type `T`
  /// or throws an error.
  @discardableResult
  static func runDetached<T>(
    priority: Priority = .default,
    operation: @escaping () async throws -> T
  ) -> Handle<T, Error>
}

Note that you can even give a priority to such task, but I consider that a more advanced topic to deserve its own separate article.

Cancellation is cooperative

Let’s see how it works in practice and add a cancellation check to childTasks:

func childTasks() async throws -> String {
    print("\(#function) started")

    async let uuid1 = download("https://httpbin.org/uuid")
    async let uuid2 = download("https://httpbin.org/uuid")
    try await Task.checkCancellation()
    print("\(#function) is not cancelled yet")

    return try await """
    ids fetched concurrently:
    uuid1: \(String(data: uuid1, encoding: .utf8)!)
    uuid2: \(String(data: uuid2, encoding: .utf8)!)
    """
}

The function looks almost the same as previously with just two lines added in the middle: try await Task.checkCancellation() and a print immediately after that. To make things more interesting let’s launch a task that sleeps for one second, then starts childTasks(), and finally prints the result when that’s available:

// run this as a detached task and get a handle for it
let handle = Task.runDetached {
    await sleep(seconds: 1)
    try await print(childTasks())
}

To see the effect of cancellation, in our example the detached task is cancelled immediately after it’s launched, errors from that are caught and printed:

// cancel the task immediately through the handle
handle.cancel()

do {
    try await handle.get()
} catch {
    if error is Task.CancellationError {
        print("task cancelled")
    } else {
        print(error)
    }
}

Let’s build and run the final example with cancellation and observe its output in the terminal:

childTasks() started
fetching https://httpbin.org/uuid
fetching https://httpbin.org/uuid
task cancelled
end of main

Hm, why does it print childTasks() started if we cancelled the task immediately? Remember that tasks that you launch have to explicitly check for cancellation and react appropriately. The sleep function does not check for anything, and the first cancellation check on the execution path happens right after implicit uuid1 and uuid2 tasks are launched. But the result of these two downloads is never printed, because the whole parent task doesn’t finish thanks to the cancellation check in the middle.

Summary

In this example we learned how to set up a SwiftPM CLI project with the new experimental concurrency features enabled. We had a look at the new _Concurrency module and new types introduced in it: continuations and task handles. We learned how to call async functions from non-async code, how to launch new concurrent tasks with async let and detached tasks with Task.runDetached. We also had a look at cooperative cancellation and how to add support for it in your async code.

Concurrency in Swift is a big topic, and there’s a lot more we omitted here that deserves its own separate articles. I hope you liked this one, feel free to shoot a message on Twitter or Mastodon with your feedback!


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