Defaulting to Thread-Safety: Closures and Concurrency

By Huon Wilson — Published 26 May 2015

Contents

    Rust has some powerful tricks to model properties of aggregate types via unsafe traits with default and negative implementations. These features motivated by offering flexible concurrency/parallelism, and allow powerful closure-based APIs without losing any thread-safety (or memory-safety) guarantees at all.

    I realised that my recent post on the low-level details of closures missed an important aspect: how they interact with threading. This post builds on the struct desugaring in that one, the general concepts in Fearless Concurrency with Rust and the discussion of “markers” in Abstraction without overhead. (I suppose I should link Some notes on Send and Sync too.)

    Threads

    Spawning a thread in Rust is easy:

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    use std::thread;
    
    fn main() {
        let s = "from the parent";
        thread::spawn(move || {
            println!("child prints a string {}", s);
        });
    
        thread::sleep_ms(10);
    }
    

    As one might hope, this prints child prints a string from the parent. Like C, an binary exits once the main thread is finished, so I’ve inserted a sleep to (usually) ensure that the child thread is spawned and prints before the main thread dies. (It could also call join on the return value of spawn to block, but there’s an example below that the join strategy complicates, so sleep_ms it is.)

    It’s one of Rust’s key guarantees that this is ensured to be thread-safe, statically. The standard library ensures there’s no way to pass references between threads that get invalidated and even there’s no way to mutate things without using atomics or locks (among other assurances).

    This all works automatically with closures without too much magic, despite closures being very magic… how?

    Trait bounds

    The signature of spawn is

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    pub fn spawn<F, T>(f: F) -> JoinHandle<T>
        where
            F: Send + 'static + FnOnce() -> T,
            T: Send + 'static
    

    In words, spawn is a generic function with one argument and two type parameters:

    • the type F can be any function/closure that returns a T (FnOnce() -> T), can be safely transferred between threads (Send) and contains no short-lived references ('static),
    • the type T can be any type at all, as long as it can be transferred between threads and doesn’t contain short-lived references.

    The JoinHandle<T> allows for retrieving the T that f returns, via its join method.

    Why each bound on F? Well, f needs to be a function/callable of some sort, so we need one of the Fn* closure traits, and spawn will just run the closure on a new thread, and run it exactly once, so using FnOnce gives callers of spawn the most power.

    The closure is run on a new thread independent of the parent. There’s absolutely no guarantees or relationships between how long the new thread runs for, and how long the stack frames of the parent last, so the new thread cannot have any references to the parent’s stack. This is the 'static requirement: only data that can live for arbitrary long can be passed via the new closure.

    The last bound is Send: the closure is executed on a new thread, so it definitely needs to be safe to transfer to that new thread. This is what Send guarantees.

    The return type T can be anything, as long as it can be transferred from the child thread back to the parent (Send) and as long as it is also independent of any stack frames ('static).

    This all sounds fine and dandy. But there’s one hitch: the Send trait is defined entirely0 in the standard library. The compiler doesn’t know anything about it. But, somehow, even the purely compiler-internal types constructed for closures can implement it.

    Witchcraft?

    The main protagonist here is OIBIT.

    Ok, fine, it’s really default impls, but OIBIT is more fun to say.

    Previously, Send was a super-special compiler built-in trait with powers unseen by human eyes. Then, everything changed when the opt-in built-in traits (OIBIT) nation attacked. This introduced the concept of a “default impl” for marker traits (traits that don’t contain any items). A default implementation for Trait means that Trait will automatically be implemented by aggregate types where all (if any) the other types they contain also implement Trait.

    Syntactically, it looks like:

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    impl Trait for .. {}
    

    In terms of functionality, suppose u8 and String implement Trait but i16 doesn’t,

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    // implement `Trait`
    enum Good { A, B }
    struct Excellent;
    struct Wonderful { x: u8, y: String }
    type Splendid = Option<u8>;
    type Brilliant = (u8, String);
    
    // don't implement `Trait`
    enum Bad {
        X(i16),
        Y(u8)
    }
    struct Poor { x: i16 }
    type Subpar = Option<i16>;
    type Underwhelming = (String, i16);
    

    This rule applies to closures too: if a closure only captures things that implement Trait, it is a struct similar to Wonderful, so the (implicit) closure type implements Trait too.

