iOS Architecture Patterns

Demystifying MVC, MVP, MVVM and VIPER

Bohdan Orlov
Nov 28, 2015 · 14 min read

Don’t miss the iOS Developer Roadmap for 2018!

UPD: Slides which I presented at NSLondon available here.

Feeling weird while doing MVC in iOS? Have doubts about switching to MVVM? Heard about VIPER, but not sure if it worth it?

Keep reading, and you will find answers to questions above, if you don’t — feel free to complain in comments.

You are about to structure your knowledge about architectural patterns in iOS environment. We’ll briefly review some popular ones and compare them in theory and practice going over a few tiny examples. Follow links if you need more details about any particular one.

Mastering design patterns might be addictive, so beware: you might end up asking yourself more questions now than before reading this article, like these:

Who supposed to own networking request: a Model or a Controller?

How do I pass a Model into a View Model of a new View?

Who creates a new VIPER module: Router or Presenter?


Why care about choosing the architecture?

Because if you don’t, one day, debugging a huge class with dozens different things, you’ll find yourself being unable to find and fix any bugs in your class.”. Naturally, it is hard to keep this class in mind as whole entity, thus, you’ll always be missing some important details. If you are already in this situation with your application, it is very likely that:

And this can happen, even despite the fact that you are following Apple’s guidelines and implementing Apple’s MVC pattern, so don’t feel bad. There is something wrong with the Apple’s MVC, but we’ll get back to it later.

Let’s define features of a good architecture:

Why Distribution?

Distribution keeps a fair load on our brain while we trying to figure out how things work. If you think the more you develop the better your brain will adapt to understanding complexity, then you are right. But this ability doesn’t scale linearly and reaches the cap very quickly. So the easiest way to defeat complexity is to divide responsibilities among multiple entities following the single responsibility principle.

Why Testability?

This is usually not a question for those who already felt gratitude to unit tests, which failed after adding new features or due to refactoring some intricacies of the class. This means the tests saved those developers from finding issues in runtime, which might happen when an app is on a user’s device and the fix takes a week to reach the user.

Why Ease of use?

This does not require an answer but it is worth mentioning that the best code is the code that has never been written. Therefore the less code you have, the less bugs you have. This means that desire to write less code should never be explained solely by laziness of a developer, and you should not favour a smarter solution closing your eyes to its maintenance cost.


MV(X) essentials

Nowadays we have many options when it comes to architecture design patterns:

First three of them assume putting the entities of the app into one of 3 categories:

Having entities divided allows us to:

Let’s start with MV(X) patterns and get back to VIPER later.

MVC

How it used to be

Before discussing Apple’s vision of MVC let’s have a look on the traditional one.

Traditional MVC

In this case, the View is stateless. It is simply rendered by the Controller once the Model is changed. Think of the web page completely reloaded once you press on the link to navigate somewhere else. Although it is possible to implement the traditional MVC in iOS application, it doesn’t make much sense due to the architectural problem — all three entities are tightly coupled, each entity knows about the other two. This dramatically reduces reusability of each of them — that is not what you want to have in your application. For this reason, we skip even trying to write a canonical MVC example.

Traditional MVC doesn't seems to be applicable to modern iOS development.

Apple’s MVC

Expectation

Cocoa MVC

The Controller is a mediator between the View and the Model so that they don’t know about each other. The least reusable is the Controller and this is usually fine for us, since we must have a place for all that tricky business logic that doesn’t fit into the Model.

In theory, it looks very straightforward, but you feel that something is wrong, right? You even heard people unabbreviating MVC as the Massive View Controller. Moreover, view controller offloading became an important topic for the iOS developers. Why does this happen if Apple just took the traditional MVC and improved it a bit?

Apple’s MVC

Reality

Realistic Cocoa MVC

Cocoa MVC encourages you to write Massive View Controllers, because they are so involved in View’s life cycle that it’s hard to say they are separate. Although you still have ability to offload some of the business logic and data transformation to the Model, you don’t have much choice when it comes to offloading work to the View, at most of times all the responsibility of the View is to send actions to the Controller. The view controller ends up being a delegate and a data source of everything, and is usually responsible for dispatching and cancelling the network requests and… you name it.

