Object-Based APIs


When designing APIs in Rust which are exposed to other languages, there are some important design principles which are contrary to normal Rust API design:

  1. All Encapsulated types should be owned by Rust, managed by the user, and opaque.
  2. All Transactional data types should be owned by the user, and transparent.
  3. All library behavior should be functions acting upon Encapsulated types.
  4. All library behavior should be encapsulated into types not based on structure, but provenance/lifetime.


Rust has built-in FFI support to other languages. It does this by providing a way for crate authors to provide C-compatible APIs through different ABIs (though that is unimportant to this practice).

Well-designed Rust FFI follows C API design principles, while compromising the design in Rust as little as possible. There are three goals with any foreign API:

  1. Make it easy to use in the target language.
  2. Avoid the API dictating internal unsafety on the Rust side as much as possible.
  3. Keep the potential for memory unsafety and Rust undefined behaviour as small as possible.

Rust code must trust the memory safety of the foreign language beyond a certain point. However, every bit of unsafe code on the Rust side is an opportunity for bugs, or to exacerbate undefined behaviour.

For example, if a pointer provenance is wrong, that may be a segfault due to invalid memory access. But if it is manipulated by unsafe code, it could become full-blown heap corruption.

The Object-Based API design allows for writing shims that have good memory safety characteristics, and a clean boundary of what is safe and what is unsafe.

Code Example

The POSIX standard defines the API to access an on-file database, known as DBM. It is an excellent example of an “object-based” API.

Here is the definition in C, which hopefully should be easy to read for those involved in FFI. The commentary below should help explain it for those who miss the subtleties.

struct DBM;
typedef struct { void *dptr, size_t dsize } datum;

int     dbm_clearerr(DBM *);
void    dbm_close(DBM *);
int     dbm_delete(DBM *, datum);
int     dbm_error(DBM *);
datum   dbm_fetch(DBM *, datum);
datum   dbm_firstkey(DBM *);
datum   dbm_nextkey(DBM *);
DBM    *dbm_open(const char *, int, mode_t);
int     dbm_store(DBM *, datum, datum, int);

This API defines two types: DBM and datum.

The DBM type was called an “encapsulated” type above. It is designed to contain internal state, and acts as an entry point for the library’s behavior.

It is completely opaque to the user, who cannot create a DBM themselves since they don’t know its size or layout. Instead, they must call dbm_open, and that only gives them a pointer to one.

This means all DBMs are “owned” by the library in a Rust sense. The internal state of unknown size is kept in memory controlled by the library, not the user. The user can only manage its life cycle with open and close, and perform operations on it with the other functions.

The datum type was called a “transactional” type above. It is designed to facilitate the exchange of information between the library and its user.

The database is designed to store “unstructured data”, with no pre-defined length or meaning. As a result, the datum is the C equivalent of a Rust slice: a bunch of bytes, and a count of how many there are. The main difference is that there is no type information, which is what void indicates.

Keep in mind that this header is written from the library’s point of view. The user likely has some type they are using, which has a known size. But the library does not care, and by the rules of C casting, any type behind a pointer can be cast to void.

As noted earlier, this type is transparent to the user. But also, this type is owned by the user. This has subtle ramifications, due to that pointer inside it. The question is, who owns the memory that pointer points to?

The answer for best memory safety is, “the user”. But in cases such as retrieving a value, the user does not know how to allocate it correctly (since they don’t know how long the value is). In this case, the library code is expected to use the heap that the user has access to – such as the C library malloc and free – and then transfer ownership in the Rust sense.

This may all seem speculative, but this is what a pointer means in C. It means the same thing as Rust: “user defined lifetime.” The user of the library needs to read the documentation in order to use it correctly. That said, there are some decisions that have fewer or greater consequences if users do it wrong. Minimizing those are what this best practice is about, and the key is to transfer ownership of everything that is transparent.


