Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Rust for C++ programmers - part 4: unique pointers

Rust is a systems language and therefore must give you raw access to memory. It does this (as in C++) via pointers. Pointers are one area where Rust and C++ are very different, both in syntax and semantics. Rust enforces memory safety by type checking pointers. That is one of its major advantages over other languages. Although the type system is a bit complex, you get memory safety and bare-metal performance in return.

I had intended to cover all of Rust's pointers in one post, but I think the subject is too large. So this post will cover just one kind - unique pointers - and other kinds will be covered in follow up posts.

First, an example without pointers:
fn foo() {
    let x = 75;

    // ... do something with `x` ...
}
When we reach the end of `foo`, `x` goes out of scope (in Rust as in C++). That means the variable can no longer be accessed and the memory for the variable can be reused.

In Rust, for every type `T` we can write `~T` for an owning (aka unique) pointer to `T`. We use the `box` keyword to allocate space on the heap and initialise that space with the supplied value (this has very recently changed from using `~` for allocation too). This is similar to `new` in C++. For example,
fn foo() {
    let x = box 75;
}
Here `x` is a pointer to a location on the heap which contains the value `75`. `x` has type `~int`; we could have written `let x: ~int = box 75;`. This is similar to writing `int* x = new int(75);` in C++. Unlike in C++, Rust will tidy up the memory for us, so there is no need to call `free` or `delete`. Unique pointers behave similarly to values - they are deleted when the variable goes out of scope. In our example, at the end of the function `foo`, `x` can no longer be accessed and the memory pointed at by `x` can be reused.

Owning pointers are dereferenced using the `*` as in C++. E.g.,
fn foo() {
    let x = box 75;
    println!("`x` points to {}", *x);
}
As with primitive types in Rust, owning pointers and the data they point to are immutable by default. Unlike C, you can't have a mutable (unique) pointer to immutable data or vice-versa. Mutability of the data follows from the pointer. E.g.,
fn foo() {
    let x = box 75;
    let y = box 42;
    // x = y;         // Not allowed, x is immutable.
    // *x = 43;       // Not allowed, *x is immutable.
    let mut x = box 75;
    x = y;            // OK, x is mutable.
    *x = 43;          // OK, *x is mutable.
}
Owning pointers can be returned from a function and continue to live on. If they are returned, then their memory will not be freed, i.e., there are no dangling pointers in Rust. The memory will not leak however, eventually it must go out of scope and then it will be free. E.g.,
fn foo() -> ~int {
    let x = box 75;
    x
}

fn bar() {
    let y = foo();
    // ... use y ...
}
Here, memory is initialised in `foo`, and returned to `bar`. `x` is returned from `foo` and stored in `y`, so it is not deleted. At the end of `bar`, `y` goes out of scope and so the memory is reclaimed.

Owning pointers are unique (also called linear) because there can be only one (owning) pointer to any piece of memory at any time. This is accomplished by move semantics. When one pointer points at a value, any previous pointer can no longer be accessed. E.g.,
fn foo() {
    let x = box 75;
    let y = x;
    // x can no longer be accessed
    // let z = *x;   // Error.
}
Likewise, if an owning pointer is passed to another function or stored in a field it can no longer be accessed:
fn bar(y: ~int) {}

fn foo() {
    let x = box 75;
    bar(x);
    // x can no longer be accessed
    // let z = *x;   // Error.
}
Rust's unique pointers are similar to C++ `std::unique_ptr`s. In Rust, as in C++, there can be only one unique pointer to a value and that value is deleted when the pointer goes out of scope. Rust does most of its checking statically rather than at runtime. So, in C++ accessing a unique pointer whose value has moved will result in a runtime error (since it will be null). In Rust this produces a compile time error and you cannot go wrong at runtime.

We'll see later that it is possible to create other pointer types which point at a unique pointer's value in Rust. This is similar to C++. However, in C++ this allows you to cause errors at runtime by holding a pointer to freed memory. That is not possible in Rust (we'll see how when we cover Rust's other pointer types).

As shown above, owning pointers must be dereferenced to use their values. However, method calls automatically dereference, so there is no need for a `->` operator or to use `*` for method calls. In this way, Rust pointers are a bit similar to both pointers and references in C++. E.g.,
fn bar(x: ~Foo, y: ~~~~~Foo) {
    x.foo();
    y.foo();
}
Assuming that the type `Foo` has a method `foo()`, both these expressions are OK.

Using the `box` operator on an existing value does not take a reference to that value, it copies that value. So,
fn foo() {
    let x = 3;
    let mut y = box x;
    *y = 45;
    println!("x is still {}", x);
}
In general, Rust has move rather than copy syntax (as seen above with unique pointers). Primitive types have copy semantics, so in the above example the value `3` is copied, but for more complex values it would be moved. We'll cover this in more detail later.

Sometimes when programming, however, we need more than one reference to a value. For that, Rust has borrowed pointers. I'll cover those in the next post.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

~ for allocation changed to box? I like that. It was not that hard to learn that * in C declares and dereferences a pointer, and that & in C++ declares a reference and takes the address of a variable (creates a pointer), but I really don't want any more of that declaration/operation duality...

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rasmus Wriedt Larsen said...

More please, and faster :)

Anonymous said...

I also like the box more than ~. let x = uniq 75 would be even better, unless box is used for the other types, too.

susu said...

Great post! When I got familiar with C++'s move semantic I realized that it should be the default, not the copying. Of course, it can't be done because of backward-compatibility. But it's cool to see that rust has taken that path! :)

However, something is not completely clear to me. You mentioned that:

"So, in C++ accessing a unique pointer whose value has moved will result in a runtime error (since it will be null). In Rust this produces a compile time error and you cannot go wrong at runtime."

But what will happen if I 'move' the unique pointer into a function conditionally. For example. It can't be checked compile time, since depends on runtime.

(Sorry, I could not insert preformatted code here.)

Nick Cameron. said...

@susu, Rust must be conservative, so if you have a conditional and a value is moved in one path, then after the conditional, then the value is considered moved.

Unknown said...

unique_ptr is nullable and does not pass on its constness to its pointee. In that respect, I like to think of Box<T> as a boost::ptr_container<T> with fixed size of one.

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