After NLL: Moving from borrowed data and the sentinel pattern

10 November 2018

Continuing on with my “After NLL” series, I want to look at another common error that I see and its solution: today’s choice is about moves from borrowed data and the Sentinel Pattern that can be used to enable them.

The problem

Sometimes when we have &mut access to a struct, we have a need to temporarily take ownership of some of its fields. Usually what happens is that we want to move out from a field, construct something new using the old value, and then replace it. So for example imagine we have a type Chain, which implements a simple linked list:

enum Chain {

impl Chain {
  fn with(next: Chain) -> Chain {

Now suppose we have a struct MyStruct and we are trying to add a link to our chain; we might have something like:

struct MyStruct {
  counter: u32,
  chain: Chain,

impl MyStruct {
  fn add_link(&mut self) {
    self.chain = Chain::with(self.chain);

Now, if we try to run this code, we will receive the following error:

error[E0507]: cannot move out of borrowed content
7 |     self.chain = Chain::with(self.chain);
  |                              ^^^^ cannot move out of borrowed content

The problem here is that we need to take ownership of self.chain, but you can only take ownership of things that you own. In this case, we only have /borrowed/ access to self, because add_link is declared as &mut self.

To put this as an analogy, it is as if you had borrowed a really nifty Lego building that your friend made so you could admire it. Then, later, you are building your own Lego thing and you realize you would like to take some of the pieces from their building and put them into yours. But you can’t do that – those pieces belong to your friend, not you, and that would leave a hole in their building.

Still, this is kind of annoying – after all, if we look at the larger context, although we are moving self.chain, we are going to replace it shortly thereafter. So maybe it’s more like – we want to take some blocks from our friend’s Lego building, but not to put them into our /own/ building. Rather, we were going to take it apart, build up something new with a few extra blocks, and then put that new thing back in the same spot – so, by the time they see their building again, the “hole” will be all patched up.

Root of the problem: panics

You can imagine us doing a static analysis that permits you to take ownership of &mut borrowed data, as long as we can see that it will be replaced before the function returns. There is one little niggly problem though: can we be really sure that we are going to replace self.chain? It turns out that we can’t, because of the possibility of panics.

To see what I mean, let’s take that troublesome line and expand it out so we can see all the hidden steps. The original line was this:

self.chain = Chain::with(self.chain);

which we can expand to something like this:

let tmp0 = self.chain;        // 1. move `self.chain` out
let tmp1 = Chain::with(tmp0); // 2. build new link
self.chain = tmp1;            // 3. replace with `tmp2`

Written this way, we can see that in between moving self.chain out and replacing it, there is a function call: Chain::with. And of course it is possible for this function call to panic, at least in principle. If it were to panic, then the stack would start unwinding, and we would never get to step 3, where we assign self.chain again. This means that there might be a destructor somewhere along the way that goes to inspect self – if it were to try to access self.chain, it would just find uninitialized memory. Or, even worse, self might be located inside of some sort of Mutex or something else, so even if our thread panics, other threads might observe the hole.

To return to our Lego analogy1, it is as if – after we removed some pieces from our friends Lego set – our parents came and made us go to bed before we were able to finish the replacement piece. Worse, our friend’s parents came over during the night to pick up the set, and so now when our friend gets it back, it has this big hole in it.

One solution: sentinel

In fact, there is a way to move out from an &mut pointer – you can use the function std::mem::replace2. replace sidesteps the panic problem we just described because it requires you to already have a new value at hand, so that we can move out from self.chain and immediately put a replacement there.

Our problem here is that we need to do the move before we can construct the replacement we want. So, one solution then is that we can put some temporary, dummy value in that spot. I call this a sentinel value – because it’s some kind of special value. In this particular case, one easy way to get the code to compile would be to stuff in an empty chain temporarily:

let chain = std::mem::replace(&mut self.chain, Chain::Empty);
self.chain = Chain::with(chain);

Now the compiler is happy – after all, even if Chain::with panics, it’s not a memory safety problem. If anybody happens to inspect self.chain later, they won’t see uninitialized memory, they will see an empty chain.

