Conditional Conformance in the Standard Library

The Swift 4.1 compiler brings the next phase of improvements from the roadmap for generics: conditional conformances.

This post will look at how this much-anticipated feature has been adopted in Swift’s standard library, and how it affects you and your code.

Equatable Containers

The most noticeable benefit of conditional conformance is the ability for types that store other types, like Array or Optional, to conform to the Equatable protocol. This is the protocol that guarantees you can use == between two instances of a type. Let’s look at why conformance to this protocol is so useful.

You have always been able to use == with two arrays of any equatable element:

[1,2,3] == [1,2,3]     // true
[1,2,3] == [4,5]       // false

Or two optionals that wrap an equatable type:

// The failable initializer from a String returns an Int?
Int("1") == Int("1")                        // true
Int("1") == Int("2")                        // false
Int("1") == Int("swift")                    // false, Int("swift") is nil

This was possible via overloads of the == operator, like this one for Array:

extension Array where Element: Equatable {
    public static func ==(lhs: [Element], rhs: [Element]) -> Bool {
        return lhs.elementsEqual(rhs)

But just because they implemented == did not mean Array or Optional conformed to Equatable. Since these types can store non-equatable types, we needed to be able to express that they are equatable only when storing an equatable type.

This meant these == operators had a big limitation: they couldn’t be used two levels deep. If you tried something like this in Swift 4.0:

// convert a [String] to [Int?]
let a = ["1","2","x"].map(Int.init)

a == [1,2,nil]    // expecting 'true'

You’d get a compiler error:

Binary operator ‘==’ cannot be applied to two ‘[Int?]’ operands.

This is because the implementation of == for Array, as shown above, required the array’s elements were equatable, and Optional wasn’t equatable.

With conditional conformance, we can now fix this. It allows us to write that these types conform to Equatable—using the already-defined == operator—if the types they are based on are equatable:

extension Array: Equatable where Element: Equatable {
    // implementation of == for Array

extension Optional: Equatable where Wrapped: Equatable {
    // implementation of == for Optional

Equatable conformance brings other benefits beyond ==. Having equatable elements gives collections other helper functions for tasks like searching:

a.contains(nil)                 // true
[[1,2],[3,4],[]].index(of: [])  // 2

Using conditional conformance, Swift 4.1’s Optional, Array, and Dictionary now conform to Equatable and Hashable whenever their values or elements conform to those protocols.

This approach also works for Codable. If you try and encode an array of non-codable types, you’ll now get a compile-time error instead of the runtime trap you used to get.

Collection Protocols

Conditional conformance also has benefits for building up capabilities for your types incrementally, avoiding code duplication. To explore some of the changes made possible in the Swift standard library via use of conditional conformance, we’ll use an example of adding a new feature to Collection: lazy splitting. We’ll create a new type that serves up slices split from a collection, then see how conditional conformance can be used to add bidirectional capabilities when the base collection is bidirectional.

Eager vs Lazy Splitting

The Sequence protocol in Swift has a split method, which splits a sequence up into an Array of subsequences:

let numbers = "15,x,25,2"
let splits = numbers.split(separator: ",")
// splits == ["15","x","25","2"]
var sum = 0
for i in splits {
    sum += Int(i) ?? 0
// sum == 42

We characterize this split method as being “eager,” because it eagerly splits the sequence up into subsequences and puts them into an array as soon as you call it.

But suppose you wanted just the first few subsequences? Say you had a giant text file, and you wanted to grab just the initial lines of it to display as a preview. You wouldn’t want to process the entire file just to use a handful of lines at the beginning.

This kind of problem also applies to operations like map and filter, which are similarly eager by default in Swift. To avoid it, the standard library has “lazy” sequences and collections. You access them via the lazy property. These lazy sequences and collections have implementations of operations like map that don’t run immediately. Instead, they perform the mapping or filtering on the fly when the elements are accessed. For example:

// a huge collection
let giant = 0..<Int.max
// lazily map it: no work is done yet
let mapped = { $0 * 2 }
// sum the first few elements
let sum = mapped.prefix(10).reduce(0, +)
// sum == 90

When the mapped collection is created, no mapping happens. In fact, you might notice that if you performed the mapping operation on every element of giant it would trap: it would overflow halfway through, when doubling the values no longer fits in an Int. But with a lazy map, the mapping only happens when you access the elements. So in this example, only the first ten values are computed, when the reduce operation sums them up.

A Lazy Splitting Wrapper

The standard library doesn’t have a lazy split operation. Below is a sketch of how one could work. If you’re interested in making a contribution to Swift, this would make for a great first issue and evolution proposal.

First, we create a simple generic wrapper struct that can hold any base collection, and a closure to identify elements on which to split:

struct LazySplitCollection<Base: Collection> {
    let base: Base
    let isSeparator: (Base.Element) -> Bool

(we’ll ignore things like access control to keep the code simple for this post)

Next we conform to the Collection protocol. To be a collection you only need to provide four things: a startIndex and endIndex, a subscript that gives the element for a given index, and an index(after:) method to advance the index by one.

