Async Interview #5: Steven Fackler

20 January 2020

Hello! For the latest async interview, I spoke with Steven Fackler (sfackler). sfackler has been involved in Rust for a long time and is a member of the Rust libs team. He is also the author of a lot of crates, most notably tokio-postgres.

I particularly wanted to talk to sfackler about the AsyncRead and AsyncWrite traits. These traits are on everybody’s list of “important things to stabilize”, particularly if we want to create more interop between different executors and runtimes. On the other hand, in [tokio-rs/tokio#1744], the tokio project is considering adopting its own variant traits that diverge significantly from those in the futures crate, precisely because they have concerns over the design of the traits as is. This seems like an important area to dig into!


You can watch the video on YouTube. I’ve also embedded a copy here for your convenience:

One note: something about our setup meant that I was hearing a lot of echo. I think you can sometimes hear it in the recording, but not nearly as bad as it was live. So if I seem a bit spacey, or take very long pauses, you might know the reason why!

Background: concerns on the async-read trait

So what are the concerns that are motivating tokio-rs/tokio#17144? There are two of them:

  • the current traits do not permit using uninitialized memory as the backing buffer;
  • there is no way to test presently whether a given reader supports vectorized operations.

This blog post will focus on uninitialized memory

sfackler and I spent most of our time talking about uninitialized memory. We did also discuss vectorized writes, and I’ll include some notes on that at the end, but by and large sfackler felt that the solutions there are much more straightforward.

Important: The same issues arise with the sync Read trait

Interestingly, neither of these issues is specific to AsyncRead. As defined today, the AsyncRead trait is basically just the async version of Read from std, and both of these concerns apply there as well. In fact, part of why I wanted to talk to sfackler specifically is that he is the author of an excellent paper document that covers the problem of using uninitialized memory in great depth. A lot of what we talked about on this call is also present in that document. Definitely give it a read.

Read interface doesn’t support uninitialized memory

The heart of the Read trait is the read method:

fn read(&mut self, buf: &mut [u8]) -> io::Result<usize>

This method reads data and writes it into buf and then – assuming no error – returns Ok(n) with the number n of bytes written.

Ideally, we would like it if buf could be an uninitialized buffer. After all, the Read trait is not supposed to be reading from buf, it’s just supposed to be writing into it – so it shouldn’t matter what data is in there.

Problem 1: The impl might read from the buf, even if it shouldn’t

However, in practice, there are two problems with using uninitialized memory for buf. The first one is relatively obvious: although it isn’t supposed to, the Read impl can trivially read from buf without using any unsafe code:

impl Read for MyReader {
  fn read(&mut self, buf: &mut [u8]) -> io::Result<usize> {
    let x = buf[0];

Reading from an uninitialized buffer is Undefined Behavior and could cause crashes, segfaults, or worse.

Problem 2: The impl might not really initialize the buffer

There is also a second problem that is often overlooked: when the Read impl returns, it returns a value n indicating how many bytes of the buffer were written. In principle, if buf was uninitialized to start, then the first n bytes should be written now – but are they? Consider a Read impl like this one:

impl Read for MyReader {
  fn read(&mut self, buf: &mut [u8]) -> io::Result<usize> {

This impl has no unsafe code. It claims that it has initialized the entire buffer, but it hasn’t done any writes into buf at all! Now if the caller tries to read from buf, it will be reading uninitialized memory, and causing UB.

One subtle point here. The problem isn’t that the read impl could return a false value about how many bytes it has written. The problem is that it can lie without ever using any unsafe code at all. So if you are auditing your code for unsafe blocks, you would overlook this.

Constraints and solutions

There have been a lot of solutions proposed to this problem. sfackler and I talked about all of them, I think, but I’m going to skip over most of the details. You can find them either in the video or in in sfackler’s paper document, which covers much of the same material.

In this post, I’ll just cover what we said about three of the options:

  • First, adding a freeze operation.
    • This is in some ways the simplest, as it requires no change to Read at all.
    • Unfortunately, it has a number of limitations and downsides.
  • Second, adding a second read method that takes a &mut dyn BufMut dyn value.
    • This is the solution initially proposed in [tokio-rs/tokio#1744].
    • It has much to recommend it, but requires virtual calls in a core API, although initial benchmarks suggest such calls are not a performance problem.
  • Finally, creating a struct BufMuf in the stdlib for dealing with partially initialized buffers, and adding a read method for that.
    • This overcomes some of the downsides of using a trait, but at the cost of flexibility.

Digression: how to think about uninitialized memory

Before we go further, let me digress a bit. I think the common understanding of uninitialized memory is that “it contains whatever values happen to be in there at the moment”. In other words, you might imagine that when you first allocate some memory, it contains some value – but you can’t predict what that is.

