Over the last year or two (man, it’s scary how time flies), I’ve been doing quite a lot of thinking about Rust’s trait system. I’ve been looking for a way to correct a number of flaws and shortcomings in the current implementation, not the least of which is that it’s performance is not that great. But also, I’ve been wanting to get a relatively clear, normative definition of how the trait system works, so that we can better judge possible extensions. After a number of false starts, I think I’m finally getting somewhere, so I wanted to start writing about it.

In this first post, I’m just going to try and define a basic mapping between Rust traits and an underlying logic. In follow-up posts, I’ll start talking about how to apply these ideas into an improved, more capable trait implementation.

Rust traits and logic

One of the first observations is that the Rust trait system is basically a kind of logic. As such, we can map our struct, trait, and impl declarations into logical inference rules. For the most part, these are basically Horn clauses, though we’ll see that to capture the full richness of Rust – and in particular to support generic programming – we have to go a bit further than standard Horn clauses.

If you’ve never heard of Horn clauses, think Prolog. If you’ve never worked with Prolog, shame on you! Ok, I’m just kidding, I’ve just been quite obsessed with Prolog lately so now I have to advocate studying it to everyone (that and Smalltalk – well, and Rust of course :wink:). More seriously, if you’ve never worked with Prolog, don’t worry, I’ll try to explain some as we go. But you may want to keep the wikipedia page loaded up. =)

Anyway, so, the mapping between traits and logic is pretty straightforward. Imagine we declare a trait and a few impls, like so:

trait Clone { }
impl Clone for usize { }
impl<T> Clone for Vec<T> where T: Clone { }

We could map these declarations to some Horn clauses, written in a Prolog-like notation, as follows:

Clone(Vec<?T>) :- Clone(?T).

In Prolog terms, we might say that Clone(Foo) – where Foo is some Rust type – is a predicate that represents the idea that the type Foo implements Clone. These rules are program clauses that state the conditions under which that predicate can be proven (i.e., considered true). So the first rule just says “Clone is implemented for usize”. The next rule says “for any type ?T, Clone is implemented for Vec<?T> if clone is implemented for ?T”. So e.g. if we wanted to prove that Clone(Vec<Vec<usize>>), we would do so by applying the rules recursively:

  • Clone(Vec<Vec<usize>>) is provable if:
    • Clone(Vec<usize>) is provable if:
      • Clone(usize) is provable. (Which is is, so we’re all good.)

But now suppose we tried to prove that Clone(Vec<Bar>). This would fail (after all, I didn’t give an impl of Clone for Bar):

  • Clone(Vec<Bar>) is provable if:
    • Clone(Bar) is provable. (But it is not, as there are no applicable rules.)

We can easily extend the example above to cover generic traits with more than one input type. So imagine the Eq<T> trait, which declares that Self is equatable with a value of type T:

trait Eq<T> { ... }
impl Eq<usize> for usize { }
impl<T: Eq<U>> Eq<Vec<U>> for Vec<T> { }

That could be mapped as follows:

Eq(usize, usize).
Eq(Vec<?T>, Vec<?U>) :- Eq(?T, ?U).

So far so good. However, as we’ll see, things get a bit more interesting when we start adding in notions like associated types, higher-ranked trait bounds, struct/trait where clauses, coherence, lifetimes, and so forth. =) I won’t get to all of those items in this post, but hopefully I’ll cover them in follow-on posts.

Associated types and type equality

Let’s start with associated types. Let’s extend our example trait to include an associated type or two:

trait Iterator {
    type Item;

impl<A> Iterator for IntoIter<A> {
    type Item = A;

impl<T: Iterator> Iterator for Enumerate<T> {
    type Item = (usize, T::Item);

We would map these into our pseudo-Prolog as follows:

// This is what we saw before:
Iterator(Enumerate<?A>) :- Iterator(?A).

// These clauses cover normalizing the associated type.
IteratorItem(IntoIter<?A>, ?A).
IteratorItem(Enumerate<?T>, (usize, <?U as Iterator>::Item)).
                                //  ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
                                //  fully explicit reference to an associated type

You can see that we now have two kinds of clauses. Iterator(T) tells us if Iterator is implemented for T. IteratorItem(T, U) tells us that T::Item is equivalent to U.

And this brings us to an important point: we need to think about what equality means in this logic. You can see that I’ve been writing Prolog-like notation but using Rust types; this might have seemed like a notational convenience (and it is), but it actually masks something deeper. The notion of equality for a Rust type is sigificantly richer than Prolog’s notion of equality, which is a very simple syntactic unification.

