Nested method calls via two-phase borrowing

1 March 2017

In my previous post, I outlined a plan for non-lexical lifetimes. I wanted to write a follow-up post today that discusses different ways that we can extend the system to support nested mutable calls. The ideas here are based on some the ideas that emerged in a recent discussion on internals, although what I describe here is a somewhat simplified variant. If you want more background, it’s worth reading at least the top post in the thread, where I laid out a lot of the history here. I’ll try to summarize the key bits as I go.

The problem we’d like to solve

This section is partially copied from the internals post; if you’ve read that, feel free to skip or skim.

The overriding goal here is that we want to accept nested method calls where the outer call is an &mut self method, like vec.push(vec.len()). This is a common limitation that beginners stumble over and find confusing and which experienced users have as a persistent annoyance. This makes it a natural target to eliminate as part of the 2017 Roadmap.

You may wonder why this code isn’t accepted in the first place. To see why, consider what the resulting MIR looks like (I’m going to number the statements for later reference in the post):

/* 0 */ tmp0 = &mut vec;       // mutable borrow starts here.. -+
/* 1 */ tmp1 = &vec; // <-- shared borrow overlaps here         |
/* 2 */ tmp2 = Vec::len(tmp1); //                               |
/* 3 */ Vec::push(tmp0, tmp2); // <--.. and ends here-----------+

As you can see, we first take a mutable reference to vec for tmp0. This “locks” vec from being accessed in any other way until after the call to Vec::push(), but then we try to access it again when calling vec.len(). Hence the error.

When you see the code desugared in that way, it should not surprise you that there is in fact a real danger here for code to crash if we just “turned off” this check (if we even could do such a thing). For example, consider this rather artificial Rust program:

let mut v: Vec<String> = vec![format!("Hello, ")];
v[0].push_str({ v.push(format!("foo")); "World!" });
//              ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ sneaky attempt to mutate `v`

The problem is that, when we desugar this, we get:

let mut v: Vec<String> = vec![format!("Hello, ")];
// creates a reference into `v`'s current data array:
let arg0: &mut String = &mut v[0];
let arg1: &str = {
    // potentially frees `v`'s data array:
// uses pointer into data array that may have been freed:
String::push_str(arg0, arg1)

So, to put it another way, as we evaluate the arguments, we are creating references and pointers that we will give to the final function. But evaluating arguments can also have arbitrary side-effects, which might invalidate the references that we prepared for earlier arguments. So we have to be sure to rule that out.

In fact, even when the receiver is just a local variable (e.g., vec.push(vec.len())) we have to be wary. We wouldn’t want it to be possible to give ownership of the receiver away in one of the arguments: vec.push({ send_to_another_thread(vec); ... }). That should still be an error of course.

(Naturally, these complex arguments that are blocks look really artificial, but keep in mind that most of the time when this occurs in practice, the argument is a method or fn call, and that could in principle have arbitrary side-effects.)

How can we fix this?

Now, we could address this by changing how we desugar method calls (and indeed the original post on the internals thread contained two such alternatives). But I am more interested in seeing if we can keep the current desugaring, but enrich the lifetime and borrowing system so that it type-checks for cases that we can see won’t lead to a crash (such as this one).

The key insight is that, today, when we execute the mutable borrow of vec, we start a borrow immediately, even though the reference (arg0, here) is not going to be used until later:

/* 0 */ tmp0 = &mut vec;   // mutable borrow created here..
/* 1 */ tmp1 = &vec; // <-- shared borrow overlaps here         |
/* 2 */ tmp2 = Vec::len(tmp1); //                               |
/* 3 */ Vec::push(tmp0, tmp2); // ..but not used until here!

The proposal – which I will call two-phased mutable borrows – is to modify the borrow-checker so that mutable borrows operate in two phases:

  • When an &mut reference is first created, but before it is used, the borrowed path (e.g., vec) is considered reserved. A reserved path is subject to the same restrictions as a shared borrow – reads are ok, but moves and writes are not (except under a Cell).
  • Once you start using the reference in some way, the path is considered mutably borrowed and is subject to the usual restrictions.

So, in terms of our example, when we execute the MIR statement tmp0 = &mut vec, that creates a reservation on vec, but doesn’t start the actual borrow yet. tmp0 is not used until line 3, so that means that for lines 1 and 2, vec is only reserved. Therefore, it’s ok to share vec (as line 1 does) so long as the resulting reference (tmp1) is dead as we enter line 3. Since tmp1 is only used to call Vec::len(), we’re all set!

