why async fn in traits are hard

26 October 2019

After reading boat’s excellent post on asynchronous destructors, I thought it might be a good idea to write some about async fn in traits. Support for async fn in traits is probably the single most common feature request that I hear about. It’s also one of the more complex topics. So I thought it’d be nice to do a blog post kind of giving the “lay of the land” on that feature – what makes it complicated? What questions remain open?

I’m not making any concrete proposals in this post, just laying out the problems. But do not lose hope! In a future post, I’ll lay out a specific roadmap for how I think we can make incremental progress towards supporting async fn in traits in a useful way. And, in the meantime, you can use the async-trait crate (but I get ahead of myself…).

The goal

In some sense, the goal is simple. We would like to enable you to write traits that include async fn. For example, imagine we have some Database trait that lets you do various operations against a database, asynchronously:

trait Database {
    async fn get_user(
    ) -> User;

Today, you should use async-trait

Today, of course, the answer is that you should dtolnay’s excellent async-trait crate. This allows you to write almost what we wanted:

trait Database {
    async fn get_user(&self) -> User;

But what is really happening under the hood? As the crate’s documentation explains, this declaration is getting transformed to the following. Notice the return type.

trait Database {
    fn get_user(&self) -> Pin<Box<dyn Future<Output = User> + Send + '_>>;

So basically you are returning a boxed dyn Future – a future object, in other words. This desugaring is rather different from what happens with async fn in other contexts – but why is that? The rest of this post is going to explain some of the problems that async fn in traits is trying to solve, which may help explain why we have a need for the async-trait crate to begin with!

Async fn normally returns an impl Future

We saw that the async-trait crate converts an async fn to something that returns a dyn Future. This is contrast to the async fn desugaring that the Rust compiler uses, which produces an impl Future. For example, imagine that we have an inherent method async fn get_user() defined on some particular service type:

impl MyDatabase {
    async fn get_user(&self) -> User {

This would get desugared to something similar to:

impl MyDatabase {
    fn get_user(&self) -> impl Future<Output = User> + '_ {

So why does async-trait do something different? Well, it’s because of “Complication #1”…

Complication #1: returning impl Trait in traits is not supported

Currently, we don’t support -> impl Trait return types in traits. Logically, though, we basically know what the semantics of such a construct should be: it is equivalent to a kind of associated type. That is, the trait is promising that invoking get_user will return some kind of future, but the precise type will be determined by the details of the impl (and perhaps inferred by the compiler). So, if know logically how impl Trait in traits should behave, what stops us from implementing it? Well, let’s see…

Complication #1a. impl Trait in traits requires GATs

Let’s return to our Database example. Imagine that we permitted async fn in traits. We would therefore desugar

trait Database {
    async fn get_user(&self) -> User;

into something that returns an impl Future:

trait Database {
    fn get_user(&self) -> impl Future<Output = User> + '_;

and then we would in turn desugar that into something that uses an associated type:

trait Database {
    type GetUser<'s>: Future<Output = User> + 's;
    fn get_user(&self) -> Self::GetUser<'_>;

Hmm, did you notice that I wrote type GetUser<'s>, and not type GetUser? Yes, that’s right, this is not just an associated type, it’s actually a generic associated type. The reason for this is that async fn always capture all of their arguments – so whatever type we return will include the &self as part of it, and therefore it has to include the lifetime 's. So, that’s one complication, we have to figure out generic associated types.

Now, in some sense that’s not so bad. Conceptually, GATs are fairly simple. Implementation wise, though, we’re still working on how to support them in rustc – this may require porting rustc to use chalk, though that’s not entirely clear. In any case, this work is definitely underway, but it’s going to take more time.

Unfortunately for us, GATs are only the beginning of the complications around async fn (and impl Trait) in traits!

Complication #2: send bounds (and other bounds)

Right now, when you write an async fn, the resulting future may or may not implement Send – the result depends on what state it captures. The compiler infers this automatically, basically, in typical auto trait fashion.

