There has been a lot of discussion lately about Rust’s allocator story, and in particular our relationship to jemalloc. I’ve been trying to catch up, and I wanted to try and summarize my understanding and explain for others what is going on. I am trying to be as factually precise in this post as possible. If you see a factual error, please do not hesitate to let me know.

The core tradeoff

The story begins, like all interesting design questions, with a trade-off. The problem with trade-offs is that neither side is 100% right. In this case, the trade-off has to do with two partial truths:

  1. It is better to have one global allocator than two. Allocators like jemalloc, dlmalloc, and so forth are all designed to be the only allocator in the system. Of necessity they permit a certain amount of “slop”, allocating more memory than they need so that they can respond to requests faster, or amortizing the cost of metadata over many allocations. If you use two different allocators, you are paying those costs twice. Moreover, the allocator tends to be a hot path, and you wind up with two copies of it, which leaves less room in the instruction cache for your actual code.
  2. Some allocators are more efficient than others. In particular, the default allocators shipped with libc on most systems tend not to be very good, though there are exceptions. One particularly good allocator is jemalloc. In comparison to the default glibc or windows allocator, jemalloc can be noticeably more efficient both in performance and memory use. Moreover, jemalloc offers an extended interface that Rust can take advantage of to gain even more efficiency (for example, by specifying the sizes of a memory block when it is freed, or by asking to reallocate memory in place when possible).

Clearly, the best thing is to use just one allocator that is also efficient. So, to be concrete, whenever we produce a Rust executable, everyone would prefer if that Rust executable – along with any C code that it uses – would just use jemalloc everywhere (or whatever allocator we decide is ‘efficient’ tomorrow).

However, in some cases we can’t control what allocator other code will use. For example, if a Rust library is linked into a larger C program. In this case, we can opt to continue using jemalloc from within that Rust code, but the C program may simply use the normal allocator. And then we wind up with two allocators in use. This is where the trade-off comes into play. Is it better to have Rust use jemalloc even when the C program within which Rust is embedded does not? In that case, the Rust allocations are more efficient, but at the cost of having more than one global allocator, with the associated inefficiencies. I think this is the core question.

Two extreme designs

Depending on whether you want to prioritize using a single allocator or using an efficient allocator, there are two extreme designs one might advocate for the Rust standard library:

  1. When Rust needs to allocate memory, just call malloc and friends.
  2. Compile Rust code to invoke jemalloc directly. This is what we currently do. There are many variations on how to do this. Regardless of which approach you take, this has the downside that when Rust code is linked into C code, there is the possibility that the C code will use one allocator, and Rust code another.

It’s important to clarify that what we’re discussing here is really the default behavior, to some extent. The Rust standard library already isolates the definition of the global allocator into a particular crate. End users can opt to change the definition of that crate. However, it would require recompiling Rust itself to do so, which is at least a mild pain.

Calling malloc

If we opted to default to just calling malloc, this does not mean that end users are locked into the libc allocator or anything like that. There are existing mechanisms for changing what allocator is used at a global level (though I understand this is relatively hard on Windows). Presumably when we produce an actual Rust executables, we would default to using jemalloc.

Calling malloc has the advantage that if a Rust library is linked into a C program, both of them will be using the same global allocator, whatever it is (unless of course that C program itself doesn’t call malloc).

However, one downside of this is that we are not able to take advantage of the more advanced jemalloc APIs for sized deallocation and reallocation. This has a measureable effect in micro-benchmarks. I am not aware of any measurements on larger scale Rust applications, but there are definitely scenarios where the advanced APIs are useful.

Another potential downside of this approach is that malloc is called via indirection (because it is part of libc; I’m a bit hazy on the details of this point, and would appreciate clarification). This implies a somewhat higher overhead for calls to malloc/free than if we fixed the allocator ahead of time. It’s worth noting that this is the normal setup that all C programs use by default, so relative to a typical C program, this setup carries no overhead.

(When compiling a statically linked executables, rustc could opt to redirect malloc and friends to jemalloc at this point, which would eliminate the indirection overhead but not take advantage of the specialized jemalloc APIs. This would be a simplified variant of the hybrid scheme I eventually describe below.)