This minimizes the number of memory safety guarantees the user must uphold to a relatively small number:

  1. Do not call any function with a pointer not returned by dbm_open (invalid access or corruption).
  2. Do not call any function on a pointer after close (use after free).
  3. The dptr on any datum must be NULL, or point to a valid slice of memory at the advertised length.

In addition, it avoids a lot of pointer provenance issues. To understand why, let us consider an alternative in some depth: key iteration.

Rust is well known for its iterators. When implementing one, the programmer makes a separate type with a bounded lifetime to its owner, and implements the Iterator trait.

Here is how iteration would be done in Rust for DBM:

struct Dbm { ... }

impl Dbm {
    /* ... */
    pub fn keys<'it>(&'it self) -> DbmKeysIter<'it> { ... }
    /* ... */

struct DbmKeysIter<'it> {
    owner: &'it Dbm,

impl<'it> Iterator for DbmKeysIter<'it> { ... }

This is clean, idiomatic, and safe. thanks to Rust’s guarantees. However, consider what a straightforward API translation would look like:

pub extern "C" fn dbm_iter_new(owner: *const Dbm) -> *mut DbmKeysIter {
    // THIS API IS A BAD IDEA! For real applications, use object-based design instead.
pub extern "C" fn dbm_iter_next(
    iter: *mut DbmKeysIter,
    key_out: *const datum
) -> libc::c_int {
    // THIS API IS A BAD IDEA! For real applications, use object-based design instead.
pub extern "C" fn dbm_iter_del(*mut DbmKeysIter) {
    // THIS API IS A BAD IDEA! For real applications, use object-based design instead.

This API loses a key piece of information: the lifetime of the iterator must not exceed the lifetime of the Dbm object that owns it. A user of the library could use it in a way which causes the iterator to outlive the data it is iterating on, resulting in reading uninitialized memory.

This example written in C contains a bug that will be explained afterwards:

int count_key_sizes(DBM *db) {
    datum key;
    int len = 0;

    if (!dbm_iter_new(db)) {
        return -1;

    int l;
    while ((l = dbm_iter_next(owner, &key)) >= 0) { // an error is indicated by -1
        len += key.dsize;
        if (l == 0) { // end of the iterator
    if l >= 0 {
        return -1;
    } else {
        return len;

This bug is a classic. Here’s what happens when the iterator returns the end-of-iteration marker:

  1. The loop condition sets l to zero, and enters the loop because 0 >= 0.
  2. The length is incremented, in this case by zero.
  3. The if statement is true, so the database is closed. There should be a break statement here.
  4. The loop condition executes again, causing a next call on the closed object.

The worst part about this bug? If the Rust implementation was careful, this code will work most of the time! If the memory for the Dbm object is not immediately reused, an internal check will almost certainly fail, resulting in the iterator returning a -1 indicating an error. But occasionally, it will cause a segmentation fault, or even worse, nonsensical memory corruption!

None of this can be avoided by Rust. From its perspective, it put those objects on its heap, returned pointers to them, and gave up control of their lifetimes. The C code simply must “play nice”.

The programmer must read and understand the API documentation. While some consider that par for the course in C, a good API design can mitigate this risk. The POSIX API for DBM did this by consolidating the ownership of the iterator with its parent:

datum   dbm_firstkey(DBM *);
datum   dbm_nextkey(DBM *);

Thus, all the lifetimes were bound together, and such unsafety was prevented.


However, this design choice also has a number of drawbacks, which should be considered as well.

First, the API itself becomes less expressive. With POSIX DBM, there is only one iterator per object, and every call changes its state. This is much more restrictive than iterators in almost any language, even though it is safe. Perhaps with other related objects, whose lifetimes are less hierarchical, this limitation is more of a cost than the safety.

Second, depending on the relationships of the API’s parts, significant design effort may be involved. Many of the easier design points have other patterns associated with them:

However, not every API can be done this way. It is up to the best judgement of the programmer as to who their audience is.

Last change: 2024-04-23, commit: 3719748