This intuition turns out to be incorrect. This is true for a number of reasons. Compiler optimizations are part of it. In LLVM, for example, an uninitialized variable is not assigned to a fixed stack slot or anything like that. It is instead a kind of “free floating” “uninitialized” value, and – whenever needed – it is mapped to whatever register or stack slot happens to be convenient at the time for most optimal code. What this means in practice is that each time you try to read from it, the compiler will substitute some value, but it won’t necessarily be the same value every time. This behavior is justified by the C standard, which states that reading uninitialized memory is “undefined behavior”.

This can cause code to go quite awry. The canonical example in my mind is the case of a bounds check. You might imagine, for example, that code like this would suffice for legally accessing an array:

let index = compute_index();
if index < length {
  return &array[index];
} else {
  panic!("out of bounds");

However, if the value returned by compute_index is uninitialized, this is incorrect. Because in that case, index will also be “the uninitialized value”, and hence each access to it conceptually yields different values. So the value that we compare against length might not be the same value that we use to index into the array one line later. Woah.

But, as sfackler and I discussed, there are actually other layers that rely on uninitialized memory never being read even below the kernel. For example, in the linux kernel, the virtual memory system has a flag called MADV_FREE. This flag is used to mark virtual memory pages that are considered uninitialized. For each such virtual page, khe kernel is free to change the physical memory page at will – until the virtual page is written to. At that point, the memory is potentially initialized, and so the virtual page is pinned. What this means in practice is that when you get memory back from your allocator, each read from that memory may yield different values, unless you’ve written to it first.

For all these reasons, it is best to think of uninitialized memory not as having “some random value” but rather as having the value “uninitialized”. This is special value that can, sometimes, be converted to a random value when it is forced to (but, if accessed multiple times, it may yield different values each time).

If you’d like a deeper treatment, I recommend Ralf’s blog post.

Possible solution to read: Freeze operation

So, given the above, what is the freeze operation, and how could it help with handling uninitialized memory in the read API?

The general idea is that we could have a primitive called freeze that, given some (potentially) uninitialized value, converts any uninititalized bits into “some random value”. We could use this to fix our indexing, for example, by “freezing” the index before we compare against the length:

let index = freeze(compute_index());
if index < length {
  return &array[index];
} else {
  panic!("out of bounds");

In a similar way, if we have a reference to an uninitialized buffer, we could conceivably “freeze” that reference to convert it to a reference of random bytes, and then we can safely use that to invoke read. The idea would be that callers do something like this:

let uninitialized_buffer = ...;
let buffer = freeze(uninitialized_buffer);
let n = buffer)?;

If we could do this, it would be great, because the existing read interface wouldn’t have to change at all!

There are a few complications though. First off, there is no such freeze operation in LLVM today. There is talk of adding one, but that operation wouldn’t quite do what we need. For one thing, it freezes the value it is applied to, but it doesn’t apply through a reference. So you could use it to fix our array bounds length checking example, but you can’t use it to fix read – we don’t need to freeze the &mut [u8] reference, we need to fix the memory it refers to.

Secondly, that primitive would only apply to compiler optimizations. It wouldn’t protect against kernel optimizations like MADV_FREE. To handle that, we have to do something extra, such as writing one byte per memory page. That’s conceivable, of course, but there are some downsides:

  • It feels fragile. What if linux adds some new optimizations in the future, how will we work around those?
  • It feels disappointing. After all, MADV_FREE was presumably added because it allows this to be faster – and we all agree that given a “well-behaved” Read implementation, it should be reasonable.
  • It can be expensive. sfackler pointed out that it is sometimes common to “over-provision” your read buffers, such as creating a 16MB buffer, so as to avoid blocking. This is fairly cheap in practice, but only thanks to optimizations (like MADV_FREE) that allow that memory to be lazilly allocated and so forth. If we start writing a byte into every page of a 16MB buffer, you’re going to notice the difference.

For these reasons, sfackler felt like freeze isn’t the right answer here. It might be a useful primitive for things like array bounds checking, but it would be better if we could modify the Read trait in such a way that we permit the use of “unfrozen” uninitialized memory.

Incidentally, this is a topic we’ve hit on in previous async interviews. [cramertj and I talked about it][ctj2], for example. My own opinion has shifted – at first, I thought a freeze primitive was obviously a good idea, but I’ve come to agree with sfackler that it’s not the right solution here.

Fallback and efficient interoperability

If we don’t take the approach of adding a freeze primitive, then this implies that we are going to have to extend the Read trait with some of second method. Let’s call it read2 for short. And this raises an interesting question: how are we going to handle backwards compatibility?

