This post assume you have some experience working with URLSession and some brief knowledge on how HTTP works. This post will be focusing on multipart data content type.

TL;DR - Jump to the code

You might have come across scenarios where your app need to send some image data to a server API endpoint (eg: user updates profile picture). A quick search on Google / Stack Overflow will get you many answers recommending you to use Alamofire / AFNetworking, but is it really necessary to install a library just for handling image upload? What is happening under the hood of Alamofire / AFNetworking library?

Some answer from Stack Overflow might contain weird looking string like \r\n--61752208 , what does this mean?

In this post, we will use Apple's own URLSession and its uploadTask to upload the image to server. We will use Catbox's free API to upload the image in this post.

The Catbox API endpoint is located at https://catbox.moe/user/api.php

Table of Contents

  1. How raw HTTP request / response looks like
  2. Raw HTTP request for multipart file upload
  3. Boundary String
  4. Swift code to upload image and other fields

Download the sample project to follow along the post

Get sample Xcode project using URLSession uploadTask to upload image to REST API




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How raw HTTP request / response looks like

Say you have a URLSession POST request like this :

func postRequest(){
    let config = URLSessionConfiguration.default

    let session = URLSession(configuration: config)

    let url = URL(string: "http://httpbin.org/anything")!
    var urlRequest = URLRequest(url: url)
    urlRequest.httpMethod = "POST"

    // your post request data
    let postDict : [String: Any] = ["name": "axel",
                                    "favorite_animal": "fox"]

    guard let postData = try? JSONSerialization.data(withJSONObject: postDict, options: []) else {
        return
    }

    urlRequest.httpBody = postData

    let task = session.dataTask(with: urlRequest) { data, response, error in
      ...
    }

    task.resume()
} 

The code above will generate and send a raw HTTP request (which the backend server will see and receive) like this :

rawRequest

This is the HTTP request that the backend server will receive from the mobile app. To figure out how to write URLSession code which upload file and other parameters to server, we can take the raw HTTP request and reverse engineer it. In the next section we will discuss how to get the raw HTTP request.

Raw HTTP request for multipart file upload

According to Catbox's API documentation, to upload a file to their server, we will need to send the parameters below :

File Uploads

reqtype="fileupload" fileToUpload=(file data here)

Before we start to work on the image upload code, let's take a look at how the HTTP request looks like for the file upload.

The API documentation has a cURL example :

cURL to API

curl -F "reqtype=fileupload" -F "userhash=####" -F "fileToUpload=@Asriel.png" https://catbox.moe/user/api.php

cURL is a command line tool and library for transferring data with URLs — cURL official website

cURL is bundled along the macOS, this post won't go into detail of cURL but it is a command line tool to simplify making HTTP request.

We will use Charles Proxy to sniff the HTTP request. It cost $50 but you can use its free trial version without expiry date (just a minor timer annoyance when you open the app), it will be one of the best 50 dollars you spent in your iOS dev career. You can continue reading without downloading the app as we will explain how it works below.

Charles Proxy will perform a Man-in-the-middle attack on the network request (installing a root certificate and alter the chain of trust). Here is a very simplified diagram on how the attack works :

Proxy

To intercept the request, we will make a cURL request to the API in the Terminal using the command below :

curl --proxy 127.0.0.1:8888 --insecure -F "reqtype=fileupload" -F "userhash=caa3dce4fcb36cfdf9258ad9c" -F "fileToUpload=@Asriel.png" https://catbox.moe/user/api.php

You can change the directory to a folder with image, then replace the "@Asriel.png" to "@[Your image filename]", the @ indicates a local file.

The --proxy flag is used to instruct that the HTTP request generated by cURL to pass through the Charles Proxy so we can intercept it.

The --insecure flag is used to tell cURL to ignore any modification made to the SSL Chain of Trust. As Charles Proxy creates a fake Root Certificate and modify the chain of trust, cURL will know the chain of trust has been modified and stop the request. The --insecure flag is to tell cURL to ignore the modification of chain of trust and let the request pass through.

The -F flag is used to indicate a multipart form post data, this is similar to when you submit a form with file upload in web browser (eg: https://www.w3schools.com/html/tryit.asp?filename=tryhtml_input_file)

After running the command, you will see it outputs the link of the uploaded image (eg: https://files.catbox.moe/uz9di8.png)

Here is the raw HTTP request data captured by Charles Proxy :

raw request data

raw request data


Boundary String

Notice that there is a separator between each of the field (reqtype, userhash and fileToUpload), the separator is the ----------582f7ab074da5615 string. This is called boundary in HTTP terms, this is used to separate different field name and value. The boundary string has to be specified in the HTTP header content-type field.

