In the past, I’ve been quite the champion of dynamically sized types (DST). Specifically what this means is that things like [T] and Trait would be “types” in the Rust type system. Lately I’ve been investing a lot of effort thinking through the ramifications of offering better support for smart pointers, and in particular how this interacts with dynamically sized types, and I am no longer persuaded that DST offer the best way forward. I’m a bit unsure, though, and the topic is complicated, so I wanted to stop and write up a short series of posts laying out my thought process thus far. This post will describe what it would mean to offer DST in more detail. I don’t plan to give a lot of Rust background, since there’s enough to talk about.

This is part 1 of a series:

  1. Examining DST.
  2. Examining an alternative formulation of the current system.
  3. …and then a twist.
  4. Further complications.

Vectors vs braces

I am assuming that we adopt the Vec vs ~[T] proposal that originated on Reddit. The basic idea is to have the builtin vector notation [T] be used for fixed-length vectors, whereas growable vectors would be implemented with a library type like Vec<T>. This slices the gordian knot that, to be growable, you need a pointer, length, and capacity (hence sizeof::<~[T]>() would be 3 words) but otherwise a pointer and a length will suffice (hence sizeof::<&[T]>() would be 2 words). Since ~[T] would not be growable, all “pointers-to-[T]” can be 2 words in length.

Interpreting DSTs as existential types

Informally, a type like [T] means “0 or more instances of T laid out sequentially in memory”. Formally, we can describe that type like exists N. [T, ..N] – this is called an existential type and it means “this memory can be described as the type [T, ..N] for some value of N, but we don’t know what that value of N is”.

For now, I’m going to limit my discussion to vector types, because I think the interactions are more clear, but everything applies equally well to “trait types”. For example, the type Trait can be described as exists T:Trait. T, which is read “an instance of some type T that implements Trait, but we don’t know what that type T is”.

Anyway, so back to vector types. Now imagine that we have a value slice of type &[T] – armed with existential types, we can interpret this sa &(exists N. [T, ..N]). That is, “a borrowed pointer to some memory containing some number of T instances”. Of course, before we can do anything useful with slice, we kind of need to know how many instances of T are present: otherwise if we had an expression like slice[i], we’d have no way to know whether the index i was in bounds or not.

To address this problem, we say that pointers to a DST (i.e., &[T], ~[T], and *[T]) are all fat pointers, meaning that they are represented as two words: the data pointer and a length. We also impose limitations that ensures that DSTs only appear behind one of their built-in pointer types.

This does not mean that you will never see a DST anyplace else. For example, I could write a struct definition like RC (for reference-counted data):

struct RC<T> {
    priv data: *T,
    priv ref_count: uint,

Now, a type like RC<[int]> would be legal – this is because, when the structure definition is “expanded out”, the DST [int] appears behind a * sigil (i.e., the type of data will be *[int]).

This setup implies that a type like RC<[int, ..3]> and a type like RC<[int]> will have different sizes; we’ll see later that this is a bit of a complication in some regards. The reason that the sizes are different is that [int, ..3] has a statically known size, and hence *[int, ..3] is a thin pointer. This means that RC<[int, ..3]> is represented in memory as two words: (pointer, ref_count). [int], in contrast, requires a fat pointer, and thus the layout of RC<[int]> is ((pointer, length), ref_count).

Constructing instances of DSTs via coercion

So how do we get an instance of a type that includes a DST? Let’s start by discussing ~[int] and then extend to RC<[int]>.

My preferred approach is to extend the “casting” approach that we use for creating objects. For now, let me just discuss this in terms of the built-in

Recall that an object type like ~Writer is creating by repackaging an existing pointer of some type ~Foo, where Foo implements Writer, with a vtable. In other words, we convert the static knowledge of the precise type (Foo) into dynamic knowledge (the vtable).

You can imagine using a similar process to obtain a ~[int]. For example, suppose we created a vector v like v = ~[1, 2, 3] – this would have type ~[int, ..3]. This vector v could then be coerced into a ~[int] by “forgetting” the length and moving it to a dynamic value. That is, our thin pointer v can be converted into a fat poiner (v, 3). This is exactly analogous to the object creation case: the static knowledge about the length has been moved into a dynamic value.

