So, in previous posts, I discussed the pros and cons of two different approaches to modeling variants: Rust-style enums and C++-style classes. In those posts, I explained why I see Rust enums and OO-style class hierarchies as more alike than different (I personally credit Scala for opening my eyes to this, though I’m sure it’s been understood by others for much longer). The key points were as follows:

  • Both Rust-style enums and C++-style classes can be used to model the idea of a value that be one of many variants, but there are differences in how they work at runtime. These differences mean that Rust-style enums are more convenient for some tasks, and C++-style classes for others. In particular:
    • A Rust-style enum is sized as large as the largest variant. This is great because you can lay them out flat in another data structure without requiring any allocation. You can also easily change from one variant to another. One downside of Rust enums is that you cannot “refine” them to narrow the set of variants that a particular value can have.
    • A C++-style class is sized to be exactly as big as one variant. This is great because it can be much more memory efficient. However, if you don’t know what variant you have, you must manipulate the value by pointer, so it tends to require more allocation. It is also impossible to change from one variant to another. Class hierarchies also give you a simple, easily understood kind of refinement, and the ability to have common fields that are shared between variants.
  • C++-style classes offer constructors, which allows for more abstraction and code reuse when initially creating an instance, but raise thorny questions about the type of a value under construction; Rust structs and enums are always built in a single-shot today, which is simpler and safer but doesn’t compose as well.

What I want to talk about in this post is a proposal (or proto-proposal) for bridging those two worlds in Rust. I’m going to focus on data layout in this post. I’ll defer virtual methods for another post (or perhaps an RFC). Spoiler alert: they can be viewed as a special case of specialization.

I had originally intended to publish this post a few days after the others. Obviously, I got delayed. Sorry about that! Things have been very busy! In any case, better late than never, as some-great-relative-or-other always (no doubt) said. Truth is, I really miss blogging regularly, so I’m going to make an effort to write up more “in progress” and half-baked ideas (yeah yeah, promises to blog more are a dime a dozen, I know).

Note: I want to be clear that the designs in this blog post are not “my” work per se. Some of the ideas originated with me, but others have arisen in the course of conversations with others, as well as earlier proposals from nrc, which in turn were heavily based on community feedback. And of course it’s not like we Rust folk invented OO or algebraic data types or anything in the first place. :)

Unifying structs and enums into type hierarchies

The key idea is to generalize enums and structs into a single concept. This is often called an algebraic data type, but “algebra” brings back memories of balancing equations in middle school (not altogether unpleasant ones, admittedly), so I’m going to use the term type hierarchy instead. Anyway, to see what I mean, let’s look at my favorite enum ever, Option:

enum Option<T> {
    Some(T), None
}

The idea is to reinterpret this enum as three types arranged into a tree or hierarchy. An important point is that every node in the tree is now a type: so there is a type representing the Some variant, and a type representing the None variant:

enum Option<T>
|
+- struct None<T>
+- struct Some<T>

As you can see, the leaves of the tree are called structs. They represent a particular variant. The inner nodes are called enums, and they represent a set of variants. Every existing struct definition can also be reinterpreted as a hierarchy, but just a hierarchy of size 1.

These generalized type hierarchies can be any depth. This means you can do nested enums, like:

enum Mode {
    enum ByRef {
        Mutable,
        Immutable
    }
    ByValue
}

This creates a nested hierarchy:

enum Mode
|
+- enum ByRef
|  |
|  +- struct Mutable
|  +- struct Immutable
+- ByValue

Since all the nodes in a hiearchy are types, we get refinement types for free. This means that I can use Mode as a type to mean “any mod at all”, or Mode::ByRef for the times when I know something is one of the ByRef modes, or even Mode::ByRef::Mutable (which is a singleton struct).

As part of this change, it should be possible to declare the variants out of line. For example, we could change enum to look as follows:

enum Option<T> {
}
struct Some<T>: Option<T> {
    value: T
}
struct None<T>: Option<T> {
}

This definitely is not exactly equivalent to the older one, of course. The names Some and None live alongside Option, rather than within it, and I’ve used a field (value) rather than a tuple struct.

