Exploring MultipeerConnectivity

A few weeks ago, I got curious about the MultipeerConnectivity framework available across Apple’s platforms. It’s a neat framework, and there are community-based libraries that layer over it to make it easier to use for some use cases: MultipeerKit (src) being the one that stood out to me.

The promise of what this framework does is compelling, which is to seamlessly enable peer to peer networking, layering over any local transport available (bluetooth, ethernet if available, a local wifi connection, or a common wifi infrastructure). There’s a lot of “magic” in that capability, layering over underlying technologies and dealing with the advertise and connect mechanisms. Some of it uses Bonjour (aka zeroconf), and I suspect other mechanisms as well.

One of the “quirks” of this technology is that you don’t direct what transport is used, nor do you get information about the transport. You do get a nicely designed cascade of objects, all of which leverage the delegate/protocol structure to do their thing. Unfortunately, the documentation doesn’t make how to use them and what to expect entirely clear.

The structure starts with an advertiser, which is paired with an advertising browser. It wasn’t completely obvious to me at first, but you don’t need both sides of the peer to peer conversation doing advertising in order to make a connection. One side can advertise, the other browse, and you can establish a connection on that basis. It doesn’t need to be set up bi-directionally, although it can.

When I first started in, having glanced through the developer docs, I thought you needed to have both sides actively advertising for this to work. Nope, bad assumption on my part. Both can advertise, and it’s makes for interesting viewing of “who’s out there” – but the heart that enables data transfer is another layer down: MCSession.

You use the browser to “invite” a found peer to a session, and the corresponding advertiser has a delegate you use to accept invites.

The session (MCSession) is the heart of the communications from here. Session has an active side and a reactive side to it’s API – methods like send(_:toPeers:with:) pair to a session delegate responding using the method session(_:didReceive:fromPeer:). Before you get into sending data, however, you need to be connected.

While the browser allows you to invite, and the advertiser to accept, it is the session that gives you detail on what’s happening. Session is designed to do this through delegate method callbacks to session(_:peer:didChange:) which is how you get state changes on for connections changes, and information on to whom you are connected. The session state is a tri-state thing: notConnected, connecting, or connected. In my experience so far, you don’t spend very long in the connecting state, and state updates propagate pretty quickly (within a second or two) when the infrastructure changes. For example, when your iOS device goes to sleep, or you set the device into airplane mode. I haven’t measured exactly how fast, or how consistently, these updates propagate.

Session is a bi-directional communications channel, and once you are connected, either side can send data for the other to receive. Session also has the concept of not just sending Data, but of explicitly transferring (presumably larger) resources that are URL based. I haven’t experimented with this layer, but I’m guessing it’s a bit more optimized for reading a large file and streaming it out. The session delegate has callbacks for when it starts transfering and when it completes.

There’s a third transport mechanism, which uses open ended streams, that I haven’t yet touched. When I started looking, I did find some older github projects that tested using the streams capability – and how many simultaneous streams could be triggered and used effectively – but no published results. Alas those projects were written with swift 3, so while I poked at them out of curiosity, I mostly left them alone.

To explore MultipeerConnectivity, I created a project (available on github) called MPCF-TestBench. The project is open source and available for anyone to compile and use themselves – but no promises on it all working correctly or looking anything close to good. (contributions welcome, but certainly not expected).

Fair warning: when I think of “open source”, it’s the messy sausage-making process, not the completed and pretty, cleaned, ready-to-use-no-work-involved library or application that is the desired end goal. Feel free to dig in to the source, ask questions if you like, improve it and share the changes, or use it to your own explorations – but demand anything and you’ll just get a snicker.

The project is an excuse to do something “heavier” in SwiftUI and see how things work – like how to get updates from more of these delegate heavy structures into the UI, and to see how SwiftUI translates across platforms. In short, it’s an excuse to learn.

All of this started several weeks ago when I poked Guiherme Rambo about MultiPeerKit to see how fast it actually worked. He hadn’t made any explicit measurements, so I thought it might be interesting to do just that. To that end, the MPCF-TestBench has (crudely) cobbled a reflector and a test-runner with multiple targets (iOS, tvOS, and mac). This is also an excuse to see how SwiftUI translates across the platforms, but more on that in another (later) post. If you go to use this, I’d recommend sticking with the iOS targets for now, as it’s where I’m actively doing my development and using it.

MPCF-TestBench work in progress

I have yet to do the work of trying out the transmissions at various sizes, but you can get basic information for yourself with the code as it stands. The screenshot above was transmitted from my iPhone (iPhone X) to a 10″ iPad Pro, leveraging the my local wifi network, to which both were connected. The test sent 100 data packets that were about 1K in size, and a corresponding reflector on the iPad echoed the data back. No delay, just shoving them down a pipe as fast as I could – using the “reliable” transport mode.

I used a simple Codable structure that exports to JSON to dump out the data (although my export mechanism is only half-working to be honest). Still, it’s far enough to get a sample available if you’re curious. Feel free to dig apart the list of JSON objects for your own purposes, I’ll be adding more and making a more thorough result set over time.

I haven’t yet been able to establish a bluetooth only connection – the peering mechanism isn’t making a connection, but it could easily be something stupid I’ve done as well.

So there you have it – my initial answer to “how fast is it”: I’m seeing about 3 Kbytes/sec transferred using a “reliable” transport mode, over wifi, and using more recent iOS devices. The transmissions appear to be reasonably stable as well – not a terrible amount of standard deviation in my simple tests.

Published by heckj

Developer, author, and life-long student. Writes online at https://rhonabwy.com/.

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