In particular, read2 is going to have a default, so that existing impls of Read are not invalidated. And this default is going to have to fallback to calling read, since that is the only method that we can guarantee to exist. Since read requires a fully initialized buffer, this will mean that read2 will have to zero its buffer if it may be uninitialized. This by itself is ok – it’s no worse than today.

The problem is that some of the solutions discussed in sfackler’s doc can wind up having to zero the buffer multiple times, depending on how things play out. And this could be a big performance cost. That is definitely to be avoided.

Possible solution to read: Take a trait object, and not a buffer

Another proposed solution, in fact the one described in [tokio-rs/tokio#1744], is to modify read so it takes a trait object (in the case of the Read trait, we’d have to add a new, defaulted method):

fn read_buf(&mut self, buf: &mut dyn BufMut) -> io::Result<()>

The idea here is that BufMut is a trait that lets you safely access a potentially uninitialized set of buffers:

pub trait BufMut {
    fn remaining_mut(&self) -> usize;
    unsafe fn advance_mut(&mut self, cnt: usize);
    unsafe fn bytes_mut(&mut self) -> &mut [u8];

You might wonder why the definition takes a &mut dyn BufMut, rather than a &mut impl BufMut. Taking impl BufMut would mean that the code is specialized to the particular sort of buffer you are using, so that would potentially be quite a bit faster. However, it would also make Read not “dyn-safe”1, and that’s a non-starter.

There are some nifty aspects to this proposal. One of them is that the same trait can to some extent “paper over” vectorized writes, by distributing the data written across buffers in a chain.

But there are some downsides. Perhaps most important is that requiring virtual calls to write into the buffer could be a significant performance hazard. Thus far, measurements don’t suggest that, but it seems like a cost that can only be recovered by heroic compiler optimizations, and that’s the kind of thing we prefer to avoid.

Moreover, the ability to be generic over vectorized writes may not be as useful as you might think. Often, the caller wants to know whether the underlying Read supports vectorized writes, and it would operate quite differently in that case. Therefore, it doesn’t really hurt to have two read methods, one for normal and one for vectorized writes.

Variant: use a struct, instead of a trait

The variant that sfackler prefers is to replace the BufMut trait with a struct.2 The API of this struct would be fairly similar to the trait above, except that it wouldn’t make much attempt to unify vectorized and non-vectorized writes.

Basically, we’d have a struct that encapsulates a “partially initialized slice of bytes”. You could create such a struct from a standard slice, in which case all things are initialized, or you can create it from a slice of “maybe initialized” bytes (e.g., &mut [MaybeUninit<u8>]. There can also be convenience methods to create a BufMut that refers to the uninitialized tail of bytes from a Vec (i.e., pointing into the vector’s internal buffer).

The safe methods of the BufMut API would permit

  • writing to the buffer, which will track the bytes that were initialized;
  • getting access to a slice, but only one that is guaranteed to be initialized.

There would be unsafe methods for getting access to memory that may be uninitialized, or for asserting that you have initialized a big swath of bytes (e.g., by handing the buffer off to the kernel to get written to).

The buffer has state: it can track what has been initialized. This means that any given part of the buffer will get zeroed at most once. This ensures that fallback from the new read2 method to the old read method is reasonably efficient.

Sync vs async, how to proceed

So, given the above thoughts, how should we proceed with AsyncRead? sfackler felt that the question of how to handle uninitialized output buffers was basically “orthogonal” from the question of whether and when to add AsyncRead. In others, sfackler felt that the AsyncRead and Read traits should mirror one another, which means that we could add AsyncRead now, and then add a solution for uninitialized memory later – or we could do the reverse order.

One minor question has to do with defaults. Currently the Read trait requires an implementation of read – any new method (read_uninit or whatever) will therefore have to have a default implementation that invokes read. But this is sort of the wrong incentive: we’d prefer if users implemented read_uninit, and implemented read in terms of the new method. We could conceivably reverse the defaults for the AsyncRead trait to this preferred style. Alternatively, sfackler noted that we could make both read and read_uninit have a default implementation, one implementing in terms of the other. In this case, users would have to implement one or the other (implementing neither would lead to an infinite loop, and we would likely want a lint for that case).

We also discussed what it would mean it tokio adopted its own AsyncRead trait that diverged from std. While not ideal, sfackler felt like it wouldn’t be that big a deal either way, since it ought to be possible to efficiently interconvert between the two. The main constraint is having some kind of stateful entity that can remember the amount of uninitialized data, thus preventing the inefficient fallover behavior.

Is the ability to use uninitialized memory even a problem?

We spent a bit of time at the end discussing how one could gain data on this problem. There are two things that would be nice to know.

First, how big is the performance impact from zeroing? Second, how ergonomic is the proposed API to use in practice?

