Yesterday I realized that you can violate Rust’s memory safety guarantees by using “stack closures”, meaning closures that are allocated on the stack which have can refer to and manipulate the local variables of the enclosing stack frame. Such closures are ubiquitous in Rust, since every for loop makes use of them (and virtually every higher-order function). Luckily, this hole can be fixed with (I think) very little pain—in fact, I think fixing it can also help us make other analyses a little less strict.

The problem stems from the fact that, if you are clever, you can get a stack closure to recurse (that is, to call itself again with the same environment). This would mean that while the stack closure has a new set of local variables, the variables it inherits from its environment are the same. When the borrow checker was first written, this was not true, but it is now, since closures were generalized in the meantime.

Executive Summary

My proposed fix is a change that will guarantee statically that stack closures cannot recurse (that is, cannot call themselves with the same environment). I’ll go into the details of the problem and my proposed fix in the post, but I wanted to start by briefly summarizing what the effects would be on end-users.

  • Almost all if not all existing higher-order functions would still work fine. In particular, you can call &fn closures normally and pass them as a parameter to another function and so on. What would be a little more subtle is storing &fn closures into data structures; it’d still be supported, but some patterns that would be legal today would become illegal.
  • The “liveness” pass, which checks that all variables are initialized, can be generalized to permit closures to move out from local variables so long as they move a new value back in. This means that foldl can be implemented without copies:

    function foldl<A,B,I:Iterable<B>>(a0: A,
                                      iter: &I,
                                      op: &fn(A,&B) -> A) -> A {
        let mut result = a0;
        // Here I am deliberately desugaring the `for` syntax,
        // because I want to emphasize that this is a closure:
        iter.each(|b| {
            // Note: A is not copyable, therefore this call
            // *moves* from result into `op()` and then restores
            // it. This did not used to be legal because we are
            // executing in a closure, and we were afraid
            // that `op` might in fact somehow recurse, in which
            // case it would find that `result` is uninitialized.
            result = op(result, b);

What would not work would be:

  • Passing the same &fn closure as a parameter more than once, or calling a &fn closure with itself as an argument (no Y combinators).
  • Making a struct S that contains &fn closures and then calling those closures via an @S or &S pointer, like so:

    struct S {f: &fn()}
    fn foo(s: &S) { s.f() } // would be illegal

    You could write this code using an &mut S pointer, though:

    struct S {f: &fn()}
    fn foo(s: &mut S) { s.f() } // would be illegal

    The reason for this is that &mut pointers are non-aliasable. Similar rules arise in the revised borrow checker I’ve been working on for various corner cases where aliasing is a concern. I’ll have a post on that at some point too.

What is the problem, anyway?

Here is an example of an unsound function:

struct R<'self> {
    // This struct is needed to create the
    // otherwise infinite type of a fn that
    // accepts itself as argument:
    c: &'self fn(&R)

fn innocent_looking_victim() {
    let mut vec = ~[1, 2, 3];
    conspirator(|f| {
        if vec.len() < 100 {
            for vec.each |i| {

fn conspirator(f: &fn(&R)) {
    let r = R {c: f};

What happens when you run this function is that the vector vec is pushed to while it is also being iterated over, which is supposed to be impossible. The root cause of this problem is that the borrow checker generally assumes that &fn closures do not recurse (which, when it was first written, was true). Because of this, the closure f which is passed to conspirator is permitted to freeze vec, because it looks to the borrow checker like it can track all the possible aliases of vec and it sees that this action is ok. But the borrow checker is of course mistaken here, since the closure f is passed to itself as an argument, and thus there is an alias of vec, capured in the closure environment.

The problem lies in the &fn closures, which effectively create implicit references to the data they capture. I tried to make up an example showing what that function looks like if state is passed explicitly, but due to the problem of recursive types it is quite tedious, so I’m going to, um, leave it as an exercise to the reader.

