Efficient Design with XPC

Description: XPC has been enhanced to make it even easier to design for robustness and efficiency. Learn how to save power by opportunistically scheduling long-running tasks, transferring large amounts of data with minimal overhead, and how to best compartmentalize your app.

What is XPC?

  • It's a library that combines service bootstrapping and IPC (interprocess communication), a.k.a. everything related to having a service up and running and exchanging messages with it
  • Helps refactoring an app into services (with different responsibilities, privileges, etc)
  • These services are deployed within the app bundle

Key Benefits

  • fault isolation: if a service crashes the main app still runs fine
  • different privileges/entitlements: even if your app has access to iCloud or the contacts library etc, this doesn't mean that your app services automatically inherits those. The app decides which privileges to grant to the service, use the principle of least required privilege
  • XPC manages the lifecycle for all these services (no need to spawn/pause/etc)

XPC Kinds

Two kinds, Bundled Services and launchd Services.

Bundled Services

  • Ship within an app bundle
  • Stateless: meant to be stateless, on-demand helpers that come up to do something (a service, some requests)
  • Fully managed lifecycle

launchd Services

  • Run as root
  • independent from any app
  • cannot distribute on the app store

In order to use these launchd services you must have a launchd plist in either Library LaunchDaemons or Library LaunchAgents.


From high level to low level:

Best practices

  • Avoid long-running processes: the system prefers to launch them on on-demand and exit when they're not needed
  • Adapt to resource availability
  • Lazy initialization: don't do work unless the user has done something where you need to initialize your resources

XPC Events

With XPC Events the system acts as the source of demands that trigger your service. This is done via launchd.

A few examples:

Register for XPC events

In order to use XPC events you need to define which events can trigger your service via the launchd.plist, for example:


Consume XPC events

When these events are posted, your app need to consume them, for example:

xpc_set_event_stream_handler(“com.apple.iokit.matching”, q, ^(xpc_object_t event) {
	// Every event has the key XPC_EVENT_KEY_NAME set to a string that
	// is the name you gave the event in your launchd.plist.
	const char *name = xpc_dictionary_get_string(event, XPC_EVENT_KEY_NAME);

	// IOKit events have the IORegistryEntryNumber as a payload.
	uint64_t id = xpc_dictionary_get_uint64(event, “IOMatchLaunchServiceID”);

  // Reconstruct the node you were interested in here using the IOKit
	// APIs. 

This xpc_set_event_stream_handler takes three arguments:

  • the first it the event identifier, to declare that this is the handler for IOKit Events for example
  • the second is a dispatch queue
  • the third is a block

The block gets invoked on that queue: once this block is consumed, the event is considered consumed. Each notification has a payload that allows you to reconstruct who triggered along with other information (depending on the event).

Centralized Task Scheduling

Based on XPC activity APIs, will help you schedule tasks at the right time (e.g. when the system is idle, along with other tasks) to minimize disruption to user experience.

Activity types:

  • Maintenance (launched when the machine is in idle, interrupted when the user begins using the machine)
  • Utility (interrupted when resources become scarce)

Activity Criteria:

  • A/C power
  • Battery level
  • HDD spinning
  • Screen asleep

Example of activity:

xpc_object_t criteria = xpc_dictionary_create(NULL, NULL, 0);
xpc_dictionary_set_int64(criteria, XPC_ACTIVITY_INTERVAL, 5 * 60); 
xpc_dictionary_set_int64(criteria, XPC_ACTIVITY_GRACE_PERIOD, 10 * 60);

// Activity handler runs on background queue. 
xpc_activity_register(“com.mycompany.myapp.myactivity”, criteria, ^(xpc_activity_t activity) {
	id data = createDataFromPeriodicRefresh();
	// Continue the activity asynchronously to update the UI. 
	xpc_activity_set_state(activity, XPC_ACTIVITY_STATE_CONTINUE); 
	dispatch_async(dispatch_get_main_queue(), ^{
		xpc_activity_set_state(activity, XPC_ACTIVITY_STATE_DONE); 

Service Lifecycle

  • Service launches on-demand
  • System stops service as needed
    • App quits
    • Memory pressure
    • Idle/lack of use

Importance Boosting

By default processes are launched in a background queue, however sometimes we need the service to process something immediately (to avoid bad user experience): use importance boosting for such scenarios. Importance boosting makes sure that the service gets all the resources etc.

Use the ProcessType key in the launchd.plist to opt into this behavior, possible values:

valueContention BehaviorUse when
Adaptivecontends with apps when doing work on their behalfapp uses XPC to communicate with launchd job
BackgroundNever contend with appsapp has no dependency on launchd job’s work
InteractiveAlways contend with appsExtreme cases (Apple doesn't want you to use this)
StandardDefault behavior

Debugging Tips

  • use imptrace(1) tool for debugging important boost services
  • If you get a connection-invalid error, this indicates a configuration error:
    • make sure service target is dependency of app target
    • make sure service target is in Copy Files build phase
    • make sure CFBundleIdentifier matches service name
  • When your service "misbehaves" (obvious misuse of certain APIs etc), it can be killed:
    • from clients you will get a crash report
    • during debugging, you can use xpc_debugger_api_misuse_info() in lldb to get a pointer to the human-readable string describing the reason the caller was aborted.

Crash report example:

Exception Codes: 0x0000000000000001, 0x0000000000000000
Application Specific Information:
API MISUSE: Over-release of an object

lldb example:

Exception Codes: 0x0000000000000001, 0x0000000000000000
 Application Specific Information:
API MISUSE: Over-release of an object

Missing anything? Corrections? Contributions are welcome 😃

Written by

Federico Zanetello

Federico Zanetello

iOS Engineer with strong passion for Swift, minimalism, and design. When he’s not busy automating things, he can be found writing at FIVE STARS and/or playing with the latest shiny toys.