Common fields

Enum declarations are extended with the ability to have fields as well as variants. These fields are inherited by all variants of that enum. In the syntax, fields must appear before the variants, and it is also not possible to combine “tuple-like” structs with inherited fields.

Let’s revisit an example from the previous post. In the compiler, we currently represent types with an enum. However, there are certain fields that every type carries. These are handled via a separate struct, so that we wind up with something like this:

type Ty<'tcx> = &'tcx TypeData<'tcx>;

struct TypeData<'tcx> {
    id: u32,
    flags: u32,
    ...,
    structure: TypeStructure<'tcx>,
}

enum TypeStructure<'tcx> {
    Int,
    Uint,
    Ref(Ty<'tcx>),
    ...
}

Under this newer design, we could simply include the common fields in the enum definition:

type Ty<'tcx> = &'tcx TypeData<'tcx>;

enum TypeData<'tcx> {
    // Common fields:
    id: u32,
    flags: u32,
    ...,

    // Variants:
    Int { },
    Uint { },
    Ref { referent_ty: Ty<'tcx> },
    ...
}

Naturally, when I create a TypeData I should supply all the fields, including the inherited ones (though in a later section I’ll present ways to extract the initialization of common fields into a reusable fn):

let ref =
    TypeData::Ref {
        id: id,
        flags: flags,
        referent_ty: some_ty
    };

And, of course, given a reference &TypeData<'tcx>, we can access these common fields:

fn print_id<'tcx>(t: &TypeData<'tcx>) {
    println!("The id of `{:?}` is `{:?}`", t, t.id);
}

Convenient!

Unsized enums

As today, the size of an enum type, by default, is equal to the largest of its variants. However, as I’ve outlined in the last two posts, it is often useful to have each value be sized to a particular variant. In the previous posts I identified some criteria for when this is the case:

One interesting question is whether we can concisely state conditions in which one would prefer to have “precise variant sizes” (class-like) vs “largest variant” (enum). I think the “precise sizes” approach is better when the following apply:

  • A recursive type (like a tree), which tends to force boxing anyhow. Examples: the AST or types in the compiler, DOM in servo, a GUI.
  • Instances never change what variant they are.
  • Potentially wide variance in the sizes of the variants.

Therefore, it is possible to declare the root enum in a type hierarchy as either sized (the default) or unsized; this choice is inherited by all enums in the hierarchy. If the hierarchy is declared as unsized, it means that each struct type will be sized just as big as it needs to be. This means in turn that the enum types in the hierarchy are unsized types, since the space required will vary depending on what variant an instance happens to be at runtime.

To continue with our example of types in rustc, we currently go through some contortions so as to introduce indirection for uncommon cases, which keeps the size of the enum under control:

type Ty<'tcx> = &'tcx TypeData<'tcx>;

enum TypeData<'tcx> {
    ...,

    // The data for a fn type is stored in a different struct
    // which is cached in a special arena. This is helpful
    // because (a) the size of this variant is only a single word
    // and (b) if we have a type that we know is a fn pointer,
    // we can pass the `BareFnTy` struct around instead of the
    // `TypeData`.
    FnPointer { data: &'tcx FnPointerData<'tcx> },
}

struct FnPointerData<'tcx> {
    unsafety: Unsafety,
    abi: Abi,
    signature: Signature,
}

As discussed in a comment in the code, the current scheme also serves as a poor man’s refinement type: if at some point in the code we know we have a fn pointer, we can write a function that takes a FnPointerData argument to express that:

fn process_ty<'tcx>(ty: Ty<'tcx>) {
    match ty {
        &TypeData::FnPointer { data, .. } => {
            process_fn_ty(ty, data)
        }
        ...
    }
}

// This function expects that `ty` is a fn pointer type. The `FnPointerData`
// contains the fn pointer information for `ty`.
fn process_fn_ty<'tcx>(ty: Ty<'tcx>, data: &FnPointerData<'tcx>) {
}

This pattern works OK in practice, but it is not perfect. For one thing, it’s tedious to construct, and it’s also a little inefficient. It introduces unnecessary indirection and a second memory arena. Moreover, the refinement type scheme isn’t great, because you often have to pass both the ty (for the common fields) and the internal data.