Using this coercion approach addresses one of the annoying inconsistencies we suffer with today. That is, today, the expression ~[1, 2, 3] allocates a ~[int] of length 3, but the expression ~([1, 2, 3]) allocates a ~[int, ..3]. That is, there is a special case in the parser where ~[...] is not treated as the composition of the ~ operator with a [...] expression but rather as a thing in and of itself. This is consistent with our current approach to the types, where ~[int] is a single, indivisible unit, but it is not particularly consistent with a DST approach, nor it is particularly elegant.

Another problem with the current “special allocation form” approach is that it doesn’t extend to objects, unless we want to force object creation to allocate a new pointer. That was how we used to do things, but we found that re-packaging an existing pointer is much cleaner and opens up more coding patterns. (For example, I could take as input an &[int, ..3] and then pass it to a helper routine that expects a &[int].)

Extending coercion to user-defined smart pointer types

OK, in the previous section I showed coercion is an elegant option for creating DSTs. But can we extend it to user-defined smart pointer types like RC? The answer is mostly yes, though not without some complications. The next post will cover an alternative interpretation of RC<[int]> that works more smoothly.

The challenge here is that the memory layouts for a type like RC<[int, ..3]> and a type like RC<[int]> are quite different. As I showed before, the former is simply (data, refcount), but the latter is ((data, length), refcount). Still, we are coercing the pointer, which means that we’re allowed to change the representation. So you can imagine the compiler would emit code to move each field of the RC<[int, ..3]> into its proper place, inserting the length as needed.

For a simple type like RC, the compiler adaption is always possible, but it won’t work when the data for the smart pointer is itself located behind another pointer. For example, imagine a smart pointer that connects to some other allocation scheme, in which the allocation is always associated with a header allocated in some fixed location:

struct Header<unsized T> {
    header1: uint,
    header2: uint,
    payload: *T

struct MyAlloc<unsized T> {
    data: *Header<T>

Here the *T which must be coerced from a *[int, ..3] into a *[int] is located behind another pointer. We clearly can’t adapt this type.

Limitation: DSTs must appear behind a pointer

That example is rather artificial, but it points the way at another limitation. It’s easy to imagine a special allocator that inserts a header before the payload itself. If we attemped to model this header explicitly in the types, it might look like the following:

struct Header1<T> {
    header1: uint,
    header2: uint,
    payload: T     // Not *T as before, but T

struct MyAlloc1<T> {
    data: *Header1<T>

This is basically the same as before but the type of payload has changed. As before, we can’t hope to coerce this type, but this is for an even more fundamental reason: because the T type doesn’t appear directly behind a * pointer, it couldn’t even be instantiated with an unsized type to begin with.

This same principle extends to another use case, one where DSTs seem like they offer a good approach, but in fact they do not. A common C idiom is to have a structure that is coupled with an array; because the length of this array does not change, the structure and the array are allocated in one chunk. As an example, let’s look briefly at functional trees, where the shape doesn’t change once the trees are construted; in such a case, we might want to allocate the node and its array of children all together.

There are many ways to encode this in C but this is my personal preferred one, because it is quite explicit:

struct Tree {
    int value;
    int num_children;
Tree **children(Tree *t) {
    return (Tree**) (t + 1);

Whenever we allocate a new tree node, we make sure to allocate enough space not only for the Tree fields but for the array of children:

Tree *new_tree(int value, int num_children) {
    size_t children_size = sizeof(Tree*) * num_children;
    size_t parent_size = sizeof(Tree);
    Tree *parent = (Tree*) malloc(parent_size + children_size);
    parent->value = value;
    parent->num_children = num_children;
    parentset(children(parent), 0, children_size);
    return parent;

And I can easily iterate over a subtree like so:

int sum(Tree *parent) {
  int r = parent->value;
  for (int i = 0; i < parent->num_children; i++)

This is all nice but of course horribly unsafe. Can we create a safe Rust equivalent?

You might at first think that I could write a type like:

struct Tree {
    value: uint,
    num_children: uint,
    children: [RC<Tree>], // Refcounting works great for trees!

But of course this structure wouldn’t be permitted, since a DST like [RC<Tree>] must appear behind a pointer. And of course Rust also has no idea that num_children is the length of children.

This is not to say that there is no way to handle this familiar C pattern, but it’s not clear how DST supports it. The next scheme I discuss offers a clearer path.

Impls and DSTs

One big argument in favor of DST is that it permits impls over types like [T] and Trait. This promises to eliminate a lot of boilerplate. But when I looked into it in more detail, I found the story wasn’t quite that simple.

