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What does Rust's “unsafe” mean?

By Huon Wilson24 Jul 2014

Rust is an in-development0 systems programming language with a strong focus on no-overhead memory safety. This is achieved through a powerful type system (with similarities to Haskell), and careful tracking of ownership and pointers, guaranteeing safety. However, this is too restrictive for a low-level systems language, an escape hatch is occasionally required. Enter the unsafe keyword.

Poking holes in memory safety

Rust aims to be memory safe, so that, by default, code cannot crash (or be exploited) due to dangling pointers or iterator invalidation. However, there are things that cannot fit into the type system, for example, it is not possible to get the raw interactions with the operating system and system libraries (like memory allocators and thread spawning) to be truly safe. Detailed human knowledge about how to use them safely is required to be encoded at some point, and this is not easily checkable by a compiler: mistakes can be made.

Other memory safe languages (e.g. managed ones like Python or Haskell) have all this knowledge encoded in the implementations of their underlying virtual machines/runtime systems, usually written in C. Rust doesn’t have a heavy-weight VM or runtime, but still needs to provide (preferably safe) interfaces in some manner.

Rust fills these holes with the unsafe keyword, which opts in to possibly dangerous behaviour; like calling into the operating system and external libraries via the foreign function interface (FFI), or handling possibly-invalid machine pointers directly.

Rust uses unsafe to build all the abstractions seen in the standard library: the vast majority of it is written in Rust, including fundamental types like the reference counted Rc, the dynamic vector Vec, and HashMap, with only a few small C shims and some external non-Rust libraries like jemalloc and libuv.


There are two ways in which one can opt-in to these possibly dangerous behaviours: with an unsafe block, or with an unsafe function.

// calling some C functions imported via FFI:

unsafe fn foo() {
fn bar() {
    unsafe {
fn baz() {
    // illegal, not inside an `unsafe` context
    // yet_another_c_function();

Being inside an unsafe context allows one to (not necessarily complete):

  1. call functions marked unsafe (this includes FFI functions)
  2. dereference raw pointers (the *const and *mut types), which can possibly be NULL, or otherwise invalid
  3. access a mutable global variable
  4. use inline assembly

All of these can easily cause large problems. For example, a shared reference &T is a machine pointer, but it must always point to a valid value of type T; all four of the above can cause this to be violated:

  1. There is an unsafe function std::mem::transmute which takes the bytes of its argument and pretends they are of any type one wants, thus, one can create an invalid & pointer by reinterpreting an integer: transmute::<uint, &Vec<int>>(0).

  2. A raw pointer p: *const T can legally be NULL. The “rereferencing” operation &*p creates a reference &T pointing to ps data, a no-op at runtime, since *const T and &T are both just a single pointer under the hood. If p is NULL this allows one to create a NULL &T: invalid!

  3. If one has static mut X: Option<i64> = Some(1234);, one can use pattern matching to get a reference r: &i64 pointing to the 1234 integer, but another thread can overwrite X with None, leaving r dangling.

  4. Inline assembly can set arbitrary registers to arbitrary values, including setting a register meant to be holding a &T to zero.

What does unsafe really mean?

An unsafe context is the programmer telling the compiler that the code is guaranteed to be safe due to invariants impossible to express in the type system, and that it satisfies the invariants that Rust itself imposes.

These invariants are assumed to never be broken, even inside unsafe code blocks, and the compiler compiles and optimises with this assumption. Thus, breaking any of those invariants is undefined behaviour1 and can leave a program doing “anything”, even making demons fly out your nose.

That is, an unsafe context is not a free pass to mutate anything and everything, nor is it a free pass to mangle pointers and alias references: all the normal rules of Rust still apply, the compiler is just giving the programmer more power, at the expense of leaving it up to the programmer to ensure everything is safe.

A non-unsafe function using unsafe internally should be implemented to be safe to call; that is, there is no circumstance or set of arguments that can make the function violate any invariants. If there are such circumstances, it should be marked unsafe.

This rule is most important for public, exported functions; private functions are guaranteed to only be called in a limited set of configurations (since all calls are in the crate/module in which it is defined), so the author has more flexibility about what sort of safety guarantees they give. However, marking possibly-dangerous things unsafe helps the compiler help the programmer do the right thing, so is encouraged even for private items.