To return to our Lego analogy3, it’s as if, when we remove the pieces from our friend’s Lego set, we immediately stuff in a a replacement piece. It’s an ugly piece, with the wrong color and everything, but it’s ok – because our friend will never see it.

A more robust sentinel

The compiler is happy, but are we happy? Perhaps we are, but there is one niggling detail. We wanted this empty chain to be a kind of “temporary value” that nobody ever observes – but can we be sure of that? Actually, in this particular example, we can be fairly sure… other than the possibility of panic (which certainly remains, but is perhaps acceptable, since we are in the process of tearing things down), there isn’t really much else that can happen before self.chain is replaced.

But often we are in a situation where we need to take temporary ownership and then invoke other self methods. Now, perhaps we expect that these methods will never read from self.chain – in other words, we have a kind of [interprocedural conflict]. For example, maybe to construct the new chain we invoke self.extend_chain instead, which reads self.counter and creates that many new links4 in the chain:

impl MyStruct {
  fn add_link(&mut self) {
    let chain = std::mem::replace(&mut self.chain, Chain::Empty);
    let new_chain = self.extend_chain(chain);
    self.chain = new_chain;
  fn extend_chain(&mut self, chain: Chain) -> Chain {
    for _ in 0 .. self.counter {
      chain = Chain::with(chain);

Now I would get a bit nervous. I think nobody ever observes this empty chain, but how can I be sure? At some point, you would like to test this hypothesis.

One solution here is to use a sentinel value that is otherwise invalid. For example, I could change my chain field to store an Option<Chain>, with the invariant that self.chain should always be Some, because if I ever observe a None, it means that add_link is in progress. In fact, there is a handy method on Option called take that makes this quite easy to do:

struct MyStruct {
  counter: u32,
  chain: Option<Chain>, // <-- new

impl MyStruct {
  fn add_link(&mut self) {
    // Equivalent to:
    // let link = std::mem::replace(&mut self.chain, None).unwrap();
    let link = self.chain.take().unwrap();
    self.chain = Some(Chain::with(self.chain));

Now, if I were to (for example) invoke add_link recursively, I would get a panic, so I would at least be alerted to the problem.

The annoying part about this pattern is that I have to “acknowledge” it every time I reference self.chain. In fact, we already saw that in the code above, since we had to wrap the new value with Some when assigning to self.chain. Similarly, to borrow the chain, we can’t just do &self.chain, but instead we have to do something like self.chain.as_ref().unwrap(), as in the example below, which counts the links in the chain:

impl MyStruct {
  fn count_chain(&self) -> usize {
    let mut links = 0;
    let mut cursor: &Chain = self.chain.as_ref().unwrap();
    loop {
      match cursor {
        Chain::Empty => return links,
        Chain::Link(c) => {
          links += 1;
          cursor = c;

So, the pro of using Option is that we get stronger error detection. The con is that we have an ergonomic penalty.

Observation: most collections do not allocate when empty

One important detail when mucking about with sentinels: creating an empty collection is generally “free” in Rust, at least for the standard library. This is important because I find that the fields I wish to move from are often collections of some kind or another. Indeed, even in our motivating example here, the Chain::Empty sentinel is an “empty” collection of sorts – but if the field you wish to move were e.g. a Vec<T> value, then you could as well use Vec::new() as a sentinel without having to worry about wasteful memory allocations.

An alternative to sentinels: prevent unwinding through abort

There is a crate called take_mut on that offers a convenient alternative to installing a sentinel, although it does not apply in all scenarios. It also raises some interesting questions about “unsafe composability” that worry me a bit, which I’ll discuss at the end.