Using a type hierarchy, we can do much better. We simply remove the FnPointerData struct and inline its fields directly into TypeData:

type Ty<'tcx> = &'tcx TypeData<'tcx>;

unsized enum TypeData<'tcx> {
    ...,

    // No indirection anymore. What's more, the type `FnPointer`
    // serves as a refinement type automatically.
    FnPointer {
        unsafety: Unsafety,
        abi: Abi,
        signature: Signature,
    }
}

Now we can write functions that process specific categories of types very naturally:

fn process_ty<'tcx>(ty: Ty<'tcx>) {
    match ty {
        fn_ty @ &TypeData::FnPointer { .. } => {
            process_fn_ty(fn_ty)
        }
        ...
    }
}

// Don't even need a comment: it's obvious that `ty` should be a fn type
// (and enforced by the type system).
fn process_fn_ty<'tcx>(ty: &TypeData::FnPointer<'tcx>) {
}

Matching as downcasting

As the previous example showed, one can continue to use match to select the variant from an enum (sized or not). Maching also gives us an elegant downcasting mechanism. Instead of writing (Type) value, as in Java, or dynamic_cast<Type>(value), one writes match value and handles the resulting cases. Just as with enums today, if let can be used if you just want to handle a single case.

Crate locality

An important part of the design is that the entire type hierarchy must be declared within a single crate. This is of course trivially true today: all variants of an enums are declared in one item, and structs correspond to singleton hierarchies.

Limiting the hierarchy to a single crate has a lot of advantages. Without it, you simply can’t support today’s “sized” enums, for one thing. It allows us to continue doing exhaustive checks for matches and to generate more efficient code. It is interesting to compare to dynamic_cast, the C++ equivalent to a match:

  • dynamic_cast is often viewed as a kind of code smell, versus a virtual method. I’m inclined to agree, as dynamic_cast only checks for a particular variant, rather than specifying handling for the full range of variants; this makes it fragile in the face of edits to the code. In contrast, the exhaustive nature of a Rust match ensures that you handle every case (of course, one must still be judicious in your use of _ patterns, which, while convenient, can be a refactoring hazard).
  • dynamic_cast is somewhat inefficient, since it must handle the fully general case of classes that spread across compilation units; in fact, it is very uncommon to have a class hierarchy that is truly extensible – and in such cases, using dynamic_cast is particularly hard to justify. This leads to projects like LLVM reimplementing RTTI (the C++ name for matching) from scratch.

Another advantage of confining the hierarchy to a single crate is that it allows us to continue doing variance inference across the entire hierarchy at once. This means that, for example, that in the “out of line” version of Option (below) we can infer a variance for the parameter T declared on Option, in the same way we do today (otherwise, the declaration of enum Option<T> would require some form of phantom data, and that would be binding on the types declared in other crates).

I also find that confining the hierarchy to a single crate helps to clarify the role of type hierarchies versus traits and, in turn, avoid some of the pitfalls so beloved by OO haters. Basically, it means that if you want to define an open-ended extension point, you must use a trait, which also offers the most flexibility; a type hierarchy, like an enum today, can only be used to offer a choice between a fixed number of crate-local types. An analogous situation in Java would be deciding between an abstract base class and an interface; under this design, you would have to use an interface (note that the problem of code reuse can be tackled separately, [via specialization]).

Finally, confining extension to a trait is relevant to the construction of vtables and handling of specialization, but we’ll dive into that another time.

Even though I think that limiting type hierarchies to a single crate is very helpful, it’s worth pointing out that it IS possible to lift this restriction if we so choose. This can’t be done in all cases, though, due to some of the inherent limitations involved.

