As some of you may know, on May 4th Jack Huey opened a PR to stabilize an initial version of generic associated types. The current version is at best an MVP: the compiler support is limited, resulting in unnecessary errors, and the syntax is limited, making code that uses GATs much more verbose than I’d like. Nonetheless, I’m super excited, since GATs unlock a lot of interesting use cases, and we can continue to smooth out the rough edges over time. However, folks on the thread have raised some strong concerns about GAT stabilization, including asking whether GATs are worth including in the language at all. The fear is that they make Rust the language too complex, and that it would be better to just use them as an internal building block for other, more accessible features (like async functions and [return position impl trait in traits][RPITIT]). In response to this concern, a number of people have posted about how they are using GATs. I recently took some time to deep dive into these comments and to write about some of the patterns that I found there, including a pattern I am calling the “many modes” pattern, which comes from the chumsky parser combinator library. I posted about this pattern on the thread, but I thought I would cross-post my write-up here to the blog as well, because I think it’s of general interest.

General thoughts from reading the examples

I’ve been going through the (many, many) examples that people have posted where they are relying on GATs and look at them in a bit more detail. A few interesting things jumped out at me as I read through the examples:

  • Many of the use-cases involve GATs with type parameters. There has been some discussion of stabilizing “lifetime-only” GATs, but I don’t think that makes sense from any angle. It’s more complex for the implementation and, I think, more confusing for the user. But also, given that the “workaround” for not having GATs tends to be higher-ranked trait bounds (HRTB), and given that those only work for lifetimes, it means we’re losing one of the primary benefits of GATs in practice (note that I do expect to get HRTB for types in the near-ish future).
  • GATs allowed libraries to better hide details from their clients. This is precisely because they could make a trait hierarchy that more directly captured the “spirit” of the trait, resulting in bounds like M: Mode instead of higher-ranked trait bounds (in some cases, the HRTB would have to be over types, like for<X> M: Mode<X>, which isn’t even legal in Rust…yet).

As I read, I felt this fit a pattern that I’ve experienced many times but hadn’t given a name to: when traits are being used to describe a situation that they don’t quite fit, the result is an explosion of where-clauses on the clients. Sometimes you can hide these via supertraits or something, but those complex bounds are still visible in rustdoc, still leak out in error mesages, and don’t generally “stay hidden” as well as you’d like. You’ll see this come up here when I talk about how you would model this pattern in Rust today, but it’s a comon theme across all examples. Issue #95 on the RustAudio crate for example says, “The first [solution] would be to make PortType generic over a 'a lifetime…however, this has a cascading effect, which would force all downstream users of port types to specify their lifetimes”. Pythonesque made a simpler point here, “Without GATs, I ended up having to make an Hkt trait that had to be implemented for every type, define its projections, and then make everything heavily parametric and generic over the various conversions.”

The “many modes” pattern (chumsky)

The first example I looked at closely was the chumsky parsing library. This is leveraging a pattern that I would call the “many modes” pattern. The idea is that you have some “core function” but you want to execute this function in many different modes. Ideally, you’d like to define the modes independently from the function, and you’d like to be able to add more modes later without having to change the function at all. (If you’re familiar with Haskell, monads are an example of this pattern; the monad specifies the “mode” in which some simple sequential function is executed.)

chumsky is a parser combinator library, so the “core function” is a parse function, defined in the Parser trait. Each Parser trait impl contains a function that indicates how to parse some particular construct in the grammar. Normally, this parser function builds up a data structure representing the parsed data. But sometimes you don’t need the full results of the parse: sometimes you might just like to know if the parse succeeds or fails, without building the parsed version. Thus, the “many modes” pattern: we’d like to be able to define our parser and then execute it against one of two modes, emit or check. The emit mode will build the data structure, but check will just check if the parse succeeds.

In the past, chumsky only had one mode, so they always built the data structure. This could take significant time and memory. Adding the “check” mode let’s them skip that, which is a significant performance win. Moreover, the modes are encapsulated within the library traits, and aren’t visible to end-users. Nice!

