Baby Steps

A blog about programming, and tiny ways to improve it.

Fn Types

As you loyal readers know, I am on a quest to make the Rust type system more orthogonal with respect to the kind of pointer in use, by which I mean that I want to have the three pointer sigils (@, &, and ~) indicate where memory is located and the other types indicate what value is to be found at that memory. Right now there are a few cases where we conflate the two things into one type. The first, vectors and slices, I discused in a recent post. This post discusses the second case: function and interface types.

I’ll sketch out the idea; there are however some details I have yet to work out. Actually the plan imposes some downsides and I’m not 100% sure if I’m in favor yet. Though I think the simplicity of the type system is a win (simplicity for people using it, that is).


We currently have five function types:

  • fn@(S) -> T, or “boxed closure”;
  • fn~(S) -> T, or “unique closure”;
  • fn&(S) -> T, or “stack closure”;
  • fn(S) -> T, or “any closure”;
  • native fn(S) -> T, or “bare function”.

What distinguishes these closures is both the kind of pointer in which their environment is stored as well as the kind of data which can be stored in the closure itself:

  • The boxed closure (fn@) uses a normal GC’d pointer (oft called a boxed pointer, but I am trying to move to more descriptive terminology) to store its environment. The environment may contain arbitrary values but it does not contain any references to the stack. Copying a boxed closure is cheap because the environment can be aliased (currently, this means that the environment is ref counted).
  • The unique closure (fn~) uses a unique pointer to store its environment. All data must be sendable, which basically means tree-shaped. Copying a unique closure is expensive, because the environment cannot be aliased, and so copying the closure results in a deep copy of all the closed-over data. This has the upside that unique closures can be sent between tasks.
  • The stack closure (fn&) uses a reference to store its environment. Unlike the other closures, no data is stored in the environment itself. Rather, the environment consists of pointers to an outer stack frame. Copying a stack closure is very cheap. Because fn& contains by-ref pointers into its parent stack frame, it is restricted in where it can appear (though these restrictions can probably be loosened some the work on lifetimes is complete).
  • The any closure (fn) is just the supertype of the other three. It commonly appears in function signatures where any sort of closure would be acceptable (vec::each(), for example).
  • A bare function (native fn) is just a function pointer with no environment at all (it is therefore not a closure at all). It is never used in practice, as it is in fact a subtype of the various closure types.

One important detail is that closures are represented as the pair of a function pointer along with a pointer to the environment. In the case of a bare function, the pointer to the environment is always NULL.

The proposal

I want to have just one function type. In practice, as today, this would most commonly be written as fn(S) -> T, but the type in its fully explicit glory would be:

fn:kind(S) -> T

Like my proposed vector type vec<T>, this function type has an unknown static size. At runtime, it would be represented by a structure like:

struct fn {
    void *code_ptr;
    ... // environment data is stored inline

As with vec<T>, the type fn(S) -> T has an unknown size and therefore must basically always be referenced by pointer (@fn(S) -> T, ~fn(S) -> T, &fn(S) -> T).

The kind portion of the function type indicates a bound on the closed over data. It can by copy or send. If it is omitted, then there is no bound. In practice, I imagine that send is the only kind that would ever be useful.

The mapping between the current function types and my proposal would be:

fn@(S) -> T         becomes        @fn(S) -> T
fn~(S) -> T         becomes        ~fn:send(S) -> T
fn&(S) -> T         becomes        &fn(S) -> T
fn(S) -> T          becomes        &fn(S) -> T
native fn(S) -> T   just goes away


Literal syntax

I can imagine a couple of alternatives here. The basic issue is distinguish between “closures that reference things on the stack frame” and “closures that copy things out of the stack frame”.

I think my preferred solution is to say that the explicit fn form always copies out of the stack frame. So something like:

let foo = fn@(x: int, y: int) -> int { x + y };

would become

let foo = @fn(x: int, y: int) -> int { x + y };

Note that there is no bound specified (indicating no bound on the closed-over data). Of course, any data that gets copied into the closure must be copyable; but if data is moved into the closure (for example, if it is the last use of the data, or an explicit capture clause is used), then the data can have any kind. This is the same as today.

If we wanted a unique closure, which today is written:

let foo = fn~(x: int, y: int) -> int { x + y };

you would write

let foo = ~fn:send(x: int, y: int) -> int { x + y };

This is somewhat wordier than today, but the truth is that we rarely (if ever) write unique closures by hand. Instead, you employ the sugared closure form.

Sugared closures

Sugared closures are written using a Ruby-like notation:

for vec.each { |item| ... }    // inferred to stack closure

task::spawn {|| ... }          // inferred to unique closure

They would continue to operate as today. This means that we’ll infer the kind of closure pointer and other facts based on the expected type. I am still not crazy about this inference (although I put it in) but the last time I proposed taking it out this was unpopular.

Bare functions

One advantage of the current approach is that a bare function (which is just a function pointer) can be converted into a closure by pairing it with a null pointer. This no longer works under this system except for region pointers, so when bare functions are converted to @ or ~ functions we’d have to allocate a little stub to convert the call. Maybe the sigil should be written explicitly, so that function items have a type of fn(S) -> T. You would then write vec::iter(v, &foo) to apply the top-level function foo to each item in the vector, for example. Hmm.


So yeah, that’s the rough idea. I feel like the current system does work more smoothly in some regards, so I’m not yet sure if the idea is overall a win, but I wanted to note it down.