Enum types as bounds

In the previous section, I mentioned that enums and traits (both today and in this proposed design) both form a kind of interface. Whereas traits define a list of methods, enums indicate something about the memory layout of the value: for example, they can tell you about a common set of fields (though not the complete set), and they clearly narrow down the universe of types to be just the relevant variants. Therefore, it makes sense to be able to use an enum type as a bound on a type parameter. Let’s dive into an example to see what I mean and why you might want this.

Imagine we’re using a type hiererachy to represent the HTML DOM. It might look something like this (browser people: forgive my radical oversimplification):

unsized enum Node {
  // where this node is positioned after layout
  position: Rectangle,
  ...
}

enum Element: Node {
  ...
}

struct TextElement: Element {
  ...
}

struct ParagraphElement: Element {
  ...
}

...

Now imagine that I have a helper function that selects nodes based on whether they intersect a particular box on the screen:

fn intersects(box: Rectangle, elements: &[Rc<Node>]) -> Vec<Rc<Node>> {
    let mut result = vec![];
    for element in elements {
        if element.position.intersects(box) {
            result.push(element.clone());
        }
    }
    result
}

OK, great! But now imagine that I have a slice of text elements (&[Rc<TextElement>]), and I would like to use this function. I will get back a Vec<Rc<Node>> – I’ve lost track of the fact that my input contained only text elements.

Using generics and bounds, I can rewrite the function:

fn intersects<T:Node>(box: Rectangle, elements: &[Rc<T>]) -> Vec<Rc<T>> {
    // identical to before
}

Nothing in the body had to change, only the signature.

Permitting enum types to appear as bounds also means that they can be referenced by traits as supertraits. This allows you to define interfaces that cut across the primary inheritance hierarchy. So, for example, in the DOM both the HTMLTextAreaElement and the HTMLInputElement can carry a block of text, which implies that they have a certain set of text-related methods and properties in common. And of course they are both elements. This can be modeled using a trait like so:

trait TextAPIs: HTMLElement {
    fn maxLength(&self) -> usize;
    ..
}

This means that if you have an &TextApis object, you can access the fields from HTMLElement with no overhead, because they are stored in the same place for both cases. But if you want to access other things, such as maxLength, that implies virtual dispatch, since the address is dynamically computed and will vary.

Enums vs traits

The notion of enums as bounds raises questions about potential overlap in purpose between enums and traits. I would argue that this overlap already exists: both enums and traits today are ways to let you write a single function that operates over values of more than one type. However, in practice, it’s rarely hard to know which one you want to use. This I think is because they come at the problem from two different angles:

  • Traits start with the assumption that you want to work with any type, and let you narrow that. Basically, you get code that is as general as possible.
  • In contrast, enums assume you want to work with a fixed set of types. This means you can write code that is as specific as possible. Enums also work best when the types you are choosing between are related into a kind of family, like “all the different variants of types in the Rust language” or “some and none”.

If we extend enums in the way described here, then they will become more capable and convenient, and so you might find that they overlap a bit more with plausible use cases for traits. However, I think that in practice there are still clear guidelines for which to choose when:

  • If you have a fixed set of related types, use an enum. Having an enumerated set of cases is advantageous in a lot of ways: we can generate faster code, you can write matches, etc.
  • If you want open-ended extension, use a trait (and/or trait object). This will ensure that your code makes as few assumptions as possible, which in turn means that you can handle as many clients as possible.

Because enums are tied to a fixed set of cases, they allow us to generate tighter code, particularly when you are not monomorphizing to a particular variant. That is, if you have a value of type &TypeData, where TypeData is the enum we mentioned before, you can access common fields at no overhead, even though we don’t know what variant it is. Moreover, the pointer is thin and thus takes only a single word.

In contrast, if you had made TypeData a trait and hence &TypeData was a trait object, accessing common fields would require some overhead. (This is true even if we were to add “virtual fields” to traits, as eddyb and kimundi proposed in RFC #250.) Also, because traits are “added on” to other values, your pointer would be a fat pointer, and hence take two words.