Calling jemalloc directly

If we opt to hardcode Rust’s default allocator to be jemalloc, we gain several advantages. The performance of Rust code, at least, is not subject to the whims of whatever global allocator the platform or end-user provides. We are able to take full advantage of the specialized jemalloc APIs. Finally, as the allocator is fixed to jemalloc ahead of time, static linking scenarios do not carry the additional overhead that calling malloc implies (though, as I noted, one can remove that overhead also when using malloc via a simple hybrid scheme).

Having Rust code unilatelly call jemalloc also carries downsides. For example, if Rust code is embedded as a library, it will not adopt the global allocator of the code that it is embedded within. This carries the performance downsides of multiple allocators but also a certain amount of risk, because a pointer allocated on one side cannot be freed on the other (some argue this is bad practice; this is certainly true if you do not know that the two sides are using the same allocator, but is otherwise legitimate, see the section below for more details).

The same problem can also occur in reverse, when C code is used from within Rust. This happens today with rustc: due to the specifics of our setup, LLVM uses the system allocator, not the jemalloc allocator that Rust is using. This causes extra fragmentation and memory consumption. It’s also not great because jemalloc is better than the system allocator in many cases.

To prefix or not to prefix

One specific aspect of calling jemalloc directly concerns how it is built. Today, we build jemalloc using name prefixes, effectively “namespacing” it so that it does not interfere with the system allocator. This is what causes LLVM to use a different allocator in rustc. This has the advantage of clarity and side-stepping certain footguns around dynamic linking that could otherwise occur, but at the cost of forking the allocators.

A recent PR aimed to remove the prefix. It was rejected because in a dynamic linking scenario, this creates a fragile situation. Basically, the dynamic library (“client”) defines malloc to be jemalloc. The host process also has a definition for malloc (the system allocator). The precise result will depend on the flags and platform that you’re running on, but there are basically two possible outcomes, and both can cause perfectly legitimate code to crash:

  1. The host process wins, malloc means the same thing everywhere (this occurs on linux by default).
  2. malloc means different things in the host and the client (this occurs on mac by default, and on linux with the DEEPBIND flag).

In the first case, crashes can arise if the client code should try to intermingle usage of the nonstandard jemalloc API (which maps to jemalloc) with the standard malloc API (which the client believes to also be jemalloc, but which has been remapped to the system allocator by the host). The jemalloc documentation isn’t 100% explicit on the matter, but I believe it is legal for code to (e.g.) call mallocx and then call free on the result. Hence if Rust should link some C code that did that, it would crash under the first scenario.

In the second case, crashes can arise if the host/client attempt to transfer ownership of memory. Some claim that this is not a legitimate thing to do, but that is untrue: it is (usually) perfectly legal for client code to (e.g.) call strdup and then pass the result back to the host, expecting the host to free it. (Granted, it is best to be cautious when transfering ownership across boundaries like this, and one should never call free on a pointer unless you can be sure of the allocator that was used to allocate that pointer in the first place. But if you are sure, then it should be possible.)

UPDATE: I’ve been told that on Windows, freeing across DLL boundaries is something you can never do. On Reddit, Mr_Alert writes: “In Windows, allocating memory in one DLL and freeing it in another is very much illegitimate. Different compiler versions have different C runtimes and therefore different allocators. Even with the same compiler version, if the EXE or DLLs have the C runtime statically linked, they’ll have different copies of the allocator. So, it would probably be best to link rust_alloc to jemalloc unconditionally on Windows.” Given the number of differences between platforms, it seems likely that the best behavior will ultimately be platform dependent.

Fundamentally, the problems here are due to the fact that the client is attempting to redefine the allocator on behalf of the host. Forcing this kind of name conflict to occur intentionally seems like a bad idea if we can avoid it.

