Various guarantees in Rust

Since I promised @arrowrowe to write a series of posts about introduction Rust to Chinese university students, though I’m busy with finals and TOEFL, I still planned to write some posts about my learning experience of Rust language.

When I was a new comer to Rust, everything was easy for me to understand except so many guarantees in Rust, like Rc, Cell and so on. I do believe these notions are not easy to handle for the guys from either C-like languages like C/C++, Java, Python or functional languages. I hope this post will help you organize all these notions.

Ownership, reference and borrowing

This is easy to understand. Since Rust have the property called Variable bindings, variables have the Ownership of what they are bound to. Then, you are allowed to give the ownership out to other variables or pass it as an argument. Besides, the ownership can also be borrowed out. If you follow the rules Rust provided, congrats! Your code will be safe due to the guarantees of Rust compiler. The borrow checker will help you handle all the things!

fn f(x: &mut usize) {
    *x = 2
fn main() {
    let mut x = 1;
    f(&mut x);
    println!("{}", x);


Since Box is easy to understand, which is just allocating memory chunks on heap, it still stunned me when I fisrt met it. Why Box here?

In short, when you want to call a new in C++, you should try to use Box here.

More precisely, Box is useful in recursive data structs. IMP, Box is needed since Rust language wants to have the same powerful expreesion with functional languages like Scala and OCaml as well as the same memory control ability with C/C++.

Let’s recall how to write a linked list in Haskell and C++.

data MyList a = Cons a (MyList a)
              | MyNil deriving (Show, Eq)
class List {
    int data;
    List* next;

Take a look at the difference between them. Since Haskell compiler helps us manage the memory, we do not need to point out that the next list is actually a pointer to a memory chunk. But it’s different in C++. Rust combines these two.

pub enum List {
    Elem(isize, Box<List>),

So remember, Box is only needed in recursive data structs!


Now consider another question, when you want to construct a binary tree structure. A little more, you want your nodes has a pointer to its parents. Here comes a issue, actually you cannot hold a pointer in a struct in Rust! No such pointer!

So we need Rc, which means Reference Counting. Reference Counting is a garbage collection algorithm. It will maintain a counter in this variable, recording the number of pointers pointing to this value. You can find some examples on Rust docs.

Cell and RefCell

Thanks to Rc, we can have objects that shared by serveral pointers. But wait, wait. The Rust docs points out the obejct in Rc is read only. We cannot modify it!

Let’s consider such situation. We have a machine which is consisted with several obejcts. Each object is an instance of a struct. In every object, there is a pointer to the machine it consists. When we an object, we cannot do some changes to its mother machine if we only have Rc!

So here comes an issue

To be continued

Ivan Yang 19 May 2016
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