Dictionary is one of the key data structures in the Swift standard library. It allows for key-value pairs to be stored efficiently, and exposes a subscript-based API:

var scores = [String: Int]()
scores["slashmo"] = 42
print(scores["slashmo"] ?? "No score for slashmo")

The problem

Unfortunately, not all uses of Dictionary are as straight-forward as this. Sometimes, it’s necessary to store different types of values in the same Dictionary. In a first attempt to solving this we may be tempted to make our Dictionary a [String: Any]:

var storage = [String: Any]()
storage["a"] = 42
storage["b"] = "Hello, World!"
storage["c"] = MyStruct(value: "test")

This, however, has the drawback that now every time we want to retrieve a value from storage we have to deal with two Optionals.

if let value = storage["a"] {
  if let intValue = value as? Int {
  } else {
    // How is this even possible?
} else {
  // No value stored
  1. Does a value for the given key exist?
  2. Is the retrieved value of type x?

At a first glance this seems reasonable. We asked for a more dynamic storage to put different kinds of things into, so we have to deal with that dynamism.

The solution (Types to the rescue)

Given our use-case meets the following requirements, there's a much nicer way of going about this problem:

  1. We know each key at compile time
  2. We can clearly define which type of value belongs to a key

With these requirements out of the way, let's start thinking about how we can leverage Swift's type system to build a safer API around this.

Typed Keys

Because we can make the assumption that every key is known upfront, we can define keys using types. In Swift, each defined type can be uniquely identified via its ObjectIdentifier.

let key = ObjectIdentifier(MyType.self)

Associating Key -> Value

Additionaly to using the key type as a unique identifier, we can take advantage of another powerful Swift feature: associatedtype

It's what allows us to associate a type (A) with a type (B) that implements a protocol. Let’s see how this would look like with our storage key:

protocol StorageKey {
  associatedtype Value

enum MyKey: StorageKey {
  typealias Value = String

In this case, I’m using an empty enum for MyKey as we’re only interested in its static type information and don’t want to be able to instantiate a value. This concept is also known as phantom types, meaning, it’s a type that can never have an actual instance (it has no cases!)

Let’s take a closer look at the Dictionary API. Values are set and retrieved through a subscript. This subscript takes an instance of the defined Key and its setter takes an instance of the defined Value type. This, however, does not fit our requirements. To understand why, let’s try and create a Dictionary keyed by our StorageKey protocol:

var storage = [ObjectIdentifier: Any]()
storage[ObjectIdentifier(MyKey.self)] = 0

As you can see, we had to still use the Any type as the Dictionary's value type because it does not allow for associating the key with its value type. That way we still have to deal with the two Optionals and cast manually. Also, we can insert whatever type we want as a value for a given key, no matter what its associatedtype defines. MyKey for example defines String as its Value type, but the compiler is still happy with us storing an Int in the dictionary.

Wrapping things up with a custom Storage type

In order for it to work with our StorageKey protocol, we need to change the subscript signature:

subscript<Key: StorageKey>(_ keyType: Key.Type) -> Key.Value?

By making it generic over a StorageKey we are able to use its static type information as the return type of the subscript.

A subscript will also use this return type as the type of its setter.

As we cannot replace the subscript in a Dictionary, let’s create our own wrapper around it:

struct Storage {
  private var _storage = [ObjectIdentifier: Any]()

  subscript<Key: StorageKey>(_ keyType: Key.Type) -> Key.Value? {
    get {
      guard let value = self._storage[ObjectIdentifier(keyType)] else { return nil }
      return value as! Key.Value
    } set {
      self._storage[ObjectIdentifier(keyType)] = newValue

The result

Let’s take the Storage type for a spin:

enum FirstKey: StorageKey {
  typealias Value = String

enum SecondKey: StorageKey {
  struct Value {
    let id: UUID
    let username: String

var storage = Storage()
storage[FirstKey.self] = "a"
// storage[FirstKey.self] = 42 (Does not compile as we don't use `FirstKey.Value` as the type in the setter)

print(storage[FirstKey.self] ?? "default")
// print(storage[FirstKey.self] ?? 42) (Does not compile as 42 is not a String)

storage[SecondKey.self] = SecondKey.Value(id: UUID(), username: "slashmo")
print(storage[SecondKey.self]?.username ?? "No value stored")


Thanks to @ktosopl for introducing me to this pattern. You can see it in my BaggageContext code and in Vapor's codebase.