Code we would not accept

To help understand the rule, let’s look at a few other examples, but this time we’ll consider examples that would be rejected as illegal (both today and under the new rules). We’ll start with the example we saw before that could have trigged a use-after-free:

let mut v: Vec<String> = vec![format!("Hello, ")];
v[0].push_str({ v.push(format!("foo")); "World!" });

We can partially desugar the call to push_str() into MIR that would look something like this:

/* 0 */ tmp0 = &mut v;
/* 1 */ tmp1 = IndexMut::index_mut(tmp0, 0);
/* 2 */ tmp2 = &mut v;
/* 3 */ Vec::push(tmp2, format!("foo"));
/* 4 */ tmp3 = "World!";
/* 5 */ Vec::push_str(tmp1, tmp3);

In one sense, this example turns out to be not that interesting in terms of the new rules. This is because v[0] is actually an overloaded operator; when we desugar it, we see that v would be reserved on line 0 and then (mutably) borrowed starting on line 1. This borrow extends as long as tmp1 is in use, which is to say, for the remainder of the example. Therefore, line 2 is an error, because we cannot have two mutable borrows at once.

However, in another sense, this example is very interesting: this is because it shows how, while the new system is more expressive, it preserves the existing behavior of safe abstractions. That is, the index_mut() method has a signature like:

fn index_mut(&mut self) -> &mut Self::Output

Since calling this method is going to “use” the receiver, and hence activate the borrow, the method is guaranteed that as long as its return value is in use, the caller will not be able to access the receiver. This is precisely how it works today as well.

The next example is artificial but inspired by one that is covered in my original post to the internals thread:

/*0*/ let mut i = 0;
/*1*/ let p = &mut i; // (reservation of `i` starts here)
/*2*/ let j = i;      // OK: `i` is only reserved here
/*3*/ *p += 1;        // (mutable borrow of `i` starts here, since `p` is used)
/*4*/ let k = i;      // ERROR: `i` is mutably borrowed here
/*5*/ *p += 1;       
      // (mutable borrow ends here, since `p` is not used after this point)

This code fails to compile as well. What happens, as you can see in the comments, is that i is considered reserved during the first read, but once we start using p on line 3, i is considered borrowed. Hence the second read (on line 4) results in an error. Interestingly, if line 5 were to be removed, then the program would be accepted (at least once we move to NLL), since the borrow only extends until the last use of p.

The final example shows that this analysis doesn’t permit any kind of nesting you might want. In particular, for better or worse, it does not permit calls to &mut self methods to be nested inside of a call to an &self method. This means that something like vec.get({vec.push(2); 0}) would be illegal. To see why, let’s check out the (partial) MIR desugaring:

/* 0 */ tmp0 = &vec;
/* 1 */ tmp1 = &mut vec;
/* 2 */ Vec::push(tmp1, 2);
/* 3 */ Vec::get(tmp0, 0);

Now, you might expect that this would be accepted, because the borrow on line 0 would not be active until line 3. But this isn’t quite right, for two reasons. First, as I described it, only mutable borrows have a reserve/active cycle, shared borrows start right away. And the reason for this is that when a path is reserved, it acts the same as if it had been shared. So, in other words, even if we used two-phase borrowing for shared borrows, it would make no difference (which is why I described reservations as only applying to mutable borrows). At the end of the post, I’ll describe how we could – if we wanted – support examples like this, at the cost of making the system slightly more complex.

How to implement it

The way I envision implementing this rule is part of borrow check. Borrow check is the final pass that executes as part of the compiler’s safety checking procedure. In case you’re not familiar with how the compiler works, Rust’s safety check is done using three passes:

  • Normal type check (like any other language);
  • Lifetime check (infers the lifetimes for each reference, as described in my previous post);
  • Borrow check (using the lifetimes for each borrow, checks that all uses are acceptable, and that variables are not moved).

How borrow check would work before this proposal

Before two-phase borrows, then, the way the borrow-check would begin is to iterate over every borrow in the program. Since the lifetime check has completed, we know the lifetimes of every reference and every borrow. In MIR, borrows always look like this:

var = &'lt mut? lvalue;
  //   ^^^ ^^^^
  //   |   |
  //   |   distinguish `&mut` or `&` borrow
  //   lifetime of borrow

This says “borrow lvalue for the lifetime 'lt” (recall that, under NLL, [each lifetime is a set of points in the MIR control-flow graph][wil]). So we would go and, for each point in 'lt, add lvalue to the list of borrowed things at that point. If we find that lvalue is already borrowed at that point, we would check that the two borrows are compatible (both must be shared borrows).

At this point, we now have a list of what is borrowed at each point in the program, and whether that is a shared or mutable borrow. We can then iterate over all statements and check that they are using the values in a compatible way. So, for example, if we see a MIR statement like:

k = i // where k, i are integers

then this would be illegal if k is borrowed in any way (shared or mutable). It would also be illegal if i is mutably borrowed. Similarly, it is an error if we see a move from a path p when p is borrowed (directly or indirectly). And so forth.

