Advanced iOS Memory Management with Swift: ARC, Strong, Weak and Unowned Explained

Memory management is the core concept in any programming language. Although there are plenty of tutorials that explain the basic principles of Swift automatic reference counting, I have found none that would explain it from the compiler perspective. In this article we’ll learn what’s beyond the basics of iOS memory management, reference counting and object life cycle.

Let’s begin with the fundamentals and gradually make our way to the internals of ARC and Swift Runtime, answering these questions:

  • What is memory?
  • How Swift compiler implements automatic reference counting?
  • How strong, weak and unowned references are implemented?
  • What is the life cycle of Swift objects?
  • What are side tables?

Defining Memory Management

At hardware level, memory is just a long list of bytes. We treat it as if it were organized into three virtual parts:

  • Stack, where all local variables go.
  • Global data, where static variables, constants and type metadata go.
  • Heap, where all dynamically allocated objects go. Basically, everything that has a lifetime is stored here.

We’ll continue saying ‘objects’ and ‘dynamically allocated objects’ interchangeably. These are Swift reference types and some special cases of value types.

Memory management is the process of controlling program’s memory. It is critical to understand how it works, otherwise you are likely to run across random crashes and subtle bugs.

Defining Automatic Reference Counting (ARC)

Memory management is tightly connected with the concept of Ownership. Ownership is the responsibility of some piece of code to eventually cause an object to be destroyed [1].

Automatic reference counting (ARC) is Swift ownership system, which implicitly imposes a set of conventions for managing and transferring ownership.

The name by which an object can be pointed is called a reference. Swift references have two levels of strength: strong and weak. Additionally, weak references have a flavor, called unowned.

The essence of Swift memory management is: Swift preserves an object if it is strongly referenced and deallocates it otherwise. The rest is just an implementation detail.

Understanding Strong, Weak and Unowned

The purpose of a strong reference is to keep an object alive. Strong referencing might result in several non-trivial problems [2]:

  • Retain cycles. Considering that Swift language is not cycle-collecting, a reference R to an object which holds a strong reference to the object R (possibly indirectly), results in a reference cycle. We must write lots of boilerplate code to explicitly break the cycle.
  • It is not always possible to make strong references valid immediately on object construction, e.g. with delegates.

Weak references address the problem of back references. An object can be destroyed if there are weak references pointing to it. A weak reference returns nil, when an object it points to is no longer alive. This is called zeroing.

Unowned references are different flavor of weak, designed for tight validity invariants. Unowned references are non-zeroing. When trying to read a non-existent object by an unowned reference, a program will crash with assertion error. They are useful to track down and fix consistency bugs.

Our further discussion of Swift memory management is bound to be at a lower level of abstraction. We will dive into how ARC is implemented on the compiler level and which steps every Swift object undergoes before being destroyed.

Defining Swift Runtime

The mechanism of ARC is implemented in a library called Swift Runtime. It implements such core features as the runtime type system, including dynamic casting, generics, and protocol conformance registration [3].

Swift Runtime represents every dynamically allocated object with HeapObject struct. It contains all the pieces of data which make up an object in Swift: reference counts and type metadata.

Internally every Swift object has three reference counts: one for each kind of reference. At the SIL generation phase, swiftc compiler inserts calls to the methods swift_retain() and swift_release(), wherever it’s appropriate. This is done by intercepting initialization and destruction of HeapObjects.

Compilation is one of the steps of Xcode Build System.

If you are an old school Objective-C programmer and wonder where is autorelease, then I have some news for you: there is no such thing for pure Swift objects.

Now let’s move on to the weak references. The way they are implemented is closely connected with the concept of side tables.

Introducing Side Tables

Side tables are mechanism for implementing Swift weak references.

Typically objects don’t have any weak references, hence it is wasteful to reserve space for weak reference count in every object. This information is stored externally in side tables, so that it can be allocated only when it’s really needed.

Instead of directly pointing to an object, weak reference points to the side table, which in its turn points to the object. This solves two problems: saves memory for weak reference count, until an object really needs it; allows to safely zero out weak reference, since it does not directly point to an object, and no longer a subject to race conditions.

Side table is just a reference count + a pointer to an object. They are declared in Swift Runtime as follows (C++ code) [5]:

class HeapObjectSideTableEntry {
  std::atomic<HeapObject*> object;
  SideTableRefCounts refCounts;
  // Operations to increment and decrement reference counts

Swift Object Life Cycle

Swift objects have their own life cycle, represented by a finite state machine on the figure below. Square brackets indicate a condition that triggers transition from state to state [6].

I am discussing finite state machines in Eliminating Degenerate View Controller States.

iOS Memory Management with Swift: Beyond the basics

In live state an object is alive. Its reference counts are initialized to 1 strong, 1 unowned and 1 weak (side table starts at +1). Strong and unowned reference access work normally. Once there is a weak reference to the object, the side table is created. The weak reference points to the side table instead of the object.

From the live state, the object moves into the deiniting state once strong reference count reaches zero. The deiniting state means that deinit() is in progress. At this point strong ref operations have no effect. Weak reference reads return nil, if there is an associated side table (otherwise there are no weak refs). Unowned reads trigger assertion failure. New unowned references can still be stored. From this state, the object can take two routes:

  • A shortcut in case there no weak, unowned references and the side table. The object transitions to the dead state and is removed from memory immediately.
  • Otherwise, the object moves to deinited state.

In the deinited state deinit() has been completed and the object has outstanding unowned references (at least the initial +1). Strong and weak stores and reads cannot happen at this point. Unowned stores also cannot happen. Unowned reads trigger assertion error. The object can take two routes from here:

  • In case there are no weak references, the object can be deallocated immediately. It transitions into the dead state.
  • Otherwise, there is still a side table to be removed and the object moves into the freed state.

In the freed state the object is fully deallocated, but its side table is still alive. During this phase the weak reference count reaches zero and the side table is destroyed. The object transitions into its final state.

In the dead state there is nothing left from the object, except for the pointer to it. The pointer to the HeapObject is freed from the Heap, leaving no traces of the object in memory.

Reference Count Invariants

During their life cycle, the objects maintain following invariants:

  • When the strong reference count becomes zero, the object is deinited. Unowned reference reads raise assertion errors, weak reference reads become nil.
  • The unowned reference count adds +1 to the strong one, which is decremented after object’s deinit completes.
  • The weak reference count adds +1 to the unowned reference count. It is decremented after the object is freed from memory.


Automatic reference counting is no magic and the better we understand how it works internally, the less our code is prone to memory management errors. Here are the key points to remember:

  • Weak references point to side a table. Unowned and strong references point to an object.
  • Automatic referencing count is implemented on the compiler level. The swiftc compiler inserts calls to release and retain wherever appropriate.
  • Swift objects are not destroyed immediately. Instead, they undergo 5 phases in their life cycle: live -> deiniting -> deinited -> freed -> dead.

If you are like me and enjoy learning how things work under the hood, I have some articles to suggest:

Thanks for reading!

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Vadim Bulavin

Creator of Yet Another Swift Blog. Coding for fun since 2008, for food since 2012.