Custom Sequence and Extending Array in Swift

Dmytro Anokhin
Sep 17, 2018 · 4 min read

In this article I will describe how to extend Array in Swift by creating a custom sequence. I will also describe how type system in Swift provides requirements and allows to optimize the standard library.

The Idea

Let’s write a method that flattens nested (multidimensional) array. I will call it recursiveFlatten becase it is supposed to concatenate all elements in nested arrays recursively. Element of an array can be a collection or arbitrary object:

[1, [2, 3, [[4], 5]]].recursiveFlatten()
[1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

Array has joined method that concatenates elements of two-dimensional array. For multidimensional array it has to be repeated and it won’t work with a mix of sequences and other types.

[[1], [2, 3]]
joined: [1, 2, 3]
recursiveFlatten: [1, 2, 3]
[[1], [2, [3]]]
joined: [1, 2, [3]]
recursiveFlatten: [1, 2, 3]
[1, 2, [3]]
joined: won't work
recursiveFlatten: [1, 2, 3]

Designing With Swift Type System

Standard library uses Swift type system extensively in its API design. This allows to declare specific requirements and opens opportunities for optimizations.

Let’s first have a look how joined method is declared:

  • The declaration is in an extension of Array that requires its elements for be collections.
  • The return type is FlattenCollection. This is an example of optimization possible in regards to Swift type system. At a glance we expect joined to return an Array object. This will create a copy. FlattenCollection wraps original array and iterates over it. This allows to alter the way iteration works without memory allocation.

To replicate this design the return type of recursiveFlatten is RecursiveFlattenSequence, my custom sequence.

  • The declaration is in an extension of Array without additional requirements for its elements.
  • The return type is RecursiveFlattenSequence, a wrapper for the base collection. This avoids creating unnecessary copy.
  • RecursiveFlattenSequence is a generic type that conforms to Sequence.
  • The return sequence uses Array<Any> in a type parameter, because my array can be heterogeneous, contain elements of different types.

Here’s a closer look on how RecursiveFlattenSequence declared:

Being Lazy

Returning a custom sequence or a collection for this operations makes our code lazy. This approach is used by many standard library methods.

Consider return type of reversed method:

func reversed() -> ReversedCollection<Array<Element>>

ReversedCollection is a custom collection that wraps an array. It doesn’t make a copy, but allows working with reversed array as you would work with the original. ReversedCollection is also immutable like other custom collections.

We can always explicitly create an array using init with sequence:

let reversedCopy = Array(originalArray.reversed())

Iterator and Conforming to Sequence

Iterator is an object used to traverse a sequence. It provides iteration interface for a sequence and encapsulates its iteration state.

The iterator pattern provides ability to hide how sequence is implemented and also create multiple traversals. This is exactly what I am want to use. Here is a basic implementation:

Conforming to Sequence requires Element, Iterator and makeIterator method to instantiate the iterator.

Element is a type alias to the type used in the base collection.

Iterator must implement IteratorProtocol. Fairly simple, it requires a type of an element and next method.

Iterator has reference to its base sequence and stores the current position. This implementation returns the type of the base element. The next method simply returns an element and increments the position. Of course there is a guard statement to check if the position is not out of bounds.

This implementation iterates over a one-dimensional array. Let’s see how we can iterate multidimensional array.

Iterating Multidimensional Array

I have two kinds of objects in the array and here’s how next method must process them:

  • Arbitrary objects: next method returns arbitrary object when encounters it. If no arbitrary objects found next method returns nil.
  • Nested array: next method must recursively look inside nested arrays till it finds an arbitrary object. If next method reaches the end of the nested array without finding an object to return, it must step back to the nesting array if possible.

Now the key word here is recursively and this can be a bit challenging: next method returns when it finds an element. Therefore Iterator must store iteration and recursion states. We can do this in two ways:

  • Store a reference to the iterator of a nested array;
  • Use a stack.

Both solutions are alike and difference is in using reference types or value types, so I name them accordingly.

The Reference Approach

In this solution Iterator stores references to iterators of inner and outer arrays. This way algorithm can traverse nested arrays and step back when needed.

The Stack Approach

In this approach Iterator stores iteration state on a stack every time it encounteres a nested array. I use inner type Node to store a collection with the position in it.

Time Complexity

Both algorithms are lookups for a non-collection element. Time complexity is alike in both cases. The only difference is a starting point.

Reference type algorithm depends on previous runs. It must traverse its list of inner iterators to find the previous one. This is fairly simple to optimize by additional reference to a previous iterator. The is linear O(n) and the worst case is an array deeply nested.

In both cases next method must process every element once, skipping empty arrays and diving into nested ones. Consider having and array of empty arrays with a single element at the very end. The method must traverse every element till it reaches the last one. This makes complexity O(n).

From space complexity both list of references and a stack takes O(n) space in the worst scenario: many nested arrays.


You can find the source code on my github: https://github.com/dmytro-anokhin/recursive-flatten

Thank you for reading. If you like the article, please follow me and share.

And hope to see you next time 😊

Dmytro Anokhin

Written by

iOS Developer, here to share best practices learned through my experience. You can find me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dmytroanokhin

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