How many times have you seen code like this:

The cell, which is the View configured directly with the Model, so MVC guidelines are violated, but this happens all the time, and usually people don’t feel it is wrong. If you strictly follow the MVC, then you supposed to configure the cell from the controller, and don’t pass the Model into the View, and this will increase the size of your Controller even more.

Cocoa MVC is reasonably unabbreviated as the Massive View Controller.

The problem might not be evident until it comes to the Unit Testing (hopefully, it does in your project). Since your view controller is tightly coupled with the view, it becomes difficult to test because you have to be very creative in mocking views and their life cycle, while writing the view controller’s code in such a way, that your business logic is separated as much as possible from the view layout code.

Let’s have a look on the simple playground example:

UPD: See updated code examples by Wasin Thonkaew

MVC example

MVC assembling can be performed in the presenting view controller

This doesn’t seem very testable, right? We can move generation of greeting into the new GreetingModel class and test it separately, but we can’t test any presentation logic (although there is not much of such logic in the example above) inside the GreetingViewController without calling the UIView related methods directly (viewDidLoad, didTapButton) which might cause loading all views, and this is bad for the unit testing.

In fact, loading and testing UIViews on one simulator (e.g. iPhone 4S) doesn’t guarantee that it would work fine on the other devices (e.g. iPad), so I’d recommend to remove “Host Application” from your Unit Test target configuration and run your tests without your application running on simulator.

The interactions between the View and the Controller aren’t really testable with Unit Tests

With all that said, it might seems that Cocoa MVC is a pretty bad pattern to choose. But let’s assess it in terms of features defined in the beginning of the article:

Cocoa MVC is the pattern of your choice if you are not ready to invest more time in your architecture, and you feel that something with higher maintenance cost is an overkill for your tiny pet project.

Cocoa MVC is the best architectural pattern in terms of the speed of the development.

MVP

Cocoa MVC’s promises delivered

Passive View variant of MVP

Doesn’t it look exactly like the Apple’s MVC? Yes, it does, and it’s name is MVP (Passive View variant). But wait a minute… Does this mean that Apple’s MVC is in fact a MVP? No, its not, because if you recall, there, the View is tightly coupled with the Controller, while the MVP’s mediator, Presenter, has nothing to do with the life cycle of the view controller, and the View can be mocked easily, so there is no layout code in the Presenter at all, but it is responsible for updating the View with data and state.

What if I told you, the UIViewController is the View.

In terms of the MVP, the UIViewController subclasses are in fact the Views and not the Presenters. This distinction provides superb testability, which comes at cost of the development speed, because you have to make manual data and event binding, as you can see from the example:

MVP example

Important note regarding assembly

The MVP is the first pattern that reveals the assembly problem which happens due to having three actually separate layers. Since we don’t want the View to know about the Model, it is not right to perform assembly in presenting view controller (which is the View), thus we have to do it somewhere else. For example, we can make the app-wide Router service which will be responsible for performing assembly and the View-to-View presentation. This issue arises and has to be addressed not only in the MVP but also in all the following patterns.

Let’s look on the features of the MVP:

MVP in iOS means superb testability and a lot of code.

MVP

With Bindings and Hooters

There is the other flavour of the MVP — the Supervising Controller MVP. This variant includes direct binding of the View and the Model while the Presenter (The Supervising Controller) still handles actions from the View and is capable of changing the View.

Supervising Presenter variant of the MVP

But as we have already learned before, vague responsibility separation is bad, as well as tight coupling of the View and the Model. That is similar to how things work in Cocoa desktop development.

Same as with the traditional MVC, I don’t see a point in writing an example for the flawed architecture.

MVVM

The latest and the greatest of the MV(X) kind

The MVVM is the newest of MV(X) kind thus, let’s hope it emerged taking into account problems MV(X) was facing previously.

In theory the Model-View-ViewModel looks very good. The View and the Model are already familiar to us, but also the Mediator, represented as the View Model.

MVVM

It is pretty similar to the MVP:

In addition, it does binding like the Supervising version of the MVP; however, this time not between the View and the Model, but between the View and the View Model.

