Cocoa Keyed Archives

Much of this discussion is based on reverse-engineering of file formats and frameworks, but we haven't bothered to pepper it with qualifiers. Since our reverse-engineering skills are not beyond reproach, and macOS is always changing, a grain of salt is advised. If you have corrections to any details, please do get in touch.

What Is A Cocoa Keyed Archive?

A Cocoa Keyed Archive is the serialized data created by the Foundation NSKeyedArchiver class:

NSKeyedArchiver, a concrete subclass of NSCoder, provides a way to encode objects (and scalar values) into an architecture-independent format suitable for storage in a file. When you archive a set of objects, the archiver writes the class information and instance variables for each object to the archive.

Keyed archives superceded non-keyed archives (a completely different format) way back in Mac OS X 10.2 (Jaguar). Arguably, keyed archives have since been superceded by Swift Codable and related, but that doesn't mean that keyed archives are gone.

A properly decoded keyed archive — generated with NSKeyedUnarchiver — requires the app-specific code that created it (almost always). But you can actually tell quite a bit from class and key names, and by recursively decoding the other chunks of data that it references.

Many macOS apps and services use Cocoa Keyed Archives for persistence. In addition, until Xcode 13, compiled NIB files were also Cocoa Keyed Archives; Xcode still creates this format for deployment targets of macOS 10.12 (Sierra) or before.

A Cocoa Keyed Archive Is A Property List — Mostly

A Cocoa Keyed Archive is a binary serialization of a macOS Property List, and you can certainly inspect it using (some) common property list tools. We'll discuss the semantics of this property list below, but first we need to examine what is “special” about these files.

Although a Cocoa Keyed Archive uses all the standard property list value types — strings, dates, data and so on — it also leverages a special value type, the CFKeyedArchiverUID. This private Core Foundation type is really just an integer — an uint32_t — but is used to reference an object with that unique ID. (We presume that the reason for the special type is to efficiently distinguish between primitive integer values and object reference values.)

Since CFKeyedArchiverUID is a private type, and should only appear in Cocoa Keyed Archives — which usually aren't interpreted as property lists — how or if they appear in property list-capable tools will vary. For example, Xcode's property list editor will simply discard them.

Tools that use the XML serialization of property lists will show the CFKeyedArchiverUIDs, but not quite as they really exist. NSPropertyListSerialization knows about CFKeyedArchiverUIDs, and even preserves them through the binary-to-XML-to-binary cycle, but in a way that doesn't change the XML schema.

So, if you convert a Cocoa Keyed Archive to an XML property list, you might find something like this:


This looks like a really inefficient use of a dictionary to store a single value. But this is actually the special XML representation of a key named $class whose value is a single CFKeyedArchiverUID with a integer value of 78. If you subsequently convert this XML back into a binary property list, NSPropertyListSerialization recognizes this special structure, and re-creates the single CFKeyedArchiverUID.

In Archaeology, if you decode a Cocoa Keyed Archive as a macOS Property List — e.g. using File > Re-open With Options > Decode as — you'll see the actual CFKeyedArchiverUIDs listed as type “special” with the value returned by CFCopyDescription(). Of course, Archaeology can also show the data more usefully as a Cocoa Keyed Archive (which it does by default).

The Property List Object Graph

The Cocoa Keyed Archive property list represents an object graph using a dictionary with four top-level keys, the most important of which is the $objects array.

A very simplified archive might look something like this:

      ━━━$archiver━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━▶│ NSKeyedArchiver                   │
      ━━━$version━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━▶│ 100000                            │
                               │        ┌─────┐┌───────────────────────────────────┐              │
      ━━━$objects━━━━━━━━━━━━━━│━━━━━━━▶│  0  ││ $null                             │              │
                               │        ├─────┤├───────────────────────────────────┤              │
                               │        │  1  ││ "Stuff"                           │              │
                               │        ├─────┤├───────────────────────────────────┤              │
                               └───────▶│  2  ││ 0xcafedeadbeef                    │              │
                                        ├─────┤├───┬───────────────────────────────┤              │
                                        │     ││   │ $class      : UID[5]          │              │
                                        │     ││ D ├───────────────────────────────┤              │
                                        │  3  ││ I │ someString  : UID[1]          │    CFKeyedArchiverUID[2]
                                        │     ││ C ├───────────────────────────────┤              │
                                        │     ││ T │ someObject  : UID[4]          │              │
                                        │     ││   │                               │              │
                                        ├─────┤├───┼───────────────────────────────┤              │
                                        │     ││   │ $class      : UID[9]          │              │
                                        │     ││ D ├───────────────────────────────┤              │
                                        │  4  ││ I │ someData    : UID[2]          ───────────────┘
                                        │     ││ C ├───────────────────────────────┤
                                        │     ││ T │ someInteger : @(42)           │
                                        │     ││   │                               │
                                        │     ││ D │ $classname  : @"SpecialClass" │
                                        │  5  ││ I ├───────────────────────────────┤    ┌───┬───────────────────────────────┐
                                        │     ││ C │ $classes    : @[ ... ] ───────┼───▶│ A │ @"SpecialClass"               │
                                        │     ││ T │                               │    │ R ├───────────────────────────────┤
                                        └─────┘└───┴───────────────────────────────┘    │ R │ @"GenericClass"               │
                                                              ...                       │ A ├───────────────────────────────┤
                                        ┌─────┐┌───┬───────────────────────────────┐    │ Y │ @"NSObject"                   │
                                        │     ││ D │ $classname  : @"Other"        │    └───┴───────────────────────────────┘
                                        │  9  ││ I ├───────────────────────────────┤
                                        │     ││ C │ $classes    : @[ ... ]        │
                                        │     ││ T │                               │

      ━━━$top━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━▶│ D │ root        : UID[3]          │
                                               │ I ├───────────────────────────────┤
                                               │ C │                               │
                                               │ T │                               │

Each entry in $objects will be one of the following:

When we say that a key “points to” a primitive or object instance, that means the value is a CFKeyedArchiverUID whose integer value is the index of the target entry in the $objects array. In other words, the indexes of the $objects array imply the object UIDs.

The $top key defines (unsurprisingly) the topmost object of the archive, which usually has only a single key root (a.k.a. NSKeyedArchiveRootObjectKey), which uses a CFKeyedArchiverUID to point to the root object in the $objects array, and then everything else in the graph is connected from there.