So, aturon wrote this interesting post on an alternative “virtual structs” approach, and, more-or-less since he wrote it, I’ve been wanting to write up my thoughts. I finally got them down.

Before I go any further, a note on terminology. I will refer to Aaron’s proposal as the Thin Traits proposal, and my own previous proposal as the Extended Enums proposal. Very good.

(OK, I lied, one more note: starting with this post, I’ve decided to disable comments on this blog. There are just too many forums to keep up with! So if you want to discuss this post, I’d recommend doing so on this Rust internals thread.)

Conclusion

Let me lead with my conclusion: while I still want the Extended Enums proposal, I lean towards implementing the Thin Traits proposal now, and returning to something like Extended Enums afterwards (or at some later time). My reasoning is that the Thin Traits proposal can be seen as a design pattern lying latent in the Extended Enums proposal. Basically, once we implement specialization, which I want for a wide variety of reasons, we almost get Thin Traits for free. And the Thin Traits pattern is useful enough that it’s worth taking that extra step.

Now, since the Thin Traits and Extended Enums proposal appear to be alternatives, you may wonder why I would think there is value in potentially implementing both. The way I see it, they target different things. Thin Traits gives you a way to very precisely fashion something that acts like a C++ or Java class. This means you get thin pointers, inherited fields and behavior, and you even get open extensibility (but, note, you thus do not get downcasting).

Extended Enums, in contrast, is targeting the “fixed domain” use case, where you have a defined set of possibilities. This is what we use enums for today, but (for the reasons I outlined before) there are various places that we could improve, and that was what the extended enums proposal was all about. One advantage of targeting the fixed domain use case is that you get additional power, such as the ability to do match statements, or to use inheritance when implementing any trait at all (more details on this last point below).

To put it another way: with Thin Traits, you write virtual methods whereas with Extensible Enums, you write match statements – and I think match statements are far more common in Rust today.

Still, Thin Traits will be a very good fit for various use cases. They are a good fit for Servo, for example, where they can be put to use modeling the DOM. The extensibility here is probably a plus, if not a hard requirement, because it means Servo can spread the DOM across multiple crates. Another place that they might (maybe?) be useful is if we want to have a stable interface to the AST someday (though for that I think I would favor something like RFC 757).

But I think there a bunch of use cases for extensible enums that thin traits don’t cover at all. For example, I don’t see us using thin traits in the compiler very much, nor do I see much of a role for them in LALRPOP, etc. In all these cases, the open-ended extensibility of Thin Traits is not needed and being able to exhaustively match is key. Refinement types would also be very welcome.

Which brings me to my final thought. The Extended Enums proposal, while useful, was not perfect. It had some rough spots we were not happy with (which I’ll discuss later on). Deferring the proposal gives us time to find new solutions to those aspects. Often I find that when I revisit a troublesome feature after letting it sit for some time, I find that either (1) the problem I thought there was no longer bothers me or (2) the feature isn’t that important anyway or (3) there is now a solution that was either previously not possible or which just never occurred to me.

OK, so, with that conclusion out of the way, the post continues by examining some of the rough spots in the Extended Enums proposal, and then looking at how we can address those by taking an approach like the one described in Thin Traits.

Thesis: Extended Enums

Let’s start by reviewing a bit of the Extended Enums proposal. Extended Enums, as you may recall, proposed making types for each of the enum variants, and allowing them to be structured in a hierarchy. It also proposed permitting enums to be declared as “unsized”, which meant that the size of the enum type varies depending on what variant a particular instance is.

In that proposal, I used a syntax where enums could have a list of common fields declared in the body of the enum:

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

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

One could also declare the variants out of line, as in this example:

unsized enum Node {
  position: Rectangle, // <-- common fields, but no variants
  ...
}

enum Element: Node {
  ...
}

struct TextElement: Element {
  ...
}

...

Note that in this model, the “variants”, or leaf nodes in the type hierarchy, are always structs. The inner nodes of the hierarchy (those with children) are enums.

In order to support the abstraction of constructors, the proposal includes a special associated type that lets you pull out a struct containing the common fields from an enum. For example, Node::struct would correspond to a struct like

struct NodeFields {
    position: Rectangle,
    ...
}

Complications with common fields

The original post glossed over certain complications that arise around common fields. Let me outline some of those complications. To start, the associated struct type has always been a bit odd. It’s just an unusual bit of syntax, for one thing. But also, the fact that this struct is not declared by the user raises some thorny questions. For example, are the fields declared as public or private? Can we implement traits for this associated struct type? And so forth.

There are similar questions raised about the common fields in the enum itself. In a struct, fields are private by default, and must be declared as public (even if the struct is public):

pub struct Foo { // the struct is public...
   f: i32        // ...but its fields are private.
}

But in an enum, variants (and their fields) are public if the enum is public:

pub enum Foo { // the enum is public...
    Variant1 { f: i32 }, // ...and so are its variants, and their fields.
}

This default matches how enums and structs are typically used: public structs are used to form abstraction barriers, and public enums are exposed in order to allow the outside world to match against the various cases. (We used to make the fields of public structs be public as well, but we found that in practice the overwhelming majority were just declared as private.)