To use take_mut to solve this problem, we would rewrite our add_link function as follows:

fn add_link(&mut self) {
  take_mut::take(&mut self.chain, |chain| {

The take function works like so: first, it uses unsafe code to move the value from self.chain, leaving uninitialized memory in its place. Then, it gives this value to the closure, which in this case will execute Chain::with and return a new chain. This new chain is then installed to fill the hole that was left behind.

Of course, this begs the queston: what happens if the Chain::with function panics? Since take has left a hole in the place of self.chain, it is in a tough spot: the answer from the take_mut library is that it will abort the entire process. That is, unlike with a panic, there is no controlled shutdown. There is some precedent for this: we do the same thing in the event of stack overflow, memory exhaustion, and a “double panic” (that is, a panic that occurs when unwinding another panic).

The idea of aborting the process is that, unlike unwinding, we are guaranteeing that there are no more possible observers for that hole in memory. Interestingly, in writing this article, I realized that aborting the process does not compose with some other unsafe abstractions you might want. Imagine, for example, that you had memory mapped a file on disk and were supplying an &mut reference into that file to safe code. Or, perhaps you were using shared memory between two processes, and had some kind of locked object in there – after locking, you might obtain an &mut into the memory of that object. Put another way, if the take_mut crate is safe, that means that an &mut can never point to memory not ultimately “owned” by the current process. I am not sure if that’s a good decision for us to make – though perhaps the real answer is that we need to permit unsafe crates to be a bit more declarative about the conditions they require from other crates, as I talk a bit about in this older blog post on observational equivalence.

My recommenation

I would advise you to use some variant of the sentinel pattern. I personally prefer to use a “signaling sentinel”5 like Option if it would be a bug for other code to read the field, unless the range of code where the value is taken is very simple. So, in our original example, where we just invoked Chain::new, I would not bother with an Option – we can locally see that self does not escape. But in the variant where we recursively invoke methods on self, I would, because there it would be possible to recursively invoke self.add_link or otherwise observe self.chain in this intermediate state.

It’s a bit annoying to use Option for this because it’s so explicit. I’ve sometimes created a Take<T> type that wraps a Option<T> and implements DerefMut<Target = T>, so it can transparently be used as a T in most scenarios – but which will panic if you attempt to deref the value while it is “taken”. This might be a nice library, if it doesn’t exist already.

One other thing to remember: instead of using a sentinel, you may be able to avoid moving altogether, and sometimes that’s better. For example, if you have an &mut Vec<T> and you need ownership of the T values within, you can use the drain iterator method. The only real difference from drain vs into_iter is that drain leaves an empty iterator behind once iteration is complete.

(Similarly, if you are writing an API and have the option of choosing between writing a fn(self) -> Self sort of signature vs fn(&mut self), you might adopt the latter, as it gives your callers more flexibility. But this is a bit subtle; it would make a good topic for the Rust API guidelines, but I didn’t find it there.)


If you’d like to discuss something in this post, there is a dedicated thread on the site.

Appendix A. Possible future directions

Besides creating a more ergonomic library to replace the use of Option as a sentinel, I can think of a few plausible extensions to the language that would alleviate this problem somewhat.

Tracking holes

The most obvious change is that we could plausibly extend the borrow checker to permit moves out of an &mut, so long as the value is guaranteed to be replaced before the function returns or panics. The “or panics” bit is the tricky part, of course.

Without any other extensions to the language, we would have to consider virtually every operation to “potentially panic”, which would be pretty limiting. Our “motivating example” from this post, for example, would fail the test, because the Chain::with function – like any function – might potentially panic. The main thing this would do is allow functions like std::mem::replace and std::mem::swap to be written in safe code, as well as other more complex rotations. Handy, but not earth shattering.

