Async Interview #2: cramertj, part 2

10 December 2019

This blog post is continuing my conversation with cramertj.

In the first post, I covered what we said about Fuchsia, interoperability, and the organization of the futures crate. This post covers cramertj’s take on the Stream trait as well as the AsyncRead and AsyncWrite traits.

You can watch the video on YouTube.

The need for “streaming” streams and iterators

Next, cramertj and I turned to discussing some of the specific traits from the futures crate. One of the traits that we covered was Stream. The Stream trait is basically the asynchronous version of the Iterator trait. In (slightly) simplified form, it is as follows:

pub trait Stream {
    type Item;
    fn poll_next(
        self: Pin<&mut Self>,
        cx: &mut Context<'_>,
    ) -> Poll<Option<Self::Item>>;

The main concern that cramertj raised with this trait is that, like Iterator, it always gives ownership of each item back to its caller. This falls out from its structure, which requires the implementor to specify an Item type, and that Item type cannot borrow from the self reference given to poll_next.

In practice, many stream/iterator implementations would be more efficient if they could have some internal storage that they re-use over and over. For example, they might have an internal buffer, and when poll_next is called, they would give back (upon completion) a reference to that buffer. The idea would be that once poll_next is called again, they would start to re-use the same buffer.

Terminology note: Detached/attached instead of “streaming”

The idea of having an iterator that re-uses an internal buffer has come up before. In that context, it was often called a “streaming iterator”, which I guess means that we want a “streaming stream”. This is pretty clearly a suboptimal term.

In the call, I mentioned the term “detached”, which I sometimes use to refer to the current Iterator/Stream. The idea is that Item that gets returned by Stream is “detached” from self, which means that it can be stored and moved about independently from self. In contrast, in a “streaming stream” design, the return value may be borrowed from self, and hence is “attached” – it can only be used so long as the self reference remains live.

I’m not really sure that I care for this terminology. I sort of prefer “owned/borrowing iterator”, where the idea is in an owned iterator, the iterator transfers ownership of the data to you, and in borrowing iterator, the data you get back is borrowed from the iterator itself. However, I fear that these terms will be confused for the distinction between vec.into_iter() and vec.iter(). Both of these methods exist today, of course, and they both yield “detached” iterators; however, the former takes ownership of vec and the latter borrows from it. The key point is that vec.iter() is giving back borrowed values, but they are borrowed from the vector, not from the iterator.

(One final note is that this same concept of ‘attached’ vs ‘detached’ will come up when discussing async closures again, which further argues for using terminology other than “streaming”.)

The natural way to write “attached” streams is with GATs

In any case, the challenge here is that, without generic associated types, there is no nice way to write the “attached” (or “streaming”) version of Stream. You really want to be able to write a definition like:

trait AttachedStream {
    type Item<'s> where Self: 's;
    //       ^^^^ ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ (we likely need an annotation like this
    //       |                    too, for reasons I'll cover in an appendix)
    //       note the `'s` here!

    fn poll_next<'s>(
        self: Pin<&'s mut Self>,
        cx: &mut Context<'_>,
    ) -> Poll<Option<Self::Item<'s>>>;
    //                         ^^^^
    // `'s` is the lifetime of the `self` reference.
    // Thus, the `Item` that gets returned may
    // borrow from `self`.

“Attached” streams would be used differently than the current ones

There are real implications to adopting an “attached” definition of stream or iterator. In short, particularly in a generic context where you don’t know all the types involved, you wouldn’t be able to get back two values from an “attached” stream/iterator at the same time, whereas you can with the “detached” streams and iterators we have today.

For the most common use case of iterating over each element in turn, this doesn’t matter, but it’s easy to define functions that rely on it. Let me illustrate with Iterator since it’s easier. Today, this code compiles:

/// Returns the next two elements in the iterator.
/// Panics if the iterator doesn't have at least two elements.
fn first_two<I>(iterator: I) -> (I::Item, I::Item) 
    I: Iterator,
    let first_item =;
    let second_item =;
    (first_item, second_item) 

However, given an “attached” iterator design, the first call to next would “borrow” iterator, and hence you could not call next() again so long as first_item is still in use.

Concerns with blocking the streaming trait

If I may editorialize a bit, in re-watching the video, I had a few thoughts:

First, I don’t want to block a stable Stream on generic associated types. I do think we should prioritize shipping GATs and I would expect to see progress nex year, but I think we need some form of Stream sooner than that.

Second, the existing Stream is very analogous to Iterator. Moreover, there has been a long-standing desire for attached iterators. Therefore, it seems reasonable to move forward with stabilizing stream today, and then expect to revisit both traits in a consistent fashion once generic associated types are available.

