A little while back, I wrote up a tentative proposal I called the “Tootsie Pop” model for unsafe code. It’s safe to say that this model was not universally popular. =) There was quite a long and fruitful discussion on discuss. I wanted to write a quick post summarizing my main take-away from that discussion and to talk a bit about the plans to push the unsafe discussion forward.

The importance of the unchecked-get use case

For me, the most important lesson was the importance of the “unchecked get” use case. Here the idea is that you have some (safe) code which is indexing into a vector:

fn foo() {
    let vec: Vec<i32> = vec![...];
    ...
    vec[i]
    ...
}    

You have found (by profiling, but of course) that this code is kind of slow, and you have determined that the bounds-check caused by indexing is a contributing factor. You can’t rewrite the code to use iterators, and you are quite confident that the index will always be in-bounds, so you decide to dip your tie into unsafe by calling get_unchecked:

fn foo() {
    let vec: Vec<i32> = vec![...];
    ...
    unsafe { vec.get_unchecked(i) }
    ...
}    

Now, under the precise model that I proposed, this means that the entire containing module is considered to be within an unsafe abstraction boundary, and hence the compiler will be more conservative when optimizing, and as a result the function may actually run slower when you skip the bounds check than faster. (A very similar example is invoking str::from_utf8_unchecked, which skips over the utf-8 validation check.)

Many people were not happy about this side-effect, and I can totally understand why. After all, this code isn’t mucking about with funny pointers or screwy aliasing – the unsafe block is a kind of drop-in replacement for what was there before, so it seems odd for it to have this effect.

Where to go from here

Since posting the last blog post, we’ve started a longer-term process for settling and exploring a lot of these interesting questions about the proper use of unsafe. At this point, we’re still in the “data gathering” phase. The idea here is to collect and categorize interesting examples of unsafe code. I’d prefer at this point not to be making decisions per se about what is legal or not – although in some cases someting may be quite unambiguous – but rather just try to get a good corpus with which we can evaluate different proposals.

While I haven’t given up on the “Tootsie Pop” model, I’m also not convinced it’s the best approach. But whatever we do, I still believe we should strive for something that is safe and predictable by default – something where the rules can be summarized on a postcard, at least if you don’t care about getting every last bit of optimization. But, as the unchecked-get example makes clear, it is important that we also enable people to obtain full optimization, possibly with some amount of opt-in. I’m just not yet sure what’s the right setup to balance the various factors.

As I wrote in my last post, I think that we have to expect that whatever guidelines we establish, they will have only a limited effect on the kind of code that people write. So if we want Rust code to be reliable in practice, we have to strive for rules that permit the things that people actually do: and the best model we have for that is the extant code. This is not to say we have to achieve total backwards compatibility with any piece of unsafe code we find in the wild, but if we find we are invalidating a common pattern, it can be a warning sign.