Case study: Vec

The Vec<T> type is defined as:

pub struct Vec<T> {
    len: uint,
    cap: uint,
    ptr: *mut T

There are (at least) two invariants here:

  1. ptr holds an allocation with enough space for cap values of type T
  2. That allocation holds len valid values of type T (i.e. the first len out of cap of the Ts are valid, implying len <= cap)

It’s not feasible to express these in Rust’s type system, so they are guaranteed by a careful implementation. The implementation is then forced to use unsafe to assuage the compiler’s doubts about certain operations. The compiler does not and cannot understand the invariants stated above, and so cannot be sure that creating a slice view into the vector is safe. It is implemented like so:

fn as_slice<'a>(&'a self) -> &'a [T] {
    unsafe { mem::transmute(Slice { data: self.as_ptr(), len: self.len }) }

And you can see that it could easily be unsafe e.g. if one accidentally wrote self.cap instead of self.len, the resulting slice would be too long and the last elements of it would be uninitialised data. The compiler can’t verify that this is correct, and so assumes the worst, disallowing it without the explicit opt-in.

Another thing to note is these Vec invariants are required to always hold or else Vec will be allowing incorrect behaviour to happen via the safe methods it exposes (e.g. if someone could increase len without initialising the elements appropriately, the as_slice method above would be broken).

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to get the Rust compiler to directly enforce them, so the Vec API has to be careful to guarantee that they can’t be violated; part of this is keeping the fields private, so they cannot be directly changed, another part is being careful to mark the unsafe parts of the API as unsafe, e.g. the set_len method can directly change the len field.

Case study: malloc

The C function malloc is described by my man page as the following:

The malloc() function allocates size bytes and returns a pointer to the allocated memory. The memory is not initialized. If size is 0, then malloc() returns either NULL, or a unique pointer value that can later be successfully passed to free().

The malloc() and calloc() functions return a pointer to the allocated memory, which is suitably aligned for any built-in type. On error, these functions return NULL. […].

The libc crate predefines most of the common symbols from the libc on various platforms, including libc::malloc. Let’s write a safe program that creates memory for, stores and prints an 8-byte i64 integer, carefully justifying why we know more than the compiler, and thus why each unsafe is safe (in a perfect world all unsafe blocks would be justified/proved correct).

extern crate libc;
use std::ptr;

fn main() {
    let pointer: *mut i64 = unsafe {
        // rustc doesn't know what `malloc` does, and so doesn't know
        // that calling it with argument 8 is always safe; but we do,
        // so we override the compiler's concern with
        // `unsafe`. (`malloc` returns a `*mut libc::c_void` so we
        // need to cast it to the type we want.)
        libc::malloc(8) as *mut i64

    // we know that the only failure condition is the pointer being
    // NULL, in any other circumstance the pointer points to a valid
    // memory allocation of at least 8 bytes.
    if pointer.is_null() {
        println!("could not allocate");
    } else {
        // here, the only thing missing is initialisation, the memory
        // is valid but uninitialised, so lets fix that. Since it is
        // not initialised, we have to be careful to avoid running
        // destructors on the old memory; via `std::ptr::write`.
        unsafe {
            // allocation is valid, and the memory is uninitialised,
            // so this is safe and correct.
            ptr::write(pointer, 1234i64);

        // now `pointer` is looking at initialised, valid memory, so
        // it is valid to read from it, and to obtain a reference to
        // it.
        let data: &i64 = unsafe { &*pointer };
        println!("The data is {}", *data);
        // prints: The data is 1234

    // (leaking memory is not `unsafe`.)

(Keen eyes will note that i64 doesn’t have a destructor and so the ptr::write call isn’t strictly required, but it’s good practice.)

FAQ: Why isn’t unsafe viral?

One might expect a function containing an unsafe block to be unsafe to call, that is, unsafety infects everything it touches, similar to how Haskell forces one to mark all impure calculations with the IO type.

However, this is not the case, unsafe is just an implementation detail; if a safe function uses unsafe internally, it just means the author has been forced to step around the type system, but still exposes a safe interface.

More pragmatically, if unsafe were viral, every Rust program ever would be entirely unsafe, since the whole standard library is written in Rust, built on top of unsafe internals.


The unsafe marker is a way to step around Rust’s type system; by telling rustc that there are external conditions/invariants that guarantee correctness: the compiler steps back and locally leaves the programmer to verify that various properties hold. This allows Rust to write very low-level code like C, but still be memory safe by default, by forcing programmers to opt-in to the risky behaviour.

The “Writing Safe Unsafe and Low-Level Code” provides guidance and tips about using unsafe correctly.

  1. The code in this post compiles with rustc 0.12.0-pre-nightly (aa0e35bc6 2014-07-22 00:26:21 +0000)

  2. “What Every C Programmer Should Know About Undefined Behaviour” is a series of articles highlighting how insidious undefined behaviour can be, leading to subtly (or not so subtly) broken programs.