“Detached” streams can be converted into “attached” ones

Let’s assume then that we choose to stabilize Stream as it exists today. Then we may want to add an AttachedStream later on. In principle, it should then be possible to add a “conversion” trait such that anything which implements Steam also implements AttachedStream:

impl<S> AttachedStream for S
    S: Stream,
    type Item<'_> = S::Item;
    fn poll_next<'s>(
        self: Pin<&'s mut Self>,
        cx: &mut Context<'_>,
    ) -> Poll<Option<Self::Item<'s>>> {
        Stream::poll_next(self, cx)

The idea here is that the AttachedStream trait gives the possibility of returning values that borrow from self, but it doesn’t require that the returned values do so.

As far as I know, the above scheme above would work. In general, interconversion traits like these sometimes are tricky around coherence, but you can typically get away with “one” such impl. It would mean that types can implement AttachedStream if they need to re-use an internal buffer and Stream if they do not, which is a reasonable design. (I’d be curious to know if there are fatal flaws here.)

Things that consume streams would typically want an attached stream

One downside of adding Stream now and AttachedStream later is that functions which consume streams would at first all be written to work with Stream, when in fact they probably would later want to be rewritten to take AttachedStream. In other words, given some code like:

fn consume_stream(s: impl Stream) { .. }

it is quite likely that the signature should be impl AttachedStream. The idea is that you only want to “consume” a stream if you need to have two items from the stream existing at the same time. Otherwise, if you’re jus going to iterate over the stream one element at a time, attached stream is the more general variant.

Syntactic support for streams and iterators

cramertj and I didn’t talk too much about it directly, but there have been discussion about adding two forms of syntactic support for streams/iterators. The first would be to extend the for loop so that it works over streams as well, as boats covers in their blog post on for await loops.

The second would be to add a new form of “generator”, as found in many other languages. The idea would be to introduce a new form of function, written gen fn in synchronous code and async gen fn in asynchronous code, that can contain yield statements. Calling such a function would yield an impl Iterator or impl Stream, for sync and async respectively.

One point that cramertj made is that we should hold off on adding syntactic support until we have some form of “attached” stream trait – or at least until we have a fairly clear idea what its design will be. The idea is that we would likely want (e.g.) a for-await sugar to operate over both detached and attached streams, and similarly we may want gen fn to generate attached streams, or to have the ability to do so.

In fact, generators give a nice way to get an intuitive understanding of the difference between “attached” and “detached” streams: given attached streams, a generator yield could return references to local variables. But if we only have detached streams, as today, then you could only yield things that you own or things that were borrowed from your caller (i.e., references derived from other references that you got as parameters). In other words, yield would have the same limitations as return does today.

The AsyncRead and AsyncWrite traits

Next cramertj and I discussed the AsyncRead and AsyncWrite traits. As currently defined in futures-io, these traits are the “async analog” of the corresponding synchronous traits Read and Write. For example, somewhat simplified, AsyncRead looks like:

trait AsyncRead {
    fn poll_read(
        self: Pin<&mut Self>,
        cx: &mut Context<'_>,
        buf: &mut [u8],
    ) -> Poll<Result<usize, Error>>;

These have been a topic of recent discussion because the tokio crate has been considering adopting a new definition of AsyncRead/AsyncWrite. The primary concern has to do with the buf: &mut [u8] method. This method is supplying a buffer where the data should be written. Therefore, typically, it doesn’t really matter what the contents of that buffer when the function is called, as it will simply be overwritten with the data generated. However, it is of course possible to write a AsyncRead implementation that does read from that buffer. This means that you can’t supply a buffer of uninitialized bytes, since reading from uninitialized memory is undefined behavior and can cause LLVM to perform mis-optimizations.

cramertj and I didn’t go too far into discussing the alternatives here so I won’t either (this blog post is already long enough). I hope to dig into it in future interviews. The main point that cramertj made is that the same issue affects the standard Read trait and that it would make sense to address the design in the same way in both traits. (Indeed, there have been attempts to modify the trait to deal with (e.g., the initializer method, which also has an analogue in the AsyncRead trait).)

cramertj’s preferred solution to the problem would be to have some “freeze” function that can take uninitialized memory and “bless” it such that it can be accessed without UB, though it would contain “random” bytes (this is basically what people intuitively expected from uninitialized memory, though in fact it is not an accurate model). Unfortunately, figuring out how to implement such a thing in LLVM is a pretty open question, and there are also other problems (such as linux’s MADV_FREE feature) that may make this infeasible.

EDIT: An earlier draft of this post mistakely said that we would want some “poison” function, but really the proper term is “freeze”. In other words, some function that – given a bit of uninitialized data – makes it initialized but with some arbitrary value.


This was part two of my conversation with cramertj. Stay tuned for part 3, where we talk about async closures!


There is a thread on the Rust users forum for this series.