In the previous post I elaborated a bit on DSTs and how they could be created and used. I want to look a bit now at an alternate way to support the combination of vector types and smart pointers (e.g., RC<[uint]>). This approach avoids the use of DSTs. We’ll see that it also addresses some of the rough patches of DST, but doesn’t work quite as well for object types.

This is part 2 of a series:

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

Existential types, take 2

Previously I showed how a type like [T] could be interpreted as an existential type like exists N. [T, ..N]. In this post, I explore the idea that we most the exists qualifier to a different level. So ~[T], for example, would be interpreted as exists N. ~[T, ..N] rather than ~(exists N. [T, ..N]). Naturally the same existential treatment can be applied to objects. So &Trait is formalized as exists T:Trait. &T.

This is in a way very similar to what we have today. In particular, there are no dynamically sized types: [T] is not a type on its own, but rather a kind of shorthand that “globs onto” the enclosing pointer type. However, as we proceed I’ll outline a couple of points where we can generalize and improve upon on what we have today; this is because, today, a ~[T] value is considered a type all its own that is totally distinct from a ~[T, ..N], rather than being an existential variant. This has implications for how we build vectors and for our ability to smoothly support user-defined pointer types.

Now, when I say shorthand, does that imply that users could write out a full existential type? Not necessarily, and probably not in the initial versions. Perhaps in the future. I am thinking of more of a mental shorthand, as instruction for how to think about a type like &Trait or &[T].

Representing existentials

Moving the existential qualifier outside of the pointer simplifies the story about representation and coercion. An existential type like is always represented as two words:

repr(exists N. U) == (repr(U), uint)
repr(exists T:Trait. U) == (repr(U), vtable)

So, for example, in the type ~[T] == exists N. ~[T, ..N], the representation would be (pointer, length), where pointer is a pointer to a [T, ..N]. Of course, we don’t know what N is, but that doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t affect the pointer. We can therefore adjust our definition repr slightly to codify the fact that we don’t know – nor care – about the precise values of N or T:

repr(exists N. U) == (repr(U[N => 0]), uint)
repr(exists T:Trait. U) == (repr(U[T => ()]), vtable)

Here I just substituted 0 for N and () for T. This makes sense since the compiler doesn’t really know what those values are at compilation time. It also implies that we cannot create an existential unless it’s safe to ignore N and T – e.g., exists N. [T, ..N] would be illegal, since there is no pointer indirection, and hence knowing N is crucial to knowing the representation of [T, ..N].

This definition probably looks pretty similar to what I had before but it’s different in a crucial way. In particular, there are no more fat pointers – rather there are existential types that abstract over pointers. The length or vtable are part of the representation of the existential type, not the pointer. Let me explain the implications of this by example. Imagine our RC type that we had before:

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

If we have a RC<[int, ..3]> instance, its representation will be (pointer, ref_count). But if we coerce it to RC<[int]>, its representation will be ((pointer, ref_count), length). Note that RC pointer itself is unchanged: it’s just embedded in a tuple.

Embedding the RC value in a tuple is naturally simpler than what we had before, which had to kind of rewrite the RC value to insert the length in the middle. But it’s also just plain more expressive. For example, consider the example of a custom allocator smart pointer that includes some headers on the allocation before the data itself (I introduced this type in part 1):

struct Header1<T> {
    header1: uint,
    header2: uint,
    payload: T

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

With DST, a type like MyAlloc1<[int]> is not even expressible because the type parameter T is not found behind a pointer sigil and thus T couldn’t be bound to an unsized type. Even if we could overcome that, we could not have coerced a MyAlloc1<[int,..3]> to a MyAlloc<[int]> because we couldn’t “convert” the representation of MyAlloc1 to make data.payload fat pointer. But all of this poses no problem under the existential scheme: if we represent MyAlloc1<[int, ..3]> as (pointer), the representation of MyAlloc1<[int]> is just ((pointer), length). This in turn implies that it should be possible to support the C-like inline arrays that I described before, though some future extensions will be required.

What does this scheme mean in practice?

For users, this scheme will feel pretty similar to what we have today, except that some odd discrepancies like ~[1, 2, 3] vs ~([1, 2, 3]) go away.