In particular, imagine that I wanted to combine the Clone rules we saw earlier with the Iterator definition we just saw, and I wanted to prove something like Clone(<IntoIter<usize> as Iterator>::Item). Intuitively, this should hold, because <IntoIter<usize> as Iterator>::Item is defined to be usize, and we know that Clone(usize) is provable. But if were using a standard Prolog engine, it wouldn’t know anything about how to handle associated types when it does proof search, and hence it could not use the clause Clone(usize) to prove the goal Clone(<IntoIter<usize> as Iterator>::Item).

One approach: rewrite predicates to be based on syntactic equality

One approach to solving this problem would be to define all of our logic rules strictly in terms of syntactic equality. This approach is sort of appealing because it means we could (in principle, anyway) run the resulting rules on a standard Prolog engine. Ultimately, though, I don’t think it’s the right way to think about things, but it is a helpful building block for explaining the better way.

If we are using only a syntactic notion of equality, we can’t just use the same variable twice in order to equate types as we have been doing. Instead, we have to systematically rewrite the rules we’ve been giving to use an auxiliary predicate TypeEqual(T, U). This predicate tells us when two Rust types are equal. This is what the rules that result from the impl of Iterator for IntoIter might look like written in this style:

Iterator(?A) :-
    TypeEqual(?A, IntoIter<?B>).
IteratorItem(?A, ?B) :-
    TypeEqual(?A, IntoIter<?B>).

Looking at the first rule, we say that Iterator(?A) is true for any type ?A that is equal to IntoIter<?B>. You can see that we avoided directly equating ?A and IntoIter<?B>.

The second rule is a bit more interesting: remember, intuitively, we want to say that that IteratorItem(IntoIter<?B>, ?B) – that is, we want to “pull out” the type argument ?X to IntoIter and repeat it. But since we can’t directly equate things, we accept any type ?A that can be found to be equal to IntoIter<?B>.

So let’s look at how this TypeEqual thing would work. I’ll just show one way it could be defined, where you have a separate rule for each kind of type:

// Rules for syntactic equality. If we JUST had these rules,
// then `TypeEqual` would be equivalent to standard
// Prolog unification.

TypeEqual(usize, usize).

TypeEqual(IntoIter<?A>, IntoIter<?B>) :-
    TypeEqual(?A, ?B).

TypeEqual(<?A as Iterator>::Item, <?B as Iterator>::Item) :-
    TypeEqual(?A, ?B).

// Normalization based rules. This is the rule that lets you
// rewrite an associated type to the type from the impl.

TypeEqual(<?A as Iterator>::Item, ?B) :-
    IteratorItem(?A, ?B).

TypeEqual(?B, <?A as Iterator>::Item) :-
    IteratorItem(?A, ?B).

The most interesting rules are the last two, which allow us to normalize an associated type on either side. Now that we’ve done this rewriting, we can return to our original goal of proving Clone(<IntoIter<usize> as Iterator>::Item), and we will find that it is possible. The key difference is that the program clause Clone(usize) would now be written Clone(?A) :- TypeEqual(?A, usize). This means that we are able to find a (rather convoluted) proof like so:

  • Clone(<IntoIter<usize> as Iterator>::Item) is provable if:
    • TypeEqual(<IntoIter<usize> as Iterator>::Item, usize) is provable if:
      • IteratorItem(IntoIter<usize>, usize) is provable if:
        • TypeEqual(IntoIter<usize>, IntoIter<usize>) is provable if:
          • TypeEqual(usize, usize) is provable. (Which it is, so we’re all good.)

So, we can see that this approach at least sort of works, but it has a number of downsides. One problem is that we’ve kind of inserted a “compilation” step – the logic rules that we get from a trait/impl now have to be transformed in this non-obvious way that makes them look quite different from the source. One of the goals of this logic translation is to help us understand and evaluate new additions to the trait system; the further it strays from the Rust source, the less helpful it will be for that purpose.

The other thing is that the whole reason to use syntactic equality only was to get something a normal Prolog engine would understand, but we don’t really want to use a regular Prolog engine in the compiler anyway, for a variety of reasons. And these rules in particular, at least the way I wrote them here, cause a lot of problems for a regular Prolog engine, because it introduces ambiguity into the proof search. You could rewrite them in more complex ways, but then we’re straying even further from the simple logic we were looking for.