    The Send trait has one of these nifty default implementations, so benefits from all that machinery, and it’s how closures can be used with Send. To demonstrate specifically:

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    use std::rc::Rc;
    
    // can only be used with `Send` types.
    fn check_send<T: Send>(_: T) {}
    
    let x: i32 = 1;
    let vec: Vec<Option<String>> = vec![None, None, None];
    
    let f = move || {
        let _ = (x, vec); // make sure they're captured
    };
    check_send(f);
    
    let pointer: Rc<i32> = Rc::new(1);
    let g = move || {
        let _ = pointer; // make sure it is captured
    };
    check_send(g);
    

    This fails to compile, but in a particular way:

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    ...:18:1: 18:11 error: the trait `core::marker::Send` is not implemented for the type `alloc::rc::Rc<i32>` [E0277]
    ...:18 check_send(g);
           ^~~~~~~~~~
    ...:18:1: 18:11 note: `alloc::rc::Rc<i32>` cannot be sent between threads safely
    ...:18 check_send(g);
           ^~~~~~~~~~
    

    Both i32 and Vec<Option<String>> are Send so the f closure is Send and check_send(f) compiles fine. On the other hand, Rc is not Send, so g doesn’t get the default implementation.

    The Rc type is a reference counted pointer where reference count adjustments happen non-atomically. This means that manipulating them from multiple threads will be a data-race: undefined behaviour. An Rc handle can’t transfer between threads due to this risk, and this is statically guaranteed since the type doesn’t implement Send. (The Arc type is a thread-safe version, using atomic reference counting.)

    Opting out or in

    It’s nice that Send is automatically implemented for a type when the contents are entirely Send, but this isn’t always perfect: it is possible to use unsafe code make a thread-unsafe type, even if it is composed entirely of primitives. Similarly, it is possible to have a type composed of non-Send internals which is actually thread-safe, by imposing extra constraints on how it manipulates data.

    Hence, two important parts of the OIBIT proposal are making it possible to fill in a “gap” that the default impl doesn’t cover, and also forcibly opt out of the default implementation. The former is so interesting: itcan be performed with normal impl, as one would write for the trait if it didn’t have default implementation.

    On the other hand, the opt-out is new and different, it is done via negative implementations: to opt out of Trait, implement !Trait. For example, the thread-unsafe Rc<T> type has

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    impl<T> !Send for Rc<T> {}
    

    Having to opt-out might seem error-prone, but the only way a type with individually-thread-safe contents can be thread unsafe in aggregate is if there is some unsafe code somewhere. Considering thread-safety is an important part of writing unsafe code in Rust, and if you’re building safe abstractions, you need to be careful to have the right trait implementations.

    However, it’s not as scary as it sounds. Safety is still the (sometimes conservative) default in the vast majority1 of low-level cases. The standard library has negative implementations of Send for the raw pointer types *const T and *mut T, so data structures containing them need to explicitly opt in if they are in fact thread-safe. (Rc actually falls into this category, so the implementation above isn’t strictly required.)

    There’s one slight hole here: the type of a closure is unnameable, so there’s no way to opt-out of a defaulted trait like Send. That is, a closure could capture only Send types, but use unsafe code to be thread unsafe. This is somewhat unfortunate, but closures are not designed to be the abstraction boundary for safety. I’d personally try to wrap the unsafety up into a real type with the correct trait (un)implementations to help the compiler help me as much as possible. Also, as I said above, this rarely happens, due to the negative implementations in the standard library; I imagine the the most common way that isn’t necessarily caught by that is calling non-reentrant FFI function, but wrapping C libraries in a safe interface is a nice idea.

    Anyway, returning to the opt in mechanism, what is stopping us from wrapping a thread-unsafe type (non-Send) in a new struct and implementing Send for it? Something like

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    use std::rc::Rc;
    
    struct Trick {
        x: Rc<i32>
    }
    impl Send for Trick {}
    

    If this worked (spoilers: it doesn’t), we’ve “asserted” that Trick is thread-safe despite it containing a thread-unsafe type, without mentioning unsafe anywhere. This would introduce a very real risk of undefined behaviour via data races.