But if you are writing generic code, you may well want to need to require that the resulting future is Send. For example, imagine we are writing a finagle_database thing that, as part of its inner working, happens to spawn off a parallel thread to get the current user. Since we’re going to be spawning a thread with the result from d.get_user(), that result is going to have to be Send, which means we’re going to want to write a function that looks something like this1:

fn finagle_database<D: Database>(d: &D)
    for<'s> D::GetUser<'s>: Send,

This example seems “ok”, but there are four complications

  • First, we wrote the name GetUser, but that is something we introduced as part of “manually” desugaring async fn get_user. What name would the user actually use?
  • Second, writing for<'s> D::GetUser<'s> is kind of grody, we’re obviously going to want more compact syntax (this is really an issue around generic associated types in general).
  • Third, our example Database trait has only one async fn, but obviously there might be many more. Probably we will want to make all of them Send or None – so you can expand a lot more grody bounds in a real function!
  • Finally, forcing the user to specify which exact async fns have to return Send futures is a semver hazard.

Let me dig into those a bit.

Complication #2a. How to name the associated type?

So we saw that, in a trait, returning an impl Trait value is equivalent to introducing a (possibly generic) associated type. But how should we name this associated type? In my example, I introduced a GetUser associated type as the result of the get_user function. Certainly, you could imagine a rule like “take the name of the function and convert it to camel case”, but it feels a bit hokey (although I suspect that, in practice, it would work out just fine). There have been other proposals too, such as typeof expressions and the like.

Complication #2b. Grody, complex bounds, especially around GATs.

In my example, I used the strawman syntax for<'s> D::GetUser<'s>: Send. In real life, unfortunately, the bounds you need may well get more complex still. Consider the case where an async fn has generic parameters itself:

trait Foo {
    async fn bar<A, B>(a: A, b: B);

Here, the future that results bar is only going to be Send if A: Send and B: Send. This suggests a bound like

    for<A: Send, B: Send> { S::bar<A, B>: Send }

From a conceptual point-of-view, bounds like these are no problem. Chalk can handle them just fine, for example. But I think this is pretty clearly a problem and not something that ordinary users are going to want to write on a regular basis.

Complication #2c. Listing specific associated types reveals implementation details

If we require functions to specify the exact futures that are Send, that is not only tedious, it could be a semver hazard. Consider our finagle_database function – from its where clause, we can see that it spawns out get_user into a scoped thread. But what if we wanted to modify it in the future to spawn off more database operations? That would require us to modify the where-clauses, which might in turn break our callers. Seems like a problem, and it suggests that we might want some way to say “all possible futures are send”.

Conclusion: We might want a new syntax for propagating auto traits to async fns

All of this suggests that we might want some way to propagate auto traits through to the results of async fns explicitly. For example, you could imagine supporting async bounds, so that we might write async Send instead of just Send:

pub fn finagle_database<DB>(t: DB)
    DB: Database + async Send,

This syntax would be some kind of “default” that expands to explicit Send bounds both DB and all the futures potentially returned by DB.

Or perhaps we’d even want to avoid any syntax, and somehow “rejigger” how Send works when applied to traits that contain async fns? I’m not sure about how that would work.

It’s worth pointing out this same problem can occur with impl Trait in return position2, or indeed any associaed types. Therefore, we might prefer a syntax that is more general and not tied to async.

Complication #3: supporting dyn traits that have async fns

Now imagine that had our trait Database, containing an async fn get_user. We might like to write functions that operate over dyn Database values. There are many reasons to prefer dyn Database values:

  • We don’t want to generate many copies of the same function, one per database type;
  • We want to have collections of different sorts of databases, such as a Vec<Box<dyn Database>> or something like that.

In practice, a desire to support dyn Trait comes up in a lot of examples where you would want to use async fn in traits.

Complication #3a: dyn Trait have to specify their associated type values

We’ve seen that async fn in traits effectively desugars to a (generic) associated type. And, under the current Rust rules, when you have a dyn Trait value, the type must specify the values for all associated types. If we consider our desugared Database trait, then, it would have to be written dyn Database<GetUser<'s> = XXX>. This is obviously no good, for two reasons:

  1. It would require us to write out the full type for the GetUser, which might be super complicated.
  2. And anyway, each dyn Database is going to have a distinct GetUser type. If we have to specify GetUser, then, that kind of defeats the point of using dyn Database in the first place, as the type is going to be specific to some particular service, rather than being a single type that applies to all services.

