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iOS Quick Tip: Managing Configurations With Ease


Have you ever felt the need to be able to quickly and easily switch between configurations without messing with compiler flags or manually modifying variables in your project? In this quick tip, I'd like to show you a clever solution to this problem by leveraging Xcode schemes and custom project configurations.

The Problem

For some iOS projects, you need the ability to quickly switch between different configurations or environments. A common scenario is when an iOS application communicates with an API or a web service. During development, you need to work in a development or staging environment. Before releasing an update, however, you most likely want to test your application in a staging or production environment. Switching between configurations or environments can be cumbersome especially if you need make this switch frequently.

The Solution

The easiest approach is to manually modify the configuration each time you switch environments. This means modifying a compiler flag or manually modifying values in your project. This approach is error prone, tedious, and far from ideal. A better solution is to create a custom configuration for each environment. This involves creating a configuration file that centralizes environment variables and custom Xcode schemes. Let me show you how this works by creating a sample project.

1. Project Setup

Create a new project in Xcode by selecting the Empty Application template from the list of templates (figure 1). Name your application Configurable, enter a company identifier, set iPhone for the device family, and check Use Automatic Reference Counting. The rest of the checkboxes can be left unchecked for this project (figure 2). Tell Xcode where you want to save the project and click Create.

iOS Quick Tip: Managing Configurations With Ease - Choosing a Project Template
Figure 1: Choosing a Project Template
iOS Quick Tip: Managing Configurations With Ease - Configuring the Project
Figure 2: Configuring the Project

2. Edit Info.plist

Step 1: Add Custom Configurations

The key idea of this approach is to know what the current configuration is. What is a configuration and where are they defined? You can see a list of all the project's configurations by selecting your project in the Project Navigator and opening the Info tab at the top. Make sure that you have selected your project in the left sidebar and not a target from the list of targets (figure 3).

iOS Quick Tip: Managing Configurations With Ease - Project Configurations
Figure 3: Project Configurations

In this tutorial, we're going to assume that we have a development, a staging, and a production environment that we need to work with. Start by creating a new configuration for each environment by clicking the plus button below the list of configurations. Select the Duplicate "Debug" Configuration option for each new configuration (figure 4) and give the configuration an appropriate name (figure 5).

iOS Quick Tip: Managing Configurations With Ease - Duplicate Debug Configuration
Figure 4: Duplicate Debug Configuration
iOS Quick Tip: Managing Configurations With Ease - Three Custom Configurations
Figure 5: Three Custom Configurations

Step 2: Edit Info.plist

When the application is running, we need to be able to find out what the current configuration is. We can do this by adding a new entry to the target's Info.plist file. Select the target's Info.plist file and create a new key-value pair. Set the key to Configuration and the value to ${CONFIGURATION} (figure 6). The CONFIGURATION identifier identifies the build configuration (e.g., Development or Staging) that the target uses to generate the product.

iOS Quick Tip: Managing Configurations With Ease - Adding a New Entry to Info.plist
Figure 6: Adding a New Entry to Info.plist

Step 3: Fetch Current Configuration

With these changes made, we can now fetch the current configuration in our application. To try this out, open MTAppDelegate.m and update application:didFinishLaunchingWithOptions: as shown below. To access the information in Info.plist, we ask the main application bundle for its infoDictionary. From the info dictionary, we grab the value of the Configuration key that we added and log it to the Xcode console. Build and run your application to see what is logged to the Xcode console.

Despite the fact that we created three custom configurations, the current configuration is still set to Debug. Let's remedy that in the next section.

2. Custom Xcode Schemes

When building an application, an Xcode scheme is used. An Xcode scheme defines a number of variables to use when building the product. One of those variables is the configuration that should be used.

The current Xcode scheme is displayed in the top left of Xcode's toolbar. To easily switch between the configurations (Development, Staging, etc.) that we created earlier, I recommend creating an Xcode scheme for each configuration. Click the current scheme, select New Scheme from the menu that appears, and name the new scheme Development. With the new scheme selected, click the scheme and select Edit Scheme from the menu. Select Run Configurable from the left pane, open the Info tab at the top, and set the Build Configuration to Development (figure 7). Create an Xcode scheme for the Staging and Production configurations by repeating the above steps.

iOS Quick Tip: Managing Configurations With Ease - Creating a Custom Xcode Scheme
Figure 7: Creating a Custom Xcode Scheme

3. Create a Configuration File

To make managing configuration settings easy, we will create a custom property list that groups the various configuration settings. Create a new property list and name it Configurations.plist (figure 8). The property list is a dictionary with an entry for each configuration. Each entry in the property list holds another dictionary with information specific for that configuration (figure 9).

iOS Quick Tip: Managing Configurations With Ease - Creating a Property List for the Configuration Settings
Figure 8: Create a New Property List
iOS Quick Tip: Managing Configurations With Ease - Configuration Property List
Figure 9: Configuration Property List

As you can see, you can add whatever variables to Configurations.plist that you like. You only need to make sure that each entry in the property list contains the same variables (keys).

4. Configuration Class

You now have all the necessary elements to quickly switch between configurations. However, our work isn't done yet. The current implementation isn't very user (or developer) friendly. When adopting this approach, I always create a configuration class that gives me easy access to the variables defined in Configurations.plist. The configuration class fetches the current configuration, loads Configurations.plist, and provides easy access to the variables. Take a look at the MTConfiguration class below to see what I mean.

The MTConfiguration class provides easy access to the variables stored in Configurations.plist. Switching between configurations is now as easy as selecting the correct Xcode scheme. Even though it may look like quite a bit of work up front, I can assure you that it will save you a tremendous amount of time - and frustration - down the road.

To test our solution, import the header file of the MTConfiguration class in MTAppDelegate.m and update the application:didFinishLaunchingWithOptions: method as shown below.


Custom configurations and Xcode schemes can really help organize a project and streamline your development workflow. I hope I've been able to convince you of the value of this solution especially for complex projects with multiple environments.

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