How did chumsky model modes with GATs?

Chumsky added a Mode trait, encapsulated as part of their internals module. Instead of directly constructing the results from parsing, the Parser impls invoke methods on Mode with closures. This allows the mode to decide which parts of the parsing to execute and which to skip. So, in check mode, the Mode would decide not to execute the closure that builds the output data structure, for example.

Using this approach, the Parser trait does indeed have several ‘entrypoint’ methods, but they are all defaulted and just invoke a common implementation method called go:

pub trait Parser<'a, I: Input + ?Sized, E: Error<I::Token> = (), S: 'a = ()> {
    type Output;
    fn parse(&self, input: &'a I) -> Result<Self::Output, E> ... {

    fn check(&self, input: &'a I) -> Result<(), E> ... {
    fn go<M: Mode>(&self, inp: &mut InputRef<'a, '_, I, E, S>) -> PResult<M, Self::Output, E>
        Self: Sized;

Implementations of Parser just specify the go method. Note that the impls are, presumably, either contained within chumsky or generated by chumsky proc-macros, so the go method doesn’t need to be documented. However, even if go were documented, the trait bounds certainly look quite reasonable. (The type of inp is a bit…imposing, admittedly.)

So how is the Mode trait defined? Just to focus on the GAT, the trait look likes this:

pub trait Mode {
    type Output<T>;

Here, the T represents the result type of “some parser parsed in this mode”. GATs thus allow us to define a Mode that is independent from any particular Parser. There are two impls of Mode (also internal to chumsky):

  • Check, defined like struct Check; impl Mode for Check { type Output<T> = (); ... }. In other words, no matter what parser you use, Check just builds a () result (success or failure is propagated inepdendently of the mode).
  • Emit, defined like struct Emit; impl Mode for Emit { type Output<T> = T; ... }. In Emit mode, the output is exactly what the parser generated.

Note that you could, in theory, produce other modes. For example, a Count mode that not only computes success/failure but counts the number of nodes parsed, or perhaps a mode that computes hashes of the resulting parsed value. Moreover, you could add these modes (and the defaulted methods in Parser) without breaking any clients.

How could you model this today?

I was trying to think how one might model this problem with traits today. All the options I came up with had significant downsides.

Multiple functions on the trait, or multiple traits. One obvious option would be to use multiple functions in the parse trait, or multiple traits:

// Multiple functions
trait Parser { fn parse(); fn check(); }

// Multiple traits
trait Parser: Checker { fn parse(); }
trait Checker { fn check(); }

Both of these approaches mean that defining a new combinator requires writing the same logic twice, once for parse and once for check, but with small variations, which is both annoying and a great opportunity for bugs. It also means that if chumsky ever wanted to define a new mode, they would have to modify every implementation of Parser (a breaking change, to boot).

Mode with a type parameter. You could try defining a the mode trait with a type parameter, like so…

trait ModeFor<T> {
    type Output;

The go function would then look like

fn go<M: ModeFor<Self::Output>>(&self, inp: &mut InputRef<'a, '_, I, E, S>) -> PResult<M, Self::Output, E>
    Self: Sized;

In practice, though, this doesn’t really work, for a number of reasons. One of them is that the Mode trait includes methods like combine, which take the output of many parsers, not just one, and combine them together. Good luck writing that constraint with ModeFor. But even ignoring that, lacking HRTB, the signature of go itself is incomplete. The problem is that, given some impl of Parser for some parser type MyParser, MyParser only knows that M is a valid mode for its particular output. But maybe MyParser plans to (internally) use some other parser combinators that produce different kinds of results. Will the mode M still apply to those? We don’t know. We’d have to be able to write a HRTB like for<O> Mode<O>, which Rust doesn’t support yet:

fn go<M: for<O> Mode<O>>(&self, inp: &mut InputRef<'a, '_, I, E, S>) -> PResult<M, Self::Output, E>
    Self: Sized;

But even if Rust did support it, you can see that the Mode<T> trait doesn’t capture the user’s intent as closely as the Mode trait from Chumsky did. The Mode trait was defined independently from all parsers, which is what we wanted. The Mode<T> trait is defined relative to some specific parser, and then it falls to the go function to say “oh, I want this to be a mode for all parsers” using a HRTB.

