Some notes on Send and Sync

By Huon Wilson — Published 20 Feb 2015

Contents

    If you’ve been in the #rust-internals IRC channel recently, you may’ve caught a madman raving about how much they like Rust:

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    [15:50:03] <huon> I love this language
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    [20:02:07] <huon> did you know: Rust is awesome.
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    I was (and still am) losing my mind over how well Sync and Send interact with everything, especially now that the implementation for RFC 458 has landed.

    I’m aiming to write down a few edge cases and slight subtleties here that Aaron Turon, Niko Matsakis and I have realised; so that we (and others) don’t have to keep rediscovering them. So, unfortunately, this short(ish) article isn’t aiming to describe entirely why I’m so keen on them, but…

    The traits

    … I’m sure I can write something.

    Rust aims to be a language with really good support for concurrency; and there’s two parts to it: ownership & lifetimes, and the traits Send & Sync (the docs for these aren’t great at the moment, especially since the latest set of improvements landed so recently).

    These traits capture and control the two most common ways a piece of data be accessed and thrown around by threads, dictating whether it is safe to transfer ownership or pass a reference into another thread.

    The traits are “marker traits”, meaning they have no methods and don’t inherently provide any functionality. They serve as markers of certain invariants that types implementing them are expected to fulfill (they’re unsafe to implement manually for this reason: the programmer has to ensure the invariants are upheld). Specifically, the working definitions we have from them now are:

    • If T: Send, then passing by-value a value of type T into another thread will not lead to data races (or other unsafety)
    • If T: Sync, then passing a reference &T to a value of type T into another thread will not lead to data races (or other unsafety) (aka, T: Sync implies &T: Send)

    That is, Sync is related to how a type works when shared across multiple threads at once, and Send talks about how a type behaves as it crosses a task boundary. (These definitions are pretty vague, but the core team is definitely very interested in firming up and formalising them to be able to prove useful concrete things.)

    These two traits enable a lot of useful concurrency and parallel patterns to be expressed while guaranteeing memory safety. Basic examples include message passing and shared memory, both immutable & mutable (e.g. with enforced atomic instructions, or protected by locks). But more advanced things are easily possible too, with safety falling automatically out of the type system and the design of the standard library, e.g. manipulating (reading and writing) data stored directly on another thread’s stack and mutating disjoint pieces of a vector in parallel with no locking necessary.

    (It’s worth mentioning that Rust only guarantees memory safety and, particularly, freedom from data races, it doesn’t guarantee freedom from other concurrence/parallelism issues, such as dead locks, and non-data-race race conditions.)

    I have a very basic little library, simple_parallel (source), that is trying to experiment with these ideas. The examples there show off a few of the things mentioned above, and compile today. I think its pretty cool what Rust can do.

    Anyway, there’ll probably be lots more said about this later by me and by others. Now, I’ll stop distracting myself and get on to the actual notes I wanted to write down.

    Sync + CopySend

    That is, if a type T implements both Sync and Copy, then it can also implement Send (conversely, a type is only allowed to be both Sync and Copy if it is also Send).

    Proof:

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    // we start with some `T` on the main thread
    let x: T = ...;
    
    thread::scoped(|| {
        // and transfer a reference to a subthread (safe, since T: Sync)
        let y: &T = &x;
    
        // now use `T: Copy` to duplicate the data out, meaning we've
        // transferred `x` by-value into this new thread
        let z: T = *y;
    
    })
    

    The transfer happened only using Sync + Copy and so must be safe (if it wasn’t safe T isn’t allowed to implement Sync), hence it is legal for T to implement Send.

    This might not seem so interesting, since it is just a specific case of the definition of Sync (“can copy out of &” is a fundamental property of our T: Copy type, and so has to be considered when considering the thread safety of &T), but it is a little subtle.

    Also, needing to consider this case at all probably won’t come up for many types; one is most likely to encounter types that are not Send when storing pointers to shared memory—such as Rc—and most such types are not Copy since they have to manage their memory—such as Rc again. The two most prominent examples are & (which has safety ensured by Sync and static analysis in the compiler: lifetimes) and a hypothetical Gc<T> pointer. I guess we’ll just have to take care for Gc.

    &mut T: Send when T: Send

    We want to work out when it is safe to transfer a mutable reference &mut T between threads. For the shared reference &T it is easy: replacing &T with U in the definition of Sync gives the definition of Send (up to alpha renaming), so &T: Send when T: Sync, which can be expressed in code as

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    unsafe impl<'a, T: Sync> Send for &'a T {
    

    For &mut, you might suspect that thread-safety might depend on Sync in some way since that trait is so important for the other reference type, but, you’d be wrong. It is another example of the dramatic semantic difference between &mut and & despite the syntactic similarities.

    The mutable reference type has the guarantee that it is globally unaliased, so if a thread has access to a piece of data via a &mut, then it is the only thread in the whole program that can legally read from/write to that data. In particular, there’s no sharing and there cannot be several threads concurrently accessing that memory at the same time, hence the sharing-related guarantees of Sync don’t guarantee thread-safety for &mut. (RFC 458 describes this as &mut linearizing access to its contents.)

    Thinking about this, it seems like transferring a &mut T between threads might almost be safe for any T. The thinking might be that Send describes “passing by-value” between threads, and this passing changes fundamental properties of the program, such as where/when destructors are run; on the other hand, passing a &mut T is passing by reference so doesn’t change such things, and a &mut has unique access, so the whole set-up is basically the same as running on the original thread. For example, passing a &mut T around doesn’t change where/when the destructor of the T is run: it is still run when it goes out of scope, on the main thread.

    Unfortunately…

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    // we start with some `T` on the main thread
    let x: T = ...;
    // wrap it up
    let mut packet: Option<T> = Some(x);
    
    thread::scoped(|| {
        // and transfer just a mutable reference to the other thread
        let y: &mut Option<T> = &mut packet;
    
        // and then steal the `T` out!
        let z: T = y.take().unwrap();
    })
    

    That code transfers the T between two threads by just transferring a &mut Option<T>. Hence, if it is illegal to transfer a T between threads, by-value, it must also be illegal to transfer &mut Option<T> because we can use that to construct a T transfer. In pseudo-code, if T: !Send, then &mut Option<T>: !Send (using “negative bounds”, meaning T does not implement Send).

    Of course, this isn’t a failing of Option itself, its just a type that makes for a direct example. One could also create one T in each thread, and use std::mem::swap to exchange their places, causing both Ts to transfer by-value between threads (double the unsafety!!).

    The general rule is that transferring a &mut T between threads is guaranteed to be safe if T: Send, so &mut T behaves very much like T with relation to concurrency. (It is theoretically possible to have types for which sending a &mut T is safe, but sending a plain T is not, meaning &mut T: Send but not T: Send, so the relationship is not “if and only if”, as wrongerontheinternet pointed out on /r/rust.)

    Comments:

    I'm Huon Wilson huon_w, a post-graduate student in computational statistics. I'm a volunteer on Rust's core team.

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