(As an aside, I still like the idea of adding virtual fields to traits. The idea is that these fields could be “remapped” in an implementation to varying offsets. Accessing such a field implies dynamically loading the offset, which is slower than a regular field but faster than a virtual call. If we additionally added the restriction that those fields must access content that is orthogonal from one another, we might be able to make the borrow checker more permissive in the field case as well. But that is kind of an orthogonal extension to what I’m talking about here – and one that fits well with my framing of “traits are for open-ended extension across heterogeneous types, enums are for a single cohesive type hierarchy”.)

Associated structs (constructors)

One of the distinctive features of OO-style classes is that they feature constructors. Constructors allow you to layer initialization code, so that you can build up a function that initializes (say) the fields for Node, and that function is used as a building block by one that initializes the Element fields, and so on down the hierarchy. This is good for code reuse, but constructors have an Achilles heel: while we are initializing the Node fields, what value do the Element fields have? In C++, the answer is “who knows” – the fields are simply uninitialized, and accessing them is undefined behavior. In Java, they are null. But Rust has no such “convenient” answer. And there is an even weirder question: what happens when you downcast or match on a value while it is being constructed?

Rust has always sidestepped these questions by using the functional language approach, where you construct an aggregate value (like a struct) by supplying all its data at once. This works good for small structs, but it doesn’t scale up to supporting refinement types and common fields. Consider the example of types in the compiler:

enum TypeData<'tcx> {
    // Common fields:
    id: u32,
    flags: u32,
    counter: usize, // ok, I'm making this field up :P

    ...,
    FnPointer {
        unsafety: Unsafety,
        abi: Abi,
        signature: Signature,
    }
    ..., // other variants here
}

I would like to be able to write some initialization routines that compute the id, flags, and whatever else and then reuse those across different variants. But it’s hard to know what such a function should return:

fn init_type_data(cx: &mut Context) -> XXX {
    XXX { id: cx.next_id(), flags: DEFAULT_FLAGS, counter: 0 }
}

What is this type XXX? What I want is basically a struct with just the common fields (though of course I don’t want to have to define such a struct mself, too repetitive):

struct XXX {
    id: u32,
    flags: u32,
    counter: usize,
}

And of course I also want to be able to use an instance of this struct in an initializer as part of a .. expression, like so:

fn make_fn_type(cx: &mut Context, unsafety: Unsafety, abi: Abi, signature: Signature) {
    TypeData::FnPointer {
        unsafety: unsafety,
        abi: abi,
        signature: signature,
        ..init_type_data(cx)   // <-- initializes the common fields 
    }
}

If we had a type like this, it strikes a reasonable nice balance between the functional and OO styles. We can layer constructors and build constructor abstractions, but we also don’t have a value of type TypeData until all the fields are initialized. In the interim, we just have a value of this type XXX, which only has the shared fields that are common to all variants.

All we need now is a reasonable name for this type XXX. The proposal is that every enum has an associated struct type called struct (i.e, the keyword). So instead of XXX, I could write TypeData::struct, and it means “a struct with all the fields common to any TypeData variant”. Note that a TypeData::struct value is not a TypeData variant; it just has the same data as a variant.

Subtyping and coercion

There is one final wrinkle worth covering in the proposal. And unfortunately, it’s a tricky one. I’ve been sort of tacitly assuming that an enum and its variants have some sort of typing relationship, but I haven’t said explicitly what it is. This part is going to take some experimentation to find the right mix. But let me share some intermediate thoughts.

Unsized enums. For unsized enums, we are always dealing with an indirection. So e.g. we have to be able to smoothly convert from a reference to a specific struct like &TextElement to a reference to a base enum like &Node. We’ve traditionally viewed this as a special case of “DST coercions”. Basically, coercing to &Node is more-or-less exactly like coercion to a trait object, except that we don’t in fact need to attach a vtable – that is, the “extra data” on the &Node fat pointer is just (). But in fact we don’t necessarily HAVE to view upcasting like this as a coercion – after all, there is no runtime change happening here.

This gets at an interesting point. Subtyping between OO classes is normally actually subtyping between references. That is, in Java we say that String <: Object, but that is because everything in Java is in fact a reference. In C++, not everything is a reference, so if you aren’t careful this in fact gives rise to creepy hazards like object slicing. The problem here is that in C++ the superclass type is really just the superclass fields; so if you do superclass = subclass, then you are just going to drop the extra fields from the subclass on the floor (usually). This probably isn’t what you meant to do.

