a bit of respite


Attempting to Use Rust’s Type System for Statically Checked Dependency Tracking

In order to support incremental compilation, the Rust compiler tracks dependencies between the pieces of data it reads and produces. It does this so it can determine what needs to be re-computed when something in the source code changes. I have long suspected that Rust’s type system would make it possible to ensure, at compile-time, that the dependency tracking system is used correctly, that is, that the people writing compiler code don’t forget to register data dependencies in the appropriate places. After all, the Rust’s type system, initially designed for safe memory management, has proven to be useful in other areas too, like preventing data races and statically checked fork-join parallelism. In the following I’ll describe how I tried to achieve similar correctness guarantees for the dependency tracking system via rather simple and ergonomic means. Did I succeed? Read on!

What exactly is Dependency Tracking?

The compiler needs to record which parts of the source code affect which parts of its output. For example, it needs to know which object files it needs to regenerate if some function definition has been changed by the user.

This information is stored in a so-called dependency graph. Each node in the graph represents some piece of input – e.g. said function definition – or some piece of data the compiler has derived from these inputs – e.g. the AST of the function or the machine code produced for it. Whenever the compiler generates a piece of data, it will introduce a read-edge from the node representing that piece of data in the graph to all the nodes it reads while computing the data. Consequently, if we want to know whether some computed, cached piece of data is still valid after the input program has changed, we can take the node corresponding to the cached data and transitively follow all of its edges to arrive at the inputs it depends on. If any of these inputs has changed, we need to recompute. So far so good, but can we be sure that we added all the needed edges to the dependency graph?

What can go wrong during dependency tracking?

The dependency tracking prototype as currently implemented in the compiler tries to make it easy to get things right. Whenever code produces a value that corresponds to a node in the dependency graph, we push a task onto a thread-local stack that remembers which piece of data we are currently writing to. The data we are potentially reading from is usually stored in a so-called DepTrackingMap. This map knows about dependency tracking and when something reads from it, it will insert a read-edge from the node belonging to the current task to the node corresponding to the data we are reading. As a result, tracking happens mostly automatically and transparently – but problems arise when we are holding on to data from the DepTrackingMap longer than we are supposed to. Consider the following example:

let mut name_map = HashMap::new(); // <-- a regular hashmap

tcx.dep_graph.with_task(DepNode::ItemSignature(some_id), || {
    // This is fine, the HIR map will register an edge from the node
    // ItemSignature(some_id) to the node HIR(some_id) because we are
    // within the ItemSignature(some_id) task.
    let hir_item = tcx.map.expect_item(some_id);

    // But *this* is not fine at all:
    name_map.insert(some_id, hir_item.name);

// do something else, potentially, probably, using
// the data stored in name_map.

After with_graph() has returned, the ItemSignature(some_id) task has been popped from the thread-local task stack, and trying to read from the HIR map without a task would at least result in a runtime error.

But it’s too late, we have leaked untracked data out of the system by storing the item’s name into name_map. We can read from name_map without the tracking system ever knowing about it and thus we could generate compilation artifacts that rely on the name being unchanged without the compiler knowing about this dependency and thus reusing the artifact. This would probably result in a linker error and a corrupt cache. Can we use Rust’s type system, and in particular, the borrow-checker to prevent this kind of thing?

Preventing Data Leaks using the Type System

The problem in the example above is that the data we read from the HIR map is used after it should not be used anymore, because we only record dependency edges for usages within with_task. This sounds an awful lot like a “use after free” problem, which is exactly what the borrow-checker was designed for preventing. So how do we exploit this resemblance?

First, let’s phrase the problem differently: We want references to tracked data to never outlive the scope within which dependency tracking is active. This gives us a hint that we have to somehow represent both, the tracking scope and references to tracked data. Let’s start with the scope.

The dependency tracking system, as currently implemented, already has the so-called DepTask type, an RAII object one can request explicitly with DepGraph::in_task() or implicitly with DepGraph::with_task() as done above. When the tracking system creates an object of this type, it pushes the given task onto the thread-local task-stack. The DepTask object is stored in a local variable somewhere and, in well-known RAII fashion, will tell the dependency tracking system that we are done writing in its destructor.

    let task = dep_graph.in_task(DepNode::ItemSignature(some_id));

    // some code reading tracked data ...

} // <-- read-edges from DepNode::ItemSignature(some_id)
  //     will be recorded until here

Now that we have this object on the stack, the compiler can reason about its scope, which gives us the first piece of our system. The next step is to define a type that represents references to tracked data – we’ll simply call it Ref. We’ll also make Ref a smart-pointer, so it can be used like a regular reference, and we will endow it with some additional information for which task we have registered a read-edge when the Ref was created:

struct Ref<'task, 'data, T>
    where T: 'data // the value of T must outlive the reference to it
    task: &'task DepTask,
    data_ref: &'data T,

As you can see, every Ref stores a shared reference to the DepTask it was created in. This has the effect that the borrow-checker will statically ensure that no such Ref can outlive the scope of the task for which we already have correctly registered our read-edges. Let’s make the data referenced by a Ref accessible by implementing the Deref trait. This turns Ref into a smart-pointer:

impl<'task, 'data, T> Deref for Ref<'task, 'data, T> {
    type Target = T;

    fn deref(&self) -> &T {

Since the direct reference to the data that is returned by deref() cannot outlive the Ref object and the Ref object, in turn, cannot outlive its task, we have made sure that these direct references can’t leak either. Thus, we have effectively ensured that tracked data can only be read after the corresponding read-edges have been added to the dependency graph and that the data is only accessible while we are in the task that the edges were created for.

The final piece of the puzzle is to make sure that this new setup actually gets used, for example by making the DepTrackingMap only give out information if it is passed a reference to the current task:

impl<K, V> DepTrackingMap<K, V> {

    pub fn get<'data, 'task>(&'data self,
                             task: &'task DepTask,
                             key: &K)
                          -> Ref<'task, 'data, V>
        // .. register the read ...

        Ref {
            task: task,
            data: self.wrapped_map.get(key).unwrap()

Due to Ref being a smart-pointer, using this system looks almost as before:

let mut name_map = HashMap::new();

tcx.dep_graph.with_task(DepNode::ItemSignature(some_id), |task| {
    let hir_item = tcx.map.expect_item(task, some_id);
    name_map.insert(some_id, hir_item.name);

Cool! Now there is no way of getting at the data in the map that would miss registering the read-edge, there can be no data leakage, and we are assured of this at compile-time. Too good to be true? Well, yes, unfortunately :)

Caveat: Clone and Copy

The borrow-checker might prevent us from leaking references to data but it does not help us if someone were to just make a copy of the data and then leak that. It is, after all, primarily concerned with protecting memory and not with protecting “information”. Perhaps this could be compared to it preventing data-races but not all race conditions in general.

So, despite our laudable efforts, the example from the beginning would still create a data leak, since the item’s name is just copied into name_map instead a reference to it being stored. Perfectly safe from a memory point of view, but we would need some more protection.


We did not quite succeed in our endeavor but I still think this goes to show that Rust’s type system is quite powerful when it comes to keeping tight control over resources. Would the dependency tracking system not require preventing information leakage in the most general sense, the simple tools above might have done the trick – and they might be useful in other cases where one has different kinds of resources one needs to protect. In fact, how Mutex and RefCell in the standard library are implemented, can be considered a variation of this (shall we call it “compile-time RAII”) and I encourage everyone to think about how the borrow-checker can help design APIs that enforce correct usage at compile-time and without incurring any runtime overhead!


In a real-world implementation we would not have to actually store a reference to the task in Ref. The borrow-checker is only interested in the lifetime associated with the task, and so we can replace the reference with a PhantomData field that does not take up any space at runtime:

struct Ref<'task, 'data, T: 'data>
    task: PhantomData<&'task DepTask>,
    data_ref: &'data T,