Another approach: just change what equality means!

Ultimately, a better approach is just to say that equality in our logic includes a notion of normalization. That is, we can basically take the same rules for type equality that we defined as TypeEqual(A, B) but move it into the trait-solving engine itself (or, depending on your POV, into the metatheory of our logic). So now our trait solver is defined in terms of the original, straight-forward rules that we’ve been writing, but it’s understood that when we equate usize with <IntoIter<usize> as Iterator>::Item, that succeeds only if we can recursively prove the predicate IteratorItem(IntoIter<usize>, usize). This ultimately is the approach that I’ve taken in my prototype: the trait solver itself has a built-in notion of normalization and it always uses it when it is doing unification. (The scheme I have implemented is what we have sometimes called “lazy normalization” in the past.)

It may seem like this was always the obvious route to take. And I suppose in a way it is. But part of why I resisted it for some time was that I was searching out what is the simplest and most minimal way to define the trait solver; so every notion that we can trivially “export” into the logic rules is a win in that respect. But equality is a bridge too far.

An aside: call for citations

As an aside, I’d be curious to know if anyone has suggestions for related work around this area of “customizable equality”. In particular, I’m not aware of logic languages that have to prove goals to prove equality (though I got some leads at POPL last week that I have yet to track down).

Along a similar vein, I’ve also been interested in strengthening the notion of equality even further, so that we go beyond mere normalization and include the ability to have arbitrary equality constraints (e.g., fn foo<A>() where A = i32`). The key to doing this is solving a problem called “congruence closure” – and indeed there exist good algorithms for doing that, and I’ve implemented one of them in the ena crate that I’m using to do unification. However, combining this algorithm with the proof search rules for trait solving, particularly with inference and higher-ranked trait bounds, is non-trivial, and I haven’t found a satisfying solution to it yet. I would assume that more full-featured theorem provers like Coq, Lean, Isabelle and so forth have some clever tricks for tackling these sorts of problems, but I haven’t graduated to reading into those techniques yet, so citations here would be nice too (though it may be some time before I follow up).

Type-checking normal functions

OK, now that we have defined some logical rules that are able to express when traits are implemented and to handle associated types, let’s turn our focus a bit towards type-checking. Type-checking is interesting because it is what gives us the goals that we need to prove. That is, everything we’ve seen so far has been about how we derive the rules by which we can prove goals from the traits and impls in the program; but we are also interesting in how derive the goals that we need to prove, and those come from type-checking.

Consider type-checking the function foo() here:

fn foo() { bar::<usize>() }
fn bar<U: Eq>() { }

This function is very simple, of course: all it does is to call bar::<usize>(). Now, looking at the definition of bar(), we can see that it has one where-clause U: Eq. So, that means that foo() will have to prove that usize: Eq in order to show that it can call bar() with usize as the type argument.

If we wanted, we could write a prolog predicate that defines the conditions under which bar() can be called. We’ll say that those conditions are called being “well-formed”:

barWellFormed(?U) :- Eq(?U).

Then we can say that foo() type-checks if the reference to bar::<usize> (that is, bar() applied to the type usize) is well-formed:

fooTypeChecks :- barWellFormed(usize).

If we try to prove the goal fooTypeChecks, it will succeed:

  • fooTypeChecks is provable if:
    • barWellFormed(usize), which is provable if:
      • Eq(usize), which is provable because of an impl.

Ok, so far so good. Let’s move on to type-checking a more complex function.

Type-checking generic functions: beyond Horn clauses

In the last section, we used standard Prolog horn-clauses (augmented with Rust’s notion of type equality) to type-check some simple Rust functions. But that only works when we are type-checking non-generic functions. If we want to type-check a generic function, it turns out we need a stronger notion of goal than Prolog can be provide. To see what I’m talking about, let’s revamp our previous example to make foo generic:

fn foo<T: Eq>() { bar::<T>() }
fn bar<U: Eq>() { }

To type-check the body of foo, we need to be able to hold the type T “abstract”. That is, we need to check that the body of foo is type-safe for all types T, not just for some specific type. We might express this like so:

fooTypeChecks :-
  // for all types T...
  forall<T> {
    // ...if we assume that Eq(T) is provable...
    if (Eq(T)) {
      // ...then we can prove that `barWellFormed(T)` holds.

