Type Consolidation into Wrappers


This pattern is designed to allow gracefully handling multiple related types, while minimizing the surface area for memory unsafety.

One of the cornerstones of Rust’s aliasing rules is lifetimes. This ensures that many patterns of access between types can be memory safe, data race safety included.

However, when Rust types are exported to other languages, they are usually transformed into pointers. In Rust, a pointer means “the user manages the lifetime of the pointee.” It is their responsibility to avoid memory unsafety.

Some level of trust in the user code is thus required, notably around use-after-free which Rust can do nothing about. However, some API designs place higher burdens than others on the code written in the other language.

The lowest risk API is the “consolidated wrapper”, where all possible interactions with an object are folded into a “wrapper type”, while keeping the Rust API clean.

Code Example

To understand this, let us look at a classic example of an API to export: iteration through a collection.

That API looks like this:

  1. The iterator is initialized with first_key.
  2. Each call to next_key will advance the iterator.
  3. Calls to next_key if the iterator is at the end will do nothing.
  4. As noted above, the iterator is “wrapped into” the collection (unlike the native Rust API).

If the iterator implements nth() efficiently, then it is possible to make it ephemeral to each function call:

struct MySetWrapper {
    myset: MySet,
    iter_next: usize,

impl MySetWrapper {
    pub fn first_key(&mut self) -> Option<&Key> {
        self.iter_next = 0;
    pub fn next_key(&mut self) -> Option<&Key> {
        if let Some(next) = self.myset.keys().nth(self.iter_next) {
            self.iter_next += 1;
        } else {

As a result, the wrapper is simple and contains no unsafe code.


This makes APIs safer to use, avoiding issues with lifetimes between types. See Object-Based APIs for more on the advantages and pitfalls this avoids.


Often, wrapping types is quite difficult, and sometimes a Rust API compromise would make things easier.

As an example, consider an iterator which does not efficiently implement nth(). It would definitely be worth putting in special logic to make the object handle iteration internally, or to support a different access pattern efficiently that only the Foreign Function API will use.

Trying to Wrap Iterators (and Failing)

To wrap any type of iterator into the API correctly, the wrapper would need to do what a C version of the code would do: erase the lifetime of the iterator, and manage it manually.

Suffice it to say, this is incredibly difficult.

Here is an illustration of just one pitfall.

A first version of MySetWrapper would look like this:

struct MySetWrapper {
    myset: MySet,
    iter_next: usize,
    // created from a transmuted Box<KeysIter + 'self>
    iterator: Option<NonNull<KeysIter<'static>>>,

With transmute being used to extend a lifetime, and a pointer to hide it, it’s ugly already. But it gets even worse: any other operation can cause Rust undefined behaviour.

Consider that the MySet in the wrapper could be manipulated by other functions during iteration, such as storing a new value to the key it was iterating over. The API doesn’t discourage this, and in fact some similar C libraries expect it.

A simple implementation of myset_store would be:

pub mod unsafe_module {

    // other module content

    pub fn myset_store(myset: *mut MySetWrapper, key: datum, value: datum) -> libc::c_int {

        let myset: &mut MySet = unsafe {
            // SAFETY: whoops, UB occurs in here!
            &mut (*myset).myset

        /* ...check and cast key and value data... */

        match myset.store(casted_key, casted_value) {
            Ok(_) => 0,
            Err(e) => e.into(),

If the iterator exists when this function is called, we have violated one of Rust’s aliasing rules. According to Rust, the mutable reference in this block must have exclusive access to the object. If the iterator simply exists, it’s not exclusive, so we have undefined behaviour! 1

To avoid this, we must have a way of ensuring that mutable reference really is exclusive. That basically means clearing out the iterator’s shared reference while it exists, and then reconstructing it. In most cases, that will still be less efficient than the C version.

Some may ask: how can C do this more efficiently? The answer is, it cheats. Rust’s aliasing rules are the problem, and C simply ignores them for its pointers. In exchange, it is common to see code that is declared in the manual as “not thread safe” under some or all circumstances. In fact, the GNU C library has an entire lexicon dedicated to concurrent behavior!

Rust would rather make everything memory safe all the time, for both safety and optimizations that C code cannot attain. Being denied access to certain shortcuts is the price Rust programmers need to pay.


For the C programmers out there scratching their heads, the iterator need not be read during this code cause the UB. The exclusivity rule also enables compiler optimizations which may cause inconsistent observations by the iterator’s shared reference (e.g. stack spills or reordering instructions for efficiency). These observations may happen any time after the mutable reference is created.

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