Using just HRTB (which, again, Rust doesn’t have), you could define another trait…

trait Mode: for<O> ModeFor<O> {}

trait ModeFor<O> {}

…which would allow us to write M: Mode on go against, but it’s hard to argue this is simpler than the original GAT variety. This extra ModeFor trait has a “code smell” to it, it’s hard to understand why it is there. Whereas before, you implemented the Mode trait in just the way you think about it, with a single impl that applies to all parsers…

impl Mode for Check {
    type Output<T> = ();

…you now write an impl of ModeFor, where one “instance” of the impl applies to only one parser (which has output type O). It feels indirect:

impl<O> ModeFor<O> for Check {
    type Output = ();

How could you model this with RPITIT?

It’s also been proposed that we should keep GATs, but only as an implementation detail for things like return position impl Trait in traits (RPITIT) or async functions. This implies that we could model the “many modes” pattern with RPITIT. If you look at the Mode trait, though, you’ll see that this simply doesn’t work. Consider the combine method, which takes the results from two parsers and combines them to form a new result:

fn combine<T, U, V, F: FnOnce(T, U) -> V>(
    x: Self::Output<T>,
    y: Self::Output<U>,
    f: F,
) -> Self::Output<V>;

How could we write this in terms of a function that returns impl Trait?

Other patterns

In this post, I went through the chumsky pattern in detail. I’ve not had time to dive quite as deep into other examples, but I’ve been reading through them and trying to extract out patterns. Here are a few patterns I extracted so far:

  • The “generic scopes” pattern (smithay, playground):
    • In the Smithay API, if you have some variable r: R where R: Renderer, you can invoke r.render(|my_frame| ...). This will invoke your callback with some frame my_frame that you can then modify. The thing is that the type of my_frame depends on the type of renderer that you have; moreover, frames often include thread-local data and so should only be accessible to during that callback.
    • I called this the “generic scopes” pattern because, at least from a types POV, it is kind of a generic version of APIs like std::thread::scope. The scope function also uses a callback to give limited access to a variable (the “thread scope”), but in the case of std::thread::scope, the type of that scope is hard-coded to be std::thread::Scope, whereas here, we want the specific type to depend on the renderer.
    • Thanks to GATs, you can express that pretty cleanly, so that the only bound you need is R: Renderer. As with “many modes”, if you tried to express it using features today, you can get part of the way there, but the bounds will be complex and involve HRTB.
  • The “pointer types” pattern:
    • I didn’t dig deep enough into Pythonesque’s hypotheticals, but this comment seemed to be describing a desire to talk about “pointer types” in the abstract, which is definitely a common need; looking at the comits from Veloren that pythonesque also cited, this might be a kind of “pointer types” pattern, but I think I might also call it “many modes”.
  • The “iterable” pattern:
    • In this pattern, you would like a way to say where C: Iterable, meaning that C is a collection with an iter method which fits the signature fn iter(&self) -> impl Iterator<Item = &T>. This is distinct from IntoIterator because it takes &self and thus we can iterate over the same collection many times and concurrently.
    • The most common workaround is to return a Box<dyn> (as in graphene) or a collection (as in metamolectular). Neither is zero-cost, which can be a problem in tight loops, as commented here. You can also use HRTB (as rustc does, which is complex and leaky.

Did I miss something?

Maybe you see a way to express the “many modes” pattern (or one of the other patterns I cited) in Rust today that works well? Let me know by commenting on the thread.

(Since posting this, it occurs to me that one could probably use procedural macros to achieve some similar goals, though I think this approach would also have significant downsides.)