So what is the View Model in the iOS reality? It is basically UIKit independent representation of your View and its state. The View Model invokes changes in the Model and updates itself with the updated Model, and since we have a binding between the View and the View Model, the first is updated accordingly.

Bindings

I briefly mentioned them in the MVP part, but let’s discuss them a bit here. Bindings come out of box for the OS X development, but we don’t have them in the iOS toolbox. Of course we have the KVO and notifications, but they aren’t as convenient as bindings.

So, provided we don’t want to write them ourselves, we have two options:

In fact, nowadays, if you hear “MVVM” — you think ReactiveCocoa, and vice versa. Although it is possible to build the MVVM with the simple bindings, ReactiveCocoa (or siblings) will allow you to get most of the MVVM.

There is one bitter truth about reactive frameworks: the great power comes with the great responsibility. It’s really easy to mess up things when you go reactive. In other words, if you do something wrong, you might spend a lot of time debugging the app, so just take a look at this call stack.

Reactive Debugging

In our simple example, the FRF framework or even the KVO is an overkill, instead we’ll explicitly ask the View Model to update using showGreeting method and use the simple property for greetingDidChange callback function.

MVVM example

And again back to our feature assessment:

The MVVM is very attractive, since it combines benefits of the aforementioned approaches, and, in addition, it doesn’t require extra code for the View updates due to the bindings on the View side. Nevertheless, testability is still on a good level.


VIPER

LEGO building experience transferred into the iOS app design

VIPER is our last candidate, which is particularly interesting because it doesn’t come from the MV(X) category.

By now, you must agree that the granularity in responsibilities is very good. VIPER makes another iteration on the idea of separating responsibilities, and this time we have five layers.

VIPER

Basically, VIPER module can be a one screen or the whole user story of your application — think of authentication, which can be one screen or several related ones. How small are your “LEGO” blocks supposed to be? — It’s up to you.

If we compare it with the MV(X) kind, we’ll see a few differences of the distribution of responsibilities:

Proper way of doing routing is a challenge for the iOS applications, the MV(X) patterns simply don’t address this issue.

The example doesn’t cover routing or interaction between modules, as those topics are not covered by the MV(X) patterns at all.

Yet again, back to the features:

So what about LEGO?

While using VIPER, you might feel like building The Empire State Building from LEGO blocks, and that is a signal that you have a problem. Maybe, it’s too early to adopt VIPER for your application and you should consider something simpler. Some people ignore this and continue shooting out of cannon into sparrows. I assume they believe that their apps will benefit from VIPER at least in the future, even if now the maintenance cost is unreasonably high. If you believe the same, then I’d recommend you to try Generamba — a tool for generating VIPER skeletons. Although for me personally it feels like using an automated targeting system for cannon instead of simply taking a sling shot.

Conclusion

We went though several architectural patterns, and I hope you have found some answers to what bothered you, but I have no doubt that you realised that there is no silver bullet so choosing architecture pattern is a matter of weighting tradeoffs in your particular situation.

Therefore, it is natural to have a mix of architectures in same app. For example: you’ve started with MVC, then you realised that one particular screen became too hard to maintain efficiently with the MVC and switched to the MVVM, but only for this particular screen. There is no need to refactor other screens for which the MVC actually does work fine, because both of architectures are easily compatible.

Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler — Albert Einstein

Thank you for reading! If you liked this article, please clap so other people can read it too :)

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iOS App Development

Stories and technical tips about building apps for iOS…

Thanks to Nataliya Shevchuk

Bohdan Orlov

Written by

iOS head. ex @IGcom 📈, @MoonpigUK 🐽, @Badoo 💘 and @chappyapp 🖤 Lets' grow together 🌱@bohdan_orlov http://arch.guru

iOS App Development

Stories and technical tips about building apps for iOS, Apple Watch, and iPad/iPhone

Bohdan Orlov

Written by

iOS head. ex @IGcom 📈, @MoonpigUK 🐽, @Badoo 💘 and @chappyapp 🖤 Lets' grow together 🌱@bohdan_orlov http://arch.guru

iOS App Development

Stories and technical tips about building apps for iOS, Apple Watch, and iPad/iPhone

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