Anyhow, my solution has two parts:

  1. Modify the borrow checker to treat these implicit references just like any other reference in the borrow checker. Basically the model should be that when a stack closure with lifetime 'a is created, its contents are opaque to the creator, except that any data which it references is considered borrowed for the lifetime 'a. The type of borrow will depend on how the variable is used (for example, is it read? mutated? borrowed from within the closure?). In the case above, the variable vec would be borrowed mutably, since it is pushed to.
  2. Guarantee that closures cannot recurse, because otherwise we’d have to treat every upvar as potentially aliased, which would make most programs illegal.

Let’s look at those changes in more detail.

Modifications to the borrow checker

The basic idea would be to examine the body of each closure as we are conducting the borrow check to examine what free variables it references and how. This is fairly straightforward to do: the borrow checker conducts a walk of the AST already to find all the functions it must check, so basically what we would do is to analyze functions on the way up the tree. So we would analyze each closure first, assuming it has total access to the upvars of the parent. We would then compute a list of the upvars that the closure borrowed and what level of access it required. In the parent fn, when we find a closure expression, we would not examine the body of the closure but rather just treat it as taking out loans that persist for the lifetime of the closure. This is very similar to what we have to do for once fns and also what we do for moves (I guess that’s another post, though).

Guaranteeing closures cannot recurse

The idea here would be to make all &fn closures non-copyable. Basically this would mean the only copyable closure type would be an @fn:

  • ~fn is non-copyable
  • ~once fn is non-copyable
  • &fn will become non-copyable
  • &once fn is non-copyable
  • @fn is copyable
  • @once fn is non-copyable

At first I thought that @once fn was not necessary, but in fact it is potentially useful for combinator libraries and the like, as it allows you to return a fn that can move out of its environment.

For fun, let’s review the full closure type specification from a previous blog post, modernized somewhat and taking these changes into account.

(&'r|~|@'r) [unsafe] [once] fn [:K] (S) -> T
^~~~~~~~~~^ ^~~~~~~^ ^~~~~^    ^~~^ ^~^    ^
   |          |        |        |    |     |
   |          |        |        |    |   Return type
   |          |        |        |  Argument types
   |          |        |    Environment bounds
   |          |     Once-ness (a.k.a., affine)
   |        Effect
Allocation type and lifetime bound

One part I had hoped to remove was the environment bounds, but I think they are still necessary. The only real use case for this is :Const, which would be a way of saying that the closure only closes over deeply immutable data. This enables parallelism in various ways (putting closures in ARCs, fork-join parallelism a la PJS, etc). Conceivably we could also support :Clone, which would permit closures to be cloned, but we’d need some magic support in trans (code which, admittedly, mostly exists) to make that work.

Some musings on orthogonality or lack thereof

It annoys me that the rules for closures feel… one-off. I considered briefly if we were not categorizing things correctly. To some extent, the answer is clearly yes: there are many partly orthogonal characteristics of closures (once-ness, type of pointer used to reference its data, kinds of loans it requires, etc). Ultimately, we are trying to boil this down into a relatively small set of types that covers all important use cases.

A similar phenomena occurs with & and &mut: there are really two characteristics, aliasability and mutability, and we have joined them together, such that & references are immutable and aliasable and &mut are mutable and unaliasable. This is typically what you want, but there are rare occasions where you must use &mut solely for its non-aliasable nature and not because of mutability. In particular, if you want access to other non-aliasable things, such as other &mut pointers or (per this post) &fn closures.

In the beginning of the post I wrote that the following example will not work:

  struct S {f: &fn()}
  fn foo(s: &S) { s.f() } // would be illegal

The reason for this has to do precisely with the fact that &S pointers are always aliasable. Hence we could not permit s.f to be called because we can’t guarantee that there are no aliases to s lurking around, and thus creating aliases to s.f. You could fix this program by using &mut:

  struct S {f: &fn()}
  fn foo(s: &mut S) { s.f() } // legal

In this case, we don’t care about mutability, we do care about uniqueness.

I was debating for a time whether to suggest adding more facets to the various types. For example, one could imagine &, &alias, &mut, and &mut alias. But I think that ultimately, this is a bad idea. For one thing, the correct aliasability default varies, so you’d probably want something like &, &noalias, &mut, &mut alias. The type system ultimately feels more complex, with many branches (case in point: see the full closure type specification above!).