Supporting two-phases

To support two-phases, we can extend borrow-check in a simple way. When we encounter a mutable borrow:

var = &'lt mut lvalue;

we do not go and immediately mark lvalue as borrowed for all the points in 'lt. Instead, we find the points A in 'lt where the borrow is active. This corresponds to any point where var is used and any point that is reachable from a use (this is a very simple inductive definition one can easily find with a data-flow analysis). For each point in A, we mark that lvalue is mutably borrowed. For the points 'lt - U, we would mark lvalue as merely reserved. We can then do the next part of the check just as before, except that anywhere that an lvalue is treated as reserved, it is subject to the same restrictions as if it were shared.

Comparing to other approaches

There have been a number of proposals aimed at solving this same problem. This particular proposal is, I believe, a new variant, but it accepts a similar set of programs to the other proposals. I wanted to compare and contrast it a bit with prior ideas and try to explain why I framed it in just this way.

Borrowing for the future.

My own first stab at this problem was using the idea of “borrowing for the future”, described in the internals thread. The basic idea was that the lifetime of a borrow would be inferred to start on the first use, and the borrow checker, when it sees a borrow that doesn’t start immediately, would consider the path “reserved” until the start. This is obviously very close to what I have presented here. The key difference is that here the borrow checker itself computes the active vs reserved portions of the borrow, rather than this computation being done in lifetime inference.

This seems to me to be more appropriate: lifetime inference figures out how long a given reference is live (may later be used), based on the type system and its rules. The borrow checker then uses that information to figure out if the program may cause the reference to be invalidated.

The formulation I presented here also fits much better with the NLL rules that I presented previously. This is because it allows us to keep the rule that when a reference is live at some point P (may be dereferenced later), its lifetime include that point P. To see what I mean, let’s reconsider our original example, but in the “borrowing for the future” scheme. I’ll annotate lifetimes using braces to describe sets:

/* 0 */ tmp0 = &{3} mut vec;
/* 1 */ tmp1 = &vec;
/* 2 */ tmp2 = Vec::len(tmp1);
/* 3 */ Vec::push(tmp0, tmp2);

Here tmp0 would have the type &{3} mut Vec, but tmp0 is clearly live at point 1 (i.e., it will be used later, on line 3). So we would have to make the NLL rules that I outlined later incorporate a more complex invariant, one that considers two-phase borrows as a first-class thing (cue next piece of ‘related work’ in 1…2…3….).

Two-phase lifetimes

In the internals thread, arielb1 had [an interesting proposal][ref2] that they called “two-phase lifetimes”. The goal was precisely to take the “two-phase” concept but incorporate it into lifetime inference, rather than handling it in borrow checking as I present here. The idea was to define a type RefMut<'r, 'w, T>1 which stands in for a kind of “richer” &mut type.2 In particular, it has two lifetimes:

  • 'r is the “read” lifetime. It includes every point where the reference may later be used.
  • 'w is a subset of 'r (that is, 'r: 'w) which indicates the “write” lifetime. This includes those points where the reference is actively being written.

We can then conservatively translate a &'a mut T type into RefMut<'a, 'a, T> – that is, we can use 'a for both of the two lifetimes. This is what we would do for any &mut type that appears in a struct declaration or fn interface. But for &mut T types within a fn body, we can infer the two lifetimes somewhat separately: the 'r lifetime is computed just as I described in my NLL post. But the 'w lifetime only needs to include those points where a write occurs. The borrow check would then guarantee that the 'w regions of every &mut borrow is disjoint from the 'r regions of every other borrow (and from shared borrows).

This proposal accepts more programs than the one I outlined. In particular, it accepts the example with interleaved reads and writes that we saw earlier. Let me give that example again, but annotation the regions more explicitly:

/* 0 */ let mut i = 0;
/* 1 */ let p: RefMut<{2-5}, {3,5}, i32> = &mut i;
//                    ^^^^^  ^^^^^
//                     'r     'w
/* 2 */ let j = i;  // just in 'r
/* 3 */ *p += 1;    // must be in 'w
/* 4 */ let k = i;  // just in 'r
/* 5 */ *p += 1;    // must be in 'w

As you can see here, we would infer the write region to be just the two points 3 and 5. This is precisely those portions of the CFG where writes are happening – and not the gaps in between, where reads are permitted.

Why I do not want to support discontinuous borrows

As you might have surmised, these sorts of “discontinuous” borrows represent a kind of “step up” in the complexity of the system. If it were vital to accept examples with interleaved writes like the previous one, then this wouldn’t bother me (NLL also represents such a step, for example, but it seems clearly worth it). But given that the example is artificial and not a pattern I have ever seen arise in “real life”, it seems like we should try to avoid growing the underlying complexity of the system if we can.