However, these defaults are somewhat problematic for common fields. For example, let’s look at that DOM example again:

unsized pub enum Node {
  position: Rectangle,
  ...
}

This field is declared in an enum, and that enum is public. So should the field position be public or private? I would argue that this enum is more “struct-like” in its usage pattern, and the default should be private. We could arrive at this by adjusting the defaults based on whether the enum declares its variant inline or out of line. I expect this would actually match pretty well with actual usage, but you can see that this is a somewhat subtle rule.

Antithesis: Thin Traits

Now let me pivot for a bit and discuss the Thin Traits proposal. In particular, let’s revisit the DOM hierarchy that we saw before (Node, Element, etc), and see how that gets modeled. In the thin traits proposal, every logical “class” consists of two types. The first is a struct that defines its common fields and the second is a trait that defines any virtual methods. So, the root of a DOM might be a Node type, modeled like so:

struct NodeFields {
    id: u32
}

#[repr(thin)]
trait Node: NodeFields {
    fn something(&self);
    fn something_else(&self);
}

The struct NodeFields here just represents the set of fields that all nodes must have. Because it is declared as a superbound of Node, that means that any type which implements Node must have NodeFields as a prefix. As a result, if we have a &Node object, we can access the fields from NodeFields at no overhead, even without knowing the precise type of the implementor.

(Furthermore, because Node was declared as a thin trait, a &Node pointer can be a thin pointer, and not a fat pointer. This does mean that Node can only be implemented for local types. Note though that you could use this same pattern without declaring Node as a thin trait and it would still work, it’s just that &Node references would be fat pointers.)

The Node trait shown had two virtual methods, something() and something_else(). Using specialization, we can provide a default impl that lets us give some default behavior there, but also allows subclasses to override that behavior:

partial impl<T:Node> Node for T {
    fn something(&self) {
        // Here something_else() is not defined, so it is "pure virtual"
        self.something_else();
    }
}

Finally, if we have some methods that we would like to dispatch statically on Node, we can do that by using an inherent method:

impl Node {
    fn get_id(&self) -> u32 { self.id }
}

This impl looks similar to the partial impl above, but in fact it is not an impl of the trait Node, but rather adding inherent methods that apply to Node objects. So if we call node.get_id() it doesn’t go through any virtual dispatch at all.

You can continue this pattern to create subclasses. So adding an Element subclass might look like:

struct ElementFields: NodeFields {
  ..
}

#[repr(thin)]
trait Element: Node + ElementFields {
  ..
}

and so forth.

Synthesis: Extended Enums as a superset of Thin Traits

The Thin Traits proposal addresses common fields by creating explicit structs, like NodeFields, that serve as containers for the common fields, and by adding struct inheritance. This is an alternative to the special Node::struct we used in the Extended Enums proposal. There are pros and cons to using struct inheritance over Node::struct. On the pro side, struct inheritance sidesteps the various questions about privacy, visibility, and so forth that arose with Node::struct. On the con side, using structs requires a kind of parallel hierarchy, which is something we were initially trying to avoid. A final advantage for using struct inheritance is that it is a “reusable” mechanism. That is, whereas adding common fields to enums only affects enums, using struct inheritance allows us to add common fields to enums, traits, and other structs. Considering all of these things, it seems like struct inheritance is a better choice.

If we were to convert the DOM example to use struct inheritance, it would mean that an enum may inherit from a struct, in which case it gets the fields of that struct. For out-of-line enum declarations, then, we can simply create an enum with an empty body:

struct NodeFields {
  position: Rectangle, // <-- common fields, but no variants
}

#[repr(unsized)]
enum Node: NodeFields;

struct ElementFields: NodeFields {
  ..
}

enum Element: Node + ElementFields;

(I’ve also taken the liberty of changing from the unsized keyword to an annotation, #[repr(unsized)]. Given that making an enum unsized doesn’t really affect its semantics, just the memory layout, using a #[repr] attribute seems like a good choice. It was something we considered before; I’m not really sure why we rejected it anymore.)

Method dispatch

My post did not cover how virtual method dispatch was going to work. Aaron gave a quick summary in the Thin Trait proposal. I will give an even quicker one here. It was a goal of the proposal that one should be able to use inheritance to refine the behavior over the type hierarchy. That is, one should be able to write a set of impls like the following:

impl<T> MyTrait for Option<T> {
    default fn method1() { ... }
    default fn method2() { ... }
    default fn method3();
}

impl<T> MyTrait for Option::Some<T> {
    fn method1() { /* overrides the version above */ }
    fn method3() { /* must be implemented */ }
}

impl<T> MyTrait for Option::None<T> {
    fn method2() { /* overrides the version above */ }
    fn method3() { /* must be implemented */ }
}

This still seems like a very nice feature to me. As the Thin Traits proposal showed, specialization makes this kind of refinement possible, but it requires a variety of different impls. The example above, however, didn’t have quite so many impls – why is that?