Complication #3b: no “right choice” for X in dyn Database<GetUser<'s> = X>

When we’re using dyn Database, what we actually want is a type where GetUser is not specified. In other words, we just want to write dyn Database, full stop, and we want that to be expanded to something that is perhaps “morally equivalent” to this:

dyn Database<GetUser<'s> = dyn Future<..> + 's>

In other words, all the caller really wants to know when it calls get_user is that it gets back some future which it can poll. It doesn’t want to know exactly which one.

Unfortunately, actually using dyn Future<..> as the type there is not a viable choice. We probably want a Sized type, so that the future can be stored, moved into a box, etc. We could imagine then that dyn Database defaults its “futures” to Box<dyn Future<..>> instead – well, actually, Pin<Box<dyn Future>> would be a more ergonomic choice – but there are a few concerns with that.

First, using Box seems rather arbitrary. We don’t usually make Box this “special” in other parts of the language.

Second, where would this box get allocated? The actual trait impl for our service isn’t using a box, it’s creating a future type and returning it inline. So we’d need to generate some kind of “shim impl” that applies whenever something is used as a dyn Database – this shim impl would invoke the main function, box the result, and return that.

Third, because a dyn Future type hides the underlying future (that is, indeed, its entire purpose), it also blocks the auto trait mechanism from figuring out if the result is Send. Therefore, when we make e.g. a dyn Database type, we need to specify not only the allocation mechanism we’ll use to manipulate the future (i.e., do we use Box?) but also whether the future is Send or not.

Now you see why async-trait desugars the way it does

After reviewing all these problems, we now start to see where the design of the async-trait crate comes from:

  • To avoid Complications #1 and #2, async-trait desugars async fn to return a dyn Future instead of an impl Future.
  • To avoid Complication #3, async-trait chooses for you to use a Pin<Box<dyn Future + Send>> (you can opt-out from the Send part). This is almost always the correct default.

All in all, it’s a very nice solution.

The only real drawback here is that there is some performance hit from boxing the futures – but I suspect it is negligible in almost all applications. I don’t think this would be true if we boxed the results of all async fns; there are many cases where async fns are used to create small combinators, and there the boxing costs might start to add up. But only boxing async fns that go through trait boundaries is very different. And of course it’s worth highlighting that most languages box all their futures, all of the time. =)


So to sum it all up, here are some of the observations from this article:

  • async fn desugars to a fn returning impl Trait, so if we want to support async fn in traits, we should also support fns that return impl Trait in traits.
    • It’s worth pointing out also that sometimes you have to manually desugar an async fn to a fn that returns impl Future to avoid capturing all your arguments, so the two go hand in hand.
  • Returning impl Trait in a trait is equivalent to an associated type in the trait.
    • This associated type does need to be nameable, but what name should we give this associated type?
    • Also, this associated type often has to be generic, especially for async fn.
  • Applying Send bounds to the futures that can be generated is tedious, grody, and reveals semver details. We probably some way to make that more ergonomic.
    • This quite likely applies to the general impl Trait case too, but it may come up somewhat less frequently.
  • We do want the ability to have dyn Trait versions of traits that contain associated functions and/or impl Trait return types.
    • But currently we have no way to have a dyn Trait without fully specifying all of its associated types; in our case, those associated types have a 1-to-1 relationship with the Self type, so that defeats the whole point of dyn Trait.
    • Therefore, in the case of dyn Trait, we would want to have the async fn within returning some form of dyn Future. But we would have to effectively “hardcode” two choices:
      • What form of pointer to use (e.g., Box)
      • Is the resulting future Send, Sync, etc
    • This applies to the general impl Trait case too.

The goal of this post was just to lay out the problems. I hope to write some follow-up posts digging a bit into the solutions – though for the time being, the solution is clear: use the async-trait crate.


  1. Astute readers might note that I’m eliding a further challenge, which is that you need a scoping mechanism here to handle the lifetimes. Let’s assume we have something like Rayon’s scope or crossbeam’s scope available. ↩︎

  2. Still, consider a trait IteratorX that is like Iterator, where the adapters return impl Trait. In such a case, you probably want a way to say not only “I take a T: IteratorX + Send” but also that the IteratorX values returned by calls to map and the like are Send. Presently you would have to list out the specific associated types you want, which also winds up revealing implementation details. ↩︎