A hybrid scheme

There is also the possibility of various hybrid schemes. One such option that Alex Crichton and I put together, summarized in this gist, would be to have Rust call neither the standard malloc nor the jemalloc symbols, but rather an intermediate set of APIs (let’s call them rust_alloc). When compiling Rust libraries (“rlibs”), these APIs would be unresolved. These rust allocator APIs would take all the information they need to take full advantage of extended jemalloc APIs, if they are available, but could also be “polyfilled” using the standard system malloc interface.

So long as Rust libraries are being compiled into “rlibs”, these rust_alloc dependencies would remain unresolved. An rlib is basically a statically linked library that can be linked into another Rust program. At some point, however, a final artifact is produced, at which point the rust_alloc dependency must be fulfilled. The way we fulfill this dependency will ultimately depend on what kind of artifact is produced:

  • Static library for use in a C program: link rust_alloc to malloc
  • Dynamic library (for use in C or Rust): link rust_alloc to malloc
  • Executable: resolve rust_alloc to jemalloc, and override the system malloc with jemalloc as well.

This seems to offer the best of both worlds. Standalone, statically linked Rust executables (the recommended, default route) get the full benefit of jemalloc. Code that is linked into C or dynamically loaded uses the standard allocator by default. Any C code used from within Rust executables will also call into jemalloc as well.

However, there is one major caveat. While it seems that this scheme would work well on linux, the behavior on other platforms is different, and it’s not yet clear if the same scheme can be made to work as well on Mac and Windows.

Naturally, even if we sort out the cross-platform challenges, this hybrid approach too is not without its downsides. It means that Rust code built for libraries will not take full advantage of what jemalloc has to offer, and in the case of dynamic libraries there may be more overhead per malloc invocation than if jemalloc were statically linked. However, by the same token, Rust libraries will avoid the overhead of using two allocators and they will also be acting more like normal C code. And of course the embedding program may opt, in its linking phase, to redirect malloc (globally) to jemalloc.

So what should we do?

The decision about what to do has a couple of facets. In the immediate term, however, we need to take steps to improve rustc’s memory usage. It seems to me that, at minimum, we ought to accept strcat’s PR #18915, which ensures that Rust executables can use jemalloc for everything, at least on linux. Everyone agrees that this is a desirable goal.

Longer term, it is somewhat less clear. The reason that this decision is difficult is that there is no choice that is “correct” for all cases. The most performant choice will depend on the specifics of the case:

  • Is the Rust code embedded?
  • How much allocation takes place in Rust vs in the other language?
  • What allocator is the other language using?

(As an example, the performance and memory use of rustc improved when we adopted jemalloc, even partially, but other applications will fare differently.)

At this point I favor the general principle that Rust code, when compiled as a library for use within C code, should more-or-less behave like C code would behave. This seems to suggest that, when building libraries for C consumption, Rust should just call malloc, and people can use the normal mechanisms to inject jemalloc if they so choose. However, when compiling Rust executables, it seems advantageous for us to default to a better allocator and to get the maximum efficiency we can from that allocator. The hybrid scheme aims to achieve both of these goals but there may be a better way to go about it, particularly around the area of dynamic linking.

I’d like to see more measurement regarding the performance impact of foregoing the specialized jemalloc APIs and using weak linking. I’ve seen plenty of numbers suggesting jemalloc is better than other allocators on the whole, and plenty of numbers saying that using specialized APIs helps in microbenchmarks. But it is unclear what the impact of such APIs (or weak linking) is on the performance of larger applications.

I’d also like to get the input from more people who have experience in this area. I’ve talked things over with strcat a fair amount, who generally favors using jemalloc even if it means two allocators. We’ve also reached out to Jason Evans, the author of jemalloc, who stressed the fact that multiple global allocators is generally a poor choice. I’ve tried to reflect their points in this post.

Note though that whatever we decide we can evolve it as we go. There is time to experiment and measure. One thing that is clear to me is that we do not want Rust to “depend on” jemalloc in any hard sense. That is, it should always be possible to switch from jemalloc to another allocator. This is both because jemalloc, good as it is, can’t meet everyone’s needs all the time, and because it’s just not a necessary dependency for Rust to take. Establishing an abstraction boundary around the “Rust global allocator” seems clearly like the right thing to do, however we choose to fulfill it.