Basic Data Layout

Alright, so what's a linked list? Well basically, it's a bunch of pieces of data on the heap (hush, kernel people!) that point to each other in sequence. Linked lists are something procedural programmers shouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole, and what functional programmers use for everything. It seems fair, then, that we should ask functional programmers for the definition of a linked list. They will probably give you something like the following definition:

List a = Empty | Elem a (List a)

Which reads approximately as "A List is either Empty or an Element followed by a List". This is a recursive definition expressed as a sum type, which is a fancy name for "a type that can have different values which may be different types". Rust calls sum types enums! If you're coming from a C-like language, this is exactly the enum you know and love, but on meth. So let's transcribe this functional definition into Rust!

For now we'll avoid generics to keep things simple. We'll only support storing signed 32-bit integers:

// in first.rs

// pub says we want people outside this module to be able to use List
pub enum List {
    Empty,
    Elem(i32, List),
}

phew, I'm swamped. Let's just go ahead and compile that:

> cargo build

error[E0072]: recursive type `first::List` has infinite size
 --> src/first.rs:4:1
  |
4 | pub enum List {
  | ^^^^^^^^^^^^^ recursive type has infinite size
5 |     Empty,
6 |     Elem(i32, List),
  |               ---- recursive without indirection
  |
  = help: insert indirection (e.g., a `Box`, `Rc`, or `&`) at some point to make `first::List` representable

Well. I don't know about you, but I certainly feel betrayed by the functional programming community.

If we actually check out the error message (after we get over the whole betrayal thing), we can see that rustc is actually telling us exactly how to solve this problem:

insert indirection (e.g., a Box, Rc, or &) at some point to make first::List representable

Alright, box. What's that? Let's google rust box...

std::boxed::Box - Rust

Lesse here...

pub struct Box<T>(_);

A pointer type for heap allocation. See the module-level documentation for more.

clicks link

Box<T>, casually referred to as a 'box', provides the simplest form of heap allocation in Rust. Boxes provide ownership for this allocation, and drop their contents when they go out of scope.

Examples

Creating a box:

let x = Box::new(5);

Creating a recursive data structure:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
#[derive(Debug)]
enum List<T> {
    Cons(T, Box<List<T>>),
    Nil,
}
#}
fn main() {
    let list: List<i32> = List::Cons(1, Box::new(List::Cons(2, Box::new(List::Nil))));
    println!("{:?}", list);
}

This will print Cons(1, Box(Cons(2, Box(Nil)))).

Recursive structures must be boxed, because if the definition of Cons looked like this:

Cons(T, List<T>),

It wouldn't work. This is because the size of a List depends on how many elements are in the list, and so we don't know how much memory to allocate for a Cons. By introducing a Box, which has a defined size, we know how big Cons needs to be.

Wow, uh. That is perhaps the most relevant and helpful documentation I have ever seen. Literally the first thing in the documentation is exactly what we're trying to write, why it didn't work, and how to fix it.

Dang, docs rule.

Ok, let's do that:

pub enum List {
    Empty,
    Elem(i32, Box<List>),
}
> cargo build

   Finished dev [unoptimized + debuginfo] target(s) in 0.22s

Hey it built!

...but this is actually a really foolish definition of a List, for a few reasons.

Consider a list with two elements:

[] = Stack
() = Heap

[Elem A, ptr] -> (Elem B, ptr) -> (Empty, *junk*)

There are two key issues:

  • We're allocating a node that just says "I'm not actually a Node"
  • One of our nodes isn't heap-allocated at all.

On the surface, these two seem to cancel each-other out. We allocate an extra node, but one of our nodes doesn't need to be allocated at all. However, consider the following potential layout for our list:

[ptr] -> (Elem A, ptr) -> (Elem B, *null*)

In this layout we now unconditionally heap allocate our nodes. The key difference is the absence of the junk from our first layout. What is this junk? To understand that, we'll need to look at how an enum is laid out in memory.

In general, if we have an enum like:

enum Foo {
    D1(T1),
    D2(T2),
    ...
    Dn(Tn),
}

A Foo will need to store some integer to indicate which variant of the enum it represents (D1, D2, .. Dn). This is the tag of the enum. It will also need enough space to store the largest of T1, T2, .. Tn (plus some extra space to satisfy alignment requirements).

The big takeaway here is that even though Empty is a single bit of information, it necessarily consumes enough space for a pointer and an element, because it has to be ready to become an Elem at any time. Therefore the first layout heap allocates an extra element that's just full of junk, consuming a bit more space than the second layout.

One of our nodes not being allocated at all is also, perhaps surprisingly, worse than always allocating it. This is because it gives us a non-uniform node layout. This doesn't have much of an appreciable effect on pushing and popping nodes, but it does have an effect on splitting and merging lists.