The elements of this collection are the subsequences of the base collection (the substring "one" from "one,two,three"). Subsequences of a collection use the same index type as their parent collection, so we can reuse the index of the base collection as our index too. The index will be the start of the next subsequence in the base, or the end.

extension LazySplitCollection: Collection {
    typealias Element = Base.SubSequence
    typealias Index = Base.Index

    var startIndex: Index { return base.startIndex }
    var endIndex: Index { return base.endIndex }

    subscript(i: Index) -> Element {
        let separator = base[i...].index(where: isSeparator)
        return base[i..<(separator ?? endIndex)]

    func index(after i: Index) -> Index {
        let separator = base[i...].index(where: isSeparator)
        return ?? endIndex

The work to find the next separator, and return the sequence between, is done in the subscript and index(after:) methods. In both, we search the base collection from the given index for the next separator. If there isn’t one, index(where:) returns nil for not found, so we use ?? endIndex to substitute the end index in that case. The only fiddly part is skipping over the separator in the index(after:) implementation, which we do with an optional map.

Extending lazy

Now that we have this wrapper, we want to extend all the lazy collection types to use it in a lazy split method. All lazy collections conform to LazyCollectionProtocol, so that’s what we extend with our method:

extension LazyCollectionProtocol {
    func split(
        whereSeparator matches: @escaping (Element) -> Bool
    ) -> LazySplitCollection<Elements> {
        return LazySplitCollection(base: elements, isSeparator: matches)

It’s also convention with methods like this to provide a version that takes a value instead of a closure when the elements are equatable:

extension LazyCollectionProtocol where Element: Equatable {
    func split(separator: Element) -> LazySplitCollection<Elements> {
        return LazySplitCollection(base: elements) { $0 == separator }

With this, we’ve added our lazy split method to the lazy subsystem:

let one = "one,two,three".lazy.split(separator: ",").first
// one == "one"

We also want to mark our lazy wrapper with the LazyCollectionProtocol, so that any further operations on it are also lazy, as users would expect:

extension LazySplitCollection: LazyCollectionProtocol { }

Conditionally Bidirectional

So now we can efficiently split the first few elements from a delimited collection. What about reading the last few? BidirectionalCollection adds an index(before:) method to move an index backwards from the end. This allows bidirectional collections to support things like the last property.

If the collection we’re splitting is bidirectional, we ought to be able to make our splitting wrapper bidirectional too. In Swift 4.0, the way to do this was pretty clunky. You had to add a whole new type, LazySplitBidirectionalCollection, which required Base: BidirectionalCollection and implemented BidirectionalCollection. Then, you overloaded the split method to return it where Base: BidirectionalCollection.

Now, with conditional conformance, we have a much simpler solution: just make LazySplitCollection conform to BidirectionalCollection when its base does.

extension LazySplitCollection: BidirectionalCollection
where Base: BidirectionalCollection {
    func index(before i: Index) -> Index {
        let reversed = base[..<base.index(before: i)].reversed()
        let separator = reversed.index(where: isSeparator)
        return separator?.base ?? startIndex

Here, we’ve used reversed(), another lazy wrapper that reverses the order of any bidirectional collection. This allows us to search backwards for the next separator, then use the reversed collection index’s .base property to get back to the index in the underlying collection.

With this one new method, we’ve given our lazy collection access to functionality of any bidirectional collection, like the .last property, or reversed() method:

let backwards = "one,two,three"
                .lazy.split(separator: ",")
                .reversed().joined(separator: ",")
// backwards == "three,two,one"

This kind of incremental conditional conformance really shines when you have to combine multiple different independent conformances. Suppose we wanted to make our lazy splitter conform to MutableCollection whenever the base was mutable. These two conformances are independent—mutable collections don’t have to be bidirectional and vice versa—so we would need to create a specialized type for every possible combination of the two.

But with conditional conformance, you would just add a second conditional conformance.

This feature is exactly what the standard library’s Slice type needed. This type provides default slicing capabilities to any collection type. You can see it in use if you try slicing our lazy splitter:

// dropFirst() creates a slice without the first element of a collection
let slice = "a,b,c".lazy.split(separator: ",").dropFirst()
print(type(of: slice))
// prints: Slice<LazySplitCollection<String>>

In Swift 4, there needed to be a dozen different implementations, up to the worst-case MutableRangeReplaceableRandomAccessSlice. Now, with conditional conformance, it can be just one Slice type with 4 different conditional conformances. This change alone resulted in a 5% reduction in the binary size of the standard library.

Further experiments

If you’re familiar with the eager split you’ll notice that our implementation is missing some features, like coalescing empty subsequences. There are also performance optimizations you could make, like giving the wrapper a custom index of its own that caches the location of the next separator.

If you want to try writing your own lazy wrapper from scratch from you could also consider a “chunking” wrapper that served up slices of length n at a time. That case is interesting because you could make it a BidirectionalCollection if the base were random access, but not if the base is bidirectional, because you need to be able to calculate the length of the last element in constant time.

Conditional conformance is available today on the Swift 4.1 development toolchain, so you can download the latest snapshot and try it out!