Type Inference

Rust Data Ownership, Part I

• Rust

Rust is one of the most interesting things I discovered this year. After long time programming in C++, I had hundred of situations where its memory management model drove me mad. Even using smart pointers, it is really hard to reason about who has the ownership of every object. If you ever wrote code using Boost ASIO with C++11 lambdas you know what I mean.

I also tried some other alternatives to C++. D was promising, but its garbage collector leaves no place for RAII (one of my favorite idioms). Go! uses a garbage collector as well, and it also has a poor integration with legacy systems. So I continued programming in C++ with a sight of resignation.

Some day a friend of mine told me about Rust. I took a look with caution. I read their book, code some examples. The more I learned the more I was convinced I had something really great in front of me. Something that could lead me to stop writing any further line of code in C++.

I’ve been wishing for some time to write about how Rust solves the memory management problem in a very clever way no other mainstream language ever tried. And I’d like to do it by comparing this mechanism with the one provided by C++11. And there is a lot of things to discuss! This is the first part of a set of posts about this topic. Today we are gonna see a basic introduction to data ownership and movement semantics.


Many of us learned the programming principles so long time ago that we have stopped thinking about ownership. And garbage collectors hasn’t contributed to recall. In many high level lenguages we access our program data through variables. A variable is a name, a binding to a single piece of data. Some examples in C++:

int a = 10;
int b;
std::string c = "foobar";

Here one instance of 10 is bounded to the variable a, while another instance of std::string type (with "foobar" content) is bounded to c. What about b? Is that an exception to the rule? No! b has no explicit value, so it takes a 0 according to C++03 specification. Rust uses a similar syntax:

let a = 10;
let b: u64;
let c = "foobar".to_string();

Well, perhaps it is not that similar. Rust implements something known as type inference. Type inference is a really good name for a coding blog, but it is also the ability of a compiler to infer the type of a variable, function argument, function result, etc, from its context. Here, since we are assigning the number 10 to a, the compiler infers a is an integer. For b we had to specify its type explicitely. This is obvious, if we only declare let b, the compiler lacks enough information to infer what its type is. But let’s forget about type inference for now and come back to the ownership.

Let’s say we add a new declaration like this one:

std::string c = "foobar";
std::string d = c;

What does it exactly mean? c was bounded to a new string "foobar" as before. And then d was bounded to… c? Not really. You are likely thinking about copy. The content of c is copied into d, so now each one is bounded to different but equal data. That’s correct. But now… forget about strings. Let’s say c type is something that cannot be copied. Something like:

std::thread c = ...;
std::thread d = c;

In C++11, the thread class of standard library cannot be copied. That makes sense (at least to me). So this code doesn’t compile. Now, let me suggest the following change.

std::thread c = ...;
std::thread d = std::move(c);

Without entering into details about std::move() function (which is one of the most bizarre things introduced by C++11), let’s just say that this code is moving the contents of c into d. This is where things became interesting. In previous examples, every variable has the ownership of the data it holds. a owns 10, b owns 0. But this rule is now broken by this movement feature introduced by C++11. The ownership of c is transferred to d. So c is not the owner of the thread anymore. Actually, it has lost the access to the thread.

The movement semantic is also present in Rust. Let’s see the following example.

let c = "foobar".to_string();
let d = c;

This code is almost the same we had for C++ string variables. And we said c was copied into d. Right? Mmmm… Right???

Not really. Rust defines itself as a systems programming language. Speed is a major goal. And copying strings from here to there blithely is not precisly what its authors consider speed. Here Rust assumes that c is moved (not copied) into d.

Let’s come back to C++ again for a while. Well, we said we have movement semantics, right? We have seen how to apply them to std::thread type, but most copyable types also supports movement. So, as we move threads from one variable into another, we can also move strings.

std::string c = "foobar";
std::string d = std::move(c);
std::cout << c << std::endl;

Place your bets! What’s exactly printed in standard output? Well, we are quite sure that "foobar" is not a good candidate. We said c is moved into d. If c is still "foobar" we had copied it, not moved. So, what the hell is into c?

Believe it or not, but c is "" (empty string). Why? Well, it’s hard to say. It has an empty string because that value is as good as any other. If you move the contents from c, it should have a neutral, none, nill, zero value. Actually you should not use c anymore. You stripped the data ownership off him. It is soulless, empty. Nevertheless, the language must specify the behavior when, after movement, that variable is accessed again.

In C++, the movement constructor of each type decides what’s the state of a moved object. std::string constructor decides to leave an empty string behind. But, what about other types? E.g., std::list leaves an empty list. In general, most types decide to replace the state by a neutral value. But, what about that types that has no natural neutral value? Could you tell what’s the neutral state for std::thread? Or std::promise? std::future? This problem leads to one of the most dark sides of C++11. In cppreference.com, you have to read bizarre things about std::thread constructor like:

thread(); (1) (since C++11)

thread( thread&& other ); (2) (since C++11)

Constructs new thread object.

1) Creates new thread object which does not represent a thread.

2) Move constructor. Constructs the thread object to represent the thread of execution that was represented by other. After this call other

no longer represents a thread of execution


So I have the meanings to instantiate a std::thread that… is not a thread at all!

At this point, I hope you are begining to believe move semantics are dangerous. Now let’s take a look to how Rust deals with the same situation.

let c = "foobar".to_string();
let d = c;
println!("{}", c);

You feed up your compiler with this code and…

foo.rs:4:16: 4:17 error: use of moved value: `c`
foo.rs:4 println!("{}", c);

OMG! Is that possible? Sure! Rust compiler detects that you have moved c into d. Thus, c is not valid any longer. Any attempt to access c derives in a compilation error. Data ownership is fully moved, and c is in a real empty state. You don’t have to specify the state of the instance after movement. You don’t even have to specify the movement behavior! If possible, the compiler will leave the data in the same memory region. If not, its contents will be memcpyied to the new location.

Move semantics could not be so dangerous after all!

This is just the begining. The way the movement semantic is implemented has many implications. What about heap memory? How does this memcpy-based copy deals with that? And what about pointers? All this and more, will be discussed in the next parts.

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