Consider splitting a list in both layouts:

layout 1:

[Elem A, ptr] -> (Elem B, ptr) -> (Elem C, ptr) -> (Empty *junk*)

split off C:

[Elem A, ptr] -> (Elem B, ptr) -> (Empty *junk*)
[Elem C, ptr] -> (Empty *junk*)
layout 2:

[ptr] -> (Elem A, ptr) -> (Elem B, ptr) -> (Elem C, *null*)

split off C:

[ptr] -> (Elem A, ptr) -> (Elem B, *null*)
[ptr] -> (Elem C, *null*)

Layout 2's split involves just copying B's pointer to the stack and nulling the old value out. Layout 1 ultimately does the same thing, but also has to copy C from the heap to the stack. Merging is the same process in reverse.

One of the few nice things about a linked list is that you can construct the element in the node itself, and then freely shuffle it around lists without ever moving it. You just fiddle with pointers and stuff gets "moved". Layout 1 trashes this property.

Alright, I'm reasonably convinced Layout 1 is bad. How do we rewrite our List? Well, we could do something like:

pub enum List {
    Empty,
    ElemThenEmpty(i32),
    ElemThenNotEmpty(i32, Box<List>),
}

Hopefully this seems like an even worse idea to you. Most notably, this really complicates our logic, because there is now a completely invalid state: ElemThenNotEmpty(0, Box(Empty)). It also still suffers from non-uniformly allocating our elements.

However it does have one interesting property: it totally avoids allocating the Empty case, reducing the total number of heap allocations by 1. Unfortunately, in doing so it manages to waste even more space! This is because the previous layout took advantage of the null pointer optimization.

We previously saw that every enum has to store a tag to specify which variant of the enum its bits represent. However, if we have a special kind of enum:

enum Foo {
    A,
    B(ContainsANonNullPtr),
}

the null pointer optimization kicks in, which eliminates the space needed for the tag. If the variant is A, the whole enum is set to all 0's. Otherwise, the variant is B. This works because B can never be all 0's, since it contains a non-zero pointer. Slick!

Can you think of other enums and types that could do this kind of optimization? There's actually a lot! This is why Rust leaves enum layout totally unspecified. There are a few more complicated enum layout optimizations that Rust will do for us, but the null pointer one is definitely the most important! It means &, &mut, Box, Rc, Arc, Vec, and several other important types in Rust have no overhead when put in an Option! (We'll get to most of these in due time.)

So how do we avoid the extra junk, uniformly allocate, and get that sweet null-pointer optimization? We need to better separate out the idea of having an element from allocating another list. To do this, we have to think a little more C-like: structs!

While enums let us declare a type that can contain one of several values, structs let us declare a type that contains many values at once. Let's break our List into two types: A List, and a Node.

As before, a List is either Empty or has an element followed by another List. By representing the "has an element followed by another List" case by an entirely separate type, we can hoist the Box to be in a more optimal position:

struct Node {
    elem: i32,
    next: List,
}

pub enum List {
    Empty,
    More(Box<Node>),
}

Let's check our priorities:

  • Tail of a list never allocates extra junk: check!
  • enum is in delicious null-pointer-optimized form: check!
  • All elements are uniformly allocated: check!

Alright! We actually just constructed exactly the layout that we used to demonstrate that our first layout (as suggested by the official Rust documentation) was problematic.

> cargo build

warning: private type `first::Node` in public interface (error E0446)
 --> src/first.rs:8:10
  |
8 |     More(Box<Node>),
  |          ^^^^^^^^^
  |
  = note: #[warn(private_in_public)] on by default
  = warning: this was previously accepted by the compiler but
    is being phased out; it will become a hard error in a future release!

:(

Rust is mad at us again. We marked the List as public (because we want people to be able to use it), but not the Node. The problem is that the internals of an enum are totally public, and we're not allowed to publicly talk about private types. We could make all of Node totally public, but generally in Rust we favour keeping implementation details private. Let's make List a struct, so that we can hide the implementation details:

pub struct List {
    head: Link,
}

enum Link {
    Empty,
    More(Box<Node>),
}

struct Node {
    elem: i32,
    next: Link,
}

Because List is a struct with a single field, its size is the same as that field. Yay zero-cost abstractions!

> cargo build

warning: field is never used: `head`
 --> src/first.rs:2:5
  |
2 |     head: Link,
  |     ^^^^^^^^^^
  |
  = note: #[warn(dead_code)] on by default

warning: variant is never constructed: `Empty`
 --> src/first.rs:6:5
  |
6 |     Empty,
  |     ^^^^^

warning: variant is never constructed: `More`
 --> src/first.rs:7:5
  |
7 |     More(Box<Node>),
  |     ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

warning: field is never used: `elem`
  --> src/first.rs:11:5
   |
11 |     elem: i32,
   |     ^^^^^^^^^

warning: field is never used: `next`
  --> src/first.rs:12:5
   |
12 |     next: Link,
   |     ^^^^^^^^^^

Alright, that compiled! Rust is pretty mad, because as far as it can tell, everything we've written is totally useless: we never use head, and no one who uses our library can either since it's private. Transitively, that means Link and Node are useless too. So let's solve that! Let's implement some code for our List!