Implementing for vector types is not that useful.

In my initial post, I gave the example of implementing ToStr, pointing out that without DST, you need a lot of impls to handle the “boilerplate” cases:

impl<T:ToStr> ToStr for ~T { ... }
impl<'a, T:ToStr> ToStr for &'a T { ... }
impl<T:ToStr> ToStr for ~[T] { ... }
impl<'a, T:ToStr> ToStr for &'a [T] { ... }

Whereas with DST things are more composable:

impl<T:ToStr> ToStr for ~T { ... }
impl<'a, T:ToStr> ToStr for &'a T { ... }
impl<T:ToStr+Sized> ToStr for [T] { ... }

This point is still valid, but the question is, how far does this get you? When I started experimenting with other traits, I found that implementing on [T] often didn’t work out so well.

For example, consider the Map trait:

trait Map<K,V> {
    fn insert(&mut self, key: K, value: V);
    fn get<'a>(&'a self, key: K) -> &'a V;

Imagine I wanted to implement the Map trait on association lists (vector of pairs). I’d prefer to implement on the type [(K,V)] because that would

impl<K:Eq,V> Map<K,V> for [(K,V)] {
    fn insert(&mut self, key: K, value: V) {
        // Here: self has type `&mut [(K,V)]`
        self.push((key, value)); // ERROR.
    fn get<'a>(&'a self, key: K) -> &'a V {
        // Here: self has type `&[(K,V)]`
        for &(ref k, ref v) in self.iter() {
            if k == key { return v; }
        fail!("Bad key");

The problem here lies in the insert() method, where I find that I cannot push onto a slice.

But implementing for object types is useful.

On the other hand, because able to write an impl over a type like Trait is quite useful. Let me elaborate. Currently an object type like &Trait or ~Trait is not automatically considered to implement the interface Trait. This is because it is not always possible. Consider the following example:

trait Message {
    fn send(~self);
    fn increment(&mut self);
    fn read(&self) -> int;

Now imagine that we were trying to implement this trait for an object type such as &Message. We’re going to run into problems because the object type bakes in a particular pointer type – in this case, & – and thus we are not able to implement the methods send() or increment():

impl Message for &Message {
    fn send(~self) {
        // Argh! `self` has type `~&Message`, but I need
        // a `~Message`.
    fn increment(&mut self) {
        // Argh! `self` has type `&mut &Message`, but I need
        // an `&mut Message`.
    fn read(&self) -> int {
        // OK, `self` has type `&&Message`, I can
        // transform that to an `&Message` and call `read()`:

Thanks to inherited mutability, what would work is to implement Message for ~Message:

impl Message for ~Message {
    fn send(~self) {
        // OK, `self` has type `~~Message`. A bit silly but workable.
    fn increment(&mut self) {
        // `self` has type `&mut ~Message`. Inherited mutability
        // implies that the `~Message` itself is thus mutable.
    fn read(&self) -> int {
        // `self` has type `&~Message`. We can read it.

Note that while this will compile, the type of send() is rather inefficient. We wind up with a double allocation. (I leave as an exercise to the reader to imagine what will happen when we extend self types to include things like self: RC<Self> and so on.)

If we are limited to implementing traits for object types, then, I think one must be careful when designing traits to be used as objects. You should avoid mixing sigils and instead have a series of base traits that are combined. And you should avoid ~self and prefer by-value self (modulo issue 10672).

trait ReadMessage {
    fn read(&self) -> int;
trait WriteMessage { 
    fn increment(&mut self);
trait Message : ReadMessage+WriteMessage {
    fn send(self);

Now we can implement ReadMessage for &Message, WriteMessage for &mut Message, and Message for ~Message (or other smart pointer types that convey ownership), no problem.

DST offers a way out

Alternatively, under a DST system, we could implement the original Message trait once for all object types:

impl Message for Message {
    fn send(~self) { /* self: ~Message, OK! */ }
    fn increment(&mut self) { /* self: &mut Message, OK! */ }
    fn read(&self) -> int { /* self: &Message, OK! */ }

We could probably just have the compiler implement this automatically, even. One catch is that we could not support a by-value self method like fn send(self). This is mildly hostile to user-defined smart pointers since ownership transfer via object type methods would really be limited to ~ pointers.


None yet, wait for the thrilling part 2!