This notation I’m using here is the notation I’ve been using in my prototype implementation; it’s similar to standard mathematical notation but a bit Rustified. Anyway, the problem is that standard Horn clauses don’t allow universal quantification (forall) or implication (if) in goals (though many Prolog engines do support them, as an extension). For this reason, we need to accept something called “first-order hereditary harrop” (FOHH) clauses – this long name basically means “standard Horn clauses with forall and if in the body”. But it’s nice to know the proper name, because there is a lot of work describing how to efficiently handle FOHH clauses. I was particularly influenced by Gopalan Nadathur’s excellent “A Proof Procedure for the Logic of Hereditary Harrop Formulas”.

Anyway, I won’t go into the details in this post, but suffice to say that supporting FOHH is not really all that hard. And once we are able to do that, we can easily describe the type-checking rule for generic functions like foo in our logic.

Conclusion and future vision

So, I’m pretty excited about this work. I’ll be posting plenty of follow-up posts that dig into the details in the days to come, but I want to take a moment in this post to lay out the long-term vision that I’m shooting for in a bit more depth.

Ultimately, what I am trying to develop is a kind of “middle layer” for the Rust type system. That is, we can think of modeling Rust semantics in three layers:

  • Pure Rust syntax (the traits, impls, etc that you type)
  • Inference rules (the “lowered” form I’ve been talking about in this post)
  • Proof search engine (the trait solver in the compiler)

Essentially, what makes the current compiler’s trait solver complex is that it omits the middle layer. This is exactly analogous to the way that trans in the old compiler was complex because it tried to map directly from the AST to LLVM’s IR, instead of having an intermediate step (what we now call MIR).

The goal of this work is then to puzzle out what piece of each structure belongs at each layer such that each individual layer remains quite simple, but the system still does what we expect. We saw a bit of that in this post, where I sketched out why it is best to include type equality in the layer of the “proof search engine” – i.e., as part of how the inference rules are themselves interpreted – rather than modeling it in the inference rules themselves. I think I’ve made a lot of progress here, as I’ll try to lay out in follow-up posts, but in some areas – particularly coherence! – I’m not yet sure of the right division.

For the moment, I’ve been implementing things in Rust. You can view my prototype solver in the chalk repository. The code consists of a parser for a subset of Rust syntax. It then lowers this syntax into an internal IR that maps fairly cleanly to the things I’ve been showing you here. What I would like is for chalk to become the normative implementation of the trait system: that is, chalk basically would describe how the trait system is supposed to behave. To this end, we would prioritize clean and simple code over efficiency.

Once we have a normative implementation, that means that we could evaluate the complexity of RFCs that aim to extend the trait system by implementing them in the normative codebase first, so that we can uncover any complications. As a proof of concept of that approach, I’ve implemented withoutboat’s associated type constructor RFC, which I will describe in a future post (preview: it’s very easy to do and works out beautifully; in fact, it doesn’t add anything at all to the logic, once you consider the fact that we already support generic methods).

Separately, I’d like to rewrite the trait system in the compiler to use the same overall strategy as chalk is pioneering, but with a more optimized implementation. I will say more in follow-up posts, but I think that this strategy has a good chance of significantly improving compile-times: it is much more amenable to caching and does far less redundant work than the current codebase. Moreover, this approach just seems much cleaner and more capable overall, so I would expect we would be able to to close out a number of open bugs related to normalization as well as completing various advanced features, like specialization. Win-win overall.

Once we have two implementations, I would like to check them against one another. Basically the compiler would have a special mode in which it forwards every goal that it tries to prove over to the normative implementation, as well as solving the goal itself using the efficient implementation. These two should yield the same results: if they fail to do so, that’s a bug somewhere (probably the compiler, but you never know).

Finally, I think it should be possible to extract a more formal description of the trait system from chalk, along the lines of what I’ve been sketching here. This would allow us to prove various properties about the trait system as well as our proof search algorithm (e.g., it’d be nice to prove that the proof search strategy we are using is sound and complete – meaning that it always finds valid proofs, and that if there is a proof to be found, it will find it).

This is way too much work to do on my own of course. I intend to focus my efforts primarily on the compiler implementation, because I would love to know if indeed I am correct and this is a massive improvement to compilation time. But along the way I also plan to write-up as many mentoring bugs as I can, both in chalk and in the compiler itself. I think this would be a really fun way to get into rustc hacking, and we can always use more people who know their way around the trait system!


I started a thread on internals to discuss this post and other (forthcoming) posts in the series.