When browsing some website, you might notice that the URL looks like https://example.com?orderID=2&userID=5 , the & in the URL is used to separate the orderID and userID, boundary works similarly. This Stack Overflow Answer explains what is boundary pretty well.

The boundary string can be set to any custom string as long as it doesn't appear anywhere else in the raw HTTP request data, so that server won't get confused on where to split the data.

As the boundary string used by cURL contains a lot of dashes in front, it might be confusing to explain, I will use another example.

Say your chosen boundary string is FLUFFY_ES, you will need to use --FLUFFY_ES (2 dashes padded in front) to separate different field/value.

And at the end of the HTTP request, you will need to put --FLUFFY_ES-- (2 dashes in front and 2 dashes at the back) to indicate the end of the HTTP request data.

This is according to the specification of HTTP 1.1.

Swift code to upload image and other fields

To produce the raw HTTP request output shown previously, we will need to manually craft the raw data and use it in URLSessionUploadTask. The code is as below :

// the image in UIImage type
guard let image = tmpImage else { return  }

let filename = "avatar.png"

// generate boundary string using a unique per-app string
let boundary = UUID().uuidString

let fieldName = "reqtype"
let fieldValue = "fileupload"

let fieldName2 = "userhash"
let fieldValue2 = "caa3dce4fcb36cfdf9258ad9c"

let config = URLSessionConfiguration.default
let session = URLSession(configuration: config)

// Set the URLRequest to POST and to the specified URL
var urlRequest = URLRequest(url: URL(string: "https://catbox.moe/user/api.php")!)
urlRequest.httpMethod = "POST"

// Set Content-Type Header to multipart/form-data, this is equivalent to submitting form data with file upload in a web browser
// And the boundary is also set here
urlRequest.setValue("multipart/form-data; boundary=\(boundary)", forHTTPHeaderField: "Content-Type")

var data = Data()

// Add the reqtype field and its value to the raw http request data
data.append("\r\n--\(boundary)\r\n".data(using: .utf8)!)
data.append("Content-Disposition: form-data; name=\"\(fieldName)\"\r\n\r\n".data(using: .utf8)!)
data.append("\(fieldValue)".data(using: .utf8)!)

// Add the userhash field and its value to the raw http reqyest data
data.append("\r\n--\(boundary)\r\n".data(using: .utf8)!)
data.append("Content-Disposition: form-data; name=\"\(fieldName2)\"\r\n\r\n".data(using: .utf8)!)
data.append("\(fieldValue2)".data(using: .utf8)!)

// Add the image data to the raw http request data
data.append("\r\n--\(boundary)\r\n".data(using: .utf8)!)
data.append("Content-Disposition: form-data; name=\"fileToUpload\"; filename=\"\(filename)\"\r\n".data(using: .utf8)!)
data.append("Content-Type: image/png\r\n\r\n".data(using: .utf8)!)
data.append(UIImagePNGRepresentation(image)!)

// End the raw http request data, note that there is 2 extra dash ("-") at the end, this is to indicate the end of the data
// According to the HTTP 1.1 specification https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc7230
data.append("\r\n--\(boundary)--\r\n".data(using: .utf8)!)

// Send a POST request to the URL, with the data we created earlier
session.uploadTask(with: urlRequest, from: data, completionHandler: { responseData, response, error in
    
    if(error != nil){
        print("\(error!.localizedDescription)")
    }
    
    guard let responseData = responseData else {
        print("no response data")
        return
    }
    
    if let responseString = String(data: responseData, encoding: .utf8) {
        print("uploaded to: \(responseString)")
    }
}).resume()

The \r\n means new line (like you press the enter key to move to the next line), according to the definition of HTTP 1.1 specification as well (https://stackoverflow.com/questions/27966357/new-line-definition-for-http-1-1-headers).

We convert the string into data form using the "string".data(using: .utf8)! method, this will convert the string into data type using UTF8 encoding.

We then use the function UIImagePNGRepresentation(image) to convert the UIImage into PNG data form.

There you have it! Uploading images in iOS might seem complex at first, but once you understand the concept of boundary and under the hood it is just generating the correct HTTP request for server, it becomes manageable.

Download the sample project to follow along the post

Get sample Xcode project using URLSession uploadTask to upload image to REST API




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