Regarding the performance impact, I asked the same question on tokio-rs/tokio#17144, and I did get back some interesting results, [which I summarized in this hackmd at the time][tokio-hackmd]. In short, hyper’s benchmarks show a fairly sizable impact, with uninitialized data getting speedups3 of 1.3-1.5x. Other benchmarks though are much more mixed, showing either no diference or small differences on the order of 2%. Within the stdlib, we found about a [7% impact on microbenchmarks][#26950].

Still, sfackler raised another interesting data point (both on the thread and in our call). He was pointing out #23820, a PR which rewrote read_to_end in the stdlib. The older implementation was simple and obvious, but suffered from massive performance cliffs related to the need to zero buffers. The newer implementation is fast, but much more complex. Using one of the APIs described above would permit us to avoid this complexity.

Regarding ergonomics, as ever, that’s a tricky thing to judge. It’s hard to do better than prototyping as well as offering the API on nightly for a time, so that people can try it out and give feedback.

Having the API on nightly would also help us to make branches of frameworks like tokio and async-std so we can do bigger measurements.

Higher levels of interoperability

sfackler and I talked a bit about what the priorities should be beyond AsyncRead. One of the things we talked about is whether there is a need for higher-level traits or libraries that expose more custom information beyond “here is how to read data”. One example that has come up from time to time is the need to know, for example, the URL or other information associated with a request.

Another example might be the role of crates like http, which aims to define Rust types for things like HTTP header codes that are fairly standard. These would be useful types to share across all HTTP implementations and libraries, but will we be able to achieve that sort of sharing without offering the crate as part of the stdlib (or at last part of the Rust org)? I don’t think we had a definitive answer here.

Priorities beyond async read

We next discussed what other priorities the Rust org might have around Async I/O. For sfackler, the top items would be

  • better support for GATs and async fn in traits;
  • some kind of generator or syntactic support for streams;
  • improved diagnostics, particularly around send/sync.


sfackler and I focused quite heavily on the AsyncRead trait and how to manage uninitialized memory. I think that it would be fair to summarize the main points of our conversation as:

  • we should add AsyncRead to the stdlib and have it mirror Read;
  • in general, it makes sense for the synchronous and asynchronous versions of the traits to be analogous;
  • we should extend both traits with a method that takes a BufMut struct to manage uninitialized output buffers, as the other options all have a crippling downside;
  • we should extend both traits with a “do you support vectorized output?” callback as well;
  • beyond that, the Rust org should focus heavily on diagnostics for async/await, but streams and async fns in traits would be great too. =)


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

Appendix: Vectorized reads and writes

There is one minor subthread that I’ve skipped over – vectorized reads and writes. I skipped it in the blog post because this problem is somewhat simpler. The standard read interface takes a single buffer to write the data into. But a vectorized interface takes a series of buffers – if there is more data than will fit in the first one, then the data will be written into the second one, and so on until we run out of data or buffers. Vectorized reads and writes can be much more efficient in some cases.

Unfortunately, not all readers support vectorized reads. For that reason, the “vectorized read” method has a fallback: by default, it just calls the normal read method using the first non-empty buffer in the list. This is theoretically equal, but obviously it could be a lot less efficient – imagine that I have supplied one buffer of size 1K and one buffer of size 16K. The default vectorized read method will just always use that single 1K buffer, which isn’t great – but still, not much to be done about it. Some readers just cannot support vectorized reads.

The problem here then is that it would be nice if there were some way to detect when a reader supports vectorized reads. This would allow the caller to choose between a “vectorized” call path, where it tries to supply many buffers, or a single-buffer call path, where it just allocates a big buffer.

Apparently hyper will do this today, but using a heuristic: if a call to the vectorized read method returns just enough data to fit in the first buffer, hyper guesses that in fact vectorized reads are not supported, and switches dynamically to the “one big buffer” strategy. (Neat.)

There is perhaps a second, more ergonomic issue: since the vectorized read method has a default implementation, it is easy to forget to implement it, even if you would have been able to do so.

In any case, this problem is relatively easy to solve: we basically need to add a new method like

fn supports_vectorized_reads(&self) -> bool

to the trait.

The matter of decided whether or not to supply a default is a bit trickier. If you don’t supply a default, then everybody has to implement it, even if they just want the default behavior. But if you do, people who wished to implement the method may forget to do so – this is particularly unfortunate for reads that are wrapping another reader, which is a pretty common case.


  1. Most folks say “object-safe” here, but I’m trying to shift our terminology to talk more about the dyn keyword. ↩︎

  2. Carl Lerche proposed something similar on the tokio thread here↩︎

  3. I am defining a “speedup” here as the ratio of U/Z, where U/Z are the throughput with uninitialized/zeroed buffers respectively. [tokio-hackmd]: [#26950]: ↩︎