Because of unsized types, though, Rust can safely say that a struct type is a subtype of its containing enum(s). So, in the DOM example, we could say that TextElement <: Node. We don’t have to fear slicing because the type TextElement is unsized, and hence the user could only ever make use of it by ref. In other words, object slicing arises C++ precisely because it doesn’t have a notion of unsized types.

Sized enums. To be honest, unsized enums are not the scary case, because they are basically a new feature to the language. The harder and more interesting case is sized enums. The problem here is that we are introducing new types into existing code, and we want to be sure not to break things. So consider this example:

let mut x = None;
x = Some(3);

In today’s world, the first assignment gives x a type of Option<_>, where the _ represents something to be inferred later. This is because the expression None has type Option<_>. But under this RFC, the type of None is None<_> – and hence we have to be smart enough to infer that the type of x should not be None<_> but rather Option<_> (because it is later assigned a Some<_> value).

This kind of inference, where the type of a variable changes based on the full set of values assigned to it, is traditionally what we have called “subtyping” in the Rust compiler. (In contrast, coercion is an instantaneous decision that the compiler makes based on the types it knows thus far.) This is sort of technical minutia in how the compiler works, but of course it impacts the places in Rust that you need type annoations.

Now, to some extent, we already have this problem. There are known cases today where coercions don’t work as well as we would like. The proposed box syntax, for example, suffers from this a bit, as do other patterns. We’re investing ways to make the compiler smarter, and it may be that we can combine all of this into a more intelligent inference infrastructure.

Variance and mutable references. It’s worth pointing out that we’ll always need some sort of coercion support, because subtyping alone doesn’t allow one to convert between mutable references. In other words, &mut TextElement is not a subtype of &mut Node, but we do need to be able to coercion from the former to the latter. This is safe because the type Node is unsized (basically, it is safe for the same reason that &mut [i32; 3] -> &mut [i32] is safe). The fact that &mut None<i32> -> &mut Option<i32> is not safe is an example of why sized enums can in fact be more challenging here. (If it’s not clear why that should be unsafe, the Nomicon’s section on variance may help clear things up.)

An alternative variation

If, in fact, we can’t solve the subtyping inference problems, there is another option. Rather than unifying enums and structs, we could add struct inheritance and leave enums as they are. Things would work more-or-less the same as in this proposal, but base structs would play the role of unsized enums, and sized enums would stay how they are. This can be justified on the basis that enums are used in different stylistic ways (like Option etc) where e.g. refinement types and common fields are less important; however, I do find the setup described in this blog post appealing.

Type parameters, GADTs, etc

One other detail I want to note. At least to start, I anticipate a requirement that every type in the hierarchy has the same set of type parameters (just like an enum today). If you use the “inline” syntax, this is implicit, but you’ll have to write it explicitly with the out of line syntax (we could permit reordering, but there should be a 1-to-1 correspondence). This simplifies the type-checker and ensures that this is more of an incremental step in complexity when compared to today’s enums, versus the giant leap we could have otherwise – loosening this rule also interacts with monomorphization and specialization, but I’ll dig into that more another time.

Conclusion

This post describes a proposal for unifying structs and enums to make each of them more powerful. It builds on prior work but adds a few new twists that close important gaps:

  • Enum bounds for type parameters, allowing for smoother interaction with generic code.
  • The “associated struct” for enums, allowing for constructors.

One of the big goals of this design is to find something that fits well within Rust’s orthogonal design. Today, data types like enums and structs are focused on describing data layout and letting you declare natural relationships that mesh well with the semantics of your program. Traits, in contrast, are used to write generic code that works across a heterogeneous range of types. This proposal retains that character, while alleviating some of the pain points in Rust today:

  • Support for refinement types and nested enum hierarchies;
  • Support for common fields shared across variants;
  • Unsized enums that allow for more efficient memory layout.