Karl Matthias bio photo

Karl Matthias

Principal Systems Engineer at Nitro. Co-Author of "Docker: Up and Running" from O'Reilly Media. Dublin, Ireland.




A Week with Mozilla's Rust

I want another systems language in my tool belt. I want a language where I can be much more productive than in C: one in which I do not fear the correctness of my memory management, and don’t have to go through major gyrations to write concurrent code. But since I want a systems language that can effectively replace C, anything with enforced garbage collection like Go is out. Go is also not particularly friendly to interface to external libraries written in C. C++ has all of the pitfalls of C memory management and does not improve the concurrency situation at all. There are a few contenders still standing at that point, but I’ll look at one of them here.

Mozilla’s Rust might be the solution. Rust’s big wins are a modern object system, closures, a concurrency system designed for multi-core systems, and a memory model where the compiler can tell you if you’re doing something wrong or unsafe at compile time. Rust is also ABI compatible with C which makes tying libraries written in Rust into external code a minimal effort. Even less effort is required when tying C libs to Rust. If you want garbage collection, you can have it and you are fully in control of which memory is managed in this way. Wins all around.

Rust logo

I spent a week working with Rust to get a better understanding of what it can and can’t do, and what I might be able to use it for. What I found is a really appealing language with a lot of great thinking behind it. But it is heavily in flux at the moment, as its 0.7 release number indicates. I wrote some code in 0.6 just before the 0.7 release arrived. I then spent the better part of an evening migrating my couple of hundred lines of code. And the current pace of revisions is likely to continue for a few releases: more breaking changes are in the works for 0.8. However, all this churn does seem to represent advancement and refinement in the language and compiler so it’s not for nothing. I understand that a 1.0 release is slated for the latter part of the year.

As the community around any language is as important as the language, I wondered how Rust would fare. What I’ve found so far is a friendly group of very competent people who were perfectly happy to assist me on IRC when I fell afoul of the documentation and my ability to read the compiler code. The compiler is itself written mostly in Rust now. Mozilla already sits squarely at the center of a fairly robust community and it seems that Rust is benefitting from that strength. I have yet to see fewer than 200 people on the IRC channel, and /r/rust on Reddit is fairly active.

My summary on the state of things is that they are too much in flux for anything like production code at the moment. But I don’t think it will be that long before that situation is reversed. I expect major work will be happening in Rust by this time next year as the language settles down and major libraries can start to be written.

That’s how I see the state of all things Rust. But, I’d like to show some of the niceties of Rust so let’s take a look at some of my code. Full disclaimer: I don’t claim that any of this code is either correct or idiomatic Rust. It is solely my best effort. Feedback is of course welcome.

##Some Code You can take a look at the whole project on GitHub

My experiment was to wrap some of the hashing functions from OpenSSL and to implement HMAC in Rust natively. This seemed to be a low enough level exercise to test Rust’s chops as a systems programming language while also getting a sense of how it feels to write native Rust code. I found that I really like the language and that generally when I wanted to reach for something it was there. When it wasn’t, I had only to make a few adjustments to my thinking and there was a nice set of tools waiting at hand.

####FFI Linking C libraries to your Rust code is dead simple if you just need to access some C functions. You simply define the method sigantures with types that Rust can understand and give it a hint about linking the required shared library (if any). Here is the complete code for wrapping some C hashing methods with Rust’s Foreign Function Interface (FFI). Note that this is 0.7 code.

mod crypto {
  use std::libc::c_uint;
#[link_args = "-lcrypto"]
  extern { 
    fn SHA1(src: *u8, sz: c_uint, out: *u8) -> *u8;
    fn MD5(src: *u8, sz: c_uint, out: *u8) -> *u8;
    fn SHA224(src: *u8, sz: c_uint, out: *u8) -> *u8;
    fn SHA256(src: *u8, sz: c_uint, out: *u8) -> *u8;
    fn SHA384(src: *u8, sz: c_uint, out: *u8) -> *u8;
    fn SHA512(src: *u8, sz: c_uint, out: *u8) -> *u8;

You can now access those methods as if they were written in Rust itself.

Things get more complicated if you need to pass data structures into the C code. But it’s not horrible due to the fact that Rust’s structs are interchangeable with C. You define your data structure in Rust and then pass it to the C functions just as you would natively. Other situations like allocating blocks of memory to pass in are catered to with the standard vec module.

####Object System The object system is modern and very nice to use. Objects are effectively structs with code associated with them. You define a struct and then, in a separate impl block, you write the code that will make up the class and instance methods. Here is one simple type I used for returning digests from hashing functions:

struct Digest { digest: ~[u8] }

impl Digest {
  fn new(digest: ~[u8]) -> ~Digest { return ~Digest{ digest: digest } }

  fn hexdigest(&self) -> ~str {
    let mut acc = ~"";
    for self.digest.iter().advance |&byte| { acc = acc.append(fmt!("%02x", byte as uint)); }

There is effectively one class method here and one instance method. The hexdigest method requires that the first argument be a reference to an object of type Digest. Much like in Python, this is passed for you when the method is invoked on the object. But it is a signal to the compiler that this is an instance method not a class method.

Side note: If you’re wondering why I didn’t write something like acc += fmt(!...) that is because in 0.7 += is currently removed for str objects. This is slated to return in 0.8.

The new method on the other hand takes no &self argument. It is like a class method. One thing that is not obvious here, is that you can re-open classes at any time with a new impl block and add new code. This idiom is often used in Ruby and other dynamic languages when working with external libraries and I think this functionality will serve Rust well. It is rather unique for a compiled language.

Using the Digest object looks like this:

let digest = Digest::new(_some_binary_);
println(fmt!("%s", digest.hexdigest()));

###Closures We also see a closure in the code above. Coming from Ruby, these feel really nice in Rust as they are by appearances quite similar. I won’t get into a long explanation about iterators here (they are in flux), but the advance method takes a closure. We then modify the mutable acc variable on each iteration as the closure has this variable in scope. Nice.

###Pattern Matching Something not yet mentioned is the pattern matching system in Rust. This is similar to that in Erlang and other languages and lends some really flexible syntax to certain statements. A short example of pattern matching from my project was this:

let computed_key = match key.len().cmp(&self.block_size) {
  Less => self.zero_pad(key),
  Equal => key,
  Greater => self.zero_pad(self.hash(key).digest),

(note: this has been updated thanks to feedback)

Here we take the length of the key with key.len() and then compare it with our block size using the cmp() method. This returns a nicely idiomatic enum which can then be put into the pattern match. What’s not shown is that underscore is a universal match. In this case because we are matching an enum there is a small list of possibilities so we cover them all without need for the universal match.

Rust also supports guard statements like other pattern matching languages. This allows you to further refine the pattern match. For example we could have two lines that execute for Equal falling back to guards on a second condition:

let computed_key = match key.len().cmp(&self.block_size) {
  Less => self.zero_pad(key),
  Equal if self.block_size == 46 => key,
  Equal => key,
  Greater => self.zero_pad(self.hash(key).digest),

One of the nice things about pattern matching is that the compiler will analyze the block to the best of its ability and error if there is a case for which you have not supplied a pattern. Had we left one of the entries in the enum off the pattern, this would not have compiled. More helpful validation at compile time to save us from errors at run time.

###More to Come

I put up all the code on GitHub for review. I will not claim that this is correct or idiomatic Rust code, but it may serve to show off some of the things you can do in Rust. I will continue to contribute to the Rust community as it develops.

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