Baby Steps

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

Interfacing With C Functions in Rust

One of the things that I’ve been working on for some time now is the proper integration of C functions. As with virtually every other facet of the design of Rust, we’ve been slowly moving from a model where Rust tried to hide low-level details for you to one where Rust offers tight control over what’s going on, with the type system intervening only as needed to prevent segfaults or other strange behavior. This blog post details what I consider to be the best proposal so far; some of the finer points are a bit vague, however.

Extern Function Types

One thing we need is a type for a simple function pointer. Rust’s function types to date have always been closure types, meaning that they referred to the combination of a function pointer and some environment. So we have added an “extern fn” type, which is written as follows:

extern "ABI" fn(T) -> U

Here the "ABI" string must be some ABI that is supported by the Rust compiler. The most common values will be either C or Rust, I imagine, but stdcall (or pascal) may be used occasionally as well, and who knows what we’ll support in the future.

I imagine that the default for “ABI” should be “C”, as it will be the most common thing people really want to use. Calls to any extern function with non-Rust ABI is an unsafe action.

Extern Blocks and Function Declarations

We are moving towards a model where function declarations are placed within extern blocks. This looks something like:

extern "C" {
    fn foo();
    fn bar();
}

In this case, the type of foo and bar would be extern "C" fn().

The reason that we declare extern functions in extern blocks, as opposed to individually, is that on some platforms it is necessary to load blocks of functions that are defined by a common library together.

“crust” functions

In addition to being able to call C functions from within Rust, it is useful to be able to call Rust functions from within C. To this end the compiler will permit Rust fns to be declared with a specific ABI like so:

extern "C" fn crust(t: T) -> U {
}

If you declare a function as having a non-Rust ABI, then this implies a few things:

  • A reference to crust() will have type extern "C" fn(T) -> U.
  • We cannot catch and process failure for you, since the propagation of failure results is ABI specific. Thus is the Rust code within an external function fails, it will cause the process to abort. We may later add some way to catch failure so that you can propagate it yourself (perhaps by returning false, etc).

Stack Switching

Now we come to the interesting (and tricky) part. Internally, Rust makes use of a split stack approach where stack segments are allocated dynamically as the stack grows. This allows us to have a very large number of threads without exhausting our address space (particularly on 32-bit systems). This also allows your programs to recurse as long as there is memory available, which is sometimes useful. It is not, however, what C expects. C functions just expect to have a big chunk of stack available. Hopefully infinite.

Therefore, whenever we recurse into C code, we must make sure that a lot of stack is available. The way we do this today is somewhat magical: functions declared as extern are not in fact the raw C function, but rather a wrapper around the C function that will switch over from the Rust stack (which may be small) to a very big stack. This was more-or-less an ok solution back before we had the idea of getting a raw pointer to a C function and so forth but it’s not very appealing now. Also it can be a performance bottleneck.

The new proposal is to say that when you call an extern "C" fn, nothing magical happens. The stack stays just as it was. To perform the stack switching, we offer a function in the runtime (perhaps a number of functions) called prepare_extern_call(), which can be used like so:

let my_c_function: extern "C" fn() = ...;
do prepare_extern_call {
    my_c_function()
}

Of course, it would be easy to forget to use this function, which would be a recipe for stackfaults. Therefore, we will also offer a lint-mode check that defaults to error. This check will trigger if we see a call to a function of non-Rust ABI that is not lexically enclosing within a call to prepare_extern_call.

There will be variants of prepare_extern_call that allow you to specify the amount of stack size to guarantee more precisely if you prefer, along with other options as those arise.

Auto-generating wrappers

It is our expectation that most people will not directly call C functions. Instead, you will wrap them in a Rust-friendly wrapper that performs some sanity checking, converts from Rust types, etc. This wrapper will also perform the stack switching shown above.

In some cases, though, writing such wrappers can be tedious, so we can supply some annotations in the compiler that will autogenerate these wrappers. This is basically a macro. I am envisioning something like this:

#[auto_wrap] // autogenerate wrappers for enclosing functions
extern "C" {
    #[no_wrap] // ...not this one, I'll do it by hand
    fn my_func1(x: *char) -> bool;

    fn my_func2();
}

fn my_func1(x: ~str) -> bool {
    do x.as_c_string |p| {
        do prepare_extern_call {
        }
    }
}

which would then expand into:

extern "C" {
    fn my_func1(x: *char) -> bool;
    fn my_func2();
}

fn my_func2() -> bool {
   do prepare_extern_call {
       my_func2()
   }
}

One issue that is obvious here is the name collisions. I’m not sure how to resolve that. It seems like the older way of native functions within their own module (extern "C" mod foo) would solve it. Well, we’ll do something. And the precise details of this auto-generation remain to be resolved. But you get the idea.

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