What we had envisioned to bridge the gap was that we would use a kind of implicit sugar. That is, the impl for Option<T> would effectively be expanded to two impls. One of them, the partial impl, provides the defaults for the variants, and other, a concrete impl, effectively implements the virtual dispatch, by matching and dispatching to the appropriate variant:

// As originally envisioned, `impl<T> MyTrait for Option<T>`
// would be sugar for the following two impls:

partial impl<T> MyTrait for Option<T> {
    default fn method1() { ... }
    default fn method2() { ... }
    default fn method3();
}

impl<T> MyTrait for Option<T> {
    fn method1(&self) {
        match self {
            this @ &Some(..) => Option::Some::method1(this),
            this @ &None => Option::None::method1(this),
        }
    }
    ... // as above, but for the other methods
}

Similar expansions are needed for inherent impls. You may be wondering why it is that we expand the one impl (for Option<T>) into two impls in the first place. Each plays a distinct role:

  • The partial impl handles the defaults part of the picture. That is, it supplies default impls for the various methods that impls for Some and None can reuse (or override).
  • The impl itself handles the “virtual” dispatch part of things. We want to ensure that when we call method1() on a variable o of type Option<T>, we invoke the appropriate method1 depending on what variant o actually is at runtime. We do this by matching on o and then delegating to the proper place. If you think about it, this is roughly equivalent to loading a function pointer out of a vtable and dispatching through that, though the performance characteristics are interesting (in a way, it resembles a fully expanded builtin PIC).

Overall, this kind of expansion is a bit subtle. It’d be nice to have a model that did not require it. In fact, in an earlier design, we DID avoid it. We did so by introducing a new shorthand, called match impl. This would basically create the “downcasting” impl that we added implicitly above. This would make the correct pattern as follows:

partial impl<T> MyTrait for Option<T> { // <-- this is now partial
    default fn method1() { ... }
    default fn method2() { ... }
    default fn method3();
}

match impl<T> MyTrait for Option<T>; // <-- this is new

impl<T> MyTrait for Option::Some<T> {
    fn method1() { /* overrides the version above */ }
    fn method3() { /* must be implemented */ }
}

impl<T> MyTrait for Option::None<T> {
    fn method2() { /* overrides the version above */ }
    fn method3() { /* must be implemented */ }
}

At first glance, this bears a strong resemblance to how the Thin Trait proposal handled virtual dispatch. In the Thin Trait proposal, we have a partial impl as well, and then concrete impls that override the details. However, there is no match impl in Thin Trait proposal. It is not needed because, in that proposal, we were implementing the Node trait for the Node type – and in fact the compiler supplies that impl automatically, as part of the object safety notion.

Expression problem, I know thee well—a serviceable villain

But there is another difference between the two examples, and it’s important. In this code I am showing above, there is in fact no connection between MyTrait and Option. That is, under the Extended Enums proposal, I can implement foreign traits and use inheritance to refine the behavior depending on what variant I have. The Thin Traits pattern, however, only works for implementing the “main” traits (e.g., Node, Element, etc) – and the reason why is because you can’t write “match impls” under the Thin Traits proposal, since the set of types is open-ended. (Instead we lean on the compiler-generated virtual impl of Node for Node, etc.)

What you can do in the Thin Traits proposal is to add methods to the main traits and just delegate to those. So I could do something like:

trait MyTrait {
    fn my_method(&self);
}

...

trait Node {
    fn my_trait_my_method(&self);
}

impl MyTrait for Node {
    fn my_method(&self) {
        // delegate to the method in the `Node` trait
        self.my_trait_my_method();
    }
}

Now you can use inheritance to refine the behavior of my_trait_my_method if you like. But note that this only works if the MyTrait type is in the same crate as Node or some ancestor crate.

The reason for this split is precisely the open-ended nature of the Thin Trait pattern. Or, to give this another name, it is the famous expression problem. With Extensible Enums, we enumerated all the cases, so that means that other, downstream crates, can now implement traits against those cases. We’ve fixed the set of cases, but we can extended infinitely the set of operations. In contrast, with Thin Traits, we enumerated the operations (as the contents of the master traits), but we allow downstream crates to implement new cases for those operations.

So method dispatch proves to be pretty interesting:

  • It gives further evidence that Extensible Enums represent a useful entity in their own right.
  • It seems like a case where we may find that the tradeoffs change over time. That is, maybe match impl is not such a bad solution after all, particularly if the Thin Trait pattern is covering some share of the “object-like” use cases. In which case one of the main bits of “magic” in the Extensible Enums proposal goes away.

Conclusion

Oh, wait, I already gave it. Well, the most salient points are:

  • Extensible Enums are about a fixed set of cases, open-ended set of operations. Thin Traits are not. This matters.
  • Thin Traits are (almost) a “latent pattern” in the Extensible Enums proposal, requiring only #[repr(thin)] and struct inheritance.
    • Struct inheritance might be nicer than associated structs anyway.
  • We could consider doing both, and if so, it would probably make sense to implement Specialization, then Thin Traits, and only then consider Extensible Enums.