If we wanted to go beyond that, we would have to start looking into effect type systems, which allow us to annotate functions with things like “does not panic” and so forth. I am pretty nervous about taking that particular “step up” in complexity – though there may be other use cases (for example, to enable FFI interoperability with things that longjmp, we might want ways to for functions to declare whether they panic and how anyway). But it feels like at best this will be a narrow tool that we wouldn’t expect people to use broadly.

In order to avoid annotation, @eddyb has tossed around the idea of an “auto trait”-style effect system. Basically, you would be able to state that you want to take as argument a “closure that can never call the function X” – in this case, that might mean “a closure that can never invoke panic!”. The compiler would then do a conservative analysis of the closure’s call graph to figure out if it works. This would then permit a variant of the take_mut crate where we don’t have to worry about aborting the process, because we know the closure never panics. Of course, just like auto traits, this raises semver concerns – sure, your function doesn’t panic now, but does that mean you promise never to make it panic in the future?6

Permissions in, permissions out

There is another possible answer as well. We might generalize Rust’s borrowing system to express the idea of a “borrow that never ends” – presently that’s not something we can express. The idea would be that a function like add_link would take in an &mut but somehow express that, if a panic were to occur, the &mut is fully invalidated.

I’m not particularly hopeful on this as a solution to this particular problem. There is a lot of complexity to address and it just doesn’t seem even close to worth it.

There are however some other cases where similar sorts of “permission juggling” might be nice to express. For example, people sometimes want the ability to have a variant on insert – basically a function that inserts a T into a collection and then returns a shared reference &T to inserted data. The idea is that the caller can then go on to do other “shared” operations on the map (e.g., other map lookups). So the signature would look a little like this:

impl SomeCollection<T> {
  fn insert_then_get(&mut self, data: T) -> &T {

This signature is of course valid in Rust today, but it has an existing meaning that we can’t change. The meaning today is that the function requires unique access to self – and that unique access has to persist until we’ve finished using the return value. It’s precisely this interpretation that makes methods like Mutex::get_mut sound.

If we were to move in this direction, we might look to languages like Mezzo for inspiration, which encode this notion of “permissions in, permissons out” more directly7. I’m definitely interested in investigating this direction, particularly if we can use it to address other proposed “reference types” like &out (for taking references to uninitialized memory which you must initialized), &move, and so forth. But this seems like a massive research effort, so it’s hard to predict just what it would look like for Rust, and I don’t see us adopting this sort of thing in the near to mid term.

Panic = Abort having semantic impact

Shortly after I posted this, Gankro tweeted the following:

I actually meant to talk about that, so I’m adding this quick section. You may have noticed that panics and unwinding are a big thing in this post. Unwinding, however, is only optional in Rust – many users choose instead to convert panics into a hard abort of the entire process. Presently, the type and borrow checkers do not consider this option in any way, but you could imagine them taking it into account when deciding whether a particular bit of code is safe, particularly in lieu of a more fancy effect system.

I am not a big fan of this. For one thing, it seems like it would encourage people to opt into “panic = abort” just to avoid a sentinel value here and there, which would lead to more of a split in the ecosystem. But also, as I noted when discussing the take_mut crate, this whole approach presumes that an &mut reference can only ever refer to memory that is owned by the current process, and I’m not sure that’s something we wish to state.

Still, food for thought.


  1. I really like this Lego analogy. You’ll just have to bear with me. ↩︎

  2. std::mem::replace is a super useful function in all kinds of scenarios; worth having in your toolbox. ↩︎

  3. OK, maybe I’m taking this analogy too far. Sorry. I need help. ↩︎

  4. I bet you were wondering what that counter field was for – gotta admire that [Chekhov’s Gun] action. ↩︎

  5. i.e., some sort of sentinel where a panic occurs if the memory is observed ↩︎

  6. It occurs to me that we now have a corpus of crates at various versions. It would be interesting to see how common it is to make something panic which did not used to, as well sa to make other sorts of changes. ↩︎

  7. Also related: [fractional permissions] and a whole host of other things. [fractional permissions]: ↩︎