In general, the only legal operation we would permit on an existential type like RC<[int]> or ~[int] is to dereference it. The compiler automatically propagates the existential-ness over to the result of the dereference. That means that *rc where rc has type RC<[int]> would have type &[int] – or, more explicitly, exists N. RC<[int, ..N]> is dereferenced to exists N. &[int, ..N]. In formal terms, this is a combined pack-and-unpack operation. I’ll discuss this in part 3 of this series. The special case would be &[T], for which we can define indexing – and this would also perform the bounds check. Object types (&Trait, RC<Trait>) would be similar except that they would only permit dereferencing and method calls.

For people implementing smart pointers, this scheme has a straightforward story. No special work is required to make a smart pointer compatible with vector or trait types: after all, at the time that a smart pointer instance is created, we always have full knowledge of the type being allocated. So if the user writes new(RC) [1, 2, 3] (employing the overloadable new operator we are discussing), that corresponds to creating an instance of RC<[int, ..3]>. [int, ..3] is just a normal type with a known size, like any other.

“Case study”: Ref-counted pointers

Really, the only thing that distinguish a “smart pointer” from any other type is that it overloads * (and possibly integrates with new). I’ve got another post planned on the details of these mechanisms, but let’s look at overloading * a bit here to see how it interacts with existential types. The deref operator traits would look something like this:

trait Deref<T> {
    // Equivalent of `&*self` operation
    fn deref<'a>(&'a self) -> &'a T;

trait MutDeref<T> {
    // Equivalent of `&mut *self` operation
    fn mut_deref<'a>(&'a mut self) -> &'a mut T;

Here is how we might implement define an RC type and implement the Deref trait:

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

impl<T> Deref<T> for RC<T> {
    fn deref<'a>(&'a self) -> &'a T {

Note that RC doesn’t implement the MutDeref trait. This is because RC pointers can’t make any kind of uniqueness guarantees. If you want a ref-counted pointer to mutable data you can compose one using the newly created Cell and RefCell types, which offer dynamic soundness checks (e.g., RC<Cell<int>> would be a ref-counted mutable integer). In any case, I don’t have the space to delve into more detail on mutability control in the face of aliasing here – it would make a good topic for a future post as we’ve been working on a design there that offers a better balance than today’s @mut and is smart-pointer friendly.

As I said before, the RC implementation does not make any mention whatsoever of vectors or arrays or anything similar. It’s defined over all types T, and that includes [int, ..3]. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

The compiler will invoke the user-defined deref operator both for explicit derefs (the * operator) and auto-derefs (field access, method call, indexing). Consider the following example:

fn sum(rc: RC<[int]>) -> int {
    let mut sum = 0;
    let l = rc.len();           // (1)
    for i in range(0, l) {
        sum += rc[i];           // (2)

Here, autoderef will be employed at two points. First, in the call rc.len(), the pointer rc will be autoderef’d to a &[int] while searching for a len() method (see the type rules below for how this works). len() is defined for a &[int] type, and so the call succeeds. Similarly in the access rc[i], the indexing operator will autoderef rc to &[int] in its search for something indexable. Since &[int] is indexable, the call succeeds. The important point here is that the RC type itself only supports deref; the indexing operations etc come for free because &[int] is indexable.

UPDATE: Thinking on this a bit more I realized an obvious complication. Without knowing the value of N, we can’t actually know which monomorphized variant of deref to invoke. This matters if the value of N affects the layout of fields and so on. There are various solutions to this – for example, only permitting existential construction when the types are laid out such that the value of N is immaterial for anything besides bounds checking, or perhaps including a vtable rather than a length – but it is definitely a crimp in the plan. Seems obvious in retrospect. Well, more thought is warranted.

Comparing DST to this approach

I currently favor this approach – which clearly needs a confusing acronym! – over DST. It seems simpler overall and the ability to coerce from arbitrary pointer types into existential types is very appealing. It is a shame that it doesn’t address the issues with object types that I mentioned in the previous post but there are workarounds there (better factoring for traits intended to be used as objects, essentially).

This will not address the new user confusion that &[T] is valid syntax even though [T] is not a type, but I think it does offer a new way to better explain that discrepancy: &[T] is short for &[T, ..N] for an unknown N, and thus [T, ..N] is the memory’s actual type.