Currently, Rust has an effect system but refuses to admit it. In an effort to broaden the set of things that can be safely done in the face of extant aliases into the heap, I have been experimenting with a lightweight extension to Rust’s system. So far I think it is promising but also no magic bullet.


For those who aren’t familiar with the term, an “effect system” is basically just a fancy name for tagging functions with some extra information beyond the types of their arguments and their return type.

Effect systems vary wildly in their complexity and in their purpose. Probably the most widely deployed—and perhaps least popular—effect system is Java’s system of checked exceptions. In that system, the “effect” is the list of exceptions that may get thrown during the execution of the function. (In the research literature, effects are used for everything from ensuring consistent lock use to bridging functional and imperative software to supporting safe, live updates of running software, and that’s just getting started).

The truth is, though, that effect systems as commonly envisioned do not scale, and every Java programmers already knows this very well. The problem is that language designers face an annoying choice. They can take the Java route and keep the system very simple. Things work pretty well as long as your classes are all very concrete. But when you get to a highly abstract interface like Runnable, you start to run into trouble: what exceptions should the run() method of Runnable throw, anyhow? Obviously it’s impossible to say, as the interface can be used for any number of things.

The traditional solution to this problem is to allow effect parameterization. If you’re not careful, though, the sickness can easily be worse than the disease. Effect parameterization is basically like generic types, except that instead of defining your class in terms of an unknown type, you are defining it in terms of an unknown set of effects. To continue with the Java example, this would mean that Runnable does not declare the set of types that the run() method may throw but rather is defined something like this:

interface Runnable<throws E> {
    void run() throws E;

Now, this is a bit confusing, because it looks like E is a type (and in fact you can define Java like this where E is a type). But I added the extra throws keyword to try and make it clear that E here is not a type parameter, but an effect parameter: its value, so to speak, is not a single type, but rather a set of exception types that may be thrown. So perhaps I might define a concrete Runnable like (this syntax is again imaginary, and even ambiguous to boot, but hopefully you get the idea):

class RunnableThatUsesFilesAndJoinsThreads
implements Runnable<throws IOException, InterruptedException>
    void run() throws IOException, InterruptedException {

Obviously I think both of these solutions are unacceptable. The first (Java as it is today) because it is too inexpressive and the second (hypothetical, parametric Java) because it is a pain.

Rust today

Rust today has a simple effect system in which each function is labeled as either pure, impure, or unsafe (impure is the default). Pure functions are not permitted to modify any aliasable state. Impure functions may modify any mutable state they wish but may not perform unsafe operations like pointer arithmetic. Unsafe functions may do arbitrary things.

We address the matter of polymorphic effects just as Java does (this is the crux of what I propose to change; read on). Functions must be statically labeled with their effect. Closure pointers cannot have an effect and thus must be impure; however, we have some special rules around stack closure functions: for example, a stack closure in an unsafe function may perform unsafe actions.

Effects can be “hidden” and justed by using special blocks. For example, an unsafe block hides the unsafe effect:

fn foo() {
    unsafe {
       /* do unsafe things here,
          even though `foo()` is not unsafe */

and an unchecked block hides the impure effect:

pure fn foo() {
    unchecked {
       /* do impure things here,
          even though `foo()` is pure */

One thing you cannot do today is declare a pure function that takes closure parameters (or, at least, they cannot be called without using unchecked). This is too bad, because there most higher-order functions are basically pure, assuming their closures are pure.

Rust tomorrow, perhaps?

My basic idea (inspired by Lightweight Polymorphic Effects) is to say that a pure function is only as pure as its arguments are. So, you can write a pure function like all(), which applies a closure to each parameter:

pure fn all<T>(v: [T], f: fn(T) -> bool) -> bool {
    for v.each { |e| if !f(e) { ret false; } }
    ret true;

The caller then knows that, because all() is declared pure, it is does not itself do anything impure—but invoking all() can still cause impure effects, if an impure closure is passed to it. In type theoretical terms, every pure function is implicitly parameterized by the effects of its closure arguments.

This boils down to a single rule. A call expression f(a, ..., z) is pure if f and all the arguments a...z are “pure-callable”. An expression e is “pure-callable” if:

  • it is not a function;
  • it is a function with effect pure;
  • it is one of the formal arguments to the enclosing pure function (if any);
  • it is a stack closure, in which case its contents will be checked for purity.

I implemented this check, and in the process made it possible to have a type like pure fn(S) -> T or unsafe fn(S) -> T. It was easy. It’s pretty nice, but doesn’t cover all cases that you might like.

Going further to allow limited mutation?

One I had to use unchecked in a few places, such as this:

pure fn map<T,U>(v: [T], f: fn(T) -> U) -> bool {
    let u = [];
    unchecked {
        vec::reserve(&mut u, v.len());
    for v.each { |e| u += f(e); }
    ret u;

fn reserve<T>(v: &mut [T], l: uint) {...}

Here the problem is that vec::reserve() modifies its argument and is hence considered not pure. In some sense, it’d be nice if a pure function could give away mutable pointers to state that it is allowed to modify. In principle, we could extend this idea for lightweight polymorphism and say “a pure function cannot modify data except for its immediate arguments”. But maybe this is going too far. For now, I just inserted the occasional unchecked block.