To see what I mean about a “step up” in complexity, consider how we would integrate this proposal into lifetime inference. The current rules treat all regions equally, but this proposal seems to imply that regions have “roles”. For example, the 'r region captures the “liveness” constraints that I described in the original NLL proposal. Meanwhile the 'w region captures “activity”.

(Since we would always convert a &'a mut T type into RefMut<'a, 'a, T>, all regions in struct parameters would adopt the more conservative “liveness” role to start. This is good because we wouldn’t want to start allowing “holes” in the lifetimes that unsafe code is relying on to prevent access from the outside. It would however be possible for type inference to use a RefMut<'r, 'w ,T> type as the value for a type parameter; I don’t yet see a way for that to cause any surprises, but perhaps it can if you consider specialization and other non-parametric features.)

Another example of where this “complexity step” surfaces came from Ralf Jung. As you may know, Ralf is working on a formalization of Rust as part of the RustBelt project (if you’re interested, there is video available of a great introduction to this work which Ralf gave at the Rust Paris meetup). In any case, their model is a kind of generalization of Rust, in that it can accept a lot of programs that standard Rust cannot (it is intended to be used for assigning types to unsafe code as well as safe code). The two-phase borrow proposal that I describe here should be able to fit into that system in a fairly straightforward way. But if we adopted discontinuous regions, that would require making Ralf’s system more expressive. This is not necessarily an argument against doing it, but it does show that it makes the Rust system qualitatively more complex to reason about.

If all this talk of “steps in complexity” seems abstract, I think that the most immediate way it will surface is when we try to teach. Supporting discontinous borrows just makes it that much harder to craft small examples that show how borrowing works. It will make the system feel more mysterious, since the underlying rules are indeed more complex and thus harder to “intuit” on your own.

Two-phase lifetimes without discontinuous borrows

For a while I was planning to describe a variant on arielb1’s proposal where the write lifetimes were required to be continuous – in effect, they would be required to be a suffix of the overall read lifetime; this would make the proposal roughly equivalent to the current one. Given that the set of programs that are accepted are the same, this becomes more a question of presentation than anything.

I ultimately settled on the current presentation because it seems simpler to me. In particular, lifetime inference today is based solely on liveness, which is a “forward-looking property”. In other words, something is live if it may be used later. In contrast, the borrow check today is interested in tracking, at a particular point, the “backwards-looking property” of whether something has been borrowed. So adding another “backwards-looking property” – whether that borrow has been activated – fits borrowck quite naturally.3

Possible future extensions

There are two primary ways I see that we might extend this proposal in the future. The first would be to allow “discontinuous borrows”, as I described in the previous section under the heading “Two-phase lifetimes”.

The other would be to apply the concept of reservations to all borrows, and to loosen the restrictions we impose on a “reserved” path. In this proposal, I chose to treat reserved and shared paths in the same way. This implies that some forms of nesting do not work; for example, as we saw in the examples, one cannot write vec.get({vec.push(2); 0}). These conditions are stronger than is strictly needed to prevent memory safety violations. We could consider reserved borrows to be something akin to the old const borrows we used to support: these would permit reads and writes of the original path, but not moves. There are some tricky cases to be careful of (for example, if you reserve *b where b: Box<i32>, you cannot permit people to mutate b, because that would cause the existing value to be dropped and hence invalidate your existing reference to *b), but it seems like there is nothing fundamentally stopping us. I did not propose this because (a) I would prefer not to introduce a third class of borrow restrictions and (b) most examples which would benefit from this change seem quite artificial and not entirely desirable (though there are exceptions). Basically, it seems ok for vec.get({vec.push(2); 0}) to be an error. =)


I have presented here a simple proposal that tries to address the “nested method call” problem as part of the NLL work, without modifying the desugaring into MIR at all (or changing MIR’s dynamic semantics). It works by augmenting the borrow checker so that mutable borrows begin as “reserved” and then, on first use, convert to active status. While the borrows are reserved, they impose the same restrictions as a shared borrow.

In terms of the “overall plans” for NLL, I consider this to be the second out of a series of three posts that lay out a complete proposal4:

  • the core NLL system, covered in the previous post;
  • nested method calls, this post;
  • incorporating dropck, still to come.

Comments? Let’s use this internals thread for comments.


  1. arielb1 called it Ref2Φ<'immut, 'mutbl, T>, but I’m going to take the liberty of renaming it. ↩︎

  2. arielb1 also proposed to unify &T into this type, but that introduces complications because &T are Copy but &mut are not, so i’m leaving that out too. ↩︎

  3. In more traditional compiler terminology, “forwards-looking properties” are ones computed using a reverse data-flow analysis, and “backwards-looking properties” are those that would be computed by a forwards data-flow analysis. ↩︎

  4. Presuming I’m not overlooking something. =) [ref2]: [wil]: /blog/2017/02/21/non-lexical-lifetimes-using-liveness-and-location/#step-0-what-is-a-lifetime ↩︎