    Unsafe traits

    Fortunately, the compiler spits out an error:

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    ...:6:1: 6:23 error: the trait `core::marker::Send` requires an `unsafe impl` declaration [E0200]
    ...:6 impl Send for Trick {}
          ^~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    

    Ah! So it’s telling us that unsafe is in fact required. This version of the impl compiles:

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    unsafe impl Send for Trick {}
    

    This is because Send is declared as unsafe:

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    pub unsafe trait Send {
    

    An unsafe trait is unsafe to implement, but not to use. It is designed to allow representing classes of types with absolute guarantees, that users of the trait can rely on even if it risks memory unsafety: it is up to the implementers to ensure they satisfy the requirements. It’s not unsafe to not implement an unsafe trait, so negative implementations don’t need unsafe.

    The guarantee for Send is thread-safety: a type should only implement Send if it is absolutely sure.

    ⚠⚠⚠

    Unsafe traits are great and libraries should definitely use them where they make sense. However, the OIBIT functionality (default and negative implementations) are still unstable and hence only usable with a nightly compiler behind the optin_builtin_traits feature. There’s some details around them that are unclear from the RFC and even the implementation, especially how they interact with primitives, so I could imagine some tweaks/breaking changes in future.

    Unfortunately, this means that the only way to opt-out of a defaulted trait with a stable compiler is to store a non-implementing type. The slickest way is to use PhantomData<T>, which is a zero-sized type (so no runtime effect) that behaves as if it stores its type argument. For opting out of Send, a field of type PhantomData<*const ()> works. (However, as discussed above, this is rarely needed for Send and Sync, which are the only two defaulted traits one can possibly use on a stable compiler.)

    Calling Concurrently

    We’ve been focusing on Send above, but there’s another trait that’s important for thread-safety: Sync. This trait represents values that are safe to be accessed by multiple threads at once, that is, sharing.

    It is sometimes useful to call a single function on multiple threads, like a parallel map, so it would be pretty great if this was possible…

    Just like Send, Sync is a defaulted trait, and so works well with closures too. A closure that only captures thread-shareable values (like a string) is also thread-shareable:

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    use std::sync::Arc;
    use std::thread;
    
    fn upto<F>(n: usize, func: F)
        where F: Send + 'static + Fn(usize) + Sync
    {
        let func = Arc::new(func);
        for i in 0..n {
            let f = func.clone();
            thread::spawn(move || f(i));
        }
    }
    
    fn main() {
        let message = "hello";
        upto(10, |i| println!("thread #{}: {}", i, message));
    
        // as above, don't let `main` finish
        thread::sleep_ms(100);
    }
    

    The output sometimes looks like:

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    thread #0: hello
    thread #7: hello
    thread #2: hello
    thread #9: hello
    thread #1: hello
    thread #4: hello
    thread #3: hello
    thread #6: hello
    thread #8: hello
    thread #5: hello
    

    The Send and 'static bounds are “boring”, they’re just required due to the implementation details of using spawn and Arc, it’s the Fn and Sync bounds that are fundamental to this behaviour.

    We’re calling the function from multiple threads at once, which means accessing the closure’s environment concurrently, so the Sync bound is necessary to guarantee safety. Also, by nature, sharing across threads means we’ve only got access to the closure via an & reference, so we need to be able to call it via that sort of reference and Fn is exactly the right trait for it. (Finding Closure in Rust looks at the three closure traits more closely.)

    Comments:
    1. They’re currently still “lang-items” (i.e. known to the compiler), but Niko Matsakis tells me “it’s because compiler needs refactoring”, i.e. an implementation detail. 

    2. There’s only 3 negative implementations (approximated by matches for /\bimpl.*!/) in my projects folder, which contains 100-200 Rust libraries over 1.3 million lines, written by me and others, mainly others. All three are for Send’s sibling Sync which uses exactly the same default/negative impl set-up, and, in fact, one of them is on a type that is already not Sync (it has non-Sync contents).

      (That said, there’s always the possibility that there should be a lot more negative impls, and there’s a large number of broken libraries in the ecosystem… however, this would surprise me greatly.) 

    I'm Huon Wilson huon_w, a mathematically and statistically inclined software engineer, currently working on the Swift team at Apple, but interested from hearing from you. Before that I was a long-term volunteer on Rust's core team.

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