Implied bounds and perfect derive

12 April 2022

There are two ergonomic features that have been discussed for quite some time in Rust land: perfect derive and expanded implied bounds. Until recently, we were a bit stuck on the best way to implement them. Recently though I’ve been working on a new formulation of the Rust trait checker that gives us a bunch of new capabilities — among them, it resolved a soundness formulation that would have prevented these two features from being combined. I’m not going to describe my fix in detail in this post, though; instead, I want to ask a different question. Now that we can implement these features, should we?

Both of these features fit nicely into the less rigamarole part of the lang team Rust 2024 roadmap. That is, they allow the compiler to be smarter and require less annotation from you to figure out what code should be legal. Interestingly, as a direct result of that, they both also carry the same downside: semver hazards.

What is a semver hazard?

A semver hazard occurs when you have a change which feels innocuous but which, in fact, can break clients of your library. Whenever you try to automatically figure out some part of a crate’s public interface, you risk some kind of semver hazard. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t do the auto-detection: the convenience may be worth it. But it’s usually worth asking yourself if there is some way to lessen the semver hazard while still getting similar or the same benefits.

Rust has a number of semver hazards today.1 The most common example is around thread-safety. In Rust, a struct MyStruct is automatically deemed to implement the trait Send so long as all the fields of MyStruct are Send (this is why we call Send an auto trait: it is automatically implemented). This is very convenient, but an implication of it is that adding a private field to your struct whose type is not thread-safe (e.g., a Rc<T>) is potentially a breaking change: if someone was using your library and sending MyStruct to run in another thread, they would no longer be able to do so.

What is “perfect derive”?

So what is the perfect derive feature? Currently, when you derive a trait (e.g., Clone) on a generic type, the derive just assumes that all the generic parameters must be Clone. This is sometimes necessary, but not always; the idea of perfect derive is to change how derive works so that it instead figures out exactly the bounds that are needed.

Let’s see an example. Consider this List<T> type, which creates a linked list of T elements. Suppose that List<T> can be deref’d to yield its &T value. However, lists are immutable once created, and we also want them to be cheaply cloneable, so we use Rc<T> to store the data itself:

struct List<T> {
    data: Rc<T>,
    next: Option<Rc<List<T>>>,

impl<T> Deref for List<T> {
    type Target = T;

    fn deref(&self) -> &T { & }

Currently, derive is going to generate an impl that requires T: Clone, like this…

impl<T> Clone for List<T> 
    T: Clone,
    fn clone(&self) {
        List {
            value: self.value.clone(),

If you look closely at this impl, though, you will see that the T: Clone requirement is not actually necessary. This is because the only T in this struct is inside of an Rc, and hence is reference counted. Cloning the Rc only increments the reference count, it doesn’t actually create a new T.

With perfect derive, we would change the derive to generate an impl with one where clause per field, instead. The idea is that what we really need to know is that every field is cloneable (which may in turn require that T be cloneable):

impl<T> Clone for List<T> 
    Rc<T>: Clone, // type of the `value` field
    Option<Rc<List<T>>: Clone, // type of the `next` field
    fn clone(&self) { /* as before */ }

Making perfect derive sound was tricky, but we can do it now

This idea is quite old, but there were a few problems that have blocked us from doing it. First, it requires changing all trait matching to permit cycles (currently, cycles are only permitted for auto traits like Send). This is because checking whether List<T> is Send would not require checking whether Option<Rc<List<T>>> is Send. If you work that through, you’ll find that a cycle arises. I’m not going to talk much about this in this post, but it is not a trivial thing to do: if we are not careful, it would make Rust quite unsound indeed. For now, though, let’s just assume we can do it soundly.

The semver hazard with perfect derive

The other problem is that it introduces a new semver hazard: just as Rust currently commits you to being Send so long as you don’t have any non-Send types, derive would now commit List<T> to being cloneable even when T: Clone does not hold.

For example, perhaps we decide that storing a Rc<T> for each list wasn’t really necessary. Therefore, we might refactor List<T> to store T directly, like so:

struct List<T> {
    data: T,
    next: Option<Rc<List<T>>>,

We might expect that, since we are only changing the type of a private field, this change could not cause any clients of the library to stop compiling. With perfect derive, we would be wrong.2 This change means that we now own a T directly, and so List<T>: Clone is only true if T: Clone.

Expanded implied bounds

An implied bound is a where clause that you don’t have to write explicitly. For example, if you have a struct that declares T: Ord, like this one…

struct RedBlackTree<T: Ord> {  }

impl<T: Ord> RedBlackTree<T> {
    fn insert(&mut self, value: T) {  }

…it would be nice if functions that worked with a red-black tree didn’t have to redeclare those same bounds:

fn insert_smaller<T>(red_black_tree: &mut RedBlackTree<T>, item1: T, item2: T) {
    // Today, this function would require `where T: Ord`:
    if item1 < item2 {
    } else {

I am saying expanded implied bounds because Rust already has two notions of implied bounds: expanding supertraits (T: Ord implies T: PartialOrd, for example, which is why the fn above can contain item1 < item2) and outlives relations (an argument of type &’a T, for example, implies that T: ‘a). The most maximal version of this proposal would expand those implied bounds from supertraits and lifetimes to any where-clause at all.

Implied bounds and semver

Expanding the set of implied bounds will also introduce a new semver hazard — or perhaps it would be better to say that is expands an existing semver hazard. It’s already the case that removing a supertrait from a trait is a breaking change: if the stdlib were to change trait Ord so that it no longer extended Eq, then Rust programs that just wrote T: Ord would no longer be able to assume that T: Eq, for example.

Similarly, at least with a maximal version of expanded implied bounds, removing the T: Ord from BinaryTree<T> would potentially stop client code from compiling. Making changes like that is not that uncommon. For example, we might want to introduce new methods on BinaryTree that work even without ordering. To do that, we would remove the T: Ord bound from the struct and just keep it on the impl:

struct RedBlackTree<T> {  }

impl<T> RedBlackTree<T> {
    fn len(&self) -> usize { /* doesn’t need to compare `T` values, so no bound */ }

impl<T: Ord> RedBlackTree<T> {
    fn insert(&mut self, value: T) {  }

But, if we had a maximal expansion of implied bounds, this could cause crates that depend on your library to stop compiling, because they would no longer be able to assume that RedBlackTree<X> being valid implies X: Ord. As a general rule, I think we want it to be clear what parts of your interface you are committing to and which you are not.

PSA: Removing bounds not always semver compliant

Interestingly, while it is true that you can remove bounds from a struct (today, at least) and be at semver complaint3, this is not the case for impls. For example if I have

impl<T: Copy> MyTrait for Vec<T> { }

and I change it to impl<T> MyTrait for Vec<T>, this is effectively introducing a new blanket impl, and that is not a semver compliant change (see RFC 2451 for more details).


So, to summarize:

  • Perfect derive is great, but it reveals details about your fields—- sure, you can clone your List<T> for any type T now, but maybe you want the right to require T: Clone in the future?
  • Expanded implied bounds are great, but they prevent you from “relaxing” your requirements in the future— sure, you only ever have a RedBlackTree<T> for T: Ord now, but maybe you want to support more types in the future?
  • But also: the rules around semver compliance are rather subtle and quick to anger.

How can we fix these features?

I see a few options. The most obvious of course is to just accept the semver hazards. It’s not clear to me whether they will be a problem in practice, and Rust already has a number of similar hazards (e.g., adding a Box<dyn Write> makes your type no longer Send).

Another extreme alternative: crate-local implied bounds

Another option for implied bounds would be to expand implied bounds, but only on a crate-local basis. Imagine that the RedBlackTree type is declared in some crate rbtree, like so…

// The crate rbtree
struct RedBlackTree<T: Ord> { .. }

impl<T> RedBlackTree<T> {
    fn insert(&mut self, value: T) {

This impl, because it lives in the same crate as RedBlackTree, would be able to benefit from expanded implied bounds. Therefore, code inside the impl could assume that T: Ord. That’s nice. If I later remove the T: Ord bound from RedBlackTree, I can move it to the impl, and that’s fine.

But if I’m in some downstream crate, then I don’t benefit from implied bounds. If I were going to, say, implement some trait for RedBlackTree, I’d have to repeat T: Ord

trait MyTrait { }

impl<T> MyTrait for rbtrait::RedBlackTree<T>
    T: Ord, // required
{ }

A middle ground: declaring “how public” your bounds are

Another variation would be to add a visibility to your bounds. The default would be that where clauses on structs are “private”, i.e., implied only within your module. But you could declare where clauses as “public”, in which case you would be committing to them as part of your semver guarantee:

struct RedBlackTree<T: pub Ord> { .. }

In principle, we could also support pub(crate) and other visibility modifiers.

Explicit perfect derive

I’ve been focused on implied bounds, but the same questions apply to perfect derive. In that case, I think the question is mildly simpler— we likely want some way to expand the perfect derive syntax to “opt in” to the perfect version (or “opt out” from it).

There have been some proposals that would allow you to be explicit about which parameters require which bounds. I’ve been a fan of those, but now that I’ve realized we can do perfect derive, I’m less sure. Maybe we should just want some way to say “add the bounds all the time” (the default today) or “use perfect derive” (the new option), and that’s good enough. We could even make there be a new attribute, e.g. #[perfect_derive(…)] or #[semver_derive]. Not sure.


In the past, we were blocked for technical reasons from expanding implied bounds and supporting perfect derive, but I believe we have resolved those issues. So now we have to think a bit about semver and decide how much explicit we want to be.

Side not that, no matter what we pick, I think it would be great to have easy tooling to help authors determine if something is a semver breaking change. This is a bit tricky because it requires reasoning about two versions of your code. I know there is rust-semverer but I’m not sure how well maintained it is. It’d be great to have a simple github action one could deploy that would warn you when reviewing PRs.

  1. Rules regarding semver are documented here, by the way. ↩︎

  2. Actually, you were wrong before: changing the types of private fields in Rust can already be a breaking change, as we discussed earlier (e.g., by introducing a Rc, which makes the type no longer implement Send). ↩︎

  3. Uh, no promises — there may be some edge cases